I come from a fairly musical family, neither of my parents were full-time musicians but both were musical in different ways and made sure our house was always full of instruments. At some point I found their xylophone and learnt a few nursery rhymes which set me off on a path to studying classical piano.
I really enjoyed playing the piano but I never really managed to gel together the music I could play with the music I was listening to. Being in Bristol in the 90s I was gravitating towards jungle and triphop but playing Bach. Ultimately what I was listening to was not played by pianists, but made by engineers at computers and performed on vinyl so I parted ways with the piano.
I got my first decks with what must have been one of my first paychecks as a supermarket fishmonger, and by the time I moved to Brighton to study computing had started amassing a bit of a record collection. By the early 2000s I was playing around Brighton as DJ Don and running drum & bass nights, a sound system, and pirate radio shows with some friends. This was quite life changing for me as I’ve always been shy and this gave me a new way to meet people and interact socially through music.
Eventually I landed a job as a web-developer and the steady job didn’t really sit well alongside 5am sets at the Volks, so after burning the candle at both ends for a while I realised something had to go and I pretty much stopped DJing. That left a big creative and social hole in my life for a while, at a time when I no longer felt tied to drum & bass so was out exploring new kinds of music and feeling drawn towards horn sections. One night I was talking to a clarinetist friend about how much fun it must be to play horns and it turned out she had an unused saxophone lying around which she was happy for me to try out.
After rather a lot of self-taught wailing and squeaking, mainly after hours in the office where I was sure there were no neighbours, I learnt to hold down some simple tunes. A violinist friend suggested I try the Brighton Jazz School and suddenly I was caught up in a community of musicians exploring the world of jazz and improvised music.
I’m now playing with a few different groups each of which is rewarding in different ways, some musically, some socially, some financially. I find that each project I work with brings a new set of ideas and possibilities so every musician I work with builds and improves me as a player, some continue to surprise and inspire me even after years of playing together.
I’m still very much learning jazz in all ways, but also looking for ways to bring in some of what I used to love about electronic music. I’ve looked at various ways of pulling the two things together, playing over DJs or using electronic instruments in improvised settings, combining the power and energy of electronic dance music with the freedom and excitement of live instruments and improvisation.
I’m hoping that my own project Battuta’s Return will get there, although it’s still early days (and certainly not ticking the finance box at the minute). Realistically though, I suspect that 10 years down the line I’ll still have a handful of projects each of which scratches a certain itch and each of which is indispensable in its own way.
Words: Don Benjamin
Photo: Lisa Wormsley