Musician Mark Cherrie was born in London and moved to Brighton about 8 years ago. He spoke to Charlie Anderson about steel pan playing and his new album, Joining the Dots.
How did you get into music?
My dad was a musician and he was originally from Trinidad. He came over about 1957 and he played piano, double bass, bass guitar, steel pan and I kind of got roped into playing in his band when I was about 14.
At school I did piano and cello and I would do steel pan gigs with my dad in my teens, that’s how I started.
In terms of the playing that you’ve done, is it mostly with your own group?
No, my own group is actually quite a recent thing. We recorded the album in 2016 and it came out last year so we only really started gigging it last year. Up to that point, I’ve done various groups, I’m in loads of different kinds of groups with different people. I play keyboards as well, so I do quite a lot of keyboard work. Most of the time I’m working in other peoples’ groups. My own group is a recent development.
Are there many others that play jazz on the steel pan?
One or two. There’s a guy in the States, Victor Provost. He’s a bona fide jazzer. There’s another guy from the States called Andy Narell who isn’t really a jazzer but he’s got a bit of a rep on the instrument. He’s worked with Fourth World with Airto and I think he played Ronnie’s some years ago. Generally, there’s not a lot of it, compared to any other conventional instrument. With something like the trumpet there are obviously thousands of amazing players around the world, and fantastic jazz players, but with the steel pan there’s literally a handful of people that can claim to be doing anything within that genre on that instrument.
Tell us about the album. How did you put it all together?
The album came about because a friend of mine was doing the Tonmeister (sound engineering) course at the University of Surrey in Guildford. His name is Chris Kalkov. He emailed a bunch of jazz musicians about using some free studio time which was part of his course. He had to clock in a certain number of hours of recording. So I was on that email list and he was doing the course for a few years, then we only had a small window of a few months before his graduation. So I thought I’d use the opportunity to record an album’s worth of material with some musicians that I’ve worked with and knew on the jazz scene.
Tell us about the musicians on the album.
John Donaldson on piano. I’ve known him for years and I’ve played in a band with him before. Mick Hutton on bass. When I used to play at the 606 I played with a Trinidadian piano player called Russ Henderson, who my father used to work with back in the 50s and 60s, but he used to do a stint at the 606 once a month, so I knew Mick from that. Eric Ford on drums. I’d played in another band with a guitar player and I knew he was a jazzer as well.
So I got in touch with those guys and we got two days of recording at University of Surrey, for free. We went in on the first day and I was expecting to just record the band and then overdub my stuff the day after but it didn’t actually work out that way. We had to record everything live. So that’s what it was, and it was more of a jazz thing anyway. We did the album on day one and then on day two I had some people come in and do some overdubs: Nigel Price, Dave O’Higgins, guitarist Dominic Grant and a singer called Sumudu.
I’ve got a studio in the back of my garden so I actually mixed the album at my place. Then I got it mastered by somebody who was recommended to me. So I sent it round to some record companies. I ended up with three offers, nothing major, nobody was shoving any money in my face, but there were three different labels who were interested in putting it out. So I just went with the first one. It came out on Trio Records in February, 2018.
Do you have plans to do another one?
Yes, but I think there’s still a way to go with the current album in terms of getting better gigs and I’d like to do some festivals. I don’t want to impose something on myself where I feel I have to keep churning out albums.
It was really, really good to do that album because it opened a lot of doors for playing in venues that I’m sure I wouldn’t be playing in, so it did very well for me and I got a fair amount of PR out of it as well. It’s picked up some radio play and I think there’s still more mileage in it.
In terms of the music, on the first album we did mostly covers, some originals. On the next album I would change the balance of it and do more originals.
What do you think are the challenges of playing steel pan?
The challenge with this particular instrument is that you are always fighting people’s stereotypes about the instrument and what it can do. Always, as long as I’ve been playing, I still have people come up to me and say ‘does it play real musical notes?’ and stuff that you would not get on any other instrument. And you’re constantly fighting that. Years ago I went along to the 606 and John was playing there with a band and I’d just done a few tunes with Russ’s band and thought it would be nice to play a couple of standards with somebody else. I remember asking quite a well- known musician (I won’t say who it was) ‘is it okay if I sat in with you guys?’ He literally laughed in my face and said ‘we don’t just play Sonny Rollins you know’. I just thought that was so ignorant and wrong, on so many levels. And this is actually quite a well-known musician. You are fighting that all the time, even with people who really should know better.
I’m on something of a mission with this, in the sense that I’m really trying to promote the idea that, as much as I love Caribbean music, and I’ve played a lot of it in my life, the instrument itself is capable of other things too. So my thing is deliberately not Caribbean, or latin or anything like that. There’s a lot of that out there, and there’s a lot of great music out there, lots of great people doing great things and it’s fine. In order to progress the instrument I thought it would be useful to do something. I have a love of jazz music anyway and I thought that this could be a viable project.
I feel that just doing what you do, and people seeing you play and improvise, that gradually you might begin to change peoples’ preconceptions.
Do you have plans for the future in terms of where else you could take it?
Just to do better gigs, more gigs. I’ve done a lot of travelling as a musician, doing other things. There are lots of jazz festivals around the world, it would be nice to be asked to do one or two of them. That would also help to promote the instrument, and the band.
I’d love to get to do another album. I’m thinking maybe two or three years down the line would be about right. By then I would probably have got as much out of this particular album as I could, and then it would be time for the band to progress on to the next thing. I was pleased with the sound of the album in the end. There were a few technical issues with the recording that I had to overcome, but in the end it sounded the way that I wanted it to.
It would be nice to do something where I’m not necessarily mixing the album myself either, but that’s in the future. And to do an album where there’s a different balance of tunes, where there’s more original stuff.
I love playing gigs, but getting jazz gigs is not easy. There are so few, and so few good ones, and yet the colleges are churning out great musicians year in and year out, so you’re fighting that as well. It’s a difficult thing. But for what is, for me, quite a recent project, I’m pretty happy with the progress of it. I’ve done some really good gigs, and I’ve got some really good ones coming up. I can see some progress there and I’d just like that to continue.
The Mark Cherrie Quartet perform at Ronnie Scott’s, 13th – 15th June 2019 supporting Monty Alexander.
Later this year their tour includes Pizza Express Dean Street, Peggy’s Skylight in Nottingham, Southampton Modern Jazz Club, The Bull’s Head in Barnes and ends at The Verdict, Brighton on Saturday 30th November, 2019.
Joining the Dots is available now on Trio Records.
Photo by Greg Heath.