HAPPY BIRTHDAY: James Maddren at 30 (Feature from 2007)

James Maddren. Photo credit: Melody McLaren

Sebastian writes: 

A very happy 30th Birthday today, to one of the most in-demand jazz drummers in Europe, JAMES  MADDREN. As one drummer put it to me, “his playing is melodic, he has extraordinary control of his sound and how it can be gradated. What he always communicates is enjoyment. he has that look of not being preoccupied music, but completely focused on how to make music out of something whether its familiar or unfamiliar.”

James’s regular bands include Nikki Iles’ Printmakers and Trish Clowes’ band, and the Bastian Stein Quartet in Germany. He was part of the Kit Downes Trio which received a Mercury Prize nomination. He is now a Professor at Guildhall School.

This feature was written in 2007, when it was originally published in a slightly different form in the Christs Hospital school magazine The Blue:

JAMES MADDREN (written in 2007)

James Maddren is a jazz drummer aged 20. He is a student in his third year of the jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music. But he is already popping up everywhere on London’s young professional jazz scene. Maddren is literally rushed off his feet. And the first signs are emerging that the buzz in the jazz world about his playing could before very long reach much further.

The Royal Academy’s jazz course takes a few, normally only five very able students each year, and it has a very high pedigree. It has already produced one genuine international rising star in 26-year old pianist Gwilym Simcock, who graduated in 2004. Each year some very good players emerge. As world-renowned American vibraphone player Joe Locke said recently to an audience after fronting a young trio in concert at the Royal Academy : ” I’ve got to tell you: these guys aren’t just students. They are great musicians who I would expect to be sharing a stand with for the rest of our lives.”

But whereas the budding classical soloists in music colleges mainly lead a solitary life of intense individual practice, jazz musicians build far more of their craft by interacting with other musicians. The culture is essentially collaborative. What really matters to these emerging jazz musicians is the strength of the scene around them, the quality of the musicians whom they – in a well-worn jazz pun – lock horns with every day. For Maddren this all works very well at RAM:

“There are so many great guys, and we’re all playing with amazing musicians and getting great gigs,” he says.

Maddren’s demeanour in conversation is quiet, unassuming. The mere mention of the name of another musician whom he respects triggers an instant, animated and unfailingly generous response from Maddren – almost before he’s even heard the name:

Jim Hart? The most encouraging musician ever. So inspirational.

Phil Donkin? Phil has been massive for me, he’s been so helpful.

Mark Turner? He’s just ridiculous.

Oliver Weindling, a major figure on the British jazz scene, the main backer of the Vortex jazz club and the producer of over 70 records by jazz artists praises exactly these qualities in Maddren’s musicianship :

” He’s open, he’s completely responsive to other musicians, he’s very subtle and his reactions are lightning-quick.”

How did it all start? Maddren grew up in the Sussex boarding school Christ’s Hospital where his father, a good amateur ‘cellist was head of chemistry. His mother is a music teacher.

Christ’s Hospital is a public school with a difference : it continues its unique charitable mission dating back to the 16th century to educate the poor. It still has a uniform of a long dark blue coat which dates back to that period. It is a community surrounded by the Sussex Weald where music – above all the military band and the chapel choir, but much else besides- are an integral and visible part of school life.

To grow up at Christ’s hospital is to know, to feel the sound of the side drums echoing round and round tall brick buildings. The drummers march at the front of the band. Maddren tells it simply: “When I was little I saw the marching band and I just wanted to be in it.” He was given an Early Learning Centre drum at 2 years old, and duly played it marching round the kitchen table to the sound of his parents’ CD of the school band.

A couple of years later a teenage drummer in the school band showed him how to hold the sticks properly. “I was doing it all myself. I learnt by ear,” he remembers. Soon after entering the school as a pupil aged 11, the dream of getting into the band was achieved, but that was just another start.

A lot of other music goes on at and around Christ’s Hospital , and Maddren had plenty of opportunities as a schoolboy. The first exposure to jazz came at this time, through older schoolmates, and through tutors visiting the school such as Alex L’Estrange and Mornington Lockett.

A breakthrough came at 14 when Christ’s Hospital’s head of music Bruce Grindlay set up the contact for Maddren to enter the junior version of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra , NYJO2. Here the inspiring mentor was to be the hugely talented Jim Hart, then the drummer with the main NYJO and now a ubiquitous player on the London music scene on both drums and vibraphone. ” I wanted to sound like that, “says Maddren.

He took weekly lessons in London with Hart, which helped him to prepare for and to be successful in the entry audition for RAM.

Maddren plucks out a few decisive moments since then, such as getting the call at the end of his first year at the Academy for a regular weekly gig and jam session with high-energy Russian-born alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev at Charlie Wright’s Bar.

And then, a memorable call from bassist Phil Donkin during the summer vacation at the end of his first year at the Academy:

” I was a young inexperienced drummer. I don’t know what Phil saw in me. He’s one of the best bass players in the country. He plays with amazing people.” The call was to play in a new group at the Oxford which later became the working band Metal Monkey.

The past year has been very busy, and some of the contexts in which Maddren has appeared have marked an uptick. Such as the call which came in spring 2007 to play quartet dates with saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and US pianist Marc Copland, and finding his childhood jazz icon Kenny Wheeler sitting in the audience. Since then he has been successfully deputizing for his RAM teacher Martin France in Gwilym Simcock’s high-profile trio. Yes, things really are starting to happen.

What about the uncertainty of the jazz musician’s life? Isn’t he put off by hearing older drummers complain of the problems of dropping off the drum-kit and parking, the hassle of the congestion charge? A shrug. The need often to work not for a fee but for a door-split? That’s life. And what about the stony-hearted promoter whom you ring on the day of a gig and who tells you without emotion : “No mate, you weren’t confirmed”? It happens.

You can sense an innate capacity to rise, to respond, to deal with things as they come, both on and off the bandstand. Ask Maddren about, say, possible longer term projects such as leading his own group, or maybe following the footsteps of former Charlie Wright colleague John Escreet to New York. And what comes back from Maddren is that sense that where he is right now is exactly where he wants to be:

“At the moment I’m loving it. I’m so busy. I’m just playing.”

At the time of this piece James Maddren had played on just one publicly available jazz CD, “Mango Tango” by the Andrea Vicari Quintet (33JAZZ163)

LINK: Interview with James Maddren about his first project as leader in 2015

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. James will be touring in the north of England with Seamus Blake from February 3-10. There is one detour to London on February 6 to play at the Vortex. Other gigs are in Clitheroe, Southport, Newcastle, Grimbsy, Leeds and Wakefield.

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