Feature/Interview

Spirit Fingers – Interview plus review (Ronnie Scott’s 25 July, Hampstead 26/27 July)

Rob Mallows, for LondonJazz News, met up with the members of Spirit Fingers at the start of a mini-heatwave in London. The music later that night at Pizza Express Holborn matched the weather! The band discussed upcoming gigs at Ronnie Scott’s (tomorrow), and two nights at the Hampstead Jazz Club (Friday, Saturday), the positive reaction their music is garnering, and their own musical spirit guides:

The LA-based band – Greg Spero, chief composer and keyboardist; Max Gerl on electric bass (depping for Hadrien Ferraud); drummer Mike Mitchell – a one-man wrecking crew on drums and Stanley Clarke Band alum; and guitarist Dario Chiazzolino – is a relatively recent creation (2015), but they’ve already garnered a Grammy nomination for their debut eponymous album [LJN review] which is chock full of lots of great stuff – intense groove; tight unison playing; hat-tips to greats like Corea and Herbie Hancock, and a cornucopia of influences from classical to hip hop to funk.

Spirit Fingers (Publicity photo)

Are they the next big thing? Who knows! But London jazz fans can judge for themselves at three upcoming gigs: Ronnie Scott’s (tomorrow) and Hampstead Jazz Club (Friday and Saturday).

LondonJazz News: What can London jazz fans expect this week?

Greg Spero: You can expect the unexpected! Music with no safety net. Our music’s very arranged, but we come from a background that’s all about improvisation. Spirit Fingers is a combination of classical music and traditional jazz, plus the genres we all grew up with: hip hop, rock, pop, the timbres of grunge music.

LJN: How does the classical world fit into your thinking as a band and a composer?

GS: Great classical music played by a great artist should always sound like the music’s being played for the first time. The nuances and intricacies are where the improvisation happens in classical, and I draw on that. I’m a big fan of Bach, he’s the essence of Western harmony: as Quincy Jones told me once: every tune you’ve ever heard can be traced back to Bach! Combining and fusing different things: that’s what innovation and improvisation’s all about. As artists we’re about siphoning all that’s great in music in the moment, and using that.

LJN: Tell me about your process as a composer

GS: I start with a composition, but that’s really only about 20 per cent of the development of the sound we play. We have a melody, chord changes, we play that  sure, but there’s large sections where we’re telling a story with our instruments, with our choice of harmonies over that core framework, before we return to playing the head again. So in that, we’re following the traditional jazz model. When we’re playing we work hard, but we consciously don’t try and squeeze every possible drop of musical juice out of each tune: you know, we try not to do ‘too much’ because ultimately, for us it’s about playing to the essence of the musical story, and not getting too caught up in all the peripheral stuff.

LJN: How do you see the jazz world at the moment? Are you excited by how things stand?

GS: We’re at an amazing point in time, when the world is paying attention to what’s going on in jazz. The world is now looking at this (wide-ranging) jazz scene and saying, ‘I’m interested in that’, perhaps because pop and other genres have become so processed and formulaic. People are looking for something with depth. They see a group of genuine people creating music that comes from their hearts, and that in turn connects with the hearts of the listener, and with the audience. Jazz is a unifying expression.

Max Gerl: Charlie Parker was jazz’s big bang… and that universe is still expanding! There’s so many different movements and ideas, ‘cause at the end of the day, everything in jazz comes on the shoulders of what’s gone before. Right now, it’s never been more accessible. Evolution and revolution at the same time!”

LJN: The classic question: who were the musical influences that have shaped your playing?

Mike Mitchell: For me, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Ru Paul. Ricky Dillard. Gospel. Transgender Disco. Metallica. Shania Twain… damn, I love her! It’s all about authenticity, you know. Great musicians appreciate music that has high integrity, no matter what the style.

LJN: What does the future hold for Spirit Fingers’ music?

GS: When you enjoy what you do, you feel compelled to create. I’ve got over one hundred compositions for this group on my computer, and I haven’t even looked at most of them seriously yet. There’s a lot more to come.

REVIEW

Having heard what I heard at Pizza Express, that’s good news.

Over two sets of long tracks, a decent Tuesday crowd at Pizza Express Holborn was thoroughly entertained. This was full-fat, no-quarter-given jazz of the highest technical quality: time shifts, Olympic-standard inversions and substitutions, intricate fingerings, all built around catchy sonic superstructures.

What was exciting was when the band went ‘off piste’ and outside the safety markers. This was where you could feel their brains churning, thinking eight or ten bars ahead about the next funky shape or sonic distillation they were going to try. Like watching speed chess played by grandmasters with amps.

The most astonishing and enjoyable parts of the evening was when Spirit Fingers were joined by Theon Cross (Sons of Kemet) and his tuba. Geez, what an instrument that is: he didn’t so much play it, as wrestle it into submission. And the sound: like the Salvation Army band 30 feet under ground, the subterranean Titanic growl cut through everything and made the glasses clink. Ivor the Engine meets west coast jazz.

All four players bring spades and spades of talent, brio and ideas to the stage and the energy sparked like a sub-station. Mike Mitchell’s kick drum in the second set started inching away – as if in fear of its life – such was the pummelling it was taking.

This was a gig about quality, not quantity. All groove, no artifice, and plenty of sweat on the hottest of London evenings. Great fun.

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