Features/Interviews (PP)

Alex Western-King (debut album on Ubuntu Music ‘SideSlip’, release 25 June)

Saxophonist Alex Western-King’s debut album SideSlip is to be released later this month on Ubuntu Music. In this feature by John Bungey, the young band leader explains the life choices that sparked a blossoming jazz career:

Alex-Western King at Ronnie-Scott’s. Photo credit: Tom Gimson

At the age of 17 the spirit of jazz descended and changed Alex Western-King‘s life. Up to that point he’d been a diligent student of classical clarinet who seemed bound for a professional orchestral career.

“It wasn’t until I was applying to music college that I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. I don’t want to play classical music for the rest of my life.’ From the moment I decided to switch to saxophone I thought, ‘I’m going to go for this. This is going to be my thing.’”

And go for it he did, in eight months practising for six hours-plus a day to be good enough to win a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It was a prodigious feat of catch-up that eventually led to a first-class degree. Now 26-years-old, he has hundreds of gigs and his own quartet to his name, and this month releases his first album. The entirely self-composed SideSlip expertly melds bebop energy with free jazz improvisation.

“I feel very lucky that my career has grown quite organically,” he says. “I feel like I haven’t had to work hard enough. I haven’t had to hustle quite as much as I was expecting to get some of these gigs, so I feel very lucky.” (How many aspiring jazz musicians can say that?)

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The saxophonist recorded the album during a busy lockdown when he also moved home from London to Southampton. “Originally it was going to be a live album. I had two dates booked at the Pizza Express in Soho to record it. Then those dates got cancelled because of Covid but I was determined to do it. I didn’t think the material would work so well in the studio so I spent two weeks writing an entirely new set of music.

“With a live album you can afford to stretch out more, feeding off the crowd. With a studio album you have to be a bit shorter. Usually I fiddle forever when writing but having a deadline helped.”

The result is an assured seven-song set with Sam Leak on piano, Jonny Wickham, bass, and Jay Davis, drums, featuring some grade-A soloing from saxophonist and pianist that veers between full-tilt energy and nuanced sensitivity.

“There’s a really interesting line between more traditional bebop and free improvisation that I wanted to capture – to bring in some of that late Coltrane freedom. I wanted to see where I could go if I removed some of the constraints on bebop.”

If the saxophonist rerouted his musical path at 17, the spirit of jazz had been knocking at the door for a while. “I was boarding at Wells Cathedral School aged 12 and I had a roommate who was listening to a lot of jazz. It shaped me in a way that probably he doesn’t know about.”

Alex Western-King, Jonny Wickham, Sam Leak, Jay Davis. Photo credit: Morven Brown)

He began listening to Michael Brecker – “and some stuff that I wasn’t advanced enough to be checking out” – but then found himself working backwards to Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker. “I threw myself in a the deep end. Now I’m going more towards simplicity.”

At the Guildhall he heard that the swing orchestra Down For The Count were looking for a saxophone-clarinet player. “That was my introduction to gigging – 100-plus gigs all around the country, all around the world.” He’s played in Marrakech and Paris as well as the London Jazz Festival. “We have a big fan-base now but we’ve played functions where the audience didn’t know what they were getting. Then it’s a question of ‘How do you convince that glum-looking man at the bar to get up and dance?’ Learning how to communicate with people is really interesting.”

Western-King also formed his own band and started playing regularly at Ronnie Scott’s. Soon he was branching out to other jazz clubs. He also teaches – from primary-age children to advanced players, for whom he has published Complex Jazz Phrases for Saxophone. “I started it because I thought I was practising some pretty neat stuff and thought maybe some other people would want to come on the journey with me.” He’s already working on a second book with bassist Jonny Wickham that aims to help classical musicians learn how to improvise. It’s a big subject, he says with a chuckle. “At the rate we’re currently working on it you can expect to see that in a store near you sometime in the next 15 years.”

Right now he’s looking forward to resuming a stage career that has taken him from venues as diverse as the Shard (for dinner jazz) to the Etihad Stadium, home of the tediously successful Manchester City. “That was some big corporate thing. I can’t even remember what band I was playing with but I do you remember thinking, ‘Wow, I want to play in a place like this more often! And this is possible in my work … Imagine that. There aren’t many lines of work where you get to do this.’”

SideSlip is released by Ubuntu Music on June 25. PP features are part of marketing packages.

The album launch is at the 606 Club, London SW10, on 1 July

LINKS: Alex Western-King’s website

Complex Jazz Phrases for Saxophone

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