Trumpeter and Gondwana Records label owner Matthew Halsall is one of the leading figures on the thriving Manchester jazz scene. He featured on BBC Four’s Jazz 625 last month as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. His latest album, Salute to the Sun, marks a strong return after a forced absence due to health reasons. He talked to Jordi De Beule (*) about new beginnings, musical heroes and more….
LondonJazz News: For Salute to the Sun you had to form a new band, which you allowed to develop in its own time. This involved weekly rehearsals to work on new music and a monthly residency in Manchester. What was your thinking behind this process?
Matthew Halsall: It was important for me to be able to play in my own city on a regular basis. Since several of my band members had flown off to London and beyond, I was forced to look out for new musicians. So I went to the jams in Manchester to find out who was hungry, like me, who felt like playing the same kind of music. I found some incredibly talented people in their twenties who brought their own energy to the band. We rehearsed every Thursday in the studio at my house and each time I made sure I had three to five compositions to try out. We really went all over the place and in fact we already have material for two more albums, including one that’s more in that deep ’70s atmosphere like the last song on Salute to the Sun. A lot of those songs that we tried had been lying in my drawer for a while, but what you hear on Salute to the Sun has all come into being over the past year.
LJN: Paintings by Rousseau and Gauguin gave you some of the inspiration for the album. How do you convey this to the band and what other elements fed into the music?
MH: I do love the atmosphere in Rousseau and Gauguin’s tropical landscapes. But what I especially shared with the band were some field recordings from the rainforest. I wanted to make organic music, with more wooden instruments like the kalimba. Our process was therefore quite playful. And as a soloist it was definitely enjoyable because you always like to play over different sounds. Look at Miles Davis and how his sound completely changed on every album.
Part of the inspiration also came from a workshop I once gave in an elementary school with Pee Wee Ellis and Rachel Gladwin, the harpist of the Gondwana Orchestra. We had huge bags of percussion instruments with us and the children were allowed to pick one and think about an animal or a thing from the jungle and how it would sound. The atmosphere they created then really blew me off my socks. So atmospheric and creative. It was wonderful to play over that.
LJN: There are quite a few harp players now involved in the British jazz scene: for example, Rachel Gladwin, whom you’ve just mentioned; Maddie Herbert, who plays on Salute to the Sun; and Tori Handsley, who has worked with Binker & Moses. Is there a strong harp tradition in the UK?
MH: You do have a point. Of course, it’s part of our traditional music and there are a lot of classical conservatories. During or after their studies these musicians sometimes make the transition to jazz. Chris Illingworth, the pianist of GoGo Penguin, is one such example. But yes, those harps… When I met Rachel, she was even part of a harp trio. And Maddie, I got to know her as a student. She sent me a message to tell me she wanted to interpret Fletcher Moss Park, a composition of mine from 2012. I sent her the scores and she actually adapted it for a big band. It was really beautiful. So yes, I’ve known Maddie for a while now. I always bump into her when I go to a concert as well. We’re into the same stuff.
LJN: Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders are two of your musical heroes. On your latest radio show on Worldwide FM, you also mentioned Lonnie Liston Smith as one of your top five influences. How did that come about and what is about him that you particularly admire?
MH: I was still quite young when I first heard his music. My brother had a whole collection of CD’s with music from the 1970s: Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes,… And then, all of a sudden, I heard Lonnie Liston Smith’s Expansions! The percussion, the bells, the different layers of sound and of course the Fender Rhodes… Everything on that record was good. We were actually going to make an album together, he and I. When Into Forever came out, Badder Weather, one of the songs, was regularly played on the radio. Jazz FM played it once when Lonnie was in the studio and he loved it so much that the producers emailed me saying I should definitely get in touch. Of course, I did that right away. There were plans, but Lonnie doesn’t live around the corner and I was touring a lot in Europe at the time. If he comes this way again, I will definitely contact him. I mean… Lonnie Liston Smith!
LJN: Lonnie Liston Smith played with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Pharoah Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and yet, he’s often overlooked, isn’t he?
MH: That’s so crazy. In jazz, it’s hard to get really big. There are so many incredible musicians, but in order to get the status of Kamasi Washington, for example, a lot has to come together. Your release has to get a certain momentum and that’s not obvious.
LJN: You’re a record label owner as well as a musician, so you know the music business from the inside. But you’re also a radio presenter, a composer and a band leader. How do these different roles interact?
MH: The radio programme is a great platform for me to share the music of Gondwana Records, do interviews with artists and play music that inspires me. You know, the label requires a lot of work but we do it with a passion. Right now, we are working on a new studio that will become a home for all Gondwana artists. I’ve been dreaming about that for a long time. It does mean that I’m busy every day from 9 to 7 and that I postpone the most important thing until last: playing the trumpet usually doesn’t come until 6 o’clock. I want my head to be empty so I can really concentrate on my music.
LJN: Before you started working on Salute to the Sun, you were unable to play for more than a year due to hearing problems. What was it like starting from scratch again?
MH: In fact, when I was 17 years old, I also stopped once. I was really tired of the trumpet then, but I kept on playing music. I started studying to be a sound engineer and was completely into the artists on Warp Records. I bought a lot of synthesizers and learned how to program them. But after three years I felt the urge to go on stage again, to play with a band and connect with an audience.
This time around I quit for other reasons. I had to give my ear some time to heal and had to consider the possibility that I would never play again. My plan B was to become a painter, but fortunately my hearing gradually improved.
LJN: So, you paint as well as playing music?
MH: Sure, but not as much as I used to. As a young guy, I even had some exhibitions. My brother’s an artist and my father’s an art teacher, so it runs in the family. Anyway, when my hearing came back, I knew exactly what to do. I could fall back on a lot of exercises that my late trumpet teacher taught me. Very classic things. It was just a matter of building up my skills patiently and systematically: first 5 minutes a day, then ten minutes, until I could play two and even three hours a day again and be in the same place as before; or even a better one. To keep it interesting, I also bought some trumpets. I got a pocket trumpet and a nice old 1954 Martin Committee, the type Miles also played on in the late fifties.
LJN: Do you play that trumpet on Salute to the Sun as well?
MH: On the record I play a P. Mauriat PMT 700, a Taiwanese trumpet from a manufacturer who, strangely enough, mainly makes saxophones. They flew me over to try the trumpet and play some concerts. There were some requests that I politely refused (laughs), but I was immediately convinced by the instrument. I can really put my voice into it and that’s the most important thing.
LJN: Salute to the Sun refers to your time at the Maharishi School. Can you tell us more about that?
MH: I grew up in Leigh, quite a rough, industrial place. But when I was fourteen, we moved to the countryside and my parents enrolled me in the Maharishi School. In addition to the general curriculum, there was also room for meditation, oriental philosophy, oriental chants,… And every school day started with a greeting to the sun. After my years in Leigh, this was a breath of fresh air. The students were open to who I was, had an incredible energy and were very creative. Just like their parents. At my best friend’s house they had a huge record collection and a studio in the attic. His mom and dad followed the DJ culture very closely and it was through them that I got to know Mr. Scruff. During one of his sets I heard You Got to Have Freedom and that’s how I started looking up everything Pharoah Sanders did, which led me to Alice Coltrane. At that time I had been playing trumpet for years, since I was six years old, and yet I had never heard anything like it. That instrumentation, that energy,… The discovery of spiritual jazz gave my life a new direction.