Multi-instrumentalist, composer and teacher Kevin Figes has been a key figure on Bristol’s eclectic jazz scene since the early 2000s. But this month’s quartet album, Changing Times, unveils new facets of an unpredictable artist. Feature by John Fordham :
Kevin Figes. Publicity Photo
When there’s a long silence from a creative musician, you can usually reckon there’s a good reason – and when it ends, that artist’s story is likely to have moved adventurously on. This month, Kevin Figes, the much-respected Bristol-based saxophonist, flautist, composer and teacher, releases his quartet’s first album since 2016 with this month’s quartet set ‘Changing Times’ – a collection of new pieces that scan wider horizons of contemporary music than even this stylistically agile musician has traversed before, touching on the ideas of Brazilian composing visionary Hermeto Pascoal, harmonically innovative German classical composer Paul Hindemith, iconic 1960s-born electronica originals Soft Machine, and a lot more.
Kevin Figes has been a first-call horn sideman for a raft of powerful and popular West Country-based bands from former James Brown MD Pee Wee Ellis’s gospelly outfits, to guitarist Denny Ilett’s Hendrix-devoted Electric Lady Big Band and even a bespoke Glastonbury Park Stage ensemble formed to play the TV themes of ‘Thunderbirds’ composer Barry Gray – and his own 4 Sided Triangle group with guitarist Mike Outram has also showcased how punchy Figes’ groove-playing can be. But his curiosity about tough situations that take him to a different kind of edge has also been evident in his work over the past 15 years or more, notably in piano firebrand Keith Tippett’s Tapestry big band and Octet, groups that adventurously balance advanced composition and free-improv. That’s a significant element of the fuel for Changing Times, a venture true to its title a fine jazz artist’s very personal soundworld in transition. Over the phone from Bristol, Kevin Figes agrees that the past few years of reflection, in which he has done as much saxophone teaching as playing (he teaches sax at the city’s university) have brought him to a turning point in his musical life.
‘It’s been a bit of hiatus,’ Figes says, as we begin by pondering on the four years that have passed since 2016’s quartet release Weather Warning and his octet’s ‘Time Being‘. ‘I lost my enthusiasm for music for a while, it was a combination of various personal matters, and the death of my father, and my mother going into care. It was a bad thing for me to lose my way, because music’s been central to my life for so long. But I found the way back by making myself transcribe different kinds of pieces, including some pretty difficult ones, which got me back into writing. The pieces on this album emerged from that, and they set me thinking about composers and bands from all kinds of contemporary music that I hadn’t considered before.’
The resourcefulness of Figes’ playing partners was a big help in this process. His empathy with long-time keyboard partner and fellow Bristolian Jim Blomfield (playing piano, Hammond organ and vintage Prophet synthesiser on Changing Times) is always present, as is the pair’s rapport with drummer Mark Whitlam. Experienced electric bassist Thad Kelly slots into the band as if he were an old hand in it (he was a late deputy on the recording for indisposed regular Riaan Vosloo), and vocalist Emily Wright‘s ethereal sound and dynamic subtlety grace two tracks. Dreamy flute themes drift over looping synth hooks, deceptively tranquil vocal reveries turn to spinetingling horror-movie mayhem; there are funky excursions for Figes’ muscular baritone sax (he’s a powerful boppish swinger on the heavy horn) and wistfully lyrical ones for his delicate soprano, and even an exhilarating, melodically wriggling tribute to Soft Machine composer and keyboardist Mike Ratledge. Figes’ ‘Toothpick’ (a wry homage to Ratledge’s ingenious composition ‘Teeth’) drives home how surefootedly the Bristolian crosses diverse idioms and the grooves that go with them, but also how evocatively his tone on an alto saxophone can recall that of the late great jazz improviser and sometime Soft Machine member Elton Dean – his first teacher on the instrument. Figes has absorbed the inspirations of many imaginative players over the years, including Tim Garland, his celebrated teacher at the Guildhall School of Music, and American originals from Charlie Parker and Charlie Mariano to contemporary New Yorker David Binney. But Elton Dean was a liberating mentor, and a model for the kind of musical openness that has guided Figes’ work ever since.
‘I was in Ray’s Jazz Shop in Shaftesbury Avenue one day in the 1980s, and I saw an advert from Elton there, offering saxophone lessons,’ Figes recalls. ‘I was amazed he was doing that, because he was already a big name on the British jazz scene by then, and I thought he wouldn’t need the money.’ Figes chuckles at the recollection. ‘Shows how much I knew about the jazz scene then. I soon realised he was completely broke, that was an early lesson in what the jazz life was like. Elton was wonderful, he gave me a lot of his time, and I had one-to-one lessons for two years at his flat in Stoke Newington. I’d played guitar and sung a bit in rock bands as a teenager, and I had some rough ideas about basic chord shapes from that, but I was a complete beginner in jazz. Elton not only opened all that up for me, but he also introduced me to Keith Tippett, who has been another very important influence on my musical life.’
I invite Kevin Figes to reflect on some of the processes that went into the making of Changing Times, which span a long-term enthusiasm for prog-rock, a devotion to thriller-movie cinema (he was making his own spooky short film in parallel with the recording session, which the album’s ghostly ‘Strange Place’ was a part of), postbop, improv, and the growing absorption in 20th century classical composition that looks like playing a growing role in his future work.
‘Mike Ratledge’s “Teeth” was on Soft Machine 4, and I thought it was a really interesting piece of composition,’ Figes says of the album’s mercurial ‘Toothpick’. ‘It was pretty much a blueprint for that track, and Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” was an influence on it too. But however much I’m inspired by someone’s music, I feel that whatever comes out in the end always has a bit of me in it. With the piece I called “Radio Play”, the trigger was Paul Hindemith, because I’d been playing his “Eight Studies for Solo Flute” and I was fascinated by the way he was departing from normal harmonies, yet somehow they didn’t sound atonal to me. “Guiding Light” goes back to a gig I heard Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren play – it included a lovely Hermeto Pascoal tune they liked so much they played it again at the end. I went home, wrote the melody, found figuring out the chords was a real challenge because Hermeto mixes jazz and classical harmonies so well – and when I came to rehearse it with Jim (Blomfield), he said “why don’t we just play it straight through once”, and it felt right to keep it simple and do it that way.’
On the eve of his album’s release, Kevin Figes now says he already has enough new pieces for its successor – an indication of how productively his composing muse has been unlocked in recent times.
‘I’ve been going through a period of study for a while,’ Figes reaffirms, ‘and now there are currently no gigs except for live-streaming – which is really interesting, by the way, I’ve just done my first one for the Bristol Fringe pub in Clifton – that’s made me study more of course. I’m listening to a lot of contemporary classical music, reading Hindemith’s and Schoenberg’s writing on music as well as listening to their compositions, and I’m intrigued by some radical thoughts about structure written by Chris Cutler, who was the drummer in Henry Cow, an amazing British experimental rock group of the 1970s which I’ve recently discovered and now can’t imagine how I missed them for so long. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years playing rock and jazz on a saxophone, and dealing with regular jazz harmony, and I still love that. But I’m in a phase where I feel “that part of me lives over there, and I’m over here now”. I just want to make a personal music, and I want it to evolve.’
The Kevin Figes Quartet’s Changing Times is out on 12 June on Pig Records – http://pigrecords.co.uk