INTERVIEW: Tim Boniface – The Eight Words album release

Tim Boniface
Photo Credit: Chris Orange
Tim Boniface is a multi-instrumentalist and composer who regularly performs and records with both his own musical outfits and other well-known jazz names such as Tara Minton – he is also a priest in the Church of England. His latest album The Eight Words is a jazz suite which tackles the challenging subject matter of the eight sayings of Jesus in the passion according to St John; an endeavour that embraces the ancient tradition of bringing music and religion together whilst also offering up jazz music to a whole new audience. Interview by Leah Williams:

LondonJazz News: How did you first get into jazz music?

Tim Boniface: I’d been listening to and playing music by ear from the age dot really, teaching myself to play tunes on the piano. As for jazz, I remember my dad taking me to a Chris Barber gig and something just clicked. I started listening to and playing along with a lot of trad jazz, and it felt as though I’d begun to find a musical language within which I could forge my own voice.

LJN: Were there any other pivotal listening moments that you feel have really influenced your music?

TB: At around the age of 15, I first heard an Oscar Peterson recording and it completely altered everything for me. Girl Talk especially was a track that seemed to open up a new idea about swing, harmony and a totally different set of colours from what I’d been used to hearing; and from there I journeyed naturally into a mainstream tradition and towards sax players like Dexter Gordon. Later on, listening to Pat Metheny brought on another shift and a perception of new possibilities, as did seeing Kurt Elling live for the first time!

LJN: You’re a multi-instrumentalist – mainly playing piano, sax and flugelhorn – is there one that you see to be your primary instrument?

TB: Not really. I suppose I play more sax than anything, but my preferences are always shifting! I enjoy the different voices and expressions you can achieve with each one. Piano and sax are often where I start when composing. Actually, I suppose I normally start by humming something… but then I sit down with the piano or sax to really put flesh on the bones of a composition.

LJN: Where did the original inspiration for your album The Eight Words come from?

TB: I agreed to write something for St Paul’s ArtsFest in Cambridge, for Holy Week (the week that leads up to Good Friday) in 2016. Although I’m a priest and a theologian as well as a musician, bringing jazz and theological work together wasn’t something I’d really felt the urge to do explicitly before. On this occasion though, jazz felt like the perfect medium to express the sentiments behind Michael Sadgrove’s book The Eight Words of Jesus, which I’d recently read, so I decided to write an instrumental suite on those themes.

LJN: What are the eight words of Jesus?

TB: They are the eight times Jesus speaks in the passion narrative (from Jesus’ arrest to his death) in John’s gospel. With some of the words I stayed with the literal story, and others were starting points for broader thematic exploration. It’s not an easy subject to interpret – some of the sentiments and narratives reach into the darkest places of human experience, but there’s a strong thread of hope too. Jazz naturally fits the challenge: there’s been a long tradition of jazz and blues engaging with deep struggle and also with religious themes. Nevertheless, The Eight Words isn’t the kind of thing you often hear in church!

LJN: How was the performance received at the ArtsFest?

TB: Really well. Phil [Merriman – piano], John [Ormston – drums] and Ed [Babar – bass] are remarkable musicians—and even during the day’s rehearsal it felt as though something special was building up, and that they were giving themselves in a deep way. I was so impressed by their openness and dedication to portraying the meaning within the music. The audience were also open to receiving the music both as jazz and a religious piece.

It’s unapologetically a jazz work, and it’s great that people can come to it from that angle before engaging with its religious element (if they choose to). Then, on the other side, it’s really rewarding to see people who might not normally connect with jazz do so by coming at it from the standpoint of faith.

LJN: How did the suite transition from a piece intended for a specific performance to a recorded album?

TB: After the performance was so well received, it seemed only natural to record the suite. Westcott House in Cambridge, where I trained for the priesthood, got behind the project, enabling the story and music to be brought to a wider audience.

The album was essentially recorded live over the course of two days at the brilliant Crown Lane studio. We wanted to really capture the essence and passion of the original performance and, again, the dedication of everyone to the project meant I think we achieved that. It’s been very well received. (pp)

The Eight Words is available now on CD at Tim Boniface Recordings, or digitally on iTunes and Amazon. Liner notes downloadable from above website. 

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