|Simon Purcell. Photo credit: Dan Redding|
In this interview, pianist and educator Simon Purcell explains to Sebastian the background to his first CD as leader, “Red Circle” (Whirlwind Recordings). The album will have its launch gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street on Sunday November 16th as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival:
LondonJazz News: It is a late stage to be launching a debut album….what kept you back?
Simon Purcell: Clearly I am deeply committed to jazz education and although there was a time when I performed regularly, my work at the Guildhall and now Trinity Laban has occupied much of my time. It has not been unusual for folk to assume that I was less interested in playing precisely because of my passion for education, but that was never the case. There is also the fact that there are many very fine pianists in the UK, so that opportunities for performance are shared amongst an ever-increasing supply of players. It has required a lot of determination to address the challenge of re-balancing my work, but I am glad that I have.
LJN: But you played a lot before the teaching started. Thinking back, in what playing situations did you really thrive?
It is hard to pin-point any particular or specific situation in which I thrived, it was always a case of hard work. My recollection is that my generation split into several camps: Loose Tubes and associates, generally (but not exclusively) interested in the emerging European and British genres, a North American/bop/post-bop crew as played by Clark Tracey, Guy Barker et al, as well as a few groups playing fusion, free or original music. There was some traversing of styles but not a lot, and pre-jazz education, there were considerably fewer players. I was drawn to much of this music and I didn’t fit exclusively into a specific group.
I loved John Taylor, Gordon Beck and Stan Sulzmann as well as Art Blakey, Bill Evans and Bird. As a result I would be writing material to play with Julian Arguelles as well as running a hard-bop septet Jazz Train featuring Cleveland Watkiss or depping occasionally with Clark Tracey. I was fortunate to play regularly at the Bass Clef, opposite some great American artists and sometimes with them. I was also fortunate to receive encouragement from British musicians, in particular Stan Sulzman, Tony Levin, Peter Ind and Dave Cliff.
I enjoyed most situations but it was also a steep learning curve. I do remember feeling relieved that a week at Ronnie’s with Mel Lewis, Hein Van De Geyn and Joe Lovano had been cancelled at the last minute (because I felt unprepared) but there were occasions when my versatility was remarked upon when working with visiting artists.
In terms of really “feeling at home” I was deeply grateful for playing experiences with the Australian Saxophonist Dale Barlow and Dutch bass player Hein Van de Geyn during the mid 1980s. They were very generous (and clear) in sharing their know-how. Dale had studied with George Coleman and Dave Liebman, eventually joining the Jazz Messengers while Hein had worked with Joe Lovano (and eventually just about everybody!). Playing with Dale and Hein and my chums in London was my informal jazzschool.
LJN: And I guess there came a stage – particularly watching all these young student players coming through – when you missed your own regular playing context?
SP: I am inspired and humbled by my students. I consider it a privilege to work closely with them. Naturally I envy the time they have to practice, explore and make music and when the balance isn’t right in my life I can feel very frustrated. In the last few years this did get to me but fortunately I have felt inspired to kick my proverbial, and to reset my internal GPS and artistic direction. Students are an inspiration and I am grateful to work in that environment. I have also received a lot of support and encouragement at Trinity Laban – which is a good thing!
LJN: What gave you the impetus to do this album?
The guys in the band have been encouraging me to make the album for years, in Gene Calderazzo’s case, for many years! I was also motivated by the insights that come with middle age. I had become increasingly conscious that my balance was unhealthy and affecting my artistic antennae within teaching and learning contexts. I anticipate some old-school jazz-education sceptics saying, “I told you so”, but I maintain my belief in educational settings and jazz curriculum (which are evolving faster and with more intelligence than many people realise) with some pride – it was a simple matter of balance. As coincidence would have it, Jazz Services were inviting applications for support for recording projects around this time, I applied and was successful. This was a massive encouragement and boost for my self-belief.
Perhaps non-musicians are unaware of just how vulnerable one feels when applying for support and just how valuable and empowering this support can be. That small grant enabled me to believe that this process was possible but the vote of confidence was worth even more. Subsequently I received a lot of support at Trinity Laban from my bosses and to have Michael Janisch and Whirlwind Recordings endorse and support the project was fantastic. I am very fortunate.
LJN: Which musicians did you choose to work with and why?
SP: My band has been playing together, on and off for years. Gene Calderazzo, Steve Watts and I have been playing since the mid-1980s, on and off but always with a great hook-up and we get on very well socially. I always knew that Gene was world-class and now that Pharaoh Sanders, Dave Liebman and Dave Holland are booking him he’ll receive the credit he always deserved. Steve is my older mucker (going right back to 1983) and always patient with my musical decision-making and I love his hook-up with Gene. We know each-other so well that I am so pleased that he’s been on this album, literally after all these years.
I originally knew Julian Siegel when he first came to London as a very fine bass player and depped for Steve! We began to play together through the East London Jazz Project and at the Glamorgan Jazz Summer School in the mid 1990s and developed a musical relationship through shared interests in curious approaches to tonality… and volleyball.
Chris Batchelor is such a broad artist and his bands Big Air and Pigfoot (along with Partisans) are amongst my favourites. Chris’s musical background and experience is very different to me, having played a lot with Cuban, Brazilian and African bands. It was the Summer School again that enabled me to get to know him otherwise our paths might not have crossed. Chris’s perspective has helped balance my early preoccupation with Bill Evans and formal structures – and he’s not a bad setter in the jazz volleyball squad!
Julian and I work for 2 weeks every year with Liane Carroll and Clive Fenner on Clive’s magical jazz course in the South of France. Everything that Liane brings to music has become part of my musical life so that I was chuffed when she agreed to bring her voice to some of the music (she sings on “Ithaca”).
I love listening to these guys and often prefer it when I’m not playing. Funnily enough, Gene frequently encourages me to not play!
LJN: What material/ period of jazz have you been working with/tunes/other composers, or is it all originals?
SP: The material is pretty comprehensible. A jazz lover will be able to hear the references and influences and I’m sure that you can hear echoes of Wayne Shorter, Miles, ‘Trane, Dave Douglas, perhaps John Taylor and Hindemith.
On a deeper level, I am interested in C.G. Jung and the idea that music accesses and conveys archetypal qualities. This material feels quite dark and mysterious, hence the reference to Job, “Dark Night” and “Pandora”, but with moments of light and beauty (I hope) in “Ithaca” and “Spirit Level”. But my intention is to access what Mike Zwerin called “the Cry”, a deep emotional intensity – that surely goes for any serious musician.
There was a time when I wrote quite complex music, often featuring long, intricate forms. I recall a tour of Scotland in 1998 with my Octet when a few remarks in workshops by Gene and Chris confirmed what I had intuited, in that my charts were inhibiting their improvisational flow rather than facilitating it, even if the tunes we’re sophisticated. Ever since, my intention has been to devise material that facilitated improvising and musical/expressive narrative and to let the players sound like themselves. As my wife says, “you can be too hip to be cool”. She’s right.
I never think of myself as a composer, even though this CD comprises “tunes by me”! I am only too happy to enjoy the privilege of these guys making the tunes sound good, rather than the opposite! It usually ends up that Gene is basically the band-leader, determining much of the emotional agenda and how momentum develops and narrative is dramatised. Julian and Chris are very special improvisors, creating thematic narrative and a sense of play and abandon. I feel that Steve and I are the “arbiters” who hold and support, often providing a patchwork of form while all hell breaks out… But these guys do this all the time in all their bands. I just listen, and when I play I listen and hope!
Regarding composition… I’m not interested in originality. I think it is a red herring that says more about vanity and an unbalanced preoccupation with novelty in the media and musical culture. I aspire to making music in the “now”, committed to emotional and personal statement, an authenticity of expression rather than self-conscious or contrived novelty. I don’t consider myself a composer at all, simply a jazz musician who, like many others, writes and provides “containers” and starting points for improvisation. In many ways the idea of a jazz composer is problematic since the resulting music is so dependent upon the musicians who contribute to its formation, in real-time.
With obvious notable exceptions (Ellington, Wayne, Zawinul, Kenny Wheeler, Hermeto, Monk and Mingus) it is arguable that most musicians are simply devising contexts that assist their improvising. One could say that “C Jam Blues” is the ultimate jazz composition since it is the least prescriptive and limiting to improvisors, or that Miles was the most important jazz composer since he wrote very little but caused so much incredible music to happen. I am exaggerating but it is a point worth considering, especially at a time when so much jazz appears to be preoccupied with complexity over personality or emotional intensity, or struggling to make popular music useful to improvisors.
LJN: What musical/harmonic/melodic/pulse/time/other issues and questions have you been dealing with?
SP: The music is very much informed by the jazz tradition (there is a blues). There is some melody, some harmony, some time-no-changes, consonance and dissonance, swing and even some 12-tone lines, but it is the function of the material to assist in something happening.
I also thought a lot about how I would present work that represents who and where I was at the time (all musicians deal with this). In some ways my musical interests are quite disparate, encompassing bebop, swing and modal jazz, at the same time as harmony and no harmony. I once asked Julian Siegel for advice about this and he just said: “I look forward to hearing how you work it out!” This CD is me working it out and another case of focussing on the process as opposed to being unhealthily fixed on an single or perfect outcome. I feel it is OK and valid, because the intention is consistent and a lot of music happens.
LJN: What has the experience preparing the album taught you about yourself/band-leading/the business/how you teach?
SP: I am continuing to learn a lot from the process. Recording was intense. I am so unused to it that at first I felt paralysed, but after a day I gave in to the process and by the third day was actually enjoying it. I experienced the profound realisation that attention is more valuable than effort. This is very Zen, easy to say and hard to do, but I learnt about how to focus and in that process, let go of pressure (some of the time). As a band-leader, as I said above, I wanted to get out of the way and let these guys sound good, which is not dissimilar as its all about control. One has to learn to let go of one’s tunes and let folk play, for them to contribute, suggest revisions and so on. You are doing something right if they forget that they are playing your music.
Regarding my teaching… The process affirmed much of what I believe about education, especially the importance of a constructive personal psychology and mindful and flexible approach to practice. At times in my preparation I had become too fixed on outcomes and of course, things evolve so that I had to review my practice as I went along. A valuable reminder.
The process as a whole and now having a product also deepened my concern about how we engage with audiences and the role of media. I feel my age and am deeply concerned that I am likely to be playing this music to a declining audience of people, many of whom are older than me. Then as an educator I am always considering how we prepare young musicians for a lifetime in music and students’ relationship with communities of listeners. I don’t subscribe to the idea of giving up playing jazz or music informed by tradition and I firmly oppose the bizarre but ubiquitous fashion of avoiding genre. However, there is much to be gained from collaborating with new and young artists across all the art-forms. Truth be told, I empathise deeply with my students as they search for a place for themselves as highly skilled but perhaps misunderstood music-makers. I face many of the same challenges as my students. I am looking for answers and want to contribute to solutions.
As a result I am already thinking about collaboration with younger musicians, sound designers and visual artists and recognise that I have a lot to learn about engaging with younger audiences (i.e. under 35). It would be great to create a DVD featuring 2 or 3 versions of similar forms/materials in collaboration with a sound designer and video animators.
There are a lot of choices now that I am back in the arena. I will investigate some new things (perhaps a trio with Liane and Julian) but I am also committed to developing this wonderful band and continue to be enriched by my friends.
LJN: Has the volleyball suffered?
Yes! Mind you the band features 3 multi-medal-winning members of the Newham Jazz Volleyball Club. That is a whole other story.