For drummer Sam Jesson the road to becoming a bandleader was a slow and arduous one complicated by a debilitating condition needing a series of not always successful medical operations. But he’s striding forward strongly now, as John Fordham found out:
If you happened to be wearying of an entrenched reputation as one of London jazz’s best-kept secrets, then setting up your own 17-date tour and debut album for a head-turning new band of local heroes sounds like a promising antidote. Sam Jesson, the drummer, promoter, teacher and all-round creative catalyst from Leicestershire, embarks on that adventure on the opening night of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival on November 15, followed by a winter tour for his new Magpie Trio (focusing, among other challenges, on the music of Ahmad Jamal) which promises to spread his name across much wider UK jazz circles, from Cardiff to Tyneside. Though Jesson’s fellow alumni from the influential Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course know plenty about him – as do some regulars at Tottenham’s Post Bar and Camden’s Con Cellar – the drummer’s newly-formed trio with powerful saxophonist George Crowley, and Empirical’s fine double bassist Tom Farmer, will be a step-change in this enthusiastic and enterprising young musician’s creative life that’s been a long time coming.
Sam Jesson readily admits “I can talk about music all day”, but he can also talk about anything that intrigues or involves him with an irrepressible bouyancy that’s evident from the first exchanges of a conversation. Within a few minutes of LJN’s opening enquiry about his background (because, unusually in this self-revelatory age, hardly any of his personal story is online), Jesson has obligingly raced to fill the gaps as if he’s making up for lost time. He was born 34 years ago, one of four siblings, in a village near Melton Mobray in Leicestershire. His father had moved from mining to farming, to a career as a vicar after the farm foundered, his mother was a trained music teacher – so music was in his life from early on, particularly an affection for the drums. His first full kit was his eighth birthday present, and as a regular church attender with the family, the boy became fascinated by a local drummer following their move to Loughborough, by the name of Clive Bott.
“Clive was a good church drummer,” Jesson recalls, “and I would watch him every Sunday morning. I learned the rudiments and then did all the Grades, played in all the school bands, and turned out to be the only drummer in just about every school I attended. Leicestershire Arts also ran a fantastic music service in the early ‘90s, there would be opportunities to play steel pans, orchestral percussion, everything – and orchestral conductors often didn’t know much about drums, so when it came to the drum parts they’d just say ‘ad lib’. That was a great incentive, because you can quite quickly learn to apply what you’re learning to all kinds of different situations. I always say to my students ‘ears first, rather than hands. Listen to what’s going on around you, and play from that’.”
Jesson’s experience of jazz in those early days was restricted to trad jazz gigs with his father in his teens “while chewing pork scratchings in smoky pubs”. But at 14, he heard his first modern jazz music, when his brother brought albums of Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles back from university.
“Those albums completely changed my approach to playing,” Jesson says, “and I think Miles Smiles, although it’s a quintet set, probably planted the seeds of my interest in trio music. Herbie Hancock is only playing with his right hand on three of those tracks, and Tony Williams is so often right in there on drums with Wayne Shorter, playing these repetitive extended comping patterns, getting so much out of a simple rhythmic idea. I realised how much I liked blurring that line in a group between comping and solos.”
Sam Jesson attended Birmingham Conservatoire from 2004 to 2008, arriving after the graduation of the first intake on the college’s then newly-founded jazz course. Two immensely experienced drum tutors – the late Tony Levin, a Birmingham local with a Europe-wide reputation, and the expat New Yorker Jeff Williams – were powerful influences for him, as was jazz-promoting dynamo Tony Dudley-Evans, whose Birmingham Jazz organisation was helping to revitalise the city’s outlets for the music. Jesson began to get acquainted with artists from the London jazz and improv scene through their visits to Birmingham venues like The Yardbird.
“When I was in my fourth year at Birmingham, I heard Julian Siegel’s Live At The Vortex album with the Americans Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, which was a revelation,” Jesson remembers. “A little later I heard Liam Noble’s Brubeck album, which had a similar effect. It wasn’t the chopsy, macho music that students try to impress people with, it was respectful of the tradition but not bogged down with showing how well you can do it in a box-ticking way.”
But one development in Sam Jesson’s final college year was an unwelcome one. He learned that he had a prematurely arthritic condition in his feet, requiring surgery likely to put a serious brake on his life as a drummer.
“When I was 21, I turned out to have feet as knackered as someone who’s been in the building trade for 40 years,” Jesson reveals, with a laugh that doesn’t sound remotely hollow. “It’s all sorted now, though after I’d moved to London it took seven operations over nine years, only the last two of which worked properly. It slowed things down, but I was still playing in between, anything from small groups, to the Noise Union big band I formed to bring the Birmingham and London players together, and which would do things like mad rearrangements of Thelonious Monk tunes. I didn’t get despondent about all the surgery. Having good friends is a big help. After my fifth operation, the pianist Kit Downes was out of action too, with a hand injury – so we just sat and talked about music and he introduced me to Star Trek on TV, which passed the time pretty well. And I was listening to interesting arrangements, and thinking about music all the time, even under the influence of pretty heavy painkillers. It really focuses your attention and shows you what you most want to do, and that’s what happened to me. This trio came out of it.”
When he got the all-clear at the end of 2018, Jesson decided to treat his recuperation period “like a Master’s”, studying the detail of a personal music slowly forming in his thoughts. Jesson called Tom Farmer, the eclectic and experienced Empirical bassist he had known for 14 years, and suggested they rehearse some Ahmad Jamal arrangements he’d been working on. As those dialogues progressed, Jesson became increasingly sure of the group sound he wanted, and that George Crowley was the element that would complete it.
“I’ve played with George a lot, originally in the Golders Green house I first lived in when I came to London, where the Loop Collective started,” Jesson says. “George can whistle almost any famous saxophone solo you can think of, and it felt obvious it was going to be him for the trio. I’d also been running some jazz nights at the Post Bar in Tottenham, where we’d get a different composer/bandleader in each week – trumpeter Freddie Gavita, and the saxophonists Alice Leggett and Riley Stone Lonergan have been among them – to play tributes of their own choice to famous jazz artists. We called them the Magpie Sessions because magpies are scavengers, and we were scavenging music from the likes of Monk, Ellington, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Konitz. So on this ‘Magpie Tour’, the trio will be playing one set of Ahmad Jamal arrangements on each gig, and one set taken from the best of the Magpie sessions. We’ve also got some great lightweight recording kit thanks to the help from Alex Bonney, so we’re going to record every gig all over the country, and make a compilation album representing the UK jazz scene today. Alongside that, we want to do a studio project something like Liam (Noble) did with the Brubeck album, taking whatever studio time it needs to do those amazing Ahmad Jamal pieces properly.”
As a younger-generation UK musician currently devoted to acoustic jazz – sourced from some of the music’s classic materials at that – does Sam Jesson ever feel drawn toward the very different perception of jazzmaking represented by its more electronic, hip-hop and neo-soul-influenced contemporary practitioners?
“A lot of that music sounds great,” Jesson unhesitatingly says. “The grooves Sons of Kemet play sound fantastic to me. But I think there are more common elements in contemporary music coming out of jazz than there are differences. One of George Crowley’s many interests happens to be Berlin techno, for instance. And when you listen to minimalist techno, it can sound surprisingly like Ahmad Jamal. When he plays Autumn Leaves, it’s interesting how that kind of 1950s jazz can sound like dance music now. You can dance to Jimmy Cobb playing drums with Miles Davis. Tom Farmer likes a lot of downtown New York jazz, but the grooves in that are fascinating, despite the ways they’re often disguised. All of us know what the sound of people wanting to socialise to a beat sounds like, even if we want to play a lot of other things too. I just want all of that stuff in our respective backgrounds to come out when we get on the road.” (pp)