Pianist and composer KATE WILLIAMS is an artist keen to explore a wide variety of ensemble contexts. Her previous album, “Atlas and Vulcana” featured music for trio, quartet and septet. New project “Four Plus Three” finds her working with the Guastalla string quartet, exploring new textures on a varied repertoire incorporating originals, standards and jazz compositions. Dan Paton interviewed her:
LondonJazz News: How did “Four Plus Three” come about?
Kate Williams: I had an idea with William Goodchild, a conductor friend of mine, to do a programme of music for trio and orchestra that would involve the music of Ravel, Debussy and Bill Evans. We called that project Bill Evans and the Impressionists. We did two concerts – one with an orchestra at the Bristol Jazz Festival and then we repeated the same programme with the Guildhall Orchestra at the Guildhall festival. The orchestra was lead by a brilliant violinist, John Garner, who had a string quartet with Marie Schreer, Miguel Rodriguez and Sergio Serra. I thought it would be great to do something on a smaller scale than the Evans project, at least in part because that is not something you can perform around the country with any frequency. I got to thinking about the piano trio as the ultimate self-contained unit in jazz, and the string quartet as a possible equivalent in the classical world. The idea of fusing those two units, with elements of them playing together, and moments where they are separate, really appealed to me.
LJN: Is there anything that drew you specifically to the sound world of strings?
KW: I did play the cello as a child – not to a high standard, but enough to develop a love of string playing. I’m sure this must have fed in to what I am doing now in some way. Working with strings feels very much like coming home for me – it feels very comfortable. I don’t mean that in a complacent way – what I mean is that it’s a very comfortable place in which to learn. I now think this is only the beginning of exploring this area, in terms of what you can do texturally.
LJN: Textures and dynamics certainly seem to be strong qualities in this recording, particularly on “Eleven Tonal” and “Storm Before Calm.” There is a great dynamic range too.
KW: I’m really glad about that, and it shows that I have the right musicians involved.
LJN: In which case, perhaps we can talk a little about the other musicians in your trio. What qualities do they bring to the project?
KW: Oli Hayhurst has been part of my quintet and quartet and is the musician I’ve been working with the longest. I like the sound of piano doubling bass on a melodic line, and because Oli is so dexterous and versatile as a player, I know I can write anything and he can play it.
LJN: He also has such an authoritative sound, doesn’t he?
KW: Yes, he has great attack and his sound can be really warm too.
LJN: What about (drummer) David Ingamells?
KW: For the dynamics to work here, you need the right drummer of course, and David can be incredibly subtle or really powerful as the music demands. For the quieter moments with strings, he can keep a high level of energy at a really quiet dynamic but when everyone’s playing together he can really go for it and generate a huge sound from the kit.
LJN: You have mentioned that you wanted to achieve an ‘integrated approach’ when combining the piano trio and the string quartet. Can you elaborate a bit on what that might mean?
KW: I guess I mean that the roles are pretty equal. What I didn’t want, nice though it may have sounded, was a piano trio with some vague string harmonies accompanying it. Sometimes they might do the whole melody, or in the case of the B Minor Waltz (one of two Bill Evans compositions included on the album), they do the whole piece without any piano or drums. On Twilight’s Last Blink (the album’s concluding track), they have the main tune and the piano has a solo in the middle.
LJN: Do any of the musicians in the string quartet have a background in improvisation?
KW: Yes, John Garner does, and when we play live, he does feature as an improvising soloist on one piece. He is a very versatile musician and eclectic in his tastes. He doesn’t actually improvise on the record but, for the next one, who knows what might transpire? On the track Seven Across, there’s a string accompaniment to a piano solo. For part of it, because I didn’t want anything specific, I left it up to them. I wanted a wash of texture within a particular tonality, so I told them to choose a note and hold it, before moving to another note, but not necessarily at the same time as everyone else.
LJN: How did you choose the repertoire, beyond your original compositions? Is “Love For Sale” there because Bill Evans had played it with Miles Davis?
KW: Actually, no, that wasn’t intended as a Bill Evans connection. It came about more through me exploring other music in this area. There aren’t many albums of jazz trios with string quartet but there’s a great one with Hank Jones and the Meridian Quartet (1990, LRC). While I was writing for this project, I listened to that album a lot and it gave me the idea that Love For Sale could work really well with a counter melody in the bass and the piano, with the main melody high in the strings, binding it all together. In terms of the other choices, I thought Kenny Kirkland’s Chance would be an unusual one to do because he sadly recorded relatively little music under his own name, and it’s a great tune that isn’t played that much.
LJN: LJN: What about the original compositions – did you have a concept bringing them together?
KW: I had bits of a concept. For example, I wrote Twilight’s Last Blinkincredibly quickly because I knew it was going to be the closing track of the album. Once I knew that, it basically wrote itself. The first piece I wrote specifically for the line-up was Seven Across, I don’t know why. I do prefer writing for specific people – it can make the composition process much easier because I have their sound in my head. There is a connection between Eleven Tonal and the Bill Evans project in that the middle and end sections were originally written as an introduction to Evans’ Twelve Tone tune. The drum feature was originally with woodwind, it was a bit bizarre! Big Shoes is actually based on a standard (Lullaby Of The Leaves), although you wouldn’t necessarily know this from the melody. I was thinking in terms of Tristano-esque melodies that could be harmonised in more dissonant ways.
LJN: What is next for this project? Do you foresee more activity in the future?
KW: Yes, definitely. We’re now doing a five date mini tour with support from Arts Council England. It’s really good to know that they still have money available and will support jazz. Maybe we don’t just have to play in jazz venues – we could play anywhere. It’s hard to develop projects in the longer term of course because it requires a lot of commitment but this really feels like just the beginning.(pp)
Kate Williams’ Four Plus Three is supported by the Ambache Trust (for raising the profile of women in music) and is released on 8th June. The trio and string quartet also play four more dates around the country:
Tuesday 7th June – Watermill Jazz, Dorking 8.30pm
Wednesday 8th June – ALBUM LAUNCH 606 Club, London 8.30pm
Friday 10th June – Leicester Jazzhouse, 8pm
Saturday 23rd July – TW12 Jazz Festival, Normansfield Theatre, Teddington 8pm