You’ve recently been touring the world with Pat Metheny. How was that?
“It’s been a fantastic experience and it's been an amazing opportunity to play with one of my absolute heroes (who are Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett), whose music was responsible for getting me into jazz in the first place, as a teenager. So now, having the opportunity to be on stage with him is just incredible and I still sort of pinch myself every night, to check that I’m not dreaming. We’ve played almost 100 concerts already this year in the first couple of touring periods so it’s amazing to think that I’ve played that much with my hero and in such a short space of time. And of course a lot of his concerts are playing to large audiences which is a real thrill and a different experience as well.”
So what you’re doing next, with The Impossible Gentlemen, is a very different project.
“Yes, we’re playing music from the third album which we brought out this year which myself and Mike [Walker] worked very hard on. All of the tunes on this album we co-wrote together. It’s the first time we’ve done that for a whole album and we worked extremely hard at the post-production, adding a lot of different musical layers to the original band recordings and I’m really pleased with the way that it came out. I think that it’s something that sounds very different to what we’ve done before but a real representation of what we like in new music.”
You’ve added Iain Dixon to the band as well.
“Iain is an absolutely phenomenal musician who is really under-rated in this country. He’s a phenomenal player of all the reed instruments, not just the saxophones but he’s a great bass clarinet and clarinetist as well. He’s a great musician. He plays keyboards as well. Because we wanted to represent this large-scale music in live form, he was such an obvious person to go to. And him and Mike have been close friends for very many years so it was an obvious choice to go to him, to add to the group.”
Tell us about the compositions that you’ve co-written with Mike Walker for The Impossible Gentlemen.
“It’s a very interesting process. It’s great because you have an extra filter on everything that you do. And because the guitar and the piano are such different instruments in terms of the way that if you’re writing on them you’ll probably come up with ideas that come from contrary directions. It’s great to put those two things together because Mike might come out with an idea that I take on. It might be a very guitar-based idea that I take on, in a more pianistic fashion or vice versa. It’s to try and create something that is hopefully more interesting than something that either of us would have done individually. All of the tracks on the album I’m very proud of, but there’s a couple on there that I’m really pleased with and will go alongside the best things that I feel I’ve been part of, in terms of writing.”
What plans do you have for after this tour?
“Well I’m going straight from this tour to a tour with a Welsh singer-songwriter called Kizzy. We’ve been writing some music together on the subject of the Welsh rainforest, and it’s to do with RSPB Cymru, so there’s a wildlife theme to that project. So I’m going straight into a tour of that (predominantly) in Wales and after that I’m doing a solo tour in Europe performing my own music and after that I’m going over to New York in December with Pat Metheny to record a new album which will be really exciting. So it’s pretty busy. Then early next year I go back off on tour with Pat in America so there’s not much time off at the moment, it’s pretty hectic.”
Have you had any big ‘epiphany’ moments in your learning?
“Well, I trained as a classical musician, I’ve played piano since I was three so there was that general (boring!) learning process. I say boring, but obviously that’s tongue in cheek. I was very fortunate to go to a fantastic music school, Chetham’s School of Music, which really helps with all the nuts and bolts and general understanding of music and that kind of side of things is so useful when it comes to jazz, when you’ve got to really think on your feet and at a very high speed. I think that being introduced to jazz was a definite epiphany moment because it was great to find a whole genre of music where you have a bit more flexibility to be yourself, as opposed to classical music where you’re playing pieces of music which have been played perfectly well a million times before, and there’s much more of a sense of a right or a wrong to it. And that was something that always appealed to me in jazz. I really enjoyed the fact that you can get all of the elements that I loved in classical music, the emotion, the harmonic beauty and melody, but it’s something where you can be a bit more yourself. So that was a very crucial moment in my life, finding jazz in the first place. And since then I’ve got to an area where, aside from The Impossible Gentlemen, quite a lot of the things I do are kind of individual projects or commissions with maybe classical musicians, orchestras, choirs, string quartets and things like that, where I get an opportunity to find an area somewhere in between classical and jazz, and that’s what I really love, actually. If I’m listening to music at home it’s probably more likely to be classical than it is jazz, or Steely Dan, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson; things that have a slightly different direction. I think it’s nice to try and glean some knowledge and learn from everything that you expose yourself to. And that’s another reason why I like to do so many different, varied projects because you always put yourself in a position where you’re outside of your comfort zone and you have to learn. And I think that’s great because it means that you grow as a musician. And again one of the things that I love about being a musician is that you can learn for the rest of your life. You don’t wake up one day and say ‘I’m here, that’s what I do’. You’re always developing, always changing and hopefully if you keep your ears open, then you’re always learning.”
So what sorts of things are you still learning nowadays?
“Well I’m pretty much always practicing and generally doing the boring, ‘going to the gym’ type of practice, such as scales and arpeggios, because hopefully that improves your ability to react. It’s the kind of practice where you hopefully get your chops together so that when you’re thinking and trying to improvise in a musical and live situation, you’ve got those tools at your disposal. I do a lot of solo concerts and that has made me work as hard as possible on my left hand and not just playing in a traditional jazz way of soloing with your right hand and accompanying with your left. So that’s again, a lifelong thing for me to work on.”
“In terms of composition, I’m always studying orchestral scores of the great composers to try and improve on that side of things because that’s such a vast subject, writing music for orchestras and there’s so much to learn and so much to take from the history of the music. So that’s quite an important thing for me that I always try to do a lot of.”
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson.
Photo of Gwilym Simcock courtesy of David Forman.
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The Impossible Gentlemen appear at The Old Market, Hove on Wednesday 19th October 2016.
Tickets are available here: