Feature/Interview

In lockdown with… cellist Shirley Smart

In the first of a new series, we catch up with cellist Shirley Smart to find out what she’s been up to during lockdown and take a stroll down musical memory lane.

First album you purchased as a “jazz musician”?

The first really straight ahead jazz album I bought was Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus. It was the first one I heard properly and connected with. I love Rollins’ tenor sound – it’s so gritty, and earthy, and also the way he builds motivic ideas is incredibly powerful. That album also made me fall totally in love with Tommy Flanagan – he has an amazing touch, and his sound really got to me straight away. He’s to this day one of my favourite jazz pianists.

Shirley Smart

Shirley Smart. Photo Monika S. Jakubowska.

What are you listening to right now?

Lots of things! I’m always pretty eclectic with my listening habits, although I do go through phases of listening to certain things. My background has taken in western classical music, Middle eastern music and jazz, all of which I consider a really integral part of my life in different ways. I have recently been re-engaging with classical music having not really listened to it all that much for almost 20 odd years. But it’s rather nice to come back to it again, especially some of the chamber music, with a fresh perspective. It feels more like listening to it on my owns terms rather than something I am expected to like, and also now having lived in several contexts where the whole terms of music making are very different, it really gives a different filter to it.

It is also quite liberating listening to it as a composer or musicologist rather than a performer, because I don’t perform that repertoire any more, and haven’t done for about 20 years. I was totally captivated by Maurizio Pollini’s recording of the Brahms Piano Quintet with Quartetto Italiano last week – the power he has in controlling the tension and dynamic across very large scale movements is incredible. I had it on a loop for two days solid. And for some reason I also decided to explore some recordings of Ancient Greek music the other day – I find the music of antiquity absolutely fascinating, and all the different ways of approaching working out what music 2-3,000 years ago sounded like…..there’s something wonderful about that.

I’m also listening to loads of jazz, currently Wynton Kelly’s albums Piano and Kelly Blue, both of which I really love – he has an incredible swing feel, and is so expressive with not always that many notes. I love how he builds into his solos as well. I’m also trying to catch up with listening to current artists – there are so many people on the UK scene releasing amazing stuff!

Have you done or watched any livestream gigs since lockdown?

No. Obviously, like everyone else, I had all my gigs cancelled for the next few months, but I really just didn’t feel like I wanted to replace them with livestreaming. I’ll wait.

I think people have different feelings about this. Sam Leak wrote a very thoughtful piece in here last week (LINK HERE) about his experience doing a livestreamed solo gig at The Lescar in Sheffield, which accentuated the positives and clearly was as successful as an essentially social event can possibly be when done online. But I think it’s a personal thing how one responds to a situation like this, and also important to respect people’s different responses and coping mechanisms. For me, I didn’t feel that I wanted to livestream solo things, which is all that is realistically possible at the moment – I just don’t think I’d enjoy it, and it’s certainly not a replacement for the interaction that I’d have with John Crawford and Demi Garcia Sabat, who play in my trio, or the other musicians that I play with. I’d rather wait until things are rescheduled, and get on with other projects in the meantime.

I have to say, though, that the venues and promoters who have had to cancel things have been absolutely wonderful – all have tried to reschedule, and the awareness and initiatives in terms of support for artists has been amazing. It’s a difficult period for everyone, but people have really been doing what they can.

Most memorable incident in your career or education?

There have been a few. The one that’s sitting with me today is the time when Arnie Lawrence made me sight-read a John Coltrane solo (I don’t recall which one!) live at a gig in front of a fairly large audience…and then thought that it would be a fair enough thing to do to remove the music about four bars in. It was both one of the most terrifying and liberating on-stage experiences I have ever had, as well as an inspired (if slightly brutal) piece of teaching.

Arnie was a real old school NYC horn player, and an amazing composer and educator. I had been going to his workshops at the Centre for Creative Music in Ein Kerem, just outside Jerusalem, and he could see that I could get round the instrument, and that my ears worked, but that I was struggling with building ideas as an improviser, and wasn’t used to thinking musically in that way. This ‘lesson’ on stage forced me to rely solely on my ears and to react with the music in the moment, rather than thinking too consciously about what I was playing. This spatial way of being in the sound was a totally new experience for me and at that point in time was exactly what I needed. It was a bit like someone taking the stabilisers off your bike when you’re a kid and shoving you off a mountain – but it worked and it’s a lesson I have never forgotten!

Instrument you wish you played?

Sometimes I wish I played an instrument more usual in a jazz context, as then there would be all sorts of nonsense I wouldn’t have had to deal with. But on the other hand, playing an unusual instrument can cut both ways. And, I do love the cello, and it would seem a bit silly to try and learn another instrument just for the sake of fitting in, when I would never be able to play it as well. I’ve put the hours in on the cello, and I love knowing and exploring the instrument further. I borrow ideas from all sorts of other instrumentalists – horn players, bass players and guitarists especially, and I have been known to steal from oud players as well. So that occasional wistfulness that life could perhaps have been a bit more simple if I didn’t play such a ‘non-traditional’ instrument usually dissipates pretty quickly when I remember how much fun I’m having with it.

Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas?

Well, it’s certainly given me time to continue developing some projects. I have a freely improvised duo album with James Arben on tenor sax/flute and bass clarinet, which we are finishing post-production on and will be releasing soon, and also a duo album with pianist Robert Mitchell that needs work. I’m writing a new album for a sextet – which will be an extension of my existing trio. I’ve also got a few compositional projects that I’d like to work on – some string duos and possibly pieces for string sextet and nonet which have been sitting in my ‘Get Round to This ASAP’ folder, so we’ll see if that gets opened during this time. I have a folder full of research PDFs from my Ph.D. supervisor which is likely to keep me busy for a bit as well.

I was also asked to contribute something for a gig at the Horse Club on 22 April and I thought I’d try and do a bit of multi-track improvisation recording and see what happens. I’m not tremendously advanced with recording technology (as in, I just about worked out how Garageband works yesterday), so I will see what I can come up with. The idea of having a decent home recording set-up and learning how to use it properly is something I’ll certainly be looking into later as I’ve had several ideas for mini-projects, and the possibilities of recorded as opposed to live performance started to womble into my mind yesterday as I was fiddling round with my various tech toys. These include a loop pedal which I did finally accept I am never, ever going to use live on a gig, but the idea of melding tracks with pre-recorded loops and phrases and improvising over them is something I would like to explore.

What are you most looking forward to once this is over?

Seeing my brother and my mum, getting back to making music with my colleagues and friends and playing for people, and going out for a glass of wine with my friends at my favourite wine bar.

A chance to plug a friend’s music right now…

Robert Mitchell has a solo album out called The Rainbow Mountain/Can We Care. This is a recording from a live set that Robert played at the Jazz Cafe in July 2018, opening for the Vijay Iyer Sextet. I was at the gig, and it was a totally mesmerising set of one long solo improvisation. The breadth of thought and range of ideas in there, but still with a coherence over the whole track, and Robert’s terrifyingly prolific technique and boundless imagination are amazing. It’s one I would recommend for any collection.

Listen to Robert Mitchell’s album on bandcamp

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