Photo credit: Gem Hall
Trumpeter HENRY SPENCER is drawing much interest with his debut album. He spoke to LondonJazz News’ Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon about songwriting, trumpeters and taking the music out on the road.
London Jazz News: I understand singers and songwriters are important to your instrumental music. How does that work?
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Henry Spencer: I think the singer and songwriter side is probably most influential when it comes to my composing. From a really young age I used to spend hours sitting at the piano at home, just playing around, writing little tunes and discovering ideas. At that time I really wanted to be a singer/songwriter.
In hindsight, the songs were painfully cringe-worthy, but they were brutally sincere and my way of dealing with real experience.Now I try to approach instrumental music with as much emotive clarity as if the music had lyrics. In fact, when writing now I often still use lyrics as a way to stay connected with the original motivation behind the composition. Using lyrics as part of this process can also help strengthen the melodic or lyrical nature of the melodies. I want it to draw in the listener – provoking their interpretation so they can relate it to their own experience.
LJN: How did you meet the other players in Juncture and why did you pick them for The Reasons Don’t Change?
HS: I actually lived with Andy (Robb – double bass) for three years around the time that we both first moved to London. We got to know each other’s musical tastes through listening to each other’s records and playing together. We also went to the same music college as David (Ingamells – drums) and Nick (Costley-White – guitar). We all played together a lot in different groups and settings – Dave and Andy especially so. They also share a pretty dry and sometimes cutting sense of humour! This kind of mutual musical and personal understanding is so important for the group’s collective cohesion. I think this is particularly true for bass and drums – they’re often the band’s engine room or musical scaffolding.
At music college I played a huge amount with a pianist called Rob Brockway. He is a phenomenal musician and we played as a duo quite a bit, often freely improvising. He was in Juncture from the start. Unfortunately Rob had to move away before the album recording sessions. It was then that Matt Robinson came in and he’s played in Juncture ever since. He’s a ridiculously nice person and a ferociously good musician. He’s very tolerant too…
LJN: You’ve taken a different path from the simple “get the band into a studio and record them live in a take or two” approach common to a lot of jazz recordings. How does your path differ and how important are producer Paul Whalley and engineer Dave Darlington in this process?
HS: I’m hugely grateful to Paul for showing a huge interest in the compositions and my ideas for the album so early on. We spent too many late nights talking about the possibilities for the general musical shape and sound of the album, as well as technical approaches to recording, mixing and producing it.
During the year before the actual album sessions we recorded every track in studios around London. This meant we had the opportunity to try out and experiment with different approaches to recording and mixing the music. As a result, we’ve drawn on a range of producing techniques rarely used to make a jazz record. These techniques, often quite subtle, were used to enhance and not overwhelm each composition’s original musical intent.
I got in touch with Dave Darlington in New York because he’s worked with not only some of my favourite musicians of all time, but also in a huge range of genres. His experience and the list of people he’s worked with is just silly – Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Prince! It was really exciting and flattering to hear how much he was into the music. It was fantastic working with him.
LJN: Who are your favourite trumpeters? What have you learned from them? And are there other musicians that have influenced your playing and your composing?
HS: Miles is huge for me. His time-feel, phrasing and his simple but powerful musical statements are inspiring. Kind of Blue is an obvious example and of course massively talked about, but it’s hugely significant. When I first discovered his album Bitches Brew I became obsessed with his approach to blending genres, his compositions and his group’s collective improvisation.
There are so many different trumpet players that I love because of particular aspects in their own approach. Just a few in no particular order are Marquis Hill, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Verneri Pohjola, Clifford Brown, Terence Blanchard and Ambrose Akinmusire. I love the versatility in the instrument’s sound – from whispering, warm and vocal-like to big, dramatic and abrasive.
Art Blakey talked about it, and I’ve always been drawn to the idea of intensity – whether playing a subtle, sorrowful ballad or some full on rock-out. It’s not important at all for the audience to ‘understand’ the technical or academic approach. I want to draw in the listener with the intensity and sincerity.
LJN: You are going to be touring this music during 2017 – how do you hope it will develop in live performance?
HS: Playing live for audiences is what this is all about. Quite unusually, we’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to play this music quite a lot even before the actual album recording sessions. As a result, the group is really familiar with all the music and so freer when performing it. This gives every gig a really exciting energy. I’m really looking forward to collectively and spontaneously taking the music in unexpected directions on the gigs.
The Reasons Don’t Change by Henry Spencer & Juncture is now out on Whirlwind Recordings.
Henry and the band are touring extensively in the UK from April to June 2017.
LINK: Henry Spencer’s website
Definitely one of my favourite releases so far of 2017! Was at the pizza express show – what a band!
Further to Henry Spencer’s thoughts on lyrics and instrumental music… There is, of course, Peter, the oft-repeated (it’s quoted, for example, in Wynton Marsalis’s book ‘Moving To Higher Ground’) and hopefully true story of Ben Webster playing a ballad on a gig, and stopping in the middle of his solo. When later asked why, he replied: “I forgot the words.”