Feature/Interview

Nat Steele – ‘Sonny Rollins and the MJQ’ (UK tour, 4-18 Feb)

Following on from vibraphonist Nat Steele’s celebratory album Portrait Of The Modern Jazz Quartet and the rapport he found playing with Canadian tenor man Grant Stewart, what was the natural next step? A ‘Sonny Rollins and the MJQ Tour’ of course! Nat spoke to Martin Chilton:

Fresh off the back of rave reviews for his debut quartet album Portrait Of The Modern Jazz Quartet, Nat Steele and his band – along with renowned Toronto-born tenor saxophone giant Grant Stewart – are embarking on an intense British tour, taking in 17 gigs in a fortnight. “There’s lots of variety in terms of the venues we’re playing, so even with all the traveling between gigs it’s going to be great fun,” Steele told LondonJazz News. “When you are playing every single night with the same band, you develop a connection and intimacy between the musicians and you can see a development of the music.”

Steele is a superb vibraphone player and his ‘Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet Tour’ builds on the success of that 2017 album. How pleased was he to get such good reviews from the jazz world and wider national press? “I was amazed by the reaction,” replies 34-year-old Steele. “Before the album, the first under my name, I’d not received much press, aside from a couple of gig reviews and things on other people’s records. We launched it at Ronnie Scott’s and from then on, very good reviews and articles came in thick and fast – even Forbes Magazine have written about us now.”

The response sparked a rise in bookings. “I started getting venues all over the place wanting to book us, and even in New York people seem to know who I am, which is a very odd thing to experience,” says Steele. “I was on a trip there in September and someone came up to me and said, ‘excuse me, are you that vibraphone player from London?’ while I was sitting in the audience at a gig. It’s been a big change for me! I was really pleased that reviewers seemed to get that we weren’t trying to copy the MJQ, but do our own thing, using them as an influence. That’s important. We’re not a covers band.”

The tour will also give British jazz fans an extended chance to hear Steele play with Stewart, a man who grew up steeped in the jazz of Coleman Hawkins and who has the sound and power to follow in the footsteps of Sonny Rollins.

How did they first hook up musically? “We first played together at BopFest back in 2018,” says Steele. “I’d always had a goal of playing with him and we hit it off immediately. You could tell from the huge audience reaction that we had a chemistry on the bandstand that’s quite rare. I really can’t wait for the tour to begin! Grant comes out of Rollins, but used that as a starting point and turned it into his own thing. He’s also steeped in Dexter Gordon, and you can hear it, especially when he’s playing a ballad. The inventiveness and creativity he displays in his improvisation, in a style that’s supposedly no longer progressive, is breath-taking. To me he’s among the most advanced musicians ever to play this music; he’s not recreating anything – he’s continuing on with it and going somewhere new!”

Added to the exciting mix is Steele’s own excellent quartet, which includes pianist Gabriel Latchin, bassist Dario Di Lecce and drummer Steve Brown. How much do they improvise on stage? “Oh it’s completely improvised,” responds Steele. “As a quartet we play the same arrangements – the opening and closing of each tune that the MJQ used – but over the past couple of years, it’s really taken on its own identity, as we’ve become more of a unit. Our solos and interpretations are completely different every time.”

Steele was a fan of Milt Jackson as a teenager – he was “obsessed” with the vibraphone star’s 1952 Blue Note Records Wizard Of The Vibes, which featured Lou Donaldson on alto saxophone – and still regularly plays this jazz classic. “It’s really an MJQ record in disguise, something I realised when I finally noticed who was in the rhythm section,” says Steele. “It’s more of a bebop date than later MJQ things and I think that’s why I still love it so much. A little later, I got more into the MJQ, so I knew quite a bit about them before I even contemplated starting this band. What impresses me about them is the breadth of their output – they produced a varied range of music in terms of style, from bebop to avant-garde to completely free. There’s even some musique concrète in the 1960s! They never stopped developing.”

Although Jackson is his main influence (he credits him as being an improviser capable of “transcending the limitations” of an instrument that is “a bunch of metal bars that you hit with a mallet wrapped in yarn”), Steele is also an admirer of vibes players Lionel Hampton, Dave Pike, Victor Feldman, Bobby Hutcherson and Cal Tjader. “In terms of other instrumentalists who’ve influenced me, I’d count Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins high on the list,” adds Steele.

Steele got started listening to records from labels such as Blue Note and Prestige through his dad’s collection. The jazz bug was passed on and Steele has built up his own album collection, “mostly from second-hand shops where you can still get some gems for hardly anything,” delighting in finding albums that are out-of-print. Steele was born in Birmingham in 1985 and grew up in Oxford (he was a chorister at New College) before moving to Reading. Both his parents work in music and follow his career closely. “They’re very supportive, although we often joke that they might have been less worried if I’d become an accountant or something more sensible,” says Steele. “But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

He has also been helped by an Arts Council England grant, which is helping fund touring costs. He acknowledges the importance of this funding. “It’s vital to the jazz economy in the UK,” says Steele. “Without it, this tour probably wouldn’t happen, or it would be on a much smaller scale. When Jazz Services disappeared a few years ago, many musicians feared it would be the end of touring for jazz in the UK, but it’s opened up opportunities. Going direct to the Arts Council is more flexible and makes more money available, although it means musicians take on more administrative work.”

Steele hopes that in future some funding might also go towards helping smaller regional venues, which are often run by dedicated volunteers, to encourage the regional grassroots venues that are “the bedrock” of the UK jazz scene, especially when it can be London-centric.

Does Steele see any difference in the reaction to jazz at different places around the UK? “Some regional venues can be very good at drawing in audiences who aren’t into just jazz, but they’re all as obsessed and bonkers about the music as we are, everywhere we go!” he replies. “It’s always exciting to walk into a new venue in another part of the country and to be able to get into a deep discussion with someone that you’ve only just met about Charlie Parker or Milt Jackson – it makes you realise it’s not such a niche interest, after all.”

 ‘Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet Tour’

Tuesday 4 Feb: Watermill Jazz Club, Dorking
Wednesday 5 Feb: Public saxophone workshop at LCCM, London 5-7pm
& Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (11pm)
Thursday 6 Feb: Folkestone Jazz Club
Friday 7 Feb: Royal Festival Hall Foyer, Southbank, London (1pm)
& Steyning Jazz Club, West Sussex (8pm)
Saturday 8 Feb: Lincoln Jazz PAC
Sunday 9 Feb: Lincoln Cathedral Jazz Mass (10.15am) & Peggy’s Skylight Jazz Club, Nottingham (6pm)
Monday 10 Feb: Severn Jazz, Worcester
Tuesday 11 Feb: Theatr Clywd, North Wales Jazz
Wednesday 12 Feb: Concorde Club, Eastleigh
Thursday 13 Feb: Shepperton Jazz Club
Friday 14 Feb: Malcolm Frazer house concert, Manchester
Saturday 15 Feb: Bear Club, Luton
Sunday 16 Feb: Crampton Theatre, Chelmsford (12.15pm)
Monday 17 Feb: The Oxford Tavern, Kentish Town (London)
Tuesday 18 Feb: Fleet Jazz at the Harlington, Hampshire

LINKS: Nat Steele’s website

LJN’s review of Portrait Of The Modern Jazz Quartet

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