Feature/Interview

Alex Merritt (Alex Merritt/Gareth Fowler Quintet – Kansas Smitty’s 19 June, The Geldart, Cambridge 26 June)

Having gathered around him some of today’s finest young players based in Europe and the US, the London-based composer and tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt has spent the past week touring some of his latest compositions written specially for the band. Ahead of his penultimate show (at Kansas Smitty’s in London) Rachel Coombes caught up with Alex to find out more about his composing process and the formation of his touring band, the Alex Merritt/Gareth Fowler Quintet.

Alex Merritt (Photo: Tristram Smith)

London Jazz News: Let’s get straight to the music! Your own composing style is described as a fusion of contemporary classical and contemporary jazz. Are there any composers that have been particularly influential for your development?

Alex Merritt: Yes absolutely! I have always been equally inspired by contemporary classical music as well as jazz, especially in terms of the rich harmonic palette this music offers for us to explore. More recently I have been very inspired by Debussy and Scriabin – in particular their piano preludes, which often have an incredibly deep and varied harmonic palette that explores bi-tonality and other techniques very relevant to modern jazz. Some of these have definitely influenced the music we will play this week. I am also fascinated by Béla Bartók and John Coltrane’s geometrical representations of harmony, and would really recommend others to look into this for compositional and improvisational inspiration also.

LJN: How did you go about composing the material for this tour?

AM: Well it was a real joy setting some time aside to write music for this project. Gareth Fowler and I discussed the kinds of things that might work well and knowing that (pianist) Pablo Held was onboard to join us, as well as the amazing Percy Pursglove (with whom Pablo has been working recently) I set about writing some music with everyone in mind (including our stunning rhythm section of Joshua Blackmore and Oli Hayhurst whose playing I know fairly well.) I knew that Pablo (and the others) would understand and know the reference points in my music so this made everything very easy and natural, and meant that I could write harmony that was more extended and challenging than something I may write otherwise. 

LJN: As you’ve mentioned, the Quintet consists of your Royal Birmingham Conservatoire compatriot Gareth Fowler (guitar), alongside Percy Pursglove (trumpet), Joshua Blackmore (drums), and Oli Hayhurst (bass). What made you choose these guys for the project?

AM: Gareth, Percy and I did a gig back in December at The Geldart (where we will play the final tour date also) and had so much fun that we suggested getting Gareth over from New York for a tour this year. Josh is a great friend of mine who I have had a lot of fun playing with in Cambridge over the last year or two; he is someone I trust musically and I know he will take care of the music. Likewise with Oli, who I respect hugely and always love playing with.

 LJN: The hugely talented German pianist Pablo Held has joined as a special guest for two of your shows – how did this collaboration come about?  

AM: Well, Pablo is a bit of a hero of mine so I am very happy this has come together: Gareth invited Pablo and it all worked out nicely! For me Pablo is a brilliant example of a musician and composer who integrates influence from contemporary classical music extremely effectively; it has become a part of his voice and I am very excited to work with him on this music. 

LJN: As well as teaching saxophone (at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) and composition, you’re also trained in Vipassanā meditation. Do you find this Buddhistic practice beneficial to your music, whether it’s performing or composing? 

AM: Yes totally, that’s an interesting question! This kind of practice has been beneficial to music and life generally for me for quite some time now. I’m definitely not alone in having a parallel practice/dedication of this sort and for me it seems a lot of the greats had either a meditation/spiritual or religious practice (or both). It is always interesting to try and get insights into their views and practices of this kind: John Coltrane is the musician I am thinking of most directly but there are so many to also be inspired by in this way.

LJN: Which sax players do you rate most highly? Are there any big names that you encourage your students to get familiar with?

AM: I love John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Warne Marsh but all of the greats should be given some time! I encourage my students to listen widely with an open mind and go back to the foundations of the music, as well as listening to earlier greats such as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins as well as more contemporary players. I’m definitely not the first to suggest looking back to look forward, to understand what is happening now in the music.

LJN: You hail from Cambridge originally, and cite the city’s music life as a formative experience for your own music-making. Does it still boast a flourishing music scene, and have you maintained musical ties there?

AM: Yes it really does! There are some wonderful players in Cambridge and very keen jazz audiences. On top of that we have the Cambridge Modern Jazz Club (which has been going strong for 45+ years), The Cambridge Jazz Festival which goes from strength to strength every year and The Geldart where I run a monthly jazz night featuring many local as well as touring bands. In fact, we will finish our tour there – it will be wonderful to play this music for a home crowd so to speak! 

LJN: The music from this tour will be featured on a forthcoming album – when can we expect it? Are there any other projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about? 

AM: Well… the music from the tour should certainly make its way on to an album that hopefully will come out in 2021, since in 2020 the Alex Merritt/Steve Fishwick Quintet will release their debut album, so watch this space for that! I am also very excited about this release and the UK tour that will accompany it as I’ve been having so much fun playing with Steve in this band over the last five years and am very happy with the album. It feels like a great document of how our band has evolved and I can’t wait to get this released and toured! 

It will certainly be very exciting to have an album from the session we will record following the Kansas Smitty’s gig this week but as it’s not due for a while I recommend catching the band live this week whilst the music is fresh and our wonderful special guest is in town!  

Catch Alex and the band on their final two tour dates:

19 June 2019: Alex Merritt/ Gareth Fowler Sextet ft. Pablo Held – Kansas Smitty’s – London, 8.30pm
26 June 2019: Alex Merritt/ Gareth Fowler Quintet  The Geldart – Cambridge, 8.00pm 

LINK: Alex Merritt’s website

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