Currently promoting his latest album, Jason Henson Plays Wes and Benson, guitarist Jason Henson talks to editor Charlie Anderson about the album and how he got into playing jazz.
So the album came about, I’m guessing, because you’re a big fan of George Benson and Wes Montgomery?
“Yeah, they’re two of my favourites. Certainly in the top ten if not the top five. I love their music and those songs. Particularly George Benson albums from the 60s: The Cookbook and It’s Uptown. There’s some burning guitar playing on that.”
“I heard it when I was on a cruise ship one time. I remember asking "Who on earth is that?" and they said "It’s George Benson" and I was like "He plays like that?". I didn’t know he did the bop stuff, I was only aware of the cheesier smooth side.”
“And Wes has always been a favourite of mine. Right back to when I started getting into jazz guitar.I remember we did Four On Six when I was at Chichester jazz college around the late 1990s.”
“There are no ballads on there, it’s all kind of upbeat, there’s some groovy stuff. I could put in on with friends around and it wouldn’t make everybody fall asleep or whatever. Well, the originals wouldn’t.”
Are you from Brighton?
“I’m from Portsmouth originally.”
So how did you end up here?
“I did my A-levels at Havant College, whilst living in Portsmouth and then I came to Sussex University to start a maths degree. When I came to Brighton I got involved in the music scene playing funk and reggae and bits of jazz as well. And a lot of improvised music as well. I was into 70s Miles Davis type stuff and some Wes as well. Music took over really. I just ended up spending a lot of time recording and jamming and studying music and very,very little time going to maths lectures or doing any maths work. I got through the first year just about with literally going to 20 hours in total of lectures.”
“During my second year when I moved off campus I was even worse. I didn’t bother going and when it came to the exams, I hadn’t done any work and I thought well, this isn’t what I want to do and that’s why I’m not doing it. I wanted to do music, take it more seriously and give it a go basically. I decided to leave and then I decided pretty quickly to do the Chichester jazz course, because I wanted to learn more about harmony and I needed a little more experience playing jazz. So I went there, did the diploma course and I really enjoyed it. I did pretty well, especially in the performance bit and I did Spain by Chick Corea and things like that. And by that time I was gigging quite a lot.”
“And then I worked as a musician for a year. I had a year out and actually went back to Chichester whilst working and did an HNC. We were gigging with the bands and it was good fun. Then I got into Rockin’ In Rhythm, the swing band, and then I really wanted to learn how to do that properly so I started to listen to a lot of it and I studied rhythm guitar with Piers Clark who is a real fan of Freddie Green. I learnt a lot of the swing voicings on the guitar. And we did a lot of busking and I learn a lot just from playing a lot.”
“I was in Charlotte Glasson’s band for a while. We did cruises and went to Brazil, New Orleans, the Caribbean, Egypt and other places. I recorded a few albums with her as well. But this is the first time I’ve done my own project.”
So, how did the new album come about?
“Well, I’ve probably recorded about 15-20 albums with other people so I thought that I should do one of my own. Then I came up with the name and thought "Well, I’ve got to do it now". Some of the tunes weren’t actually written by the guitar guys but we took their arrangements of them. And a lot of the tunes weren’t standards so it was another first for me as I had to write out all the charts by hand. When Ian Price joined the band he put it into Sibelius so the charts all looked nice.”
“I was playing with Terry Seabrook and Alex Eberhard a lot and I wanted to record so we got a date and it was during all that snow that we had the January before last and Terry Seabrook phoned up and said that he couldn’t get his organ in the car because of the snow and ice. So I had to cancel the recording session which was a real setback because I was getting the recording done for free. So I didn’t know what to do so I got in touch with them. It was recorded at Surrey University by one of the postgrad students. I was recording a gypsy jazz thing there and they offered me a chance to record there. They called and said a night time slot had come up. I’d had actually done a night time slot there before and it was a bit crazy.”
“I tried to book Terry but he was away so I got Pete Whittaker on organ. I hadn’t met him but I’d seen him play with Nigel Price and I knew he had a Leslie speaker and I really wanted a proper Leslie. So I booked him and then a last minute day time slot came up and I thought that would be much better so I changed it. I got Matt Home who is also in Nigel Price’s organ trio and I knew that he knew a lot of the Wes tunes. We decided to do the morning as the organ trio and then Dan Sheppard and Ian Price would do theirs in the afternoon. I’d never met Matt Home or Pete Whittaker before, let alone played with them. They were really great blokes and really supportive. I decided to film it at the last minute so it was a bit hectic filming it on different devices.”
“The recording went quite well, though it was quite hectic for me, and doing it all in one day, in the space of seven hours. People were going off to gigs afterwards so we couldn’t overrun and I was determined to get an album's worth of material We recorded nine tunes and released eight of them on the album. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with it. I’d love to have a week in the studio to get everything absolutely perfect and be happy with all my solos.”
What are you doing in terms of promoting it?
“Well, I’ve done this video. It’s taken me over a year to get that together. Now that I’ve got that together I’ve started hustling for gigs. I’m hoping to do some stuff over the winter when the function side of things dies down and people are more available. I’ve got the promotional video and I’ve got a tune on Soundcloud. I’ve got a huge list of festivals, clubs and venues to approach. It can be quite tough. I’ve done a bit of it in the past with other projects. Some people will like it and others won’t but fingers crossed I’ll be able to get some stuff together and do some jazz festivals next year. I’ll see how it goes.”
You go out busking regularly?
“Yeah. I’ve been doing it now for 15 or so years with Rockin’ In Rhythm. It’s a nice band. I do enjoy playing with them. I do like swing a lot. And they’re a funny bunch, good to hang out with. Joe Hunter is a total legend. That was great for me to get into that band when I wasn’t quite ready. But it did make me learn tunes. And I used charts for a couple of years and then I stopped so I could see what I needed to work on. It’s surprisingly easy really. A lot of people use charts as a safety net. You get really, really experienced musicians still reading Autumn Leaves out of a real book when they must have played it a million times.”
Do you have a regular routine for practising on the guitar?
“I’ve been pretty bad at routines. The thing that’s helped me most is things like busking every day and gigging. If you’re gigging three or four times a week and busking every day in the summer then that’s a lot of playing time. I try to do what I can in the winter in terms of learning new material and studying stuff. When I first started learning guitar it was all just getting it off the record, transcribing stuff, without writing it down and just memorising it. And then with computers and the internet it became much easier to get hold of charts. And now you can watch YouTube videos and see the best artists and where they’re putting their fingers, what right-hand technique they’re using or whether it’s an upstroke or a downstroke. I think YouTube has really helped a lot of the young guys coming through. I think there’s more and more young, really talented people playing jazz and gypsy jazz.”
“Because I started a maths degree, at the beginning when I was learning jazz I was scales mad and I’d work out every permutation of a seven-note scale that you can do with tones, semitones and minor thirds. I was a bit crazy on that. It was a bit later that I realised how important all the arpeggios were in all the positions on the guitar. I’ve kind of picked it up as I’ve gone along. At the beginning I was pretty terrible and slowly you get a little bit better. I’m always going forward, learning new tunes and new licks and new bits of harmony. I could be more disciplined about it all and I think I’d be better for it if I was but it’s difficult in the summer there isn’t much time to do it. I’ve also got a teenage kid who lives in Stroud. He’s just getting into guitar. He sat in and played Minor Swing at the Paris House. I was really proud of that, though he’s more interested in playing Nirvana and playing electric bass.”
The album Jason Henson Plays Wes and Benson is available from CDBaby and iTunes and will be reviewed in a future issue of SJM.
Watch Jason’s promo video here: