INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Simon Lasky (British Composer Awards winner, ISJAC, 16-18 May in Colorado)

Simon Lasky and his 2018 British Composer Award
Photo credit: Mark Allen for BASCA

Pianist SIMON LASKY is having an eventful year. Not only did he win the British Composer Award for Jazz Composition for Small Ensemble, this is a year during which the Londoner has been based in the Tampa, Florida. In this interview with Seb, he gives some impressions of his American adventure, and in particular draws attention to the two-yearly ISJAC (International Society for Jazz Arrangers & Composers) Symposium, and explains what a fascinating – and fruitful event it can be…

LondonJazz News: Congratulations again on the award! I remember it was Cassie Kinoshi and you who won…

SL: Thank you. Yes, it’s been a good time. I was interviewed on the BBC Radio 3… hallowed territory for a jazz composer and a dream come true (I’ve been an avid Radio 3 listener since I was a kid). One of the good things to come out of the awards was that it introduced me to Cassie’s music, which I love. She’s definitely one to watch. Composing is such a solitary business, so it’s nice that the art of composing is being championed, and to win an award voted on by my distinguished jazz colleagues – who I hold in such high regard – feels great.

LJN: Remind us how long you’ve been in The States and what took you there?

SL: I moved to Tampa, Florida in August last year to take up a position as Teaching Assistant to four-time GRAMMY nominated jazz composer Chuck Owen at The University of South Florida. They also gave me a scholarship to study on their Masters in Jazz Studies programme. It’s a two-year course. I never studied jazz the first time around and needed to get my shit together: There are things in my playing and composing that I wanted to work on and the reality of living and working as a musician in London was that I was teaching every day and gigging every night just to get by – but I wasn’t improving… I wasn’t working on my skills.

This U.S opportunity gives me a chance to do that.

LJN: And you’ve been impressed by the work ethic of the students…

SL: I feel so bad for music students today. It’s an almost impossible situation for them. My undergrad and post-grad degree (both in classical music) at a world-class university didn’t cost me a penny when I attended the University of Bristol over 20 years ago. These days students over here in the States (and, sadly, more and more so in the U.K too) have to find tens of thousands of dollars to attend university. Many of the undergrad music students here at The University of South Florida have day jobs. They work in bars or in Starbucks alongside studying full-time on a degree programme. I don’t know how they’re meant to do their six hours a day instrumental practice plus all their uni work plus making low fat soya frappe-mocha-coca-chino-lattes! I admire them so much and I hope that things improve for them… but it will require a new American President and a different way of running a country before that happens!

LJN: One thing in your diary is ISJAC. What is it?

SL: ISJAC (link below) is the International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers. It was formed as a non-profit arts organisation in 2016 by jazz composer Chuck Owen. They hold bi-annual symposiums where the great and the good of the jazz world get together and get fully geeked up! The next symposium is 16-18 May at the University of Northern Colorado.

LJN: How did you first get to know them and have you been before? And who was there at the first one you went to?

SL: I took a punt and flew out to the last ISJAC Symposium which took place in Florida in May 2017. I loved every second of it. With 2.5 days we had concerts from Billy Childs, John Hollenbeck, Randy Brecker and Gregoire Maret with Chuck Owen’s band The Jazz Surge, a lifetime achievement presentation made to Chick Corea and an inspiring speech given by Maria Schneider who’s basically single-handedly taking on Google in her battle to stand up for creators’ rights. It was some pretty good company to hang out with for a weekend!

LJN: And for you, attending it was pretty much life-changing?!

SL: Yes. Prior to attending the symposium in 2017 I wasn’t familiar with Chuck Owen’s music… but now he’s my boss, my composition teacher and mentor! I loved his latest album Whispers On The Wind which was premiered at the 2017 ISJAC Symposium. I sent him my latest album (About The Moment by The Simon Lasky Group) after the Symposium and, on the basis of that, he offered me a job at The University of South Florida and a scholarship to study with him. Not too shabby!

LJN: Where is this year’s event? Who will be around?

SL: 16-18 May 2019 at The University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, Colorado, about 50 miles North of Denver Airport. Vince Mendoza, Chris Potter, Bill Frisell, Christine Jensen and Darcy James Argue will be performing, presenting their compositions and leading workshops and discussions. And over 100 composers and arrangers from 10 different countries will be sharing their work, philosophies, techniques, and insights over the two-and-a-half-day conference. The symposium closes with a performance from Chris Potter’s Quartet!

LJN: Who would benefit from attending?

SL:  ‘Symposium’ sounds like a dry, academic word. That mustn’t put people off because it’s a great hang. Professional jazz composers and arrangers should beg, steal and borrow to try to be there. As should jazz fans. And it’s a great deal for students: $155 for all three days which includes entry to everything, including the Chris Potter concert etc. Either way, ISJAC is FREE to join and I would urge all jazz composers and arrangers to sign up to be part of a collective voice. (website link below)

LJN:  And do you have a role as well?

SL: I will be presenting my composition Close To Ecstasy to a room full of my heroes… pretty scary stuff! Close To Ecstasy was selected to be part of the ‘New Music Presentation’ at the Symposium. I’ll also be chairing a discussion of international attendees on the Saturday. I know that one of Chuck Owen’s visions is that ISJAC become truly international. It’s a significant investment for a European-based jazz musician to make the trek to Colorado. But, as we’ve said, the 2017 Symposium was incredible – you never know what doors it might open and the connections you’ll make will last a lifetime. Hope to see a few UK folks there!

LINKS: ISJAC website/ free membership sign-up
Early-bird registration for the Symposium is available till 22 March
Simon’s award-winning composition Close to Ecstasy

Categories: Feature/Interview

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