FEATURE: Pianist-composer Angus Bayley (Scrapbook septet – debut CD on Spark label, launch 1st Sept, Vortex)

Angus Bayley (centre)and Scrapbook

This autumn pianist-composer ANGUS BAYLEY will make his debut with his septet Scrapbook, and their self-titled album will be released on the Spark label on 1st September. The album launch is at the Vortex in London the same day. Interview by Stephen Graham: 

Angus Bayley was born in Yorkshire in 1989 and had embarked on a career as a scientific researcher early on but his jazz interests had already blossomed as he had begun to study with pianist Richard Fairhurst in his teens.

Bayley sees himself primarily as a composer rather than as simply a pianist: “Sometimes I don’t really view myself as either though. I think that every now and again I get to observe rare and beautiful moments that send me into overdrive and are worth pursuing in some way, and when that happens I start doing things that surprise me about my own capabilities. I don’t write new tunes all that often, and sometimes a tune waits for a year before I serendipitously come across the piece that completes the puzzle. I don’t know lots of tricks to brute force a tune to completion. I just feel like I get myself into situations where I get a glimpse of something really magical, then feel it my responsibility to show it to other people so I figure out a way. A few times in my life I’ve found myself unexpectedly in the throes of a spectacular sunrise in some remote location with my camera to hand, and I’ve suddenly gone into overdrive to try and capture it. That doesn’t make me a photographer though.”

Bayley moved around the UK a fair bit he says before coming to London. “I was born in Leeds before moving to St Andrews in Scotland for the early days of my childhood, where I lived in a flat attached to a boarding school that my parents were the head teachers of. There was a piano in one of the corridors of the school that some of the girls would play ‘Chopsticks’ on. As a young child that didn’t have any concept of what unoriginality was I thought this was absolutely amazing. A few years later on I moved down to Doncaster and started taking piano lessons at my school.

“I was still young and wasn’t really ready for classical music at the time so I ended up being a pretty bad student. I resented practising for grades, instead teaching myself songs I liked from the radio and films I watched around then, by ear. Doing that was an incredibly formative experience – learning that music by ear taught me concepts about harmony in terms of how they should sound and feel over how they should be expressed in words or written down on paper, and as a result I eventually came to the realisation that most of the pop music that I listened to back then was based on shared and unoriginal harmony. I particularly thought that most of the emotive power in the music I listened to back then came from the chord sequences, so I really homed in on understanding them and I really loved that part of that music.

“Then I met Richard Fairhurst, and that problem got solved spectacularly comprehensively. Richard showed me exactly what I needed to be shown. Richard was the first teacher I had that welcomed the experimenting and transcribing I had done outside the grade syllabus. Up till him, my piano teachers hadn’t taken much interest in that and had mostly encouraged me to do grades, but I wasn’t really ready for or interested in classical music at that time. When I started learning with Richard he encouraged me to show him the things I’d been working on and would think about how they could be better and show me. That was uplifting – an affirmation that it was good to work on your own things in that way.”

Pianist Kit Downes was also a big influence on Bayley: “It feels unusual to say this for someone who’s so geographically close to me and who’s only a little bit older than me and in a world where Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau exist, and Art Tatum and Bill Evans have existed, but Kit has had an extraordinarily big influence on me – perhaps even the biggest single influence of anyone in through their music alone. Maybe it’s biased a little bit by the fact that as a teenager I identified with him as a fellow young person doing jazz, and he had a bunch of the same influences as me so there was a pretty natural affinity, but who cares.”

Bayley is unusual in that he has pursued a career in both science and in music. “I’ve been doing both in parallel for a long time, and music has been serious for me since I was at school. I graduated school with high enough grades to study chemical engineering and then got onto a PhD programme in materials-physics straight after. All the while I spent a lot of evenings in the practice rooms and ended up taking over the university big band for a year. Balancing some form of technical career with one in music has turned out to be pretty difficult and I don’t really recommend it. But at the same time I find it pretty hard to kick the habit: technology has the potential to really benefit people, and when used creatively you can make things that create real joy. I like them both in a very serious way.”

Scrapbook is an excellent first album with some strong melodic statements and almost a Kenny Wheeler-like bittersweet sense of mortality to it, themes unfolding quite organically and an ensemble that seems to have an intuitive understanding of each other’s playing.

“Scrapbook came together gradually following on directly from my time at Imperial. In the year that I ran the big band there, we toured Poland for a week in the summer holidays. Our main drummer couldn’t make it so we hired Dave Hamblett who I’d been listening to lots at gigs for the couple of years before, Paul Trippett, who had been coaching the band that year, and saxophonists Mike Underwood and Max Johnson. Paul had suggested we try to get an octet together of the keenest members of the band to play an extra gig whilst we were there and encouraged me to arrange a tune of mine for it. At the time I’d got a handful of my own tunes in a near complete state, and in a last minute decision decided to take him up on the idea. The song I arranged was untitled at the time, but after we played it I started to think my tunes had real potential if played by the right people, and I spent the next 24 hours in a state of mild elation. The next evening an unnamed middle-aged man dragged an amplifier into an otherwise silent town square and unannounced began singing in totally unassuming and beautiful falsetto which was totally appropriate for the calmness of that summer night. So that tune became ‘Singer Man’.

“We mostly met at different times. I met Kieran [McLeod, who plays trombone] at a gig and introduced myself to him; I met Alaric [Taylor, the trumpeter] at Imperial, he was also someone that had done science and music in parallel; Paul [Trippett, the bassist] from coaching the Imperial Big Band; and Dave [Hamblett, the Scrapbook drummer] from touring with it. I’d heard all of these people playing before we met and really loved their playing. Dave was a real dream choice of drummer: he played the music unbelievably sensitively and completely in keeping with the spirit of the music, without me saying anything. Kieran is a similar story, and he’s one of the most productive musicians I’ve ever come across. Aside from always having a really appropriate suggestion for any moment where there’s an arrangement that’s not working out, he’s able to pull fiercely strong and completely unique solos out of the hat in pretty much any situation. His soloing is a super important part of this band in fact, because there are moments in the album where the tune builds up and up to the point that we are belting it out at full volume, then all of a sudden its the start of a solo and someone has to keep that energy going – and you can always hand that moment to Kieran and he completely shines. His playing on ‘Singer Man’ is a perfect example of this and his entry to his solo is one of the most special moments of the album, I think. Nick [Sigsworth, on violin] and Daisy [Watkins, viola] came into the band a bit later after an instrumentation change which saw saxes swapped for viola and violin, and I’m really glad I made that call – they sound really lovely and add incredible warmth to this music.”

Bayley says the main difference in the band is the presence of violin and viola. “And not just that, but they are on level terms with the other horns in the arrangements – many of the melodies and chord sequences are played by this one front-line unit that’s a mix of horns and strings, and that’s got a clear personality to it which is different to most things people hear. But that’s mainly an aesthetic thing, and I think the most important things in music are at a deeper level to that. So for the people that listen to stuff the way I do, what I hope they’ll be struck by is that the harmony in all of these tunes is new, and that gives each tune a character that feels like something they’ve not come across before. Personally, I think that the defining factor for this music is that each tune is based on a chord sequence that has a flavour that I’ve never heard in any other music. That’s kind of the bar during the writing process – does this idea have some new basis that is genuinely new to me? If so, does that thing make it feel great to listen to? If either of the answers are no then the music doesn’t make it into the band. It’s taken a few years to get nine tracks together that made it through that filter.”

Bayley says he finds it difficult to explain the particular kind of jazz he most instinctively identifies with? “That’s because there’s no real rule for me that can be captured by a ‘kind’ of jazz. Certainly I don’t care about subgenre (and to a certain extent genre for that matter). The important things for me are that: the music has to say something new – i.e. it can’t just be an obvious derivative combination of two styles or ideas I’ve already heard, otherwise I just get a bit bored; and it’s got to be beautiful. If music does that then I can get really really get into it.” (pp)

Further Scrapbook dates are: 

– JATP Jazz, Bradford (2 September)
– Kenilworth Jazz Club (5 September) 
– Seven Jazz, Leeds (11 September)
– Stables, Milton Keynes (4 October)
– The Spotted Dog, Birmingham (8 November) 
– Jazz at the Lescar, Sheffield (9 November).

LINKS: 1st September Vortex bookings
Angus Bayley on Soundcloud

Categories: miscellaneous

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