FEATURE/INTERVIEW: Alison Rayner (Blow The Fuse tour dates and a third ARQ album planned)

Alison Rayner
Photo Credit: Jane C Reid

The Alison Rayner Quintet (ARQ) was named Jazz Ensemble of the Year in the recent Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Alison spoke to Gail Tasker about the band’s past, present and future:

“I’ve always been a bit of an outsider – I sort of just go for things.” Alison Rayner states this cheerfully as we sit at her local pub in Stoke Newington. The mischievous look in her eyes combined with her narrative of her career completely persuades me of this fact. She’s not your average bass player.

For a start, Rayner’s one of very few professional female jazz bass players. And while humble and unassuming of that fact, there’s a clear feminist, anti-establishment slant to her achievements. When asked about how she formed the Alison Rayner Quintet (recent winners of Jazz Ensemble of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards), Rayner begins by mentioning her guitarist Deirdre Cartwright.

“We met in a feminist rock band. And then in the ’80s we played in a band called the Guest Stars, which was all women. We toured for about five years. It was in the period where Loose Tubes was around and the Jazz Warriors started – there was a jazz resurgence at the time.”

She goes on to talk about an organisation that Cartwright and herself run, Blow The Fuse, which was also nominated this year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. One type of event they run, Tomorrow And The Moon, features cross-generational women-led projects. Past participants include Laura Jurd, Nubya Garcia, Annie Whitehead, Carol Grimes, and many more.

Alongside Cartwright, Rayner’s been playing with the other members of ARQ for several years. She’s been working with saxophonist Diane McLoughlin and Steve Lodder since the ’80s, and she met Buster Birch 20 years ago at a summer school. The strong bonds between these musicians fully come across in the music; there’s a sense of harmony and togetherness that is rarely found elsewhere.

The band has released two albums to date, August (2014) and A Magic Life (2016). Both projects received great critical acclaim, with the Guardian describing the latter as “purposeful, full-toned, and melodic.” A third one is set to be recorded next spring, and Rayner confides that she’s already optimistically booked studio time. Whilst there’s a huge collaborative element to the band, the majority of compositions are hers. The pieces are packed full of catchy riffs, groove and uplifting melodic lines, yet there’s also a nuanced moodiness that sets the listener off on a journey. When asked about her compositional process, Rayner explains that whilst she uses Sibelius to write out her parts, she often composes spontaneously.

Alison Rayner Quintet
Photo Credit: Jane C Reid

“My best ideas come when I haven’t been anywhere near a computer, or even an instrument. Just out walking. And I just record things on the voice recorder on the phone, I just sing ideas. And then afterwards I can work out what the chords are, what works.”

With award-winning pieces under their belt, the group are set to tour the North East of England and Scotland later this year, with gigs in Edinburgh, Newcastle, and York. And as Rayner explains, the live experience is perhaps even better than the already incredible albums.

“Now when I listen back to A Magic Life, I can hear that we play the pieces much better, because we’ve been playing them for much longer. About four of the pieces were written just before we recorded. The band is now much stronger than the albums, which is of course why we have to do another album!”

We move on to the subject of arts funding, which has been a contributor to her recordings and her tours with ARQ. It has become an unfortunate necessity for musicians to apply for arts funding as the financial climate becomes more and more harsh towards musicians and the music industry. One can apply to PRS (Performing Right Society), the Arts Council, and the BPI amongst others.

“I have received some funding, and I’m very appreciative of the funding I’ve received. But many times, applications don’t succeed – I’ve applied to PRS for Music Foundation at least four times over the years for my group and been turned down.”

However, as Rayner explains, this time there was an unforeseen alternative to funding. It’s because of the quintet’s dedicated fan-base that the group managed to fund a tour in Germany earlier this year. Rayner’s appeal to Blow The Fuse’s followers led to dozens of people pledging their support, and the group were able to raise the £5,000 they needed. Rayner historically has strong ties with German jazz audiences from playing there with the Guest Stars, and intends to tour there again with ARQ in the next year or so. Future goals also include playing some European jazz festivals and releasing a strong album next year.

It’s this tenacity and ambition that makes Alison Rayner an impressive character. She describes her first ARQ album as a “milestone”, as it was her first album under her own name. In the short period that has followed, she’s performed with the quintet across Europe, received high critical acclaim, and won awards. Who knows what’s next? (pp)

The Alison Rayner Quintet plays the Vortex this Thursday 8 November

LINK: Blow The Fuse gigs

Categories: Feature/Interview

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