Composer, guitarist and current BBC New Generation artist Rob Luft recently released his second album, Life Is The Dancer. We catch up with him about releasing an album under lockdown, learning new digital skills in isolation and looking forward to making music with friends once more:
First album you purchased as a “jazz musician”?
My Favourite Things by John Coltrane. I got hold of it on CD at Resident Music, which is a fantastic independent record store in the heart of The Lanes in Brighton. The title track of this classic album will forever remain very close to my heart, and I now think of it as being the ‘gateway drug’ that shifted my musical interests from more mainstream music towards jazz and improvised music. The modal, searching quality that I found in McCoy Tyner’s piano accompaniments and in Coltrane’s own sheets-of-sound soprano sax playing were such an epiphany to me. I would go so far as to say that my life was never the same again!
What are you listening to right now?
At the moment, I’m listening to Australian saxophonist Jayden Blockley’s debut album I Wrote A Song For Her, For Me. It has a truly beautiful, low-lights quality to it.
I’ve been listening quite a lot to Chris Hyson’s new EP that came out early on this year, Cuddle Kitchen Vol. 1. It’s a really uplifting listen, and the sound quality of the EP is so crystalline that the music just flows out of the speakers and into the ear. Highly recommended…
I’ve also been spending my evenings working my way through the entire filmography of P.T. Anderson, several of which feature some absolutely gorgeous soundtracks by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. I’ve come to the conclusion that his soundtracks are masterpieces as albums in their own right.
Have you done or watched any livestream gigs since lockdown?
Yes, I’ve done several livestreamed gigs from my sofa since the lockdown began in duo with my partner, Elina Duni, who is a wonderful Swiss-Albanian jazz singer and ECM recording artist. I’m blessed to have Elina with me here in London in this period as we’ve got a well-rehearsed duo project that we’ve been touring across Europe since Autumn 2017. We’ve also recorded several “home sessions“ for the likes of Jazz FM, BBC Radio 3 and some online podcasts.
It is quite a bizarre experience doing livestream concerts but I feel these online “gigs“ are somewhat of a necessity for us musicians at this point, just to be able to continue disseminating our music to audiences, albeit in a virtual way. I believe that listeners still crave the experience of witnessing live music, created in the moment, for the moment. Of course, nothing can replace the euphoria of playing to a full house in a dimly-lit jazz club, but for now, this digital substitute will have to make do!
How has the experience of releasing a new album under lockdown been?
I can’t deny it’s been pretty tough releasing my new album under the lockdown! My 17-date album launch tour has fallen by the wayside, all the summer music festivals have been cancelled, and the traditional press that would normally be interested in covering record reviews have got their hands full covering the coronavirus crisis and its far-reaching effects.
Nevertheless, I’ve been enjoying a very direct connection with listeners online, many of whom have been writing lovely messages to me saying that my music has been providing some solace and warmth in these incredibly testing times. I’m trying to focus on the silver lining that while people are locked down at home they will have more time to deeply listen to new music and to appreciate my album over a period of extended listening, rather than simply discovering the first track on a Spotify playlist, or something similarly superficial!
What is the inspiration behind the album’s title, Life is a Dancer?
It comes from a quote by the American spiritualist Eckhart Tolle: “Life is the dancer and you are the dance”. It feels inadvertently incredibly relevant to the times we are all currently living through now, in the sense that he is saying ‘life lives you’, rather than you live your own life. This idea really captivated me and I think it can help us all to go with the flow of life and its constantly changing nature and simply make the best of any given situation that we are in.
The quote also relates to the album in the sense that many of the new tracks are heavily inspired by different dance rhythms. The opening track, “Berlin”, as you can probably guess, is inspired by the pulsating rhythms of German techno music. The title track, “Life is the Dancer”, is heavily inspired by Malian Desert Blues artists such as the Tuareg group Tinariwen and the wonderful Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. The fourth track, “One Day In Romentino”, makes a heavy nod to an influence I mentioned above, the great English rock band Radiohead. I could go on…
Most memorable moment in your career or education?
It’s incredibly difficult to put my finger on one particular event, but I would say that working with the master musicians in Loose Tubes for their reformation concerts at Ronnie Scott’s in 2015 was a bit of a watershed moment. I learned so much just watching the interactions between the various geniuses in that band, not to mention actually sitting next to the amazing John Parricelli in rehearsals and studying the great guitar parts written by some of the composers in the band.
Instrument you wish you played?
I can say without hesitation that I wish I played the piano! As a child, I started with violin around the age of four, and migrated to guitar around the age of 6 or 7. These days, having spent many hours alone working with the instrument, I find the guitar to be a bit of a poor man’s piano! There are an endless number of harmonic devices that you simply can’t pull off with six strings that are rudimentary on the 88 black and white keys of the piano! Hopefully I’ll be reincarnated as a pianist.
Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas?
I can honestly say that I’ve never learnt so much about the recording process in my entire life as I have over the past six weeks, both in terms of audio as well as visuals. I’ve swiftly become a semi-professional recording engineer, mixing engineer, video editor and live broadcaster! If this quarantine period hadn’t happened, I would never have invested the time in developing these key skills that we all need to have at our disposition as jazz musicians in the digital era.
What are you most looking forward to once this is over?
I’m so much looking forward to playing music again with some of my favourite musicians – Eddie Parker, Corrie Dick, Byron Wallen, Jon Falt, Ellen Andrea Wang, Alice Zawadzki, and many others, and to sharing stages with them around London, the UK and beyond… The day cannot come soon enough!
A chance to plug a friend’s music right now…
The pianist in my quintet, Joe Webb, recently released a wonderful EP in trio with Shane Forbes and Tom Farmer on Ubuntu Music called For Everything Else. It’s a great 30-minute slice of piano trio, and really merits repeated listens. The title track is just stunning.