|Greg Cordez. Photo credit: Martin Tompkins|
Greg Cordez is heading into the studio later this year to record the follow-up to his well received debut “Paper Crane.” (link to review below) The UK-born, New Zealand-raised bassist has had periods of his life playing experimental rock in New York, blue grass in North Carolina, and is now resident in Bristol. He talked to Stephen Graham about his move from bass guitar to double bass, his love of the music of Charlie Haden, the rule of “three takes and no edits.”
Greg Cordez has a spring in his step. A few nights earlier the bassist was playing at the Bristol Jazz Festival with the John Zorn-loving Sefrial. In that band Get the Blessing and Michelson Morley saxophonist Jake McMurchie who also appeared last year on Cordez’s debut Paper Crane is also one of the members of Sophie Stockham’s band, and Cordez, like McMurchie, is very much part of a collaborative group of jazz players currently lighting up the Bristol scene stocked full of fellow like-minded Millennials.
There’s been a lot of change in Cordez’s musical life. Mainly a bass guitarist earlier in his career he wandered to America in his twenties, a very long way from growing up in New Zealand. He’s from Christchurch on the South Island and lived there from the age of 3 until he was 17. These days he teaches at BIMM (the British and Irish Institute of Modern Music) in Bristol and has switched to double bass as he had developed his interest in jazz inspired primarily by Charlie Haden. It was the Haden 2004 album Nightfall, a duo affair with John Taylor, that inspired his interest most and Cordez by a process of some serendipity also plays with the late JT’s son singer-songwriter Alex Taylor. “John Taylor was incredible,” Cordez enthuses with evident sincerity.
Now 38, Cordez looks back on his life in New Zealand with new eyes following the devastating 2011 earthquake that hit his hometown and changed everything for him about how he had hitherto regarded his life in New Zealand. “Moving away didn’t seem so significant until the earthquake.” With a wanderlust as a young man he had moved far from home years before. “I lived in New York without a work permit pre 9/11, but 9/11 changed everything and you couldn’t slip in and out post 9/11.” It wasn’t just in New York that he found himself working during his time in America. He played in North Carolina, far from Gotham, in very different circumstances working with old American bluegrass, a very different scene to the one he encountered while hopping back to New York where he was into experimental rock and bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the “wonky Brooklyn” dubstep and hip-hop street bass sound. “In North Carolina the folk scene taught me so much,” he says. “When I later heard Charlie Haden something clicked and Haden had that Americana background too.”
As a bass guitarist Cordez stuck with what he calls an “Old” Fender Precision bass and still has a couple of P-basses and uses valve amps. He’s increasingly drawn to electronics and feels closer to them now as they help him to be more compositional, the technology now more intuitive than in the past.
Another Get the Blessing connection, trumpeter Pete Judge, who has his own band Eyebrow on the side, encouraged Cordez to approach the New York label Ninety and Nine records and he debuted for them with Paper Crane a long distilled collaboration that he had carefully put together with Get the Blessing saxophonist McMurchie, trumpeter Nick Malcolm, pianist Jim Blomfield and drummer Mark Whitlam, the last of these names a fellow member with McMurchie of electro-ambient minimalist mavericks Michelson Morley whose second album Strange Courage is due later this spring.
“With this first record,” Cordez says, he had to “step away from it after a while.” He had to find what people thought of his sounds and had to let it go to land on new ears. He had three labels in mind and plumped for Ninety and Nine. “The label are good communicators and they were a great label to go with.”
Making a change from a session player earlier in his career, gigging around, and moving towards becoming more of a jazz player and leader also involved him transitioning by studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff where tutors there included such luminaries as Food’s Iain Ballamy and Ballamy’s fellow Quercus playing-partner pianist Huw Warren. As a student with a lot of professional experience under his belt, and as a former “ear player”, Cordez didn’t connect in more formal academic circumstances at all with writing bebop heads much, no matter how hard he tried. But his tutors were open-minded to this and didn’t find it necessarily an issue. The process though developed his love of baritone saxophone legend Gerry Mulligan and he did an arrangement of Johnny Carisi’s ‘Israel’ (synonymous with Mulligan, Miles and Birth of the Cool) that meant something to him in his journey ever more deeply into jazz honing his craft.
And that journey found a new home station in terms of jazz listening reaching an interchange by listening to Reid Anderson of piano trio The Bad Plus and he transcribed material from their records as part of this process. One tune, The Silence is the Question (from These Are The Vistas) appealed especially. When Cordez then came to writing for his own album the tunes Camilla Rose and Ron Free came first in the process.
Cordez likes melody and this comes across on his New Melodic debut that traverses territory a bass-led band such as Phronesis have developed to the nth degree using different musical syntax in a trio format but moves into clear, secular psalm-like territory of his own informed even more than Phronesis by prog and electronica while keeping a strong grip on strongly defined cadences and letting emotion bleed through.
Demonstrations of technical ability and odd time signatures, playing the changes like an exercise isn’t of interest for Cordez as an artist and a listener. Reid Anderson showed him a new way forward on The Bad Plus records and Cordez has a lot of time too like so many on the Bristol scene for Jim Barr, the Portishead and Get the Blessing Bristol scene bass don. “He’s really helpful. I’m blown away by his presence and what I like is his solid decision-making. He threads the needle of a song and he tends to deeply understand how it works. His sound is incredible. One note against the need for five is enough. Jim never overplays.”
Greg is modest about his own upright bass-playing not that he really needs to be if you listen to his ringing tone on Paper Crane and he says it’s not enough yet to carry a trio format as talk turns to the impact of piano trios such as the groundbreaking Neil Cowley trio. He is wary of dipping into this big canon of work but won’t rule anything out. Maybe in 20 years’ time he might tackle that beast! Quizzed about the love/hate relationship between bassists and drummers he says without missing a beat “I love drummers!” He works with Mark Whitlam who is in Michelson Morley and Cordez has a lot of time too for the music of Wayne Shorter quartet drummer Brian Blade who he says simply “plays melody on the kit.” His other favourite drummers are Dave King of The Bad Plus and Joey Baron. “I go nuts for Joey Baron and I saw him in Perugia in Italy with Jakob Bro and Thomas Morgan. It’s so orchestral a sound.”
Cordez says the Bristol Composers Collective of which he has been an intrinsic part helped develop Michelson Morley and Kevin Figes’ octet and hopes that all the busy principals in the set-up can meet together once or twice a year. Even if the Collective is currently on hiatus “nobody’s called time on it.”
Coming up for Cordez there’s an appearance at the Manchester Jazz Festival this summer but he doesn’t plan to gig too much, preferring bursts of activity as he’s too active teaching. Yet plans are afoot to go into the studio this summer to start on the second album. Saxophonist Sam Crockatt will be joining him live in his band (in place of McMurchie) in Manchester and on the planned album.
Paper Crane he says had a rule of “three takes for each song and no edits”. The only edit was in the intro to Brown Bear, the noise effects generated from Jake McMurchie’s pedal board, Cordez says. Next time around it should prove to be different as the bassist is interested in exploring some post-production work and will produce again himself.