16 year old saxophonist Sam Barnett recently released his debut album, New York – London Suite. Currently studying at The JazzCampus in Basel, Switzerland, he spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson.
How did you first get into playing saxophone?
When I was 3 I heard this saxophone being played through a stereo and I thought ‘this has got to be the instrument for me’ but my hands weren’t big enough to reach the keys so I had to wait until I was 7. And on my seventh birthday I got a saxophone. I started lessons. I skipped to grade 3 and I moved progressively further, quickly, through the basics. When I was 8 I started to jam at The Spice of Life.
Who were your favourite players growing up?
Back then I don’t think I was really engaged in the listening process a lot. It was more just about the saxophone itself, and just learning technique. I was into a lot of different types of music. I wouldn’t say jazz in particular. I wanted to play jazz, sure, and I wanted to hear jazz a lot but I was never conscious of who was playing until I was a bit older.
You’ve been through the Royal Academy Jazz For Juniors programme, Tomorrow’s Warriors, played with NYJO. What have you learnt from doing each of those?
I’ve learnt that it’s great to have diversity of teaching, it’s okay to go to different courses at the same time and just really expand your knowledge and just meet. It’s about the meeting, really. I think that’s really important. It’s great to just play with other musicians and just dig the atmosphere. London’s kind of unique in that way. It sprouted a whole new generation of players with a different kind of thinking. I was lucky to be one of them. I grew up alongside some good players who are now professional musicians, doing gigs. They’re not really straight ahead jazz but that’s irrelevant. They’re creating their own style and it’s great just to be part of that whole movement and generation. So it was really just about meeting and developing your arts and musicianship in the same way as all the more dry theory stuff.
Actually the Spice of Life is where I came from, to go to Tomorrow’s Warriors. I was jamming there and I met Gary Crosby, the bassist and educator, a fantastic man and a great musician. He brought me into Tomorrow’s Warriors. That’s where it started for me, education-wise.
In terms of your playing career, what do you think have been your biggest breakthroughs, where you felt you’d moved on the most?
Firstly it was coming out of NYJO and Tomorrow’s Warriors and getting better gigs and starting to write. I went to Berklee for five weeks and I went to New York for a week and that kind of changed things for me, in terms of realising how much culture there was out there and experiencing a different side to jazz, which I hadn’t really done at that point. I realised how amazing it was.
At that point, it’s got to be joining Royal Academy. That was a big one for me, even though it was a lot of pressure, a lot of new stuff, new material. But it was the right thing to do. It was really, really good music. Great education from Gareth Lockrane, a fantastic player and educator. It was a lot of stuff to take in but it came out the right way.
From there, releasing the album, that was a huge step as well. Going into the studio and recording it with the band. Just playing and being able to hear it back properly in a studio. That was a huge confidence boost as well, just hearing it and being able to go ‘it sounds good’. I’m proud of that achievement.
And now moving out to Basel in Switzerland. I feel much more independent. I can really focus on what kind of player I want to be. In fact I’ve got a lesson with Mark Turner in a couple of hours. I’m very happy with my trajectory at the moment.
Tell us about your new album and the inspiration behind it.
The album is in two parts. I wrote the first two tracks while I was in New York during that Berklee/New York trip. When I stayed in New York for a weekend, I just wrote one tune a day and came up with the first two tracks. That really captures what was going on in my head at that time, in the moment. When I came back to London I felt that it needed clarification of where my roots are, so I composed two pieces about childhood and growing up in London and about London itself, which is London Meditation (Theme for Hope), which was originally titled Theme for Home but I changed it to make it sound nicer. That was really the inspiration.
Going into specifics about the first two tracks. The first one is Morning Shadowplay which is about shadows cast in the morning from the skyscrapers, cutting shapes out of the sun. That was really inspirational, just seeing those giant shadows displayed on the adjacent buildings. Liberty is about the Statue of Liberty. It’s about the haunting figure of old New York against the massive skyline of these giant skyscrapers. This was at night so it was a really haunting scene, this giant lit up figure in the sea.
The piece in the middle of those two cities, which are two pieces each, is Maiden Flight and that’s based off Maiden Voyage and I thought it was just a nice way to link them together in itself.
You’re performing at The Verdict, Brighton in December. Tell about the band and the music that you’ll be putting on.
I’m going to be debuting some new material. I’ve been writing a lot more since I’ve been in Switzerland and that’s important for me I think. It’s a very creative environment. So I’ll be sharing some of that. Some more recent stuff that’s not on the album as well, that was written after the album and the album itself of course. Maybe some standards thrown in there.
The band itself, it’s not going to be the one off the CD but it is very similar. They’re all fantastic musicians. It’s going to be all young guys, guys my age. I’ve played with them for quite a few years now. We know each other’s music well.
What are your plans for next year?
I’m going to focus and work hard at really what I want to get out of college. And I just want to keep on playing, keep getting out there, keep getting as much experience as I can and thinking down the line, I might even set up another band in Switzerland, a Swiss quartet or quintet, whatever I decide. But it’s just so amazing to be in the position that I’m in. I have all this stuff to choose from and all these guys to play with. It’s really all that I can hope for.
Sam Barnett performs at The Verdict, Brighton on Friday 16th December as part of New Generation Jazz.
Sam Barnett’s album New York – London Suite is available now on iTunes and Spotify.
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[Photo of Sam Barnett performing at Love Supreme Festival, 2017 taken by Lisa Wormsley.]