INTERVIEW: Phil Donkin (The Gate Tour Dates 3rd – 13th March)

Phil Donkin. Photo credit: Lena Ganssmann

Bassist PHIL DONKIN is releasing his first album as leader “The Gate” (Whirlwind) on March 9th, and is touring in the UK (dates below). Sebastian asked him the questions by email:

LondonJazz News: Where are you from?

Phil Donkin: Sunderland, North East England

LJN: You’ve been living in New York, London, Berlin… Where’s home? Are you settled now?

PD: Right now I’m based in Berlin for two reasons – most of my work is touring : Europe and sometimes Asia and Africa so it’s great for getting around. Plus my girlfriend lives there. I feel quite settled in Berlin, it’s a great place to live but I do think about living in other places sometimes. I enjoy changing my environment now and again.

LJN: What made you choose the bass?

I was fascinated by it when I was a kid because when I would watch ‘top of the pops’ and programmes like that, it was the one instrument I couldn’t hear. I loved that it looked like an electric guitar but was a bit different. I think I was fascinated by the fact that Bass Players tended to get looked over. That intrigued me because I sensed that something really cool lurked under the surface, but I’d have to look a little harder to see it. The least obvious choices have always appealed to me the most.

When I was 12 I saw the Blues Brothers movie, and I was blown away by what Duck Dunn was doing. It also helped that I could see him close up. Unlike rock music ( which is what I’d mainly been listening to ), I noticed that the bass had a different role to the guitar in that the bass part was usually independent of the guitar part and therefore could be heard better. Often the bass would be a low-end counter-melody to the vocal at the top – with the guitar and keybaords etc in the middle. This really appealed to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love rock music too but checking out soul, funk and motown etc was great to see how the role of the bass could vary.

On the surface Bass Players tend to blend into the background, but really I think they have so much control over the music. A bassist could really sabotage the gig if he/she wanted to. But taste, generosity and restraint are crucial to make the whole thing work. This can be a lot of fun.

LJN:  You have performed with many interesting artists? Which stand out and why?

You know, as a Bass Player I think the experiences with drummers are always the most thrilling for me. I’ve been very lucky to play with some incredible drummers, and what amazes me the most is how much more exciting the music is with great drummers. Three names that stand out for me are Bill Stewart, Ralph Peterson and Ari Hoenig. With all of them I was hanging on for dear life. That is terribly exciting, and when it works out it feels very satisfying. It was very humbling because I really felt I was being tested to my limits, and I love when music is on the precipice of falling apart. To be honest, it’s the only time when I think the music is really happening. The risk is always worth taking, even if it falls apart, which doesn’t matter even if it does because the challenge is then in the recovery.

LJN: What has been your most surreal experience?

The most surreal experience I had was was probably on tour with Ari Hoenig and Jonathan Kreisberg in Finland – we played in a bus stop – No joke!

LJN:  I once heard a rumour that You were in the running for the bass chair in one of the salaried big bands in Germany – what happened? Is this still something you would be interested in?

PD: This is the first I’ve heard of that! No I’ve never applied for anything like that. But if I was asked, I don’t think I’d want to do it because I don’t like routine and I enjoy variety too much. But maybe one day I’ll consider something like that if my priorities change.

LJN:  The album features fine musicians. How did you meet and what made you choose them for your debut album?

PD: I have known drummer Jochen Rückert (*) the longest, we’ve done many tours over the last 10 years or more. I met him in London around 2004 when he was playing with Marc Copland. I was (more ) naive back then which worked in my favour. I got his email address and plucked up the courage to ask if he wanted to jam. Luckily he said yes and we played some trio with Gwilym Simcock. It was a lot of fun, but I was very nervous and obviously got my arse kicked pretty hard. For some reason after that he recommended me to sub in some bands he worked with in Europe, so we kind of developed a musical rapport over time. When it came to choosing a drummer for my project, there was no question about asking Jochen. He just has ‘the thing’. An amazing musician.

Pianist Glenn Zaleski and I became friends shortly after I moved to New York, he was a young guy on the scene and was always up for playing, as was I. So we ended up on many jam sessions and gigs together. Glenn is very special because he has so much depth, and doesn’t just pander to whatever is in vogue at the moment. He knows so much about the history of the music, but is very creative and always fresh and in the moment. It’s very easy to play with him because he listens so much. He comps really tastefully for bass solos too which I love.

Saxophonist Ben Wendel (*)  and I also met on the scene in NY. I always loved hearing him play, and the energy he brings to the music. He’s a super nice guy and was always up for playing if he was in town. There’s a lot of brilliant tenor players to choose from in NY, but because of how great Ben is and the experiences I’d had playing with him, it made sense to ask him. He totally nailed my music and added so much depth to it.

LJN:  You have been performing for many years – is there a particular reason why this is your debut album?

PD: Many reasons really. I had written some tunes and wanted to document my music. Also I felt that I needed to feature myself in a way that I might not get an opportunity to as a sideman. It’s nice to be totally in charge of a project ( stressful as well of course! ) and get to make all the decisions. I wanted to test myself to see if I could do it actually. It would be easy as a bass player to not bother, but I like challenging myself. I didn’t know how hard it was going to be though, I empathise with bandleaders much more now!


3 March – SoudCellar, Poole
4 March – Dempsey’s, Cardiff
5 March – Bonington Theatre, Arnold
6 March – Millennium Hall, Sheffield
10 March – Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London (album launch)
11 March – Urban Coffee, Birmingham
12 March – The Spin, Oxford
13 March – Wakefield Jazz

(*) The UK tour dates are being played by either Colin Stranahan or James Maddren on drums. The 13 Mar UK date will feature Julian Siegel on saxophone 
LINK: Phil Donkin at Whirlwind Recordings

Categories: miscellaneous

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