Bassist Calum Gourlay was born in Glasgow, and grew up in Fife, playing in his father’s jazz workshops and Scottish big bands, including Tommy Smith’s Youth Jazz Orchestra. He’s now based in London. His quartet Thelonious focuses on Monk’s music,and he runs and writes for a monthly Calum Gourlay Big Band gig at London’s Vortex. He talked to Alison Bentley about his new Calum Gourlay Quartet, with Helena Kay (tenor), Kieran McLeod (trombone) and James Maddren (drums), and their upcoming album, New Ears, and tour:
LondonJazz News: Tell me about your new Quartet. The combination of tenor and trombone is quite unusual – Sonny Rollins and JJ Johnson, Dave Holland with Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks…
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Calum Gourlay: …Bob Brookmeyer with Stan Getz. That Dave Holland band was a massive influence on me. It’s mainly about the guys really. I just love Helena and Kieran’s playing. They’re such an important part of the big band. I thought, how can I make tenor and trombone work together? What the big band taught me is, they’re actually very similar in range, and the sounds blend so well. To write for the big band, I have to start with an idea or a small band piece, then fill it out. I had a play with Helena, James and Kieran, and I thought, now I’ve trimmed it down to the bare essentials, this could be a band in itself.
LJN: What do Helena, Kieran and James bring to the quartet?
CG: I tried to make the album cover about them. They’re three different personalities, but they all work so well together. I’ve never seen any of them give less than 100%. Kieran and I are both about the same age. He always goes for it, and always improvises, and he’s a real inspiring guy to be around. James I’ve known for a long time – he was at the Royal Academy at the same time as me. The second I started playing with him I thought he was great. He’s super busy and it’s great that he makes time to come and play in my band. I don’t give him any music – I give him the score of everyone else’s parts and I just let him do what he does, he makes up his own part. I think in a lot of modern jazz, we’re in danger of forgetting what improvising is. I think such an important part of being a jazz composer is to give people some fun stuff to improvise on. Helena was in the big band from the start too. She really learns the pieces that you send her – she comes back and knows the music as well as I do. She’s a solid musician with a beautiful tenor sound. They all bring so much.
I’ve had to listen to the album a lot over the last 6 months or so. My first thought was to be critical of myself, and now I think it’s a good album because of the bigger picture. If you’ve got great musicians, they can make anything work and more importantly, make it sound a lot better than you might have initially thought.
LJN: How would you describe some of the new quartet tunes?
CG: I think they’ve all got a big band flavour to them, a stripped-down big band without any harmony instrument. They’ve got a big band energy and sound but with a more streamlined quartet. All the tunes were written in a slightly different way, so with Blue Fugates I was trying to write a blues, but I wanted to write with a different form. Emotional Trombone – I didn’t mean to call it that, but a Word file got corrupted and I thought that was a good title, because the trombone is one of my favourite instruments.
LJN: Sick Cat sounded quite Monkish?
CG: There’s this Monk tune called Brilliant Corners. Hans Koller’s theory about that tune is that he tried to write it on the chords to I Got Rhythm but it went a bit wrong. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Playing on those chords is a real common currency among jazz musicians, and I wanted to have one of my own.
LJN: And you have a tour coming up?
CG: As a side man I’ve played in other people’s bands, with Tommy Smith, Kit Downes, Trish Clowes. I’m very lucky to be able to go round to all these different venues. I wanted to play in all the places I’d really loved playing before. They’ve all got a great sound, room and audiences, and great promoters who really work their arses off to get people down. They love the music and know a lot about it. (pp)
The Calum Gourlay Quartet’s New Ears (Ubuntu Music) is released on 6 December.
22 Oct: St. Ives Jazz Club
24 Oct: Blue Lamp, Aberdeen (*)
25 Oct: Blue Arrow, Glasgow(*)
1 Nov: Fleece Jazz, Colchester
6 Nov: Flute & Tankard, Cardiff
8 Nov: Birmingham Jazz, 1000 Trades
9 Nov: The Vortex, London
15 Nov: Wakefield Jazz Club
16 Nov: The Verdict, Brighton
(*)Alyn Cosker Drums