Jazzelation – Interview with Kevin Armstrong

Jazzelation (above) is a surprise. It is a band which has recently emerged from the Oxford scene. It involves some fine players. The band has just produced a CD , Spring Is Such a Beautiful Thing. This CD was launched at the fledgling Oxford Jazz Festival on Easter Saturday.

So, what’s surprising about it, then? What surprised me was to find music so chock-full of irrepressible hope and simple optimism.

This is Britain… this is 2009….we’re supposed to be- no, we are – in recession….surely we are all completely mogadonned, cudgelled by the bad news flow? Surely gloom and negativity are now so solidly hip, they won’t need to be replaced for many years to come?

Well , Jazzelation is the kind of music which sidesteps all the gloom. With its omni-present theme of renewal and hope, with its inspiration coming variously from the rhythm of the changing seasons, from English hymn tunes, and, according to the project’s instigator, guitarist/ songwriter Kevin Armstrong, above all from the musicians who play on the album…. it flies in the face of despondency.

When I met Kevin Armstrong, I was curious to find out was where his optimism actually stems from. “Are you religious?” I asked him.

His answer was quiet, thoughtful, determined, unfazed:

“Not really. I don’t think people like being preached at. Yes, I love gospel music, I love Sufi music. But culturally, I’m a jazz musician. I hate playing things which are going to be the same every night. But I also want music to mean something. And for a long time before the rehearsals and recording sessions I was waiting for the thrill of hearing the band bringing these tunes to life.”

Armstrong talked to me about the difficulty of fitting the project into a genre… jazz , gospel, pop tunes….. in the final analysis, the Jazzelation project is deeply uncategorizable.

That hasn’t stopped a website devoted to Christian music calling it variously “Jazz Gospel” and “Jazz Ministry.” Armstrong and I both came to the conclusion that if the official Jazz Police met, they would eventually pronounce that Jazzelation isn’t jazz at all. And we were certain that any similar Gospel Police would banish it straight away because it isn’t Christian music either.

“A lot of jazz musicians wouldn’t have wanted to play this. It’s not knowing, it’s not sophisticated or cutting-edge. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to burn through bebop heads any night of the week. But for this project I needed musicians happy playing simple music.”

I noticed that the Jazzelation website mentioned the inspiration of Miles Davis and Mahalia Jackson. But when I met Armstrong what we mostly talked about was his inspiration from the English Hymnal.

A very good example of this process at work is Track 5 on the album “Some time soon.” I had listened to it a few times before I met Armstrong. He told me that there is a “background” hymn tune here, John Ireland’s “Love Unknown.

I confessed to him that hadn’t picked up that reference. And it made me realise that Armstrong hasn’t just cribbed or lifted this easter hymn like Coldplay did in “The Message.” He’s internalized it, filtered it in over a long period. And then , in performance and in recording, has allowed it to be a vehicle for things to happen. “ I wanted the album to have a live feel.”

The end of Track 5 – here’s a CLIP of it – has that feel. Singer Alison Bentley goes up through the gears and finds real energy in this tune, supported by Pete Whittaker on Hammond.

Armstrong talked to me with emotion about listening to the playback of that track for the first time. The process of thinking about and working on the compositions had been very long. So he was genuinely moved by what the other musicians had brought to the recording. And other comments he has had have all been from people who found themslves moved by the live gig in Oxford and by the CD..

Among those other musicians, Pete Whittaker on Hammond is an impeccable player who always brings huge character to the instrument. Another key collaborator is Raph Mizraki. A quick Google of Mizrahi reveals him- in a lengthy Jamie Cullum biography– to have been the bassist on Cullum’s original student-loan-financed 1999 album “Heard it All Before”. Mizraki is an interesting bass player, in fact he plucks much else besides: in world music the oud, in baroque music the lute, plus he plays piano and orchestral percussion. The horn soloists , Matt Holland from Van Morrison’s band and Andor Jensen are fine players, and well recorded. Paul Cavaciuti on drums has both a precision and an invention which are ideal for this date. Chris Fletcher’s contribution on percussion is….uniquely Chris Fletcher’s.

Ken Burns in Jazz in Time alludes to the role of jazz in the American depression of the 1930’s:

“Jazz, which had always thrived in adversity and come to symbolize a certain kind of American freedom, would be called upon to lift the spirits and raise the morale of a frightened country. And in the process, it would begin to break down the barriers that had separated Americans from each other for centuries.”

Seven decades later, maybe Oxford, the city of dreaming spires has produced music which can help to dispel the similar gloom afflicting Britain.

(This profile of Jazzelation also appears at www.jazzcds.co.uk, from where the CD is available.)

Categories: miscellaneous

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