This is the first interview I did, although it was more of an informal chat about how i got to where i am now. this took place in the office of the distributors for the ‘akhenaten’ album. so a big thanks to simon tonkinson for arranging it and for preserving it for posterity!
in Conversation with Nat Birchall
Baked: Do you think that’s because of the sound system thing in part?
Nat: When I did go to Jamaica and to the dances, the thing that really struck me was that there was no distortion, I was really shocked by it – if you go to a sound system here the treble really cuts your ears, but, no matter how many piles of speakers they had, it was absolutely crystal clear, no distortion whatsoever, the treble was controlled – they have an appreciation of beauty, whereas in the west they sometimes like to do things as a reaction to things, you would never get punk happening in Jamaica, not in the music, because they like to create beautiful music, or at least that’s how I interpret it – and no matter how wild a dub might sound, it’s still beautiful, to me, certainly in them days anyway. So it’s really about the balance, which you get in all great art…
Baked: I think it’s time for another record
Nat : 1969, – doesn’t sound 40 years old…and it’s because it’s honest that it doesn’t sound dated – obviously on this tune he’s not trying to do anything but be himself, and that’s why it’s original, no one had done that stuff before, so when you do that hopefully it’s gonna last because it’s genuine, it’s honest.
Mike: Is that something that’s always been important to you, wanting to sound original?
Nat: It’s certainly one of the things – but not originally, because originally the desire to play came from wanting to make those sounds – as I came up a slightly different way to most musicians who I may play with, in that most people who play professionally would have studied music at school, gone to college, coming up through classical training or school big bands, or even brass bands, I started quite late, at 21…so my desire to play stemmed purely from wanting to play the music that I listened to.
Mike: Can you remember the day you decided that was what you wanted to do?
Nat: I bought a guitar originally…
Mike: You were a bit of a Dylan fan…which is interesting, because Jamaicans love Bob Dylan
Nat: Absolutely! Bob Andy, who real name is Keith Anderson, named himself after Bob Dylan, an anagram without the ‘l’…so I bought this guitar off my uncle who brought it back from a holiday in Spain, for two pounds, and it used to make my fingers bleed…I used to play Dylan songs and country blues, Bukka White and Robert Johnson, and tried to do all that stuff, but self-taught. Robert Johnson really spoke to me because it’s so pure and so powerful, there’s been nothing like that before or since, the power of his blues was overwhelming, and it’s the same with some of these tunes, there’s an obvious vibe there, it goes completely beyond what they’re playing, and goes into something deep, and I always used to listen to reggae before I knew what Rasta was, and thought that it sounds like it’s speaking about some deep unknown thing, but I didn’t know what it was – and then I heard about Rastafari, and then it made sense, that was why it sounded the way it did, that they were playing in praise of Rasta, there was definitely something evocative going on – so I wanted to play that kind of music, I didn’t want to play pop music, although I played in all kinds of bands to begin with, just to get some kind of experience, but that was the spark, the motivation, to play the kind of music that I loved. And that was it.
IM & DAVID Black Is Black (Bamboo 7”)
Mike: When is this from?
Mike: I need this record!
Nat: It’s a version of a vocal of ‘Is It Because I’m Black’, originally by Syl Johnson…but the originality thing didn’t occur to me to begin with, because you have to develop your voice…I guess there are some people who will start to play, and their personality is such that they know what they want to do immediately, but that wasn’t the case with me (record finishes). Right now we’ll play one of my favourite dubs, this is one of the most ‘otherworldly’ dubs.
Nat: Originally they started putting the version on the B-side so people could sing along, so they could do it at parties, and then dub gradually started to develop that way…but the most frustrating B-side is when it cuts out to just the vocal and then just goes to the rest of the rhythm track, there are so many like that – with Jamaican music you never know what you’re going to get, a lot of time there’s nothing on the label, it’s blank or it’s the wrong label, and you always have to play the B side because who knows what’s on there, and some of the dubs are like this, which is one of my all-time favourites…
Mike: Did you get to visit a studio when you were in Jamaica?
Nat: I did yeah, but they were recording so we couldn’t go in, we were in the shop at the back, and I got harangued by a few artists who wanted to cut dubplates for me!…it took me a while to adjust once I came back from Jamaica, as I didn’t go as a tourist – it was ’94, I was just staying in the heart of Jamaica, and didn’t see a white man for 2 weeks, I even had to speak patois because they couldn’t understand me, I was trying not sound Northern as much as possible, but they couldn’t understand, so I just had to speak patois, which was really weird…
Baked: Did being in Jamaica shatter any preconceptions about Jamaican music?
Nat: It was a very strange experience, because in one sense it was kind of like going home, because a lot of reggae talks about everyday life and so it was how I expected it to be, but it was also very intense, like there’s an edgy undercurrent, because even though they are very laid-back people, there’s this constant buzz. It’s hard out there, but they survive, and make incredible music – if you consider that the population is about 2 million, and the number of fantastic artists that come out of there, and the high level of creativity, it’s absolutely astonishing.
Mike: It’s interesting as well in that your two main loves, jazz and reggae, are both musics of struggle, and poverty – and Dylan is music of protest…
Nat: Absolutely, it comes from struggle…out of pain comes beauty, as Charlie Parker said – you have to endure the pain to produce beauty…I strongly believe that if you are an artist you should strive to create beauty, rather than create something that’s ugly or negative – to my mind that comes from a position of decadence, where you have nothing better to do but fuck people up – so if you’re really struggling and life is hard, the creation of beauty as a release from that, it’s a reason for existence…a lot of the happiest people are the poorest people – and it’s not that everybody should be poor to be happy, but in order to survive at that kind of level you have to have an optimistic outlook, you have to be thankful for what you’ve got – whereas the more you get the more you want, and the less happy you are. But that’s not for me to comment on, except from a musical point of view – it’s much more a part of society in black America or Jamaica, of the black world in general: the music has always been a part of ritual or celebration, and for the most part the West has been better off and more decadent at a certain level, and music’s role within society has changed into something else, as has art itself – art, to me, should have some kind of sociological and cultural meaning. Art for its own sake loses me. You shouldn’t try to create something that is purposefully ugly.
Baked: Play us your most beautiful record
Nat: My God! (everyone laughs). That might just have been it! (looks through records) There’s too much! This is what you might call ‘obvious beauty’…there’s obvious beauty and not so obvious beauty – but all these tunes are beautiful…
Baked: There’s another kind of link between jazz and reggae which is that they’re both survival musics…reggae is very influential, but it’s also very good at morphing from other styles of music.
Nat: Yeah – Roscoe Gordon was the guy I was thinking of, a lot of his tunes had that ska type shuffle thing, he was very popular at the dances, where that rhythm kind of took hold…
Baked: And there are certain currents in jazz or blues that doesn’t see that reggae as the most serious music, as it is more party-oriented….
Nat: Yeah, I guess. Jamaican music has kind of developed, as originally they played American RnB records at the dances and when they started recording they would do those kinds of tunes, and doo-wop kind of tunes, but then the music developed its own harmonies, and the rhythm developed independently while taking onboard elements of funk and stuff – who knows why the music slowed down after ska, because up to 66 ska got faster and faster, the only way to go was to slow down…things take a hold and people latch onto them, who knows why…but most of the original players of the music were jazz players, Roland Alphanso, Don Drummond, Ernest Ranglin…
Nat: I also really like the Eastern sound of a lot of this stuff, the way that people like Don Drummond started titling their tunes things like Addis Ababa…again it’s very evocative, this is obviously completely different to Roscoe Gordon or Bill Doggett.
Baked: It’s looking for that thing that seems exotic, even somewhere that is already exotic in our minds
Nat: Yeah. But I think this came out of a desire of the musicians, because even though they weren’t necessarily recording at this time, they would go and play with Count Ossie and all the drummers up in the hills…
Baked: Do you see a parallel with that and jazz, the more spiritual sides to certain shows?
Nat: Yeah, of course. The music allows you to be yourself, and allows you to play in what ever sphere you want to play in, no matter what kind of genre of music – so perhaps you’re drawn to musicians who have the same kind of attitude, and in all kinds of situations, I guess these guys that used to get together with Count Ossie, they would talk about Africa, and that’s the vibe, they’re trying to reconnect, because in a lot of ways they had their culture taken away – and in most slave populations they took the drums away, so Count Ossie was kind of strengthening the connection to Africa.
S: So reggae was your main thing for many years, what got you going to the record shop, what was inspiring you – was there a point where the urge to simply play jazz began to take over?
N: What happened was that I was playing a bit of guitar, and I met a couple of guys, and one of them was going to buy a flute, another a saxophone, and so I dug out all my records at home that had flute and saxophone, and I already had a couple of Coltrane and Charlie Parker albums, and in digging these albums out to lend to them, I started to listen to them more myself, and then I went into a record shop one day and the guy had an old saxophone at the back of the shop that he was going to put in the window as a display, so I bought it off him for £20 (laughs) , an old twenties silver alto, and took it home with the intention of just fooling around and try to play some of these sounds, and it just took over – as soon as I started to play it I connected with it – I’d been trying to play the guitar but couldn’t really do what I wanted on an acoustic guitar, couldn’t play the sounds that I was hearing, and that was why I started to play blues and Bob Dylan, because that was where I would hear acoustic guitar, I didn’t hear any on reggae records (with a few exceptions), so I wasn’t hearing sounds I could emulate, but when I got the saxophone and started to play that, I could really hear that sound, so straight away I got some money together and bought a proper instrument, and then that was it. But because a saxophone is a more ‘jazz-orientated’ instrument, and I read that the Jamaican players were influenced by the American jazz players so I started then to listen to as many saxophone players as possible, and that’s basically how I got into jazz. That was ’79, and at about that time a lot of the studios in Jamaica had upgraded to 16 and 24 track, and the world market had opened up, and the sound became really slick, and that turned me off it a little bit. But Jamaica is a very poor country, you can’t blame people for trying to make a living, but I think it’s their perception that they were making music purely for Jamaicans, even though there was an audience out there (and I was one of them) that just loved it when they played that kind of music, they still saw it as immediately for the local market – if you want to appeal to the rest of the world that you have to have that ‘slickness’ in your music. (saxophone plays on track)
Mike: There’s a complete lineage there with your playing. Completely.
Nat: Yeah? I bought this in 1973, and this was back in the day when you used to read reviews and they would give you the catalogue number, and I went to my local shop and ordered it, and I picked it up at lunchtime from school and took it back, and the original English version is a gatefold triple album with a picture of all the drummers and the horns on the beach, out of focus…it’s a fantastic shot…and I was looking at in class with kids who were listening to David Bowie and they were like “what the fuck is that?” but I thought “nah, this is the stuff!”. A man alone…we used to have a ‘record club’ on Friday lunchtime, with the old school turntable and speaker, and you would take it in turns to play your records, and Burnin’ had just come out, so I didn’t want to play anything too heavy and played I Shot The Sheriff – but they made me take it off, saying “why are you playing that rubbish?”. Things change…thankfully the world changed, to some degree at least…(looks at record sleeve) there’s a version of a Charles Lloyd tune that he did with Chico Hamilton called Passing Through, and on the liner notes I would read about these people like Charles Lloyd, Art Blakey, John Coltrane…
Mike: You must have brought a Charles Lloyd record with you…?
Nat: It’s a shame, I haven’t brought a Charles Lloyd record…I could have brought the original version of this tune…there are too many…
Mike: Remember that Charles Lloyd gig?
Nat: Absolutely, that was one of those ‘eureka’ moments…I don’t think he opened his eyes. He certainly didn’t speak to anyone…it was just pure music…there weren’t that many people there, and a couple of hours before we’d been there for Joshua Redman and it was packed – and then to go to Charles Lloyd and experience that, it was a moment.
Mike: It was a pity that Charles Mingus got together with Count Ossie…it would have been amazing…what’s the history of Count Ossie? I know nothing about him.
Nat: He really took it upon himself to research traditional drumming I guess – I gave you a copy of this album and you sold it!
Mike: Yeah, how many times have we done that when needs must!
Nat: (laughs) But he’s really responsible for the whole Rasta drumming thing – I don’t know if anyone was doing it beforehand, but there are all kinds of traditional strands of Jamaican drumming that have come via ritual and religion from Africa, and Ossie kind of took elements from them and it developed into this (more Count Ossie). The sleeper track for me is the last one, after the Grounation medley of old folk songs, the last 5 minutes which is listed on some issues as “The Warm Up’, which is a fantastic instrumental.
Baked: Do you think that kind of relationship with records has broken down utterly with the move onto CD, and albums getting longer to satisfy the format, and listening through digital means people not even recognising things as albums, being all about the track, or even the break on a track?
Nat: Well it’s certainly different to how it was – reggae albums would have 6 tracks aside, and then when it got into Disco Mix days, after ‘76, they started to have 5 tracks a side – but when albums had 10 tracks a side you would wonder where the bass was…so there were technical reasons for not having long playing times, but that inadvertently worked well because you had 35 or 40 minutes of music which is a reasonable amount of time to expect to have someone’s attention, so there’s a lot to be said for albums of that length, they also maybe leave you wanting more…
Nat: …so this is one of the first Coltrane albums I bought, the first time I heard My Favourite Things, so it’s not the original studio version, but it’s still my favourite one (track starts), because on this version he really finds some beautiful stuff that I’ve not heard him play on other versions. This is ‘62 or ‘63, so 2 or 3 years after the original version. It’s speeded up quite a bit which gives it a different mood – I used to listen to this with my eyes closed and could not believe the sheer beauty of the lines that he came out with. On other versions his playing is fantastic, but there’s something this one has…maybe it’s because it was the first I heard, the first cut is the deepest…he really gets into some other stuff here…another early one I got was a bootleg with a version of Alabama, and it turned out to be the one from the TV programme, and I didn’t know that there was the bombing of the church, I just thought it was his take on the landscape – and when I heard it, that was the first record I remember, apart from these reggae tunes that all seemed to speak of the same kind of thing, that was so evocative of something other than just the music, it seemed to suggest that there was something else really going on behind the music, and I was fascinated by the fact that you could do this with four instruments, with one instrument in the main, that you could actually express such an emotional feeling beyond the notes (listens to Coltrane). I keep thinking of other tunes I should have brought…I saw Charles Lloyd again about 8 years ago with Billy Higgins at Brecon and he was talking between every tune at that gig, he started by saying “I’m not gonna lay many lyrics on you”, but then talked again – I think he was very inspired by the setting, it was a really beautiful day – and it was a real contrast to when we saw him in Holland, where he never said a word.
Mike: So when you first heard this you were playing tenor sax, or were you playing soprano?
Nat: I was playing alto when I heard this, played alto for a year – I was actually told my first sax was a C Melody saxophone that was obsolete, but it turned out it wasn’t a C melody sax but a very early alto, I found out that it wasn’t a very good instrument, so then got a bit of money together, borrowed a bit, and went to buy a really good vintage alto – but I really wanted a tenor, because of Cedric Brooks and Tommy McCook and Trane, it was that sound. The only thing that would have swayed me towards an alto would be Charlie Parker. Him and Trane, you can’t better those sounds, they’ve both got everything in their sounds, and they both have the absolute understand of what it takes to get those sounds. There’s a big difference between alto and tenor, the tenor is a harder instrument to get a particular sound on.
Mike: Your soprano playing on the last track of Matt’s album is beautiful.
Nat: Well, thank you – I was struggling to play that day as it was really cold in the room, and when a sax is cold it plays flat, and a soprano goes cold very quickly, whereas if you warm up a tenor it stays warm longer even if you’re not playing. So because we were playing a slow tune so quietly, it was really hard to get the right sound. The ‘standard’ sound of a soprano has changed a lot since this recording, now it’s a much broader sound, almost like an alto. But I really relate to the sound on this, because even though some people think it sounds like a shenai, a kind of Eastern sound, it’s still a very rich warm colourful sound to me.
Mike: Have you studied Eastern philosophies?
Nat: To some degree. I’ve listened to a lot of Eastern music, people like Bismallah Khan, the shenai player, Ravi Shankar, I love sitar music and Indian classical music, again it comes down to the purity – the feeling I got from seeing Charles Lloyd I got again seeing Ravi Shankar for the first time, it was just pure music, that’s where it’s at. I should really check out more, but I’m not getting any younger, there isn’t enough time to do my own thing. Raw, pure, not diluted. The real deal. (Coltrane wails)
Mike: (looking at Nat’s records) I’m intrigued by this…
Nat: This is one of my ‘underground’ ones, I was a bit gutted to see that it had been repressed!
BYARD LANCASTER Funky Funky Rib Crib (Palm Recordings LP)
Mike: The spirit of Coltrane obviously runs deep through your music, and certainly through the new album.
Nat: (with vague scepticism) Yeah?
Baked: How do you start to find your own voice when you have something as inspiring and as daunting as that version of My Favourite Things? What would be your advice to somebody starting to play now?
Nat: Practice! I certainly wanted to play like the records I had, but you can’t sound like somebody else no matter how hard you try, but the sound you get from a saxophone is very complex: your physical character, the way you are made affects it, and there is also the sound that you are aiming to make…so you have a particular sound in mind, but you limit yourself, so even if you want to sound like Trane, there is a part of you that says ‘I won’t get that because I am me’, so something within you prevents you from getting it…it’s kinda complex…because I think you also have a subconscious sound in your head that you are aiming for, and that also changes over the years, it gets developed and gets refined. You have to have the bottom, the mid, the richness and the warmth, the vibes, and there is always a trade-off where for instance you could get a very edgy sound but lose the warmth, or get a very warm sound but lose the edge…so by copying other people and trying to get that sound you discover what it takes to get toward that sound, the idea being that you learn from everyone, and you might like a certain player for one aspect of the sound, and another for another aspect, so hopefully you would listen to all of these players and either in a conscious or a subconscious way you start to adopt these things, and they all eventually come out sounding like you – and there is a certain part of that process that you don’t have any control over, no matter what you try to do, your spirit and your voice is going to sound a certain way anyway – but I’ve pretty much always had the same sound, but your ears develop, how you hear the sound develops, and you hear more of that the longer you play. So age is obviously a part of that, but you don’t just get older and hear differently, it’s about trying to develop it and refine it all the time. I’ve had people say to me “you sound like Trane”, but I don’t really. Obviously it’s the closest reference to some people, but his sound also informs the Jamaican players, and it’s also that spiritual thing, because no one else had that sound, even Pharoah (Sanders) got a very ‘spiritual’ sound, but it’s still not the same as Trane. I got to the point a few years ago where I got tired of people saying that I sounded like Trane, so I just stopped listening to him for about a year, and listened to everybody except Trane, and then one day I accidentally heard him, and the sound was just overwhelming. No one else has got everything in their sound – they’ve got part of it, but everything is in the sound, but there is something else as well that suggests some other ‘thing’ – Carlos Santana says that John Coltrane’s music almost defies you to say that there is no God, because it is suggestive of such power that you cannot say that is anything but proof that God is speaking through him. It has all this stuff with it as well, it’s not just a great sound – and I always try to get some of that. Dave Liebman wrote a book about sound production on the saxophone, and he said that the ancient Chinese had a belief that there were seven properties that make up a beautiful sound – I always forget one of them, but there was happiness, sadness, elegance, resonance, strength, subtlety…I forget the other one, but there are all these qualities, and I wondered how you could have happiness and sadness, but then thought about Billie Holliday…in great musicians you can hear these things, sometimes all at the same time…so you try to get all these qualities, and how that manifests itself is up to you. Part of getting the sound that I want is identifying the aspect of other players’ sound that I want. The notes are a different thing, it’s the tone itself, the timbre, and you have to decide when you listen to yourself and then listen to them why you don’t sound so good, and then decide what is missing. And it’s not necessarily something that you can put into words (track finishes).
Mike: That song was amazing, I have to admit that it springs to mind when I listen to your album.
Nat: Yeah? It’s a tune I play live a lot, and that I never get tired of playing, because it’s kind of open, you can do different things with it. I did have that tune in mind when I was writing tunes for the album, I wanted to write something that was that simple, but that I would never get tired of playing.
Mike: Was there any thinking behind the album in terms of programming? I think it definitely sounds like an album that was meant to be recorded…
Nat: Yes and no. The tunes came individually, all at round about the same time – I’m not the most prolific writer by any means, and I find that they just kind of come. I could sit down and just write a tune there and then, but whether it would be any good or not is a different matter. Orrin Evans, the piano player, on one of his sleevenotes said that ‘such a tune was discovered by our bass player’, and I understand what he meant, because some people believe that all these tunes already exist, you just have to find them. It’s not like you can consciously create it. Some people say it’s God that plays the music, and you just have to let God play the music through you. That’s what it’s about: not getting in the way. Some people say it’s your soul, or it’s your creative subconscious, but it doesn’t matter what name you put on it, but when you consciously try to write something, it has that kind of contrived sound to it, and it’s best to try and find things, and hope that you might find something that will work, and maybe stand the test of time. I recorded a few tunes with a trio, and when we got to the session with the piano I had these three tunes to do, and they just worked from the off – the first tune on the record is the first one we recorded, and the first take. So I recorded those three, and when I listened back I was so happy with them, that they sounded beyond what I was hoping to get. But then I had a bit of a dilemma as they were so completely different from the other things I had recorded with the trio, it was like a new area that I hadn’t gotten into before. And then someone suggested that I should have an uptempo track, and so I worked on an uptempo tune I had for a couple of weeks and wasn’t quite happy with it, and when we got to the studio it just didn’t work. But we did another slow tune at that session, and that worked out fine. So now I had four tunes, and was aiming for 40 to 45 minutes, because there is a lot to be said for that running time, as we mentioned before, but I ended up with 35-36 minutes of music, and thought that all the tunes worked really nicely together, and then checked out my collection and found that my favourite albums were about that length: A Love Supreme, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane,Tad Dameron and John Coltrane, Journey In Satchidinanda, I had quite a list! Then I felt happy about it. Someone said to me yesterday that it even sounds like it could be a suite, but I didn’t write them with that intent, they just came out that way. So the only programming was sorting out the running order, which turned out to be the order in which they were recorded.
Baked: Do you make a decision about when a track is ‘roadworthy’?
Nat: Before I record it?
Baked: When you play it live?
Nat: No, I don’t really do that. We never rehearse for one thing, I might take a new tune to the gig and we’ll do it there and then. I may subsequently change something, or I may not. All those tunes hadn’t been played before, the band had never heard them, I just took the sketches along and told them the vibe I wanted and what the basis of it was, this will happen and that will happen – it was only the title tune that we played a few times on gigs beforehand. But there is a danger in both ways, where often you play the best music when you play a tune for the first time, because of the unfamiliarity we tend to be 100% all ears, no one knows what is going to happen, so everyone is really listening, and anxious to really capture the spirit of the tune. And as soon as you’ve done that, the next time is like remembering the last time you played it, and you lose the whole vibe of the tune, and take something for granted. It’s one of the hardest things to do is to approach a tune that way every time you play, no matter how familiar you are with it…it’s a weird balance, where you have to be confident, but humble or unknowing at the same time: you have to play the tune as if you don’t know it. And that’s the hardest thing. And that’s my biggest criticism of some musicians’ playing, that they can be fantastically inventive and make a tune, and next time it doesn’t happen because they’re trying to do what they did last time, and you really can’t do that. I’ve learned that along the way, and I’m not saying that I’m not guilty of it myself because I am sometimes…
Mike: One last question: what is jazz? (all laugh)
Nat: (smilingly) Jazz is Truth.
Mike: John Gilmore was amazing on that track…
Nat: One of my favourite players. He has a very personal way of playing, and also kind of sounds like Trane in a way but doesn’t, he really is absolutely his own man. And he’s got all kinds of stuff in his sound, he has a very vocal kind of sound – the best music, and it’s a cliché, but it’s where it sounds like someone talking, to you, directly, and actually saying something, it’s not just technique. And they’re telling a story, and the main thing is the telling of the story, that’s what it’s all about. So it’s gotta sound like you’re talking or singing this story, and he is the absolute master of that, and on that solo especially. But it’s also a masterpiece in the way it builds, he takes his time, and the complexity of his phrases reaches this fantastic peak…it’s one of the highlights. But I also learned from him when I saw him with Sun Ra a few times, and the first time he played East Of The Sun, and at the end he did this solo cadenza, and he kept going up and up to a higher note, a higher harmonic, and was building up to this final note as the climax of it, and he went to get the note, and it split into a thousand pieces, and I though ‘Oh my God’, but he just carried on as if nothing had happened, and it still sounded fantastic, and although he was in front of all these people, it didn’t bother him in the slightest. And, purely because I understand now that you are absolutely at the mercy of what comes out – you shouldn’t take responsibility for what comes out when you play, even though it’s down to your practice and your vision of music etc., because when it’s actually time to play, you have to give up that ego part, you have to play what wants to be played, and the saxophone being an imperfect instrument, and he was playing beyond its range anyway, he never batted an eyelid, and I really learnt from that. He has a huge logic in his playing – everything sounds like he’s worked it out, pre-planned it, but he hasn’t, it’s completely spontaneous. And I understand now that he just gives himself up to the music, it’s just happening through him.
Baked: A last selection?
The Music of BILLY GAULT When Destiny Calls (Steeplechase LP)
Nat: It’s the first track for me…
And there the session ended. Thanks again to Nat and Mike for a hugely enjoyable afternoon (and no thanks to the Baked Goods in-house snapper who took the extraordinarily poor pics of Nat’s records).
Paris DJs website interview, with Matthew Halsall
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs – March 2012)Nat Birchall: sax. Matthew Halsall: trumpet. Two men from the Manchester’s area brought together by a sole passion for modal jazz and a constant quest for Beauty. A unique friendship that goes beyond age gap and the kind of story that only happens in art or music. Imagine this, Nat celebrates 30 years of playing the sax (a lot of reggae then jazz) while Matt isn’t even 30 and began trumpet at 6… Together (and each playing on the other’s records) they write one of the most brilliant pages of UK’s contemporary Jazz. Matt runs Gondwana Records, a label that welcomes Nat’s music and his own. Nat has just released his new album, Sacred Dimension, while Matthew’s last album (On The Go, 2011) has recently won best jazz album of the year at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards 2012. We’ve interviewed the two friends separately but with common questions, and you will see how their visions and aesthetics converge. At last Matthew Halsall, who’s also a talented DJ and a true vinyl lover, has done an exclusive guest mix (download it here) featuring the partners in crime’s peaceful music.
Matthew Halsall & Nat Birchall
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs – March 2012)01. Gondwana brings us back to supposed origins of the world. What does the name evoke to you?
Matthew Halsall: I came across the name via my mother. She had a furniture shop called Gondwana, which imported furniture from all over the world. I really liked the name and its meaning so when the furniture shop closed I decided to use the name.
I also like the fact that Miles Davis did an album called Pangaea and one of the tracks titles is Gondwana, even though it’s not my favorite Miles period.
Nat Birchall: Well, Gondwana is Matthew’s label of course and so it was his idea for the name. I think it’s a great name because to me it has connotations of pre-history and foundations of the world that we know, so it has a resonance of something strong to build upon and something that has roots in the past. And, as we all know, we need these things to build our creations on. So it’s a very appropriate name I think. As a word it’s good too, it has a certain ‘ring’ to it that I like, and it’s all about sound of course! Only time will tell if it breaks up into smaller continents though!02. What’s spiritual jazz according to you?
MH: To me spiritual jazz is soulful, honest music that brings together instruments, musicians and influences from all over the world. It often has a mystical eastern feel to it that’s quite magical, meditative and dreamy.
NB: This is a tough question! To me ‘spiritual’ as applied to music has several meanings. One is that the music has to have ‘spirit’, which is difficult to quantify of course. You can have ‘spirited’ playing which is energetic, but not necessarily having’spirit’. So it’s a way of playing where you give yourself (your ‘ego’) up completely to the service of the music. When you play this way it’s kind of like you yourself have no decision in what comes out of your instrument, the music is just coming through you from a higher source. What this ‘higher source’ is can be a matter of opinion, some say it is God, some say it is a spirit, some say it is your subconscious, etc etc. But it doesn’t really matter what you think it is, you just have to let IT dictate what comes out. So to me,’spiritual’ music is any type of music which is played this way.
There is of course a style of jazz, a genre, which is called ‘spiritual jazz’, and people have slightly different interpretations of that term (like ‘jazz’ itself!) but I don’t see it having much to do with instrumentation or harmonic or melodic forms, although there are some of these elements that seem to be more prevalent in this genre.03. Can you remember how you met and began playing music together?
MH: I remember asking my friend Bernard Moss if he knew of any saxophone players who where into the music of Coltrane and he recommended Nat, so I went to see him perform at Matt & Phreds Jazz Club in Manchester. I remember him playing a nice cover of Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda, which is one of my favorite tunes of all time. After the show I introduced myself and asked him if he’d like to do some gigs with my band and he said yes, and it was that simple!
NB: Matt and myself had mutual friends and I had heard of Matt and his music from some of them but never heard it. I think he contacted me via Myspace and asked me to do a gig with him. He sent me his music and I really loved it right away. I was so happy that finally there was someone else, not living 1,000 miles away, who was into similar music to myself, I had always struggled to find people to play the kind of music the way I wanted to do it, but Matt had managed to do it! Plus, his whole set was ‘modal’ jazz. I always loved to play modal music but musicians, especially piano players and guitarists, like to play music with lots of chord changes so much that after maybe 2 modal tunes they are crying to play a ‘standard’ tune with chord changes in it! I turned up at the gig and we played and the ‘rapport’ was instant, our sounds worked very well together I thought, and his band was fantastic so I had a great time!04. @Matt: Name a Nat Birchall quality you envy ; @ Nat: name a Matt Halsall quality you envy.
MH: Nat has a great knowledge and understanding of music. He’s been digging for records for over thirty years and has an amazing collection. He’s also very wise and has helped me on a number of important decisions over the years.
NB: Well I don’t think ‘envy’ is the right word but I really admire Matt’s ability to know exactly what he wants in his music and also to know how to achieve it.
05. @ Matt: Three adjectives to describe Nat’ musical style ; @ Nat: Three adjectives to describe Matt’s musical style.
MH: Spiritual, soulful and honest.
NB: Well I would say Matt’s style is ‘honest’. He really only plays what needs to be played, or says what needs to be said if you like, none of his notes are played just for the sake of playing them, everything has meaning.I would say it is also ‘beautiful’ Myself I believe that as ‘creative artists’ ( a very grand term but I can’t think of another one at the moment…) we should strive to create beauty, anything else is negative I think. Of course our definition of what is beautiful can be different to different people, but to me Matt’s music is really beautiful. And I would say that his sound and his playing is ‘vocal’ It ‘speaks’ to me. It has a real voice-like quality to it, which is a mark of true music I think.
06. What do you think you could improve in your playing?
MH: I’m always trying to improve my technique. I spend a lot of time working on my tone, fluency and range. My aim is to be able to play anything that comes into my head straight away.
NB: There are so many things to improve in my playing! Where do I start? I’m always thinking about the actual sound (tone) that I get. Sometimes I think it could be stronger, sometimes I think it could be more beautiful, have more edge, more body, more depth etc etc. I think my articulation (the way you start each note) could be better, and fluency in phrasing definitely could be better! So many things, I could go on and on. But everything can always be made to be better, so I try to make it all better little by little every day.
07. You live far from London sound and fury. Tell me how your surroundings and countryside influence the way you make music.
MH: Well I live ten minutes away from Manchester city centre and have the countryside not far from my doorstep. I live here because I have a lot of family and friends, plus I’ve spent many years building relationships with musicians and people in the industry. It only takes me 2.15hrs to get a train down to London, so I don’t really need to live there.
I’m not sure whether I’d make my music differently if I lived anywhere else. For me composing is a time to escape reality and all the stresses of life. It doesn’t really matter where I live as long as I have my trumpet and a piano to compose on.
NB: This is something that a few people have picked up on, in my case anyway. It’s true I live in the hills with nice (although a little bleak sometimes maybe!) countryside around me. I’m from the countryside originally and I feel more at home here, I like nature in general and it gives me a sense of peace within myself to be near the hills especially. But I didn’t think that manifested itself in my music until people started to mention it so maybe it does. It certainly helps me in a creative way that I live where I live, it makes my mind more clear so I can focus on the music more. People say they can hear the hills or see the landscape in my music and maybe they can, and I always imagine places and things when I listen to music that moves me so it’s a good thing I think. But then maybe it’s just suggestive because they know I live where I live and they make that association, I don’t know really.
08. Your music is quiet, peaceful, timeless, anyway the antithesis of our times of western speed, greediness and frenzy. So maybe you are the real anarchists and Manchester subversive outsiders of today?
MH: As I said in my previous answer, composing helps me to take my mind off the crazy things that are going on in the world. I can create all types of different moods and atmospheres to have fun in. I’ve also studied various meditations over the years, which have helped me to stay chilled.
NB: Like I mentioned earlier, I just try to make beautiful sounds. I have learned that to be myself in music I have to play what I really want to play, in a way that I really want to do it. I used to try to play in a ‘modern’ way, but what I was doing was just trying to play like some other people do. Now I just try to let the music come out in its own way, even when composing, so it’s not a conscious choice to play a certain note, or a certain sound or rhythm, it has its own life. So I’m not making music for any other reason than the pursuit of beauty. How it is perceived in relation to everything else depends on the observer’s (listener’s) perspective. The main thing in music is the intention, the reason why we play at all and the reason why we play a certain way, or a certain note. The intention colours the note and reveals everything. Some people ( especially some critics! ) miss this entirely I think and focus only on the outward appearance of the music, the instrumentation etc, which is not important at all. So if the music seems ‘against the grain’ of everything else that is going on then so be it, but it’s not intentionally made to be that way.
09. Some of your tracks are really crafted like poetry with verse, recurring sounds and structure, but also like a story. Do you agree if I say there’s a narrative dimension in the music you make?
MH: Yeah each track is like a musical journey. My compositions tend to start with a main theme in which the musicians can all lock together, then I like to give soloists the chance to express their own thoughts and feelings within the music.
NB: I think all good music tells a story, it doesn’t have to have words of course, but it should hopefully sound like singing or storytelling. And like I mentioned before, music can be evocative of things, places and feelings etc. So I would hope that the music does sound that way yes!
10. Are chamber music and/or medieval music an inspiration for you?
MH: I’ve listened to quite a lot of classical music over the years including chamber music and I guess it has had an affect on my music. I compose nearly all my music on my piano and I’ve definitely been influenced by the solo piano work of Erik Satie and Ravel over the years. NB: I don’t really know about chamber music but I do like medieval music, I can’t say that it has really influenced me because I haven’t really listened to that much, but what I have heard I really like, and there are some reggae tunes which have horn lines that are a little like medieval music to my ears!
11. @ Matt: Fav Nat track ; @ Nat: Fav Matt track
MH: ‘Higher Regions’, I love the combination of kora, harp, soprano sax, piano, double bass, drums and percussion.
NB: My favourite Matt track?! There are some things that Matt has recorded that he hasn’t released yet, maybe several albums worth, but there are a couple of those songs that I really love, my favourite might be one called ‘Loving Kindness’ but he has many such songs, and I don’t even think he has released the best ones yet!
12. There’s something happening in British jazz with new blood (Greg Foat Group, Portico Quartet Hackney Colliery Band, Neil Cowley Trio, etc.) these days. Do you think it’s the beginning of a golden age?
MH: I hope so, I’m always amazed by the amount of positive vibes Gondwana Records receives. People seem to be really into British jazz and the more they support it the more it can grow.
NB: I really don’t know about a golden age, these are things that sometimes get ascribed to events long after they have happened. I know about the people you mention but I only actually know Greg personally and have played with him a couple of times. But I guess time will tell whether there is something bigger happening!
13. Tell us about your record collection and your fav vinyls.
MH: I’ve always been fascinated by vinyl. My parents had a great collection of 60’s folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and soul. I also remember them having a pretty far out record player designed by Bang and Olufsen, which looked like something from a space ship. I remember sifting through all the records and looking at the gatefold sleeves of the vinyl’s and reading the liner notes. I think that’s where my addiction started. As I got older I began digging deeper for new and interesting music. I listened to a lot of the DJ’s on the radio. Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide show on BBC Radio 1 has had a massive impact on me over the years and it’s still is one of my favorite shows. He’s introduced me to all types of artists (Yusef Lateef, The Cinematic Orchestra, Matthew Herbert, A Tribe Called Quest, Art Blakey, Fela Kuti and so many more). I used to record his radio shows onto cassette tapes and then go out and buy all my favorites from each show on vinyl. Another DJ that has been a big influence on me is Mr Scruff. I love going to his Keep It Unreal nights in Manchester, in fact that’s where I first heard the Pharoah Sanders track ‘You’ve Got To Have Freedom’ and Fela Kuti’s ‘Water No Get Enemy’.
My record collection continues to expand all the time. I’d say it mainly consists of jazz, soul, funk, afrobeat, reggae, dub, hip hop and electronic music.
NB: My record collection?! Where do I start?? Well, I have been buying records since 1972, so 40 years!! I started really buying regularly when I got into reggae later in that year. I used to buy records every week from then until about 1978 or so. Unfortunately I sold a lot of my big reggae collection about 25 years ago when I wanted to buy a soprano saxophone so I could play with the band of a Turkish drummer. I have since bought lots more though and still do quite regularly. But I wish I still had some of those records man! I got into jazz in 1979 when I started playing the saxophone. I’d already bought a couple of John Coltrane records ( ‘Blue Train’ was the very first jazz LP I bought ) and a couple of Charlie Parker records, but when I started to play the saxophone I really went out to find as much jazz as I could, and back then, before the internet, sometimes the only way to hear a record was to buy it! I used to go to Paris quite a lot in the 1980’s and always brought back a lot of records! I used to go to shops in St. Michel, like Rive Gauche Musique, and Crocodisc and others I can’t remember now! Some of my favourite records are the reggae records I still have from the 70’s, LPs like Keith Hudson ‘Flesh Of My Skin’ and Count Ossie ‘Grounation’ and ‘Tales Of Mozambique’ also Cedric Brooks ‘United Africa’ which might be my favourite LP sleeve! And 45s like ‘Black Up’ by Karl Bryan and Count Ossie and ‘Black Is Black’ and ‘Mun-Dun-Gu’ by Im and David. Jazz-wise, John Coltrane’s ‘Afro Blue Impressions’ is an LP that I have played to death over the years, it’s not a rare record but it has the best, by a long way, version of ‘My Favourite Things’ on it, truly incredible music. Clifford Jordan’s LP ‘Glass Bead Games’ is also one that I have played over and over and never got tired of. The very first jazz gig I did, we played ‘Biskit’ from that LP as the first tune so it has a special meaning for me! And 2 LPs that feature my favourite tenor player after John Coltrane, John Gilmore, one is ‘Turkish Woman At The Bath’ by Pete LaRoca, and the other is ‘From In To Out’ by Jamaican trumpet man, Dizzy Reece ( recorded live in Paris!! )
14. What job would you do in another life?
MH: The same one I do now, I love it!!
NB: Well really this is my ‘other life’! Or put another way, in my other life, which I had already, I was a tree surgeon mostly! That was a long time ago, and I never thought that I would one day play the music that I loved to listen to so much. Even though it’s what I wanted to do I wasn’t brought up to believe that it could be possible to do what you really want to do, but learning all about the music has shown me that anything is possible in life really.
15. In which animal would you be reincarnated?
MH: It would have to be a peaceful and possibly lazy vegetarian animal, maybe a Koala or Sloth, but failing that I’d be a cat.
NB: You really have some different questions! I guess I would be a cat, but a wild cat, living in the hills! I don’t like to rush around, just take my time and quietly get things done according to my own timetable!
16. What comes next?
MH: Lots of gigs across the UK and Europe and I’m currently working on a new album, which I plan to release later in the year. I’m also expanding Gondwana Records and I’m in the process of signing two new artists to the label.
NB: Who knows what comes next? I am just trying to make the music better, make my playing better, make my sound better. I’d like to release a new LP/CD every year until I leave the planet. Hopefully that will spur me on to keep making better records and to leave something for my children when I join the Celestial Arkestra!