Sarah Tandy Interview

Entitled Infection in the Sentence, pianist Sarah Tandy’s debut album takes its inspiration from a poem by Emily Dickinson. Tandy has a love of both literature and music, learning piano from a young age. “My mum was a piano teacher so when I was a kid, from really young, at 4 or 5, I was doing classical piano. Then in my teens I did a lot of classical piano but my classical teacher was also a really good jazz pianist so he kind of started me on the jazz bit.”

However, Tandy’s move towards jazz professionally came a lot later. “I left school when I was 18, and went to a conservatoire to study classical piano, then a couple of years later, halfway through the course, I left/got thrown out. I wasn’t enjoying it and wasn’t going to any of my classes. I then took some time out and did an English degree. While I was doing that I really got into jazz and started to teach myself how to do it properly. There have been a few weird moments with a lightbulb going off in my head, like listening to certain records. I’d done classical music for such a long time, most of my life, and it had been such a massive part of my life, and quite an intensive thing that I’d been doing, so when I stopped doing that there was quite a big space. While I was doing my English degree I tried to find other ways to play, basically because I missed it a bit, and I still wanted to play, but I knew I couldn’t within that classical framework. It was like I was trying to find a way back into music, so I just listened to a stash of jazz records, a lot of Coltrane and Oscar Peterson.”

When asked which albums she listened to most, she replies without hesitation: “John Coltrane, Blue Train. That was a lightbulb moment. When he starts the solo on Blue Train I was like ‘mmm, I’m going to be a jazz musician’. I also spent quite a lot of time with Oscar Peterson’s Night Train. For jazz piano players it’s one of those albums that you get into, but also Robert Glasper’s In My Element. I found that really interesting because it was a whole different approach to playing piano. That and loads of other stuff in between.”

After teaching herself jazz piano, she was inevitably drawn back to London enabling her to meet more like-minded people. “I moved back to London and tried to get out and play as much as possible, then I met all of the people that I play with now. I moved back to London and I got my gig at Servant Jazz Quarters, that was a regular thing for quite a few years. I used to play there with Femi Koleoso and Mutale Chashi, who are in my band, and we played at Kansas Smitty’s as well. That was quite a pivotal thing in terms of cementing my musical relationships.”

As a classically trained pianist, and former finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year, Tandy sees the clear differences between the worlds of classical music and jazz. “One of the things with classical, especially as a piano player, is it’s an incredibly solitary experience, you’re just on your own, all the time. I value my personal space, I like to be by myself a lot. That whole classical concert pianist lifestyle is just being in your own world the whole time and I don’t think that’s good for 98% of people. I like the improvisational aspect of jazz, it’s so immediate and I like the fact that you play something one night and you can’t really re-capture it. That’s quite a magical thing.”

Discussing her debut album, she finds it easy to trace its development. “It basically came out of the residency I had at Servant’s Quarters. Most of the time I played there it was with Femi and Mutale, and quite often Binker would come down and play some tunes with us. So when it came to putting together my own project I wanted to do it with those guys because I’d played with them so much in the past. What I was trying to do with the album was join together a lot of the different musical worlds I inhabited. Femi and Mutale had a very different musical past to mine. I’d come through classical music and ended up at jazz that way, and they’d come from the opposite direction, from afrobeat and hip hop. We met in the middle somewhere. Playing with both made me really want to listen to new stuff and try to find different ways of approaching it.”

“When we had the residency it was just a straight ahead jazz gig, we were playing Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington for two sets, but they were throwing a lot of other stuff in there as well, particularly Femi, which I found really, really interesting. When it came to my writing, I wanted to write music that reflected the kind of jazz we’d been playing but also leaves me a bit of room to try some other things as well. So it’s a whole mixture of stuff.”

The new album features all original pieces by Tandy, and she’s clearly learnt a great deal from the process.

“For ages I almost actively resisted writing my own stuff. And coming from that straight ahead jazz tradition where everyone has this shared language of this bunch of tunes that everyone knows, so you can just turn up to any gig and find some tunes that you know. I felt that it was quite a big step to branch away from that. A few years back I had to write a whole bunch of stuff for trio, which I played for a bit, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the writing, although I hadn’t really worked out how to write for a trio in a way that I felt worked. So it was definitely in my mind when I did my own project that I wanted to have some horns in there because I thought it would bring it up a bit in terms of textures etcetera.”

“I listen to a lot of different music, what my contemporaries are putting out, and obviously records that I really like as well. Rather than thinking about the technical aspects of using this harmony or whatever, I was trying to get a handle on what the overall role of what the horns would be playing in this piece or trying to get an underlying concept. I felt that when I was first trying to write, that was what it was lacking: it didn’t really have an overall vision, it was just me messing around with a few ideas, thinking ‘maybe this will work’ or ‘maybe that will work’. It did, but the pieces didn’t have a strong identity. With the new album, I was trying to imagine it as a house and every room had to be painted a really bright, different colour. I wanted every tune to have a very specific identity.”

An eye opener for Tandy was the whole process of producing and creating a coherent album. “Definitely in the past year I’ve started listening to things slightly differently, because I came from such a straight ahead jazz world originally, so I’ve been transcribing solos, working out what’s happening harmonically, now I’m a lot more interested in putting records together, and how they craft the soundscape. That’s definitely something that I’d like to learn a bit more of, learn about production and that side of it. If some incredible producer wanted to teach me how to do that then I’d be really happy.”

When asked if she’d be interested in doing a solo piano album, her answer was “Yes, definitely. It’s strange because at the beginning of last year I got approached by this little label in London, called Waellas Choice, who were putting together a collection using all different piano players in London to each do a solo piece and asked if I would ike to do it. I agreed, but it was around the time that I recorded my album and they were like ’that’s great, but we need it in 3 days time’. So it was a really, quick turnaround and I wrote this little solo piano piece, Half Blue. I didn’t really think anything of it after that. Then it got picked up and played on the radio quite a bit, a lot of people approached me and said ‘I really like that’ but for a piano player I think it’s the most terrifying thing. It’s no small undertaking doing a solo album and I thought I wasn’t really ready to do that. It’s definitely something I would like to do now, partly because I’ve just done an album with a five piece band, with lots of strong personalities on it,  and they’re really going for it. The older I get the more I value carving out a quiet little space as well. It’s definitely something that I’m looking at doing in the next year, but probably EP length, just a handful of tracks solo, and see what I can come up with.”

The album is released on 8th March and Tandy will be appearing at SXSW Festival in Texas on 15th March, as part of the UK jazz contingent that includes The Comet Is Coming, Nerija, Ezra Collective and Yussef Dayes. “There are a few other things in the diary, and some gigs up north. I’ve just signed to a booking agent so hopefully they’ll put something together. Everyone in the band is crazy busy so juggling everyone’s schedules is a bit of a nightmare. Hopefully we’ll tour it a bit later in the year, all things going well. It depends how much people like it as well.”

Aside from music, Tandy still maintains her interest in literature. “Because I did an English degree, I still really like reading and I like words. I like poetry a lot so I still keep an eye on what’s coming out in that world. And I like being outside with nature. When you live in London there are grass pockets and greenery, when I can get away I like to see that.”

Sarah Tandy’s album Infection in the Sentence is out on 8th March on the Jazz Re:freshed label.

Sarah Tandy was interviewed by Charlie Anderson.

Photo by Lisa Wormsley, of Sarah Tandy performing at The Verdict with Where Pathways Meet.