Saxophonist Sam Braysher has been quietly but determinedly carving out his own space in London’s jazz scene since graduating from Guildhall in 2011. While his freelance portfolio involves larger ensembles (including John Warren’s nonet and the London City Big Band), Braysher particularly relishes exploring improvisation and interaction in smaller group settings. He has released a well-received duo album with the American pianist Michael Kanan. On his latest album Dance Little Lady, Dance Little Man, he plays with two master accompanists and improvisers – drummer Jorge Rossy (renowned through his work with Brad Mehldau and many others) and bassist Tom Farmer (Empirical). With his focus, at least so far, more directed towards standard repertoire selections and existing compositions than original writing, Braysher emphasises spirited group interaction, deep understanding of the material and an often swinging feel. Interview by Dan Paton:
Braysher thinks carefully about the selection of material and how he approaches it. ‘I feel you can really get a lot out of that repertoire by looking a little deeper, looking further back and investigating it more thoroughly,’ he explains. ‘I’m interested in trying to learn melodies authentically, by listening to really old, pre-jazz recordings and trying to check out the original sheet music as well when I can.’ Working with Michael Kanan, who has talked about ‘getting to the composer’s intention’ may also have influenced Braysher here. Braysher admits that some devotees of contemporary jazz might question the relevance of younger musicians playing this music when it is not the popular music they experienced in their youth, but this is countered by the feeling that ‘there aren’t loads of people really exploring this material’.
While Braysher is not claiming to be a pioneer here, he is clearly operating in a space in which he feels at home. He views his work in this area as a process of discovery (he highlights the ‘fascinating’ African-American pianist and composer Irene Kitchings, who composed three songs recorded by Billie Holiday, one of which Braysher has recorded, Some Other Spring). Alongside this, he is keen to provide an entry point for the audience as well. ‘A lot of the tunes, although they might not be played so much by jazz musicians now, might be familiar to the collective ear. Something like Heart and Soul, which is a beginner piano piece, will be recognisable for people.’
In addition to this, Braysher has previously emphasised the importance of learning the lyrics to these tunes as well as the melodies. He confesses to finding it difficult to remember lyrics, while learning melodies comes more naturally, but also appreciates that ‘the more you can do to learn the repertoire and learn the songs thoroughly, the more you can get out of them…it gives me a better understanding of the tune and of the context.’ He goes on to suggest that this does not necessarily restrict his interpretation of the music – he is still able to provide a contemporary perspective, but the thorough learning of the material in as many ways as possible provides a firmer foundation for improvising and exploration. In interpreting the material, Braysher clearly aims for a balance between improvisation and written features. He describes this in more detail: ‘There are a few tags to signpost the forms. The track Shall We Dance includes some hits in the head and there were some Monk arrangements of standards I was vaguely thinking about here, where the bass line and hits are answering the gaps in the melody.’
In addition to this, Braysher states that ‘a lot of my influences are all about focusing on genuinely improvising – Lester Young, Lee Konitz and Sonny Rollins for example.’ The trio feels united in its melodic approach to improvisation. ‘That’s one of the things that makes Jorge so great,’ Braysher enthuses. ‘He’s always listening, always playing what he hears and playing with a big sense of freedom that is deeply rooted in the tradition and always swinging, always doing what is best for the ensemble.’ There is also an invigorating emphasis on trading improvisation, something that very much plays to the group’s strengths.
Braysher’s work with Rossy is just one example of a tendency to collaborate and perform with his elders in addition to his immediate peers. ‘One of the best ways to improve is to play with people who are better than you,’ he suggests. ‘You can get so much from playing with people from different generations, people with amazing playing experiences.’ This seems to have been as true for the older musicians Braysher works with as it is for him (Jorge Rossy has worked with Lee Konitz and Carla Bley, to give just two examples). Braysher also claims that he learned a lot from working with Michael Kanan, and that one of the motivations behind working on that project was ‘to play with someone on that level’.
The new trio recorded at Jorge Rossy’s studio in Begues, near Barcelona, in May 2019, something that may help to explain the warm and relaxed feeling of the resulting sessions. ‘Hopefully yes!’ Braysher concurs. ‘Having a relaxed recording environment is quite a high priority for me. We were able to go to this lovely restaurant for lunch on both days and we stayed with Jorge in his apartment.’ Braysher is also effusive about the qualities of his band members: ‘Tom and Jorge are both very relaxed, generous people and it was a great experience to play with them both there.’ So how did the line-up of this trio come about? ‘Jorge is someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. I’ve listened to him a lot over the years,’ he explains. ‘A lot of the recordings he played on are quite influential to me and my peers.’ Braysher and Rossy first met on one of Rossy’s summer jazz courses in Begues, and Braysher ended up joining a collaborative quintet called REBOP which has toured in the UK and Europe.
‘Jorge plays vibraphone in that band actually, so most of my playing has been with him on vibes. He’s very lacking in ego for someone who has played with the musicians he has and done the gigs he has done. I really wanted to play with him on drums, and this gave me the idea of doing a trio record with him.’ Braysher says that he thought Tom Farmer ‘would be perfect’ for the group. ‘I had already played a lot of the trio arrangements with him in London, so he knew the material really well. I also knew he was a big fan of Jorge too, particularly his work with the Brad Mehldau Trio. Tom is a great accompanist, very broad and very giving. He also loves Israel Crosby (the bassist in the Ahmad Jamal Trio) and I also vaguely had some of that music in mind when I was arranging the tunes for this album.’
It is certainly easy to hear the group’s like-mindedness and empathy on this album, and the lack of a chordal instrument (mostly – Rossy plays vibraphone occasionally) remains an interesting and refreshing feature.
What draws Braysher to the ‘chordless’ ensemble? ‘I’ve always enjoyed chordless settings. There are a few classic recordings that spring to mind: Lee Konitz’s Motion was a big influence on me, Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard and also the Chet Baker-Gerry Mulligan group. I like that open, slightly darker sound that you get. It gives you a sense of freedom as a horn player and it gives space to have some more arranged, written bass lines.’ The smaller size of the group also seems to be a factor, perhaps as a contrast with Braysher’s work elsewhere in larger ensembles. ‘I enjoy playing in conversational settings where you can really interact with other people – it can be exposing but also very rewarding.’
It must be frustrating that after careful organising and very successful recording sessions, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the album release has had to be delayed and accompanying touring activities are still shrouded in a degree of uncertainty. ‘We haven’t actually played all this material together yet apart from in the studio,’ Braysher admits. ‘We have discussed doing something in the summer with Jorge but it’s a matter of waiting and seeing what happens with the situation and whether everyone is available.’ This is certainly a group that demands to be experienced in a live setting. Until then, Dance Little Lady, Dance Little Man is a very satisfying and invigorating example of interactive small group jazz.
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LINK: Sam Braysher website