|Steve Tromans. Photo from steve-tromans.co.uk|
Pianist Steve Tromans lives and plays in the West Midlands. Since graduating from Birmingham Conservatoire with a first class honours degree in 1997, he has performed over 6,000 gigs, released 18 albums of his own music, developed a series of projects exploring the Beat Poets and ethos under the band name Howl, has played solo piano marathons and composed music inspired by the Chilean songwriter Victor Jara, worked on an extended spell as performer and educator in Mongolia, and become a Fellow of Birmingham Conservatoire …
His latest projects are a PhD and a piano trio called Axis Point. In anticipation of his next important appearance as a featured soloist with Sid Peacock’s Surge Orchestra at the mac (Midlands Arts Centre) in Birmingham on Saturday 7 February, Peter Bacon interviewed him:
London Jazz News: You play in small groups and in larger ensembles. What kind of settings do you like to play in?
Steve Tromans:I do like the intimacy of small bands – there’s nowhere to hide, musically. I guess playing solo is the ultimate fix, in that respect. But I think you can find that in certain larger settings, too. Not in much of what I hear of the established orchestras and big bands. I don’t hear much that excites me, there, to be frank – at least in terms of the way players relate to one another, or don’t… But, as I was saying, there are certain exceptions to this: Loose Tubes is an obvious one, and Edward Vesala’s Sound and Fury from a few years back, Cecil Taylor’s work with large ensembles of improvisers, and what I’ve heard and read of Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra – their reasons for making music together were driven by strong philosophical concerns, which appeals to me – and then there’s Sid Peacock’s Surge, of course.
LJN: What do you most like about playing Sid’s music?
ST: He gives me free rein, for the most part. We’ve developed this understanding – I don’t have to play just what’s there, I get to add my own music to the mix. It’s something that came out of our work as a duo – every now and then we do duo gigs where neither of us knows what the other person’s going to do before we start doing it. We’ll take Sid’s words and songs, and my tunes and improvisations, and we’ll make a new composition out of all these elements, right there on the stage – it’s a great way to make music. We did it most recently at one of Paul Murphy’s Songwriter’s Cafe events, which are well worth checking out, by the way – a really great night out. So all of that still stands in the larger ensemble work, from my perspective. Playing like that is like a model of an ideal society – how it might work. Everyone’s allowed their space, no one’s shouted down, or made to feel a minority.
LJN: Do you think jazz has a social function? Is it political?
ST: I guess I’ve just said as much, yes – political with a small “p”, anyhow. As a musician, I like my freedom. I don’t like being told when I can and can’t play – or where. It all sounds very idealistic, I know, or naive, but if this kind of music-making could be more of a model for the way people think and act, it’d be interesting to see what the world would be like. It couldn’t be any worse than some of the alternatives you hear bandied around, and those that have been put into practice. And maybe more people would be interested in making music themselves, as a social practice. It always makes you feel better to do it, to make new music.
LJN: Was there a specific recording or live music experience that prompted you to want to become a jazz pianist?
ST: Not an album or a gig, no. I started playing piano full-time when I got to Birmingham Conservatoire. Before that, I was a keyboard player, and an electronic organist before that. I’d never had much access to pianos, and there was never one at home, then or now. So when I got to music college, and there were all these pianos around, well, it just seemed like a good idea to play them. Then I eventually got into the whole thing about touch, and weight, and resonance – the beauty of acoustic instruments. More recently, I’ve been doing more inside the piano, using the strings and the bodywork to make music. They’re all part of the instrument, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be part of your music-making – or you might as well just stick to playing digital pianos. I know there’s a pretty long history of using the insides of the piano, but it’s something new in my playing, and it’ll probably come out in what I do with the Surge Orchestra gig, if it feels right and the music wants it.
LJN: Who would you say has influenced you?
ST: I tend to listen as widely as possible, not just jazz. I think that’s the best way to bring something new to the field. Or to freshen things up a little. And your ears are open all the time when you’re a musician. You hear music in everything. So I like to soak it all up and then feed it into my playing. There’s a La Monte Young piece, one of his Compositions 1960 – I don’t remember which number – where the piano gets fed hay, if it’s hungry and wants to eat. I don’t feed hay into my piano-playing, just my life experiences! It’s the best diet for making art, but it’s not always the happiest, as everyone knows. But you get your kicks through the music, of course, and it’s very absorbing – there’s never any end to it, making more of it, and what I’ve been doing recently, which is investigating the process through that process itself, which tends to get called practice-as-research.
LJN: For the last few years you have been working towards a PhD with the idea that playing jazz is itself research or a mode of inquiry. Has working from that premise changed your playing in any way?
ST: It’s given me more respect for what we do, as artists. I mean, I always thought there was something special about making music, but I hadn’t thought about it to the extent I’ve been doing these last few years – I hadn’t thought about it deeply. In the early days, I was worried a little that investigating my music-making would get in the way of being able to do it – that’s a common worry for artist-researchers. Like the story of the centipede that tries to explain how it walks, then finds it can’t move its legs anymore because thinking about it has got in the way of the process. But those kinds of worries fade away once you realise that the two things are very different, making music and doing analysis. You can’t take music and chop it into bits and find out how it works, like clockwork, or stick a pin in it or shoot it, like some folks used to think was the way to go about studying wildlife. But what there is, is a relationship between these two, as different modes of research inquiry. You can find a resonance between practice and analysis that hopefully contributes something new to the world. That’s the hope of the PhD researcher, anyhow – to make an original contribution to knowledge, something interesting that might encourage others to make more art, or undertake their own research, or both.
LJN: But you also have to survive as a jazz musician in 21st century Birmingham. How’s that done?
ST: I don’t have the answer, I’m afraid. I’m hoping to find out from Sid! I don’t think it’s productive to get too down about things though. I’ve always been optimistic about earning a decent living doing what I love, and we’re only just into the new year, which always gets me thinking positively… And there’s the Surge Orchestra to look forward to, of course, plus some other things coming up – a studio album with my trio, Axis Point, a Howl reunion gig taking place in March at cafe ORT in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, and a new duo project as part of something the mac are calling “hexperiment”… So there’s plenty to be getting on with – for the time being, at least.
Sid Peacock & Surge Orchestra with Steve Tromans and drummer Mark Sanders as featured soloists, is at the mac, Birmingham, at 8pm on Saturday 7 February
LINKS: DETAILS OF THE mac GIG.
STEVE TROMANS’ WEBSITE