Trumpeter Byron Wallen has a new album Portrait: Reflections on Belonging, his first as leader for 13 years. He is also about to set off on an extensive tour with his band Four Corners. Feature by John Fordham:
For a nomadic musician who has spent decades honing his craft with partners of many origins and methods all over the globe, the Belize-descended, London-raised trumpeter and composer Byron Wallen has lately been thinking a lot about home.
A skilful and expressive artist who emerged in the receding days of what was once dubbed the ‘British jazz boom’ of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Wallen quickly established himself back then as an independent-minded, jazz-steeped enthusiast as hip to the bluesy conviviality of Louis Armstrong as the intricacies of postbop or the grooves of fusion and funk. But soon he would also be studying the trance-rooted Sufi music of Morocco’s Gnawa traditions with the idiom’s local masters, and gamelan music in Indonesia, working with indigenous musicians in Uganda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and his parents’ homeland of Belize, and deepening his understanding of the similarities and differences of music-making across cultures in every way he could.
For his latest project however, Wallen’s gaze has shifted from those distant horizons to his own backyard in south-east London’s Abbey Wood, where he has lived since 1998 – although Portrait – Reflections on Belonging (his first album as a leader for 13 years) is audibly steeped in experiences he’s absorbed all the way back to his first eye-opening trips to South Africa and Morocco in the mid-1990s. The spark for the new venture was struck when the trumpeter was sitting in Woolwich’s central square watching the crowds go by – Nepalese and Nigerians, Somali mothers with their children, Lithuanians and Poles, long-time locals descended from dockworkers and munitions-makers at Woolwich Arsenal. It all set Wallen thinking about a project expressing his gratitude and respect for the people who had built, and still sustain, the community he has learned to call home over the past two decades. But the music on this atmospheric album (made with the trumpeter’s Four Corners band, comprising guitarist Rob Luft, bass guitarist Paul Michael and drummer Rod Youngs, with congas/talking drums-player Richard ‘Olatunde’ Baker guesting) draws on all of Wallen’s rich experiences from worlds far beyond SE18 – choirlike minimalist hums like Nordic jazz, gleeful hi-life grooves, street-market clamouring, Cuban dance vamps, and all through the sound of the leader’s trumpet with its jazz roots in Louis Armstrong, Woody Shaw, Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis.
‘I guess it feels like a long time, 13 years since my last album,’ Byron Wallen reflects, ‘but to me that time has just gone so quick. I’ve been very busy with commissions and projects, tours with the Ethiopian composer Mulatu Astatke, and a lot of teaching and workshops with schools, as well as conservatoire teaching at Trinity Laban and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. So that’s kept me at home more, but I’ve found it all very rewarding. This has felt to me like an important time to be documenting my own community, as a portrait of where I live and myself as a part of it.’
Wallen originally intended the album to feature a variety of musicians based in the area, performers he’d met and collaborated with on local events like Greenwich’s Tall Ships Festival and Woolwich’s Winter Warmer. The logistics of that proved too hard to pull together and the album became a project for Wallen’s regular band – but three tracks, notably including the warmly anthemic ‘Spirit of the Ancestors’, feature pupils from his workshops at Plumstead and Bannockburn primary schools, and the CD’s cover art is a haunting portrayal of Wallen (above) by local painter Marc Drostle, merged with symbolic seamlessness into a background photograph of Abbey Wood.
‘Spirit of the Ancestors came from a workshop in which we were trying to get the children to think about their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, people who may no longer be alive but have an enduring effect, one generation paving the way for the next,’ Wallen says. ‘They would bring in their own family stories and share them. I’ve always found it really rewarding to think about the social contexts of music, and its relation to dance, religion, ritual, psychology – that began when I was a student at Sussex University, initially doing pure maths, then broadening it out to psychology, philosophy and computer science, but the music was never second best, I always knew I wanted to be a musician.’
One of three siblings raised in Tottenham by their aunt and uncle, Byron Wallen studied classical piano (as did his sister Errollyn, who would go on to become an acclaimed contemporary-classical composer), played the euphonium briefly, and finally studied the trumpet with an inspiring traditional-jazz player, Peter Ruderforth. Wallen jammed on the Brighton and London jazz scenes during his student years at Sussex, and on a vacation visit to his parents in New York, also had lessons with American trumpet stars Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, and Donald Byrd. When he returned to London after graduating, Wallen became a regular with such local luminaries as Courtney Pine, Jean Toussaint, and Cleveland Watkiss – and as his reputation for versatility spread, that CV would expand to include appearances with Manu Dibango, Baaba Maal and Cheikh-Lo, rap and funk outfits including The Roots, Digable Planets and US3, and mainstream stars from Mica Paris and Desmond Dekker to Chaka Khan and Grace Jones.
‘I learned jazz first from the African-American tradition of course,’ Byron Wallen acknowledges. ‘But when I started studying in Morocco in the mid-’90s, and played with musicians who didn’t use western bar-structures and chords, it made me appreciate the importance of energy, rhythm and spirit in the music – I’ve been dealing with that ever since.’
Portrait: Reflections on Belonging revealingly reflects that non-western perspective in its episodes of tranquil meditation coloured by soft brass murmurs, Rob Luft’s glowing electronics, or the vaporous sound of the leader blowing conch-shells – but the album also captures the ways in which jazz has danced with African traditions and their various mutations through the diaspora and back to Wallen’s London, from the springy Cuban swinger Holler to the African-jiving Each For All and All For Each – the latter title a motto of the Woolwich Arsenal’s Cooperative Society. Returning to the theme of each new generation learning from the one before, Byron Wallen warms to memories of the giants his imagination and skills have brought him into close contact with, and how deeply their examples have been absorbed into the powerfully personal signature his music exhibits today.
‘When you work and talk with somebody like Jack DeJohnette, or the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill,’ Byron Wallen observes with some awe, ‘you learn not just about the music they make, but the role of music in their lives, the effect of all that experience – and it takes you to a new level. Working with Andrew Hill was the pinnacle of my jazz experience, being able to watch close up how he worked, in the big band and in his quintet. I toured quite a lot with the small group, Jason Yarde was in it, John Hebert on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, it was an amazing experience. I was always working on trying to become better, but with a band like that you suddenly know what it’s all for. But it’s been fantastic to work with Mulatu Astatke as well – his tunes are so epic and open – he likes invention within a modal structure – so there’s lots of space to ruminate in there. Through experiences like that, you begin to understand the motivation of people who have really had something to say, like John Coltrane – it shows you that what it really takes to create that music is to live it in your life.’ (pp)
Byron Wallen’s Portrait: Reflections on Belonging is released on Twilight Jaguar Productions.
His tour with Four Corners starts on Sunday 2 February at Colchester Arts Centre Jazz Club