Photo: © Joe Lasky
Simon Lasky has his second Group album, About The Moment, available via all the usual channels. Helen Mayhew on Jazz FM has called it “wonderful”, and Euan Dixon (JazzViews) says it is “hugely impressive”. Simon talks to Peter Bacon about what being a musican means to him, about the new recording, about composing and influences – and shares some exciting news:
LondonJazz News: Like most modern jazz musicians, you have many roles: pianist, composer, arranger, educator. Do you have a favourite?
Simon Lasky: What’s that famous Leonard Bernstein quote? “I don’t want to spend my life like Toscanini did, conducting the same 30 symphonies over and over… I want to teach, to write, to perform, to be, in every sense of that wonderful word, a musician.” Those multi discipline guys have always been great heroes of mine: Bernstein, Andre Previn, Richard Rodney Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones; for me, one discipline informs the other. It’s all part of being a musician. I never stop and say “right, now, at this moment in time I’m going to arrange last week’s composition”. It doesn’t work like that. The motivation is always to be involved in all aspects of music at the highest level I possibly can: to be surrounded by and involved in sophisticated music-making is the driving force. I will say this though; for me, teaching is a crucial part of that. Communicating whatever skills, knowledge and enthusiasms I have to young people is the best job in the world and is so rewarding.
LJN: Your second album, About The Moment, has been getting some great reviews, and I am enjoying it hugely. It has a really strong and cohesive atmosphere about it. How do you get that warm, generous “vibe” in the studio? And then how do you manage to convey it via the digital imprint of a CD?
SL: I think About The Moment (’33Jazz’ Records) is much more individual and personal than my first album (Story Inside released in 2015 and also on ‘33Jazz’ Records). I had a strong sense of the palette and sound world that I wanted to create. Then, it was just a question of finding the right players to manifest the ideas that I had in my head. I’m glad you think it sounds cohesive – I’m trying to develop my own sound and I searched high and low to get the right players. I was very lucky to end up with a great line-up of Luca Boscasgin (guitars), Pete Billington (electric & fretless bass), Sophie Alloway (drums), Kuljit Bhamra (tabla) and Philip Achille (harmonica) as well as a wonderful recording engineer, Nick Pugh. To a man (and woman!) they “got” what we were trying to do, i.e. they weren’t trying to impose their chops on the tunes, but played what was right for the compositions. I still like collecting CDs because I like to know who’s playing 2nd alto on track 6, and who the euphonium player on track 9 was in love with when the album was being recorded! As well as the credits and detailed track info, my CD has lots of the extra musical stimuli and inspirations listed in the liner notes – you only get that on the hard copy!
LJN: How do you compose? Do you need to be at the piano? Where do ideas come from?
SL: At some point during the compositional process I will definitely need to be at the piano. But, often, not straight away, and not for a while. Ideas probably comes in three main forms: 1) A concrete musical idea; a fragment of a melody, an idea for a bass line, a groove, a harmony with a specific quality, and that will often come to me when I’m away from the piano, walking down the street, making a cup of tea, etc. 2) Sometime inspiration will come out of a response to other music; I’ll hear a melody by another artist but might think “I like it, but I’d take that line in a different direction”. 3) Conceptual ideas; if I have melody or set of chord changes that I like, I think I’m reasonably good at seeing the potential of that idea and how I’m going to develop it over the course of a composition. Structure and narrative are very important to me so, by the time I sit down at the piano, I’ll have a good sense of what I want that material to achieve and how I see it unfolding over time. I studied classical composition at university, and have improvised at the piano since I was seven years old, so, when you’re at that later compositional stage it’s just a question of drawing on those skills to make sure that the piece does what I want it to. You have to steer it in the right direction while periodically checking in with that original source of inspiration.
LJN: Your music always sounds to me a lot more transatlantic than a lot of UK jazz. Would that be a fair interpretation? What are your main musical influences?
SL: Yes, you’re 100% spot on and a lot of reviewers have pointed that out. I’ve always been obsessed with America and its music. Not its current political leadership (or, possibly, its current music!) but so much of the music that I love comes from – and could only have come from – the melting pot of culture that is America. I’m crazy about Weather Report, Miles, Pat Metheny Group, Return To Forever, Paul Simon, The Crusaders, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and so much of Herbie’s output. I haven’t intentionally composed “American sounding” music, but I’ve always believed that you compose the music you want to hear, so inevitably those influences are going to seep in. I admire the ridiculous ambition and invention of the musicians I’ve just listed but I also like that they have no problem if emotions are to the fore; they’re not shy to show how they feel and that makes the music resonate for me. Of course, it’s backed up with immense skill, sophistication and, often harmonic and rhythmic complexity, but I want the music that I listen to make me feel something. And a lot of the musicians who tick those boxes are American.
LJN: You have some exciting news that involves a sojourn on the other side of the pond, I believe. Tell us about that.
SL: It’s always been a dream of mine to study jazz in America – the country of its birth. I have been offered a Fellowship to teach and study at The University of South Florida, starting next month. I’m pretty excited! I am going to be teaching on the undergraduate jazz programme as Assistant to Chuck Owen (who is a wonderful, Grammy nominated, jazz composer) and I’ll be simultaneously studying for a Masters in Jazz Studies. I love Chuck’s music, but it’s not very well known over here. Check out his latest album Whispers On The Wind by Chuck Owen and The Jazz Surge. It was Grammy nominated last year in the same category as Vince Mendoza and Christian McBride’s Big Band. Vince Mendoza also offered me a scholarship to study with him at The University of Southern California. But it didn’t come with a teaching position so I took the USF job. So, starting next month, I’ll be living in Florida until May 2019.
LJN: But you’re coming back? This is not the last we’ll be hearing of the Simon Lasky Group, I hope?
SL: We’re a fledgling band. Two albums in, for sure, but I formed the band only three years ago. One of the ideas with the U.S. sojourn was to get my music known Stateside but, certainly, not to the detriment of the progress we’ve made here in the UK. I’ll be back in London next summer, from May onwards, to gig with my band. Then, if all goes to plan, I’d like to do an Arts Council UK tour in 2020. I’ll start planning for that towards the end of this year. I just want to become a better composer, a better piano player and a better teacher… so, hopefully, by next summer I’ll be putting what I have learned in The States to good use. Exciting times! (pp)
About the Moment by The Simon Lasky Group – new album out now on iTunes, Amazon & Spotify
LINKS: Simon Lasky Group website