Saxophonist Tom Barford was the 2017 winner of the Kenny Wheeler Prize and part of the award was the chance to record an album for the Edition record label. The result is his acclaimed debut album, released in August this year, entitled Bloomer, which was produced by Iain Ballamy.
Tom started getting into music at around 9 years old, originally on the piano. As Tom explains, “I started playing the piano and I had a jazz piano teacher which got me into jazz and he led me to Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. Then I started the saxophone the same year and gave up piano as I realised I really liked saxophone. I had a brilliant saxophone teacher called Will Osborne in Northampton who basically led me all the way up to getting on to the Junior Academy course at the Royal Academy of Music. Then I had Gareth Lockrane every Saturday for two years at the Junior Academy course.”
His experience at the Junior Academy as a teenager, being taught by veteran jazz flautist Lockrane, proved an invaluable experience for Tom. “That was more than incredible. He would give you so much knowledge about harmony. It really developed my knowledge of harmony and scales. The main thing, though, would be the opportunity to play with people your own age that are getting into similar things. You’d share music that you’d been checking out together. It was just a really creative environment. Gareth is a genius. I’ve been quite lucky to go on and play in his big band occasionally. That stemmed from that. It’s really nice to have known him since that age and now playing with him is incredible. He’s turned into a really good friend.”
Tom also acknowledges the legends of jazz saxophone as his inspiration. “It was definitely the influence of the greats, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, that really got me into playing jazz saxophone.”
After the Junior Academy course, Tom went on to study on the undergraduate jazz course which was crucial in his development as a composer, as well as a musician. “I think everyone pictures themselves as spending the next four years of their life just studying their main instrument, but you learn so much more about other things, such as composition. That’s down to Pete Churchill at the Royal Academy. He taught me composition every week for four years. At the time I didn’t think that that was going to turn into a big part of my life, but now I just think of it as: composition and playing go hand in hand for me. It’s something that I feel you have to practice just as much as your instrument. To be able to write down on paper, bring music to a band, is just as much of a crucial skill for me. But Pete is an absolute genius and amazing. Every four weeks we had to write a new piece for our year. Doing that really, really helped, and developed my compositional skills.”
Graduating from the Royal Academy of Music with a first class honours degree in jazz, Tom was also awarded the Kenny Wheeler Prize the same year. “I guess it’s changed my view on recording an album and I’ve really learnt a lot about the recording process and the business side of music; more so than I thought I would have done. I’ve spent a lot of time at my laptop, sending emails and trying to organise a tour, and organising studio time, producer, engineer, mixing, mastering, Arts Council funding, all of that sort of thing. It’s the first time I’ve really experienced that side of it. That’s probably the main thing about the Kenny Wheeler Prize. I’ve learnt a lot about that side of things.”
Similarly, the chance to record his first album was also an invaluable learning experience for him. “Writing an album was really useful for me. Compositionally, to write a bunch of tunes which really related to each other. It was the first time I’d done that. And having Iain Ballamy on the end of the phone, for advice about everything, has been crucial. He’s really helped me out, with deciding on the members of the band, with deciding how to actually run the recording session. So he’d say that you don’t want to play the same tune over and over again because that doesn’t become as organic. So you basically just want to run all of the tunes and then run them again. Then it’s more like two sets of a gig. It’s a bit more creative. And learning about the mixing process, the mastering. Literally everything that you could imagine that recording an album involves, I’ve learnt about it.”
The album features a number of different tracks, including pieces he has previously performed, as well as some specially written material. “I wrote Bloomer, the title track, for the album. I wrote that at the time when I’d just found out I’d won the Kenny Wheeler Prize. I’d been playing with that band since my second year at Academy It was a time when I felt the compositions were getting stronger and the band’s unified sound was getting stronger, and we were blooming onto the jazz scene. So that was the expression for the title of the album. I wrote that tune for the album first and then I spoke to Iain Ballamy about what sort of compositions I needed to write for an album. He told me ‘you basically just want to write some space to dream’ and I think by that he meant that you want to write some music that everyone felt they could bring their musical personalities to, quite easily, so not too complex. So I wrote the tune Space to Dream inspired by that advice. I wrote Phizzwizard as well for the album. Ideology was influenced by Iain Ballamy’s way of writing. He sometimes takes the melody of a standard and inverts the melody to make a mirror image of it and then puts his own chords to it. So I did that with My Ideal and called it Ideology. The previous tunes I’d been playing with the band on and off for about a year before I won the Kenny Wheeler Prize.”
Tom is also a keen sideman in other ensembles but the other project he’s most involved with is his band with Alex Hitchcock, Ferg Ireland and James Maddren. “We’ve been playing together for a couple of years. We’ve been writing music for that, playing together and it’s sounding really good now, so maybe a recording of that. I’d also love to do another recording of my band, but maybe with added guests of some sort, though I haven’t really thought too much about that yet. I’d like to keep playing as a sideman in different bands. I’d like us to get a few festival gigs under our belt, with my band as well.”
Performing at The Verdict in Brighton on Friday 30th November, as part of New Generation Jazz, Tom is keen to pass on what he has learnt and will be doing a workshop before the performance.
The Verdict, Brighton
Friday 30th November, 2018
Interview by Charlie Anderson.
Photo by Dave Stapleton.