We interviewed saxophonist Nathan Hassall about Miles Davis – The Bebop Years at St James’s Piccadilly on June 10th
What first gave you the idea of putting together Miles projects?
The Italian pianist Gabi Faja, a friend of mine from my RCM days said he wanted to put together a Miles tribute with Pip Eastop on trumpet. He asked me to join on tenor sax and to fix the rest of the band.
You have previously done a concert based on Kind of Blue, right?
“Kind of Blue” was a logical first project. The band performed it three times last year, to sizeable audiences which was great. It says a lot for the power of Miles’ legacy and shows a real appetite for this style of repertory concert.
But this is a different project, right?
Yes. Gabi recently left London to live in the Far East, so I inherited the running of the band. It seemed like a good time to change the focus away from just the one album (albeit an amazing one), and to produce concerts focusing on the major periods or albums of Miles Davis’ career. After a bit of thought I decided to go right back to the start, when Miles arrived in New York as an 18 year-old.
And what drew you originally to this music?
I’ve always loved Bebop and I can’t get enough of Bird, Stitt and early Sonny Rollins (especially with Clifford Brown) in particular. I love the way especially Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt’s phrases are so balanced and intricate. Perhaps that’s because of my earlier classical training. I get a lot of joy from playing changes, and with this modern day push towards increasingly modal and freer types of playing I actually think it is an art form in danger of being lost. I think you need a balance of everything in your playing really.
Any particular tunes stand out?
For this concert, it’s quite a hard call as I think the programme is great, but my personal favourites will be playing “Half Nelson”, “Milestones” (the old version of course!), and “Sippin’ at Bell’s”. These are fantastic tunes that rarely get called on gigs and I love the recordings of them. They were the first recording dates with Miles as a band leader (I believe due to contractual issues with Parker), so not only is Miles more to the fore on these recordings, but you get to hear Parker playing tenor! It’s really interesting to hear his tenor playing, as his voice is pretty distinctive from his alto stuff. It just shows what a master Bird was, considering that he so rarely played the instrument or at least recorded on it.
How does the process work? Do you workshop it?
I chose the theme and the programme, then we’ve work-shopped the tunes whilst trying to keep relatively true to the Bebop sound. I guess work-shopping is more in the nature of this music and as the band is full of great players!
You’ve known Joe Auckland for a while?
Last year Pip became too busy with his horn playing to stay in the band and so Gabi asked me to find a replacement. I’d done a few octet arrangements of standards the year before for a gig and after a recommendation I got Joe to play in that band. I was blown away by his sound and phrasing, so when the gap came up I thought he would be a great choice as a foil for Miles. Luckily he was free for our gig back in October and so now here we are.
And a new pianist?
I’d been hearing great things about John Turville from the bass player Ben Bastin, who I’ve known and played with for a while. John and Ben play together in Ben’s trio and they have a great camaraderie and rapport in their playing and actual friendship, so they seemed like an ideal pairing to form the bedrock of this new version of the band.
What are the next projects?
After this “Bebop Years” gig we’ll be moving forward to the “First Great Quintet” with John Coltrane, a concert featuring tunes from albums such as “Workin’ and Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”.
That concert will be on 14th October again at St. James’s Piccadilly (Sarah Baxter, the concerts manager there, has been a real star).
Then at the start of 2012, hopefully it will be the “Birth of the Cool” repertoire, as long as I can get my act together and finish copying out all of the parts!
After that I think it might be time to return to “Kind of Blue” later in the year, and perhaps try out a fresh version of it.
You sound busy!
I wouldn’t have it any other way.