Guitarist Tom Ollendorff’s debut album is out on Barcelona’s Fresh Sounds label. As John Fordham writes in this feature to mark the release: “Ollendorff’s musicianship has already taken him all over continental Europe, and into collaborations with innovators including New York drummer/composer Ari Hoenig and American saxophonist Bill McHenry, but the UK trio behind this fine album has taken pole position in his musical life since he moved to London from Cardiff in 2016.”
Calling a musician a ‘jazz guitarist’ doesn’t define a style and a sound as exclusively as it used to in the days when Charlie Christian dominated the instrument’s promotion from a swing band’s rhythm section into its front line in the late 1930s. Back then, a jazz guitarist’s solos would likely be as clean, linear and melodic as those of a trumpeter’s or a saxophonist’s. But over the decades, the description has come to embrace many other possibilities – John McLaughlin’s wailing sustain and sitar-like slurs, Bill Frisell’s country-inflected electronics, the African vocal-mimicking lyricism and kora-like tones of Lionel Loueke, the deconstructionist sonic adventures of American avantist Mary Halvorson, and a raft of other innovations besides.
Sometimes, though, a musician emerges to reclaim the jazz guitar past by returning to some classic first principles, resetting the agendas of the present in the process. The young British musician Tom Ollendorff is one such, to judge by his debut album A Song For You, just released by Barcelona’s Fresh Sounds label in its New Talent series.
Ollendorff’s musicianship has already taken him all over continental Europe, and into collaborations with innovators including New York drummer/composer Ari Hoenig and American saxophonist Bill McHenry, but the UK trio behind this fine album has taken pole position in his musical life since he moved to London from Cardiff in 2016. An elegantly accomplished mix of gracefully grooving songlike themes, warmly conversational improvising, baroque-like unaccompanied etudes, and one headlong fast-bop swinger, the tracklist is not only a credit to Ollendorff’s meticulously musical playing and jazz chops but also to his beguiling compositions (‘Autumn In New York’ is the only cover), and his closely attuned relationship with double bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Marc Michel. For this listener, Ollendorff’s sensitivity to space and nuance, and the expressive economy of his phrasing sometimes recalls the work of the legendarily graceful Jim Hall, and the newcomer makes no secret of his fondness for telling a musical story patiently, and with instrumental melodies that could just as easily be sung.
‘The guitar can be such a moving instrument, I think,’ Tom Ollendorff says, ‘and I’m fascinated by the idea of songs, so I wanted to write pieces that felt like songs to me. When I first went to music college I didn’t know any, then I was shown The Real Book and I began to understand how they worked. And I also came to feel that a trio was a great way to express them. I made this album a year and a half ago, and I was focused on a chamber music trio sound, where there’s a lot of freedom and space, and you can really get stuck into the detail, right into the corners of songs. I’m still focused on that – although of course I appreciate there are many ways to play guitar, and there are certainly things happening in contemporary jazz with electronics and synths that I also love listening to.’
Tom Ollendorff’s dexterity in playing polyphonic lines, and the presence of some unaccompanied Bach pieces on his website invites the thought that he may have learned at first as a plectrum-eschewing classical player – a speculation reinforced by his fastidious choice of instrument, a unique guitar built by a former violin-maker, the Italian luthier Dominico Moffa. It turns out, however, that while classical music had a significant influence on his childhood, it wasn’t on the guitar.
‘My mum’s a very good pianist and sang in a choir, and my dad loves opera, so there was always music around in my childhood,’ Ollendorff says. ‘And I was taught classical piano from the age of five or so, and got really interested in it, so I guess I got a feeling for the freedom of the two hands working independently pretty early. I’d also go with my parents to the Wigmore Hall and the Proms, up to the age of 12 or 13. But around then, I discovered the guitar, because there was a guy at my school who got me interested in it, and I started teaching myself. I was into funk and fusion then.’
The guitar bug had bitten, and didn’t let go. Tom Ollendorff took a year out on leaving school, knowing by then that he wanted to be a professional guitar player, but not knowing how to find a way in. When the family had relocated near Bath, a chance meeting with Bristol guitarist Guy Harrup – a local hero as both a player and a teacher – encouraged the teenager to believe the possibility wasn’t just a dream.
‘I liked the sound of his playing at a gig, so I talked to him afterwards. He was a popular performer in Bristol, and he was addicted to George Benson, so he showed me some Benson tunes – and he gave me plectrum saying “this’ll give you a jazzier sound”. He was a great guy and a fine player, it was really sad that he passed away in 2017 at only 53. Strangely enough, I did my first gig at Ronnie Scott’s that year, and it happened to be on the same evening as George Benson’s show there. George listened to my whole set, which was amazing to me, and of course I thought about Guy then, who had helped me to get there.’
Ollendorff enrolled on the jazz course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2011, studying guitar with Dave Cliff, one of the stalwarts of the second wave of the UK bebop movement, whose career had blossomed from the 1970s on. Cliff favoured the understatedly agile lines of the Cool School style created by American pioneers including piano genius Lennie Tristano and Birth of the Cool saxophonist Lee Konitz, and Tom Ollendorff recalls that, in listening to Cliff’s recordings ‘I could hear his fantastic improvisational fluency over harmonies, which made me realise the standard I needed to get to.’ Jazz studies at the college were also powerfully influenced by the Welsh pianist, accordionist and composer Huw Warren, whose personal signature in original pieces made a strong impression on Ollendorff.
‘Huw was a big presence at the college, and an iconic figure of jazz in Wales,’ Ollendorff says. ‘He took ensemble classes, and I played quite a bit with him – really interesting music, lots of complicated time signatures, Balkan influences, ideas from all over the place. I was also listening to all the usual jazz guitar influences, like Wes (Montgomery) of course, and Tal Farlow – but the player who really became my role model was the Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who’s worked with Esperanza Spalding, Chris Potter, Mark Turner and lots of fantastic people, and who taught me in my first year at the college. I loved his sound, his compositions, the way he presents the guitar as such a dynamic instrument, full of complexity, and vulnerability too. A big part of my practice repertoire comes from him, from the time he showed me a Bach piano part transcribed for guitar and I copied it. Gilad lives in New York, and I would go there for a month every year. Each time I’d be thinking how much better I’d become since the last visit, and each time I would realise that he’d become about a million times better! He’s constantly evolving, and that’s a wonderful quality.’
Tom Ollendorff has been on the road with his trio in May, and the chance to interact with an audience again has not only been an immense relief but also a reminder of the catalytic effect live music-making has on the structure and pacing of a gig. ‘I’ve only done two gigs in front of people in the past year,’ Ollendorff observes. ‘So returning to it could have been a little intimidating, but everything makes sense once you’re playing. What’s stuck in my mind most from being back playing live is that unique feeling when the audience are totally with you – as a performer, there’s no better feeling. We were reminded of that just last night at a fantastic club in Nottingham called Peggy’s Blue Skylight, where the energy of the audience was such a huge source of inspiration. The more we’ve played this music the more freedom we’ve developed with it, which is when stuff really starts to get fun!’
The guitarist is unstinting in his admiration for his partners and their intuitions about the ensemble sound he’s after. He recalls that he first met bassist Conor Chaplin on his own first professional gig – ‘in a pub, and my main memory from it apart from meeting Conor, was that there were only four people in the audience, and two of them started a fight.’ More harmonious subsequent meetings convinced Ollendorff that he’d met the perfect bass partner. ‘I realised how well he understood the function of the bass in the trio setting,’ he recalls. ‘How incredible his musicianship is, how clear in the high register, how alert he is to the way the music changes in performance.’
Ollendorff met drummer Marc Michel when the latter was a postgrad student at the Royal Academy of Music in 2017, and soon realised that he possessed a similar sensitivity to the dynamics of trio music. Marc Michel also happens to be a fine guitarist himself, which Ollendorff considers makes him an especially subtle percussionist for a lineup like this one.
When live music revives, it’s likely that the accomplished Tom Ollendorff’s giglist will return to the robust look it had back in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 – when it showed a packed rota of performances with the trio, but also at Kansas Smitty’s with singer Ella Höhnen-Ford, or with bebop saxophonist Geoff Simkins, or young bands led by drummers Joel Barford, Will Sach, and Marc Michel. Touring with Ari Hoenig was also in his schedule for that year, and the guitarist already has a recording date with the innovative New York composer/percussionist set up for this autumn. But however many opportunities his lyrical and song-rooted musicianship bring him, the trio that made A Song For You is unmistakeably Tom Ollendorff’s big priority for a good while yet.
‘I feel as if there’s a lot of myself in this album, and I really hope that it will reach out to people,’ the guitarist says. ‘And we all want to keep working on the things we’ve done so far together, and push them further. After a year like the one we’ve had, where playing has been so difficult, it feels like there’s a lot more to come!’.
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LINKS: Tom Ollendorff’s A Song For You is out now on Fresh Sound New Talent.