“I think it’s a harrowingly beautiful title, just those two words are evocative of what the music’s about,” says London-born saxophonist and composer, Joshua Jaswon of his Octet’s debut album Silent Sea. The environmentally-concerned album integrates poetry by three British writers. He spoke to Rosa Sawer about the project.
Joshua Jaswon, the Guildhall-trained musician, who currently resides in Berlin, has always been keenly aware of the growing climate crisis as well as influenced by the written word.
“I’ve always read literature and been interested in it. Some writers, specifically Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray or Stanley Crouch, have been influential for me in my musical development, especially their non-fiction writings on jazz and society. I’m interested in any fictional writing that uses aesthetic ideas about jazz as its basis. I’ve never used it as a direct source for a composition, but it was always an idea to try,” explains Jaswon.
So it is unsurprising that Silent Sea focuses on the theme of climate change. He says “I knew words were going to play a part in this – I looked at texts from organisations like Greenpeace, WWF and environmental speeches, but lyrically I wasn’t inspired by them.”
Then Jaswon read three British poets’ works dealing with climate change – Rachael Boast, Maura Dooley and Jackie Kay – and felt energised. “They’re the ones that resonated with me in terms of the syllable structures, the rhymes, the word rhythms and I thought ‘let’s see what happens when we put these into a musical context.’”
And this, according to Jaswon, was something in which Boast, Dooley and Kay were happy to participate: “All three of them were very positive and encouraging about the project and that gave me a lot of confidence.” On the sleeve note, Jackie Kay states: “The jazz music fits the poem like a hand to a glove… It’s a pleasure for a poet to have their words so thoughtfully put to music.”
Yet his album’s comment on climate change is not without self-awareness: “If an artist or musician makes an album or a piece of art on this topic, we’re not putting ourselves on a pedestal. I need to do as much as anyone to reduce my carbon footprint, more things that have a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions.” The release date for this album couldn’t be better timed. Amongst the buzz of Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough’s new Netflix release and people’s general heightened awareness of our planet’s finitude, Silent Sea represents a musical expression of the uneasiness surrounding the Earth’s future.
The album connects environment, music, art and poetry. The sleeve note features the texts of the three poems and beautifully designed illustrations by Cécile Bidault and Mat Miller, so the album is not only a listening experience, but a visual one too.
Over the years, jazz and poetry have become well acquainted friends. Following on from America’s Beat generation, the ’60s in the UK, for example, saw the formation of the New Departures Quartet with Stan Tracey. They improvised with the poetry of Cream lyricist Pete Brown and poet Michael Horovitz, blurring the lines between poetry and music.
In Silent Sea, the relationship between word and instrument means that every syllable and every beat count. “When I started messing around with melodies or rhythmic motifs set to some of the poems’ sentences, I could make five minutes of interesting music from one line of text. So I let the composition develop naturally in relation to the words,” explains Jaswon.
The writing of this album happened over a two-year period, with gigs along the way in Copenhagen and Paris that allowed for minor adjustments post-performance.
Jaswon met his pan-European jazz ensemble – a group of highly talented European young jazz musicians – during his European Jazz Masters Course. It includes Dutch vocalist Anna Serierse, on whom Jaswon depends for the sonic achievement of his design: “Anna is a constant, really [the album] is written for her voice.”
As well as being a distinguished saxophonist, Jaswon is clearly a talented composer, managing to unite eight musical identities harmoniously without losing the essence of the Octet’s distinctive sound as a collective. Jaswon explains the core of the album: “The motif of the first three notes of Silent Sea, set to the word ‘another’ is where the next 35 minutes of music comes from.” In tying with Boast’s poem which bookends the suite, the album follows this musical thread. But the individual instruments aren’t afraid to divert before returning to the thematic centre, creating a confident, powerful piece of art. Jan Landowski’s trombone solo on Still Life with Sea Pinks and High Tide and Marc Doffey’s tenor playing on Extinction are just two instances of individual brilliance.
So, which song on the album is Jaswon most proud of? “The title track, Silent Sea, is most directly expressive. I was really blown away with Anna’s performance on that. She really communicates her relationship and her feelings to it.”
Aside from the music, how does he think people can reduce their impact on the environment? “It’s the massive organisations, governments, infrastructures – they need to make changes. But as people who engage with these industries, we need to have more of an awareness of our day-to-day actions.”
Jaswon recognises music’s ability to bring about experience through a different medium: “That’s the power we have as artists, we can’t change government policies, but we can create an emotional and cultural relationship with this topic.”
And this contemporary jazz album surely does just that. As we circle back to the title, ironically Joshua Jaswon’s Silent Sea is never quiet or apologetic in its intentions. The music is distinctive, flourishing and compels the audience to listen; a young talent undoubtedly with plenty more to look out for.
Silent Sea is released today on Ubuntu Music.
The UK tour of Silent Sea is set to be in Spring 2021.
LINKS: The texts and readings of the poems can be found HERE on the Guardian website.