Guitarist Pete Oxley was looking forward to 2020, the year which marks both his 60th birthday and the twenty-first year of weekly gigs at The Spin, Oxford’s contemporary jazz club. The pandemic has put paid to most celebrations, but he and his band partner Swiss guitarist Nic Meier combined with John Etheridge, The Spin’s opening guest from 1999 (and also Oxley’s first jazz guitar teacher!), to make a short film, entitled Who Knows? Interview by Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: Pete, the more one delves into your story the curiouser it gets….somewhere near the beginning came violin bows, right?
Pete Oxley: Actually, classical music came first! I grew up in a house of professional musicians (father: cathedral organist; mother: violinist), sang in the choir, went through the Associated Board exams on piano, trombone and then classical guitar. My brother and sister were clearly destined to become musicians but I was also drawing and doing woodwork as a kid! As a result, my mum introduced me to a great bow maker – who happened to live in my little town of Bury St. Edmunds – and as we got on, he offered me an apprenticeship, for which I am eternally grateful!
LJN: And “Kashmir”?
PO: Well, while I was doing my apprenticeship, I joined a local band called Kashmir. We were massively into prog (too late: punk was already in!) – particularly early Genesis. We wrote long meandering pieces, dressed up in costumes and did world-domineering tours of Suffolk!!
LJN: And then there was Leeds College of Music and jazz guitar?
PO: So after my apprenticeship, I got a place at LCM – though I must have cheated to get in: I really didn’t know anything about jazz aside from a bit of dixieland (as that was pretty much all that came to Bury in those days!). To be honest, I didn’t know much when I left either! The course wasn’t great for me….
LJN: And then Paris?
PO: So what do you do when you are 25 and want to live a bit? Well, you go to Paris, of course! I went busking for a month, then on the day I was about to leave, got offered a night playing in a restaurant. At the end of the gig, the owner asked if we could come back the following night. “Mais oui” was our immediate reply. At the end of that second gig, the patron said, “Can you guys play here every night?” My buddy and I looked at each other for about a nano-second and said “sure thing!”. And that led to me living in Paris for 10 years!
LJN: And then New Noakes Quartet, Curious Paradise, Eclectica!… are these all bands you led?
PO: Once I had realised that I was ‘living in Paris’, as opposed to just passing through, I began taking music seriously. I began a rigorous practice routine and soon started writing in a jazz idiom. At first, this was more or less re-writing standards, but I quickly found myself gravitating to longer-form writing and thinking texturally for a quartet lineup. My first touring group (playing original compositions) was the New Noakes Quartet, the band that I made my debut CD with as a leader.
After a second CD with the NNQ (and a trio album), I relocated to the UK. Having established The Spin jazz club (with drummer Mark Doffman and bassist Raph Mizraki), I re-formed my Paris group as the New Noakes Internationals for one more CD, then in 2002, formed Curious Paradise. This was a quintet that was a perfect outlet for my writing. The second incarnation for our live album English Elements comprised Mark Lockheart (saxes and bass clarinet), Steve Hamilton (keys), Steve Watts (basses), Russ Morgan (drums & perc.) and myself on various guitars. I’m still proud of that album – as I am with the following CD, Now!. The personnel then had Julian Nicholas replacing Mark, Phil Peskett on Keys and Oli Hayhurst on bass, with Russ and myself.
When Curious Paradise came to an end (due to the lack of funding for touring a quintet), I formed the group Eclectica!. This was something totally different to anything that I had done before as it was basically a ‘string quartet with groove’. The lineup was Lizzie Ball (violin & vocals), Bernard Gregor Smith (cello) Luis D’Agostino and myself on guitars. We played anything – as the band’s name implies! – from Stevie Wonder to Joni Mitchell, Chick Corea, Rachmaninov…and stuff that I wrote for this constellation. After a couple of years working up a repertoire, Luis went back to Argentina, to be replaced by Nicolas Meier!
LJN: Do you tend to lead or are you a sideman as well?
PO: As somebody that enjoys writing music, I have always led bands. The current project with Nic is great, as we are both bandleaders, so all of the work is shared – which is a complete blessing! However, I have always done sideman work too – which I really enjoy. (For example, over the last 21 years, I have been a sideman at The Spin most weeks!)
LJN: When you started The Spin, how long did you imagine it would continue?
PO: The first two years were big cash-losing years! Mark and I subbed the club by several thousand pounds for those two years – during which we did wonder about its longevity! Then, in the third year, it suddenly started breaking even and we were able to see a longer future for it. I do remember Mark once saying to me, “Do you think we’ll still be doing this in 10 years time?”…and now we are 21!
LJN: How did the duo with Nic get started ?
PO: The project with Nic started with his joining Eclectica!. I had invited Nic’s band to play The Spin and in chatting to him at the club, found him to be – aside from the awesome player that he is – a very convivial chap! It was around that time that Luis repatriated himself and I needed another guitarist for Eclectica!. I thought that Nic would fit the bill well – and so he proved to do! Not only did he fit in perfectly, but he also brought his writing skills to the band. As a result, within a year, we had made two albums: And This Is One Of Them… (Live at Ronnie Scott’s) and the studio album Flight Of Fancy.
In 2011, I was asked by Oxford Contemporary Music if I had a duo for a concert – and I said ‘yes’, hoping that Nic would be up for this. Well, we played the gig and at the end of it, looked at each other and said, “We should make an album”! We booked a little tour in the West Country and recorded the gigs, which gave us our first duo album together, Travels To The West.
After a few gigs here and there as a duo, we decided to take the project more seriously (as Eclectica! had folded by then) and agreed that we should purpose-write an album, often using multiple guitars! This resulted in Chasing Tales and then loads of gigs (I think we did about 90 dates off the back of that album – much in the UK and a bit in Europe). Our next release was a double album (The Colours Of Time): one disc in the duo format, the second with the addition of Raph Mizraki on basses and Paul Cavaciuti on drums. Our most recent release was with the quartet (plus Keith Fairbairn guesting on percussion), called The Alluring Ascent.
LJN: He plays Godin – and you; is having guitars that match / contrast important?
PO: Godin guitars are really great for gigging….you can play a nylon string, steel string, 12-string etc with a powerful drummer without fear of feedback! But aside from that, they are nicely made guitars that sound good… All of Nic’s various types of guitar are Godin. I play a 7-string nylon (which is really useful for the duo – having the extra bass) and a steel string by Godin. Otherwise, I use my Gibson 175 jazz guitar, a Shergold electric 12-string an Italia Sitar Guitar and occasionally an old analogue Roland GR guitar synth!
Part of ‘our thing’ with this project is to vary the colours as much as possible – to give our audience a really varied palette of soundscapes over the course of an evening.
Aside from the guitar combinations themselves, we are also into drawing influences from other areas of music for our compositions. Nic has had a long association with Turkish music (his wife Songul, who has been the artist for all of our album covers, is from Turkey) and this comes out in a great deal of his writing. Nic is a real master on fretless instruments, so the sound of the fretless nylon or the Glissentar (11-string fretless, based on the Oud) is very prevalent in our music.
LJN: And you had fun making the film… not so easy in lockdown I imagine?
PO: I had a great deal of fun making this short film! For a start, it was great having John on board… I had my first jazz guitar lesson with John [Etheridge] when I was 21 – and then in 1999, John opened The Spin with us. Since then, we’ve played plenty of gigs at The Spin together, plus quite a few duo gigs here and there – which have always been enormous fun! However, I had never recorded with John, so, timed as it was, to be released for my 60th birthday, this was a real privilege for me.
One of the amazing things is that it is all recorded and filmed on iPhones! I would love to urge anybody interested in watching the film to listen on headphones, or a good hifi. The sonic quality is amazing (and this is in no small way due to the fact that it was mixed by a great engineer, Adrian Zolotuhin).
Lockdown afforded me the time to get into the video editing software, Final Cut Pro – and I sure have had fun with the editing.