ARQ (the Alison Rayner Quintet) are about to launch their third album, Short Stories, and will be touring over the coming months, including two London dates: The Albany in Deptford on 29 September and kicking off the EFG London Jazz Festival at Kings Place on 15 November. Alison Rayner talks here to Leah Williams about inspiration for the album, her writing process and the joy of working with the same musicians and friends for the past six years.
LondonJazz News: You started your music career as bass guitarist in the ’70s rock band Jam Today before joining Latin-jazz group The Guest Stars in the ’80s. What was it that moved you onto double bass?
Alison Rayner: Within weeks of starting to play bass guitar, I heard Jaco Pastorius and he became a massive inspiration – I actually switched to fretless which I played exclusively from the late ’70s until the early ’90s. I loved playing it and was initially resistant to moving onto the double bass, partly because everyone kept telling me I should – and I never like to be told what to do! But also because I thought, and still think, that you can really groove on bass guitar – Jaco certainly could. But at a certain point, as my playing developed, I found I was often thinking of what I might be playing on double bass. My friend, jazz historian Val Wilmer, mentioned that her great friend, Jamaican sax player Louis Stephenson was selling one, and I just had that feeling of ‘this is it’. So I bought it and it’s the same one I play now.
LJN: The Guest Stars are actually going to be playing at your upcoming Kings Place gig I believe?
AR: They are! We’re putting on a triple bill, celebrating 30 years of Blow the Fuse, which is going to be headlined by ARQ and also features The Guest Stars and a young Leeds-based outfit JFrisco. It’s based on the idea of past, present and future with the Blow the Fuse emphasis on women-led projects. It’s also a chance for us to pay tribute to our late friend Debbie Dickinson, who was the manager (and 7th member) of The Guest Stars and who was also heavily involved with the London Jazz Festival. It should be a great night and ARQ will be playing new music from our upcoming album release Short Stories.
LJN: Remembering people who have passed on is a theme throughout Short Stories it seems?
AR: Yes, it’s been a difficult couple of years – I’ve experienced a number of unexpected deaths that have been very painful and shocking. It’s the kind of thing that you know happens all the time, but you never really think will happen to you, to people you love.
LJN: Does writing music help you to get through difficult times?
AR: Definitely. For me, it really helps to process certain experiences and emotions and lets me put my grief and shock into something that feels more positive. The songs on this album that were written about loved ones lost were my way of coming to terms with things, but also to connect with their memories and celebrate the beauty of their lives. It’s in part why I named the album Short Stories. Each piece of music is a short story in itself – but it also reflects the too-short stories of these people who meant so much, serving as a reminder that you should cherish the present as you never know what lies ahead.
LJN: What’s your writing process?
AR: It’s always different. It could start with a riff, a rhythmic idea or a melody. I might play a groove on the bass or it might just be a tune that comes to me when I’m out and about, walking or on the bus. It makes for some awkward moments trying to make surreptitious recordings on my phone! Then I’ll sit down with the piano, then Sibelius to work things out and start thinking about the instrumentation. When I’ve got a piece that’s pretty much complete, I’ll take it to the group – which I always feel really nervous about – and it will naturally evolve further as the others input their ideas.
LJN: You wrote five out of the album’s eight tracks and the remaining three were from other group members. Is it hard to keep the sound cohesive with multiple compositional voices?
AR: I think it depends on the outfit. For us, it works well. We’ve all been playing in this quintet since its beginning so we know the group’s sound and each other’s playing really well. It’s one of the lovely things about having had the same line-up the whole time – we all write for the band. It’s not an easy thing to achieve in jazz, where everyone is involved in multiple projects at the same time; many bands end up needing deps for touring, etc. We are all still having fun making music together and, perhaps more importantly, spending time together; I feel very lucky.
LJN: For anyone who’s not yet heard ARQ’s music, how would you describe the sound?
AR: Hmm that’s not easy… Other people have described it as being melodic, with a cinematic, narrative feel. I think there are a lot of textures and colour; I’m really into grooves and I like to mix great tunes with rhythmic interplay. But most importantly I want people to connect emotionally to the music and I put a lot of myself and genuine experience into it and I think – I hope – that this comes across in the sound. I’ve always been inspired by Charlie Haden’s playing and his ability to convey so much in just a few notes. That’s what I try to do as well.
LJN: So when is the new album out?
AR: It’s released on Blow The Fuse Records on 25 October and, for the first time, we’ll also be releasing on vinyl. I’m excited about that as I grew up with vinyl and have great memories of going to record shops, getting a new record home and sitting there listening to it while reading the sleeve notes. Releasing my own record on vinyl feels really special and I’m excited about what might be coming up now for ARQ – with new music, a new album and lots of great gigs to look forward to! (pp)