John Lake Interview
Editor Charlie Anderson sat down with Brighton pianist John Lake who released his trio album Up On The Downs earlier this year.
What big bands do you play in at the moment?
“Three, at the moment. The Dave Masters Big Band that’s been going for thirty years. I haven’t been in it for that long though! They’re a swing band and it’s great fun. It’s of the swing era, Ellington, Basie and some Miller, although we try to avoid the Miller as much as possible. And we have a lovely singer on that band, Jackie Sampson. She’s just magical with a Sarah Vaughan type voice. And I do the Studio 9 orchestra. I share the piano chair with Dave Beebee. That’s a lovely band doing new things and I really enjoy the fact that it’s doing more recent material such as Maria Schneider as well as some Charles Mingus. It’s certainly not the average big band. The other band I play in is another swing band called Swing Shift. Jonathan Baillee the trumpet player leads that band and he used to run the Herb Miller Big Band so he knows what a good big band should sound like. It makes a good sound.”
Did you start off in big bands?
“No! I didn’t even start off in jazz. I did start classical training on the piano when I was seven but actually migrated in my teens towards playing soul and Tamla Motown on guitar. Jazz didn’t really come on the scene until a bit later when I went back to the piano. I suppose I was weaned on Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk and people like that and I just started playing jazz on my own and started doing solo gigs. That was in my early twenties. But I guess I did a lot of vocal harmony group type things in my late teens such as Eagles derivatives, post-Byrd and Crosby Stills & Nash. That’s never left and I’ve always loved playing jazz with a lot of melody and I love working with singers. In my early twenties I was just dabbling and getting used to the jazz language, having come from a rock and soul background. I guess the melody and that sense of strong lead-line has always been important to me. In the Eighties I co-formed a seven piece jazz-funk unit in Brighton and we did a lot of original stuff, Morrissey-Mullen mixed with Steps Ahead. We did loads of gigs but with seven people it was always hard to keep it together.”
How did the album come about?
“Really it’s a product of me wanting to do a trio. I’ve always wanted to do that and I guess it’s a combination of having the time and a body of material to do it with. I’ve been composing a little bit for various vehicles over the years. Over a period of time a number of bits of material came through and then I thought that I’d like to get a recording of the work and get it out there. I’m absolutely a piano trio nut. I love watching and listening to jazz piano trios. So I guess it was fulfilling a dream.”
“Because they’ve got very distinctive styles so I made sure that the pieces were vehicles for their musicianship. Simon Camber brings a really impulsive jazz-latin style in places and he has a great sense of changes. We concentrate a lot on mixed time and sometimes polyrhythms. This is Dave Brubeck coming back. All the different time signatures, I just love playing with those. And the Yellowjackets were one of my great influences and they do that all the time. That all comes through. It was enhanced by the drummer’s great sense of changes and rhythm, and he’s got great experience with Cuban music. The bass player, Simon Brewin, is a lovely electric bass player and actually, when I met him, he was playing six-string guitar. He’s a very good guitarist, ex-Berklee. He’s grafted over to bass and because he’s got the idea of playing guitar with strong melody lines, he has a lovely way of voicing his solos which I think is important for a good bass player. They’re great guys.”
“Another band that I’m still a member of is Savannah plays regularly at Six Bells in Chiddingly. They do a regular Sunday jazz club. The guy who runs the band, bassist Keith Goddard, has run that gig for thirty years.”
What are you doing in terms of promoting the album?
“I’m trying everything that I can. We’ve got gigs and so on. We did a launch gig at The Verdict. Recently we did a gig up at Ray’s Jazz in London, just before the London Jazz Festival. It was fantastic and a really nice audience. We also did a gig in Denmark last week. A fantastic place in Odense with a beautiful Steinway piano.”
“It’s been just over a year since we recorded the album and we’ve really sat on everything and the band has come together. With a recording you try to do it as perfectly as you can and it sounds the way a recording does, but doing it live and doing it regularly live is so important and enjoyable. We’ve got some other gigs coming up in the new year such as the Hare & Hounds in Worthing and in the Fringe Festival.”
“But trying to promote it is really hard work. Trying to get gigs and trying to get reviews in the majors, the nationals is very hard work. We’re relatively unknown in terms of the name so it’s hard work. People don’t want to take the risk unless they know somebody in the band. So we’re still seeking those reviews in the nationals.”
“At the moment I’ve been trying to get gigs in the European festivals so we’ll see what comes of it.”
Do you do any teaching?
“I’m largely self-taught. I had some early piano lessons. All my bad habits and practices are my own. I had classes with Tim Richards. I don’t feel I’m qualified to teach others and to be honest, I’m more interested in playing. There’s a great responsibility in teaching. If you’re going to do it well and people are going to learn then that’s what you’ve got to be good at. I wouldn’t do it half-heartedly or on the wing. No is the short answer.”
“I do a lot of solo piano work, working at the Grand Hotel in Brighton and in restaurants and retirement homes. Anywhere they want a pianist, really.”
“I love reading music and I love doing shows. I’ve got quite a background in theatre having done stage management in the past. Just being a part of a theatrical performance is great fun and there’s a great sense of teamwork. It’s great fun.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
“Well, I think the language of jazz is just something quite special. You can play with a variety of people, such as in big bands. It brings a lot of different people from different walks of life together which is great. And there’s a great sense of community and I really enjoy that.”
“The local scene is starting to blossom again. I think it had quite a good time in the Eighties and with The Verdict, The Brunswick and the number of pubs now that have regular jazz. I think that now is a good time. It’s still hard getting gigs for everyone, or at least gigs that pay. It was always that way and you’ve just got to keep enjoying it and enjoying playing with people. And the Love Supreme Festival is great. It’s a national festival and having that in the locality is great. It gives a local focus which would otherwise make people turn to London instead. But to get something on your doorstep is fantastic.”
“The jazz that we do isn’t swing. It’s more European. My influences when I was younger was all American. The way they played was just something else. But I started to get a bit weary of the American emphasis of jazz, the American Songbook being reproduced time and time again. Lovely as it is, I love playing it but it felt quite stifling. I got so fed up with it and then the first time I heard EST I thought ‘oh, there is something else that can work in a jazz idiom. And then I explored the European scene. Bands in German, Swedish and Norwegian groups out there. That’s where I see the band heading, along with Abdullah Ibrahim. We don’t get to hear so much of that European jazz in the UK. There’s a Swedish composer called Lars Jansson that most people haven’t heard of and this guy’s a complete genius. Beautiful works. I still love hearing new bands wherever they come from.”
“The UK scene is great as well. Gwilym Simcock is an absolute genius, as a composer and a pianist. And I’m only just recently getting into John Law, really gorgeous playing.”
For more information on the John Lake Trio:
[Photo of the John Lake Trio, L-R: John Lake, Simon Brewin, Simon Camber]