A recent graduate of the jazz course at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, saxophonist Nye Banfield spoke to Charlie Anderson ahead of his appearance for New Generation Jazz at The Verdict in January.
How did you first get into music?
I grew up in Leicestershire but I went to school in Grantham, in Lincolnshire, a tiny little town with not a lot going on. I actually went to school and was really good friends with drummer Will Cleasby. Although it’s a very small town, Lincolnshire county has a really phenomenal music service, so we had really good music education, with loads of inspiring characters who instilled that passion in us from a young age.
I played a lot in symphony orchestras growing up. I actually started out on violin and then moved to viola. That was a major part of my musical learning as a child – learning the discipline of playing that music. As a viola player I was in the middle of all the texture of the music and I started to learn how music was created behind the obvious melody of it. In symphonies the viola player would usually be playing the accompaniment role which taught me a lot, and I loved that. I came to the saxophone slightly later, still when I was young.
I started on saxophone then my saxophone teacher at school introduced me to improvising and jazz music. I was just taken by it instantly and loved it. He used to give me Herbie tracks to listen to. I would put them on in my bedroom and loved playing along to them.
When I was older I started to think about taking the saxophone seriously. I went and studied at Junior Birmingham Conservatoire under a guy called Mike Williams. He’s a phenomenal saxophone player and educator. Amazing. He completely blew me away with the potential of the music. Initially I was a bit shocked because there was a lot of information going on. That was six years ago and there’s still stuff that he taught me which I still come back to. After I stopped having lessons with him it took about a year before everything he taught me started to sink in. It’s some of the deepest stuff that I’ve ever been taught.
Then I went to Trinity, which was cool. It was an interesting experience. The positives I would take from that would be that it gave me the opportunity to live in London as I’m from the East Midlands. Being in London gave me the opportunity to meet all the guys that I play with now. That was definitely for me the best part of coming down here.
What sort of things did you learn at Trinity that you think are going to be useful?
Musically, there’s one guy who stands out and that I will always look back on and be very thankful that I learned from. Mark Lockheart. He taught me from first year and I was very inspired by the way he played and the way that he thinks about music. We did a Monk project on Monk’s anniversary and it was just the most fun I’ve ever had. He taught me how to take a tiny little fragment of music and make a whole piece out of it. That was really cool to see, the way he would do that. His imagination is just incredible, and his levels of creativity.
Pre-Trinity I’d never listened to anything probably pre-1950s jazz. Malcolm Earle-Smith, the trombonist, took our history lessons. We spent the first year learning about New Orleans music, which was great. I would never have considered listening to it but he really instilled the tradition in us and showed us what it meant. That was really cool. I enjoyed that a lot.
There’s a lot of stuff that I ended up self-teaching. Trinity put me in London and then I thought ‘I need to try and go out and get gigs’ etc. so I went out and got regular residencies in little bars. It started off with me, Ewan [Moore] and Michael [Shrimpling] at a tiny little pub in Blackheath. We used to lug Ewan’s drum kit on two buses to get there, play two sets and come away with twenty quid, but we loved it. That taught us professionalism, how to organise a set of music. That was really important and it led to other residencies and snowballed from there.
How are you finding it now that you’ve graduated?
I graduated this summer. I don’t really have the option of going home, so I had to find a way of earning money and staying in London. I’m not that interested in earning money with my instrument unless it’s gigs that I absolutely love, playing my own music. I’m not the type of person to do function gigs. I totally respect people who do but I can’t do that. I had to find another way of earning money so I’m doing a bit of teaching, which is cool, and I’ve got a regular slot in a hotel playing some tunes with pianist Rupert Cox.
Going from having loads of time in my day to practice, to living a professional life has been quite a contrast. It’s starting to settle down but the teaching is a bit interesting. I’m loving the fact that I’m now completely focussed on my professional life with my gigs and writing more music. I just make my own musical deadlines. It’s fun but it’s also a challenge. It’s not easy to live in London if you’re not from here, but I’m trying to find a way.
In terms of your own music, who would you say were your big influences?
I have some massive influences from classical music. Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Beethoven. My experiences in symphony orchestras, some of the music we played still sticks with me today. I’m massively inspired by that. From my perspective, I wouldn’t say that I focus more on composition but I really like the composition element of music. I guess what I see in those classical pieces is the detail and the extensive level of composition which I really like, and from a conceptual view I like Vaughan Williams because he creates great images in his music. His London Symphony is a big thing for me. Every time I listen to it I can see the different areas of London that he was writing about. I like writing with a location in mind, or something like an image. I like that.
With jazz, Miles Davis has always been massive to me. His attitude, musically, and his approach to improvising was one of the biggest things when I was going through college. I’ve never been a massive one for absolute bebop. I love listening to it but I’ve never been bothered about playing like that. As important as it is to get the tradition down, I love how much attitude Miles had.
Wayne Shorter compositionally, and tenor-wise, he’s number 1 for me. Speak No Evil is massive. His current quartet and his album Footprints Live is massive for me. The track Masqualero, when they go into that rock thing at the end, it’s just so sick, I love it, so much emotion. With Wayne’s concept and sound on saxophone and approach to composition, he’s obviously not thinking that he has to stick to any rules. There aren’t any rules with him, he just writes what he hears, which I love.
Currently, Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the greatest. I’d put him up there with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. I think his writing and trumpet playing is just phenomenal. He’s totally underrated in my eyes. I love his latest album, Origami Harvest, especially because of the strings writing. I’ve always loved the sound of a string ensemble, and he writes for strings so well, which a lot of people in jazz don’t do. A lot of people in jazz come to string writing from a jazz perspective, but you can tell that he’s studied the classical world really well. His string writing is brilliant, and his spoken word on it is amazing as well. The whole band on that just hurts me, it’s brilliant. I go back to his earlier record, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, all the time. I love it.
In the pop idiom I really like Kendrick Lamar. I really like his music and his perspective on life. It’s just brilliant music. I like James Blake, I feel like he takes risks with it, he’s not tied down by anything in particular. I don’t feel that he’s ever been commercialised, which is great because he’s absolutely massive. So many people get caught up in that commercial thing of ‘wow, I’m being listened to by millions and millions of people, I need to listen to what they want’. But he totally doesn’t, which I really like.
Do you have future plans?
I’m currently writing music for the next EP. Maybe record it in January, we’ll see. But definitely we’ll get another EP recorded with potentially the same line up, with a similar vibe. Obviously the music will be slightly different. I’m inspired by Miles, where he never made the same record twice. You can’t force that but I’ll always try to write in a different style to what I did on the previous one. So that’s on the books.
I also want to get another group together to explore some more electronic, atmospheric and noise-based music. I’ve not organised anything with that yet but I’ve got a couple of ideas of what I want from it. Something that is very different to my own music and that would have its own identity. I’d like to have something where people don’t particularly relate at all to what my current music is. That would be a different entity in itself which I kind of like the idea of.
What’s your take on the popularity of the new London jazz scene?
There’s quite a few different strands to the London jazz scene now which almost don’t feel connected, which is kind of a shame. It’s so good that it’s popping off, it’s amazing that it’s exploding, but there are other strands of it which aren’t connected and there are other aspects that don’t feel as much of a community as it could be. Whether it grows, I don’t know, but I hope so. There’s other music happening and music that will happen that won’t get the same media attention for whatever reason. I’m not sure where I put myself yet, which is quite exciting. The scene is so fruitful, with so many different aspects to it, the super-straight guys at Ronnie’s every night which is killing, and then you’ve got people like Nubya who are exploding, and playing great music. Then you’ve got this space in the middle. I’ve always thought that what I’d like to achieve in music is somewhere between the two. Taking loads of inspiration from the tradition, and staying on that lineage, but I really like the commercial aspect of it and that loads of people are listening to that as well. You can’t really access any of that with the super, super underground stuff. Maybe you can. Kansas Smitty’s are doing it. It’s an interesting one and it’s great to see it doing well. I love that. I’m so happy for all those guys. It’s an exciting time for jazz in this country. It would be nice to see other communities around the country getting involved with it as well. There’s a great scene in Nottingham, Birmingham and it would be cool to see it become a whole UK thing because at the minute it’s branded as UK jazz but it’s all London-based. The potential is massive.
New Generation Jazz
The Verdict, Brighton
Friday 31st January, 2020