‘We’ve got a small big band, we’ve got a rock band, we’ve got a jazz quartet, we’ve got a vocalist so there’s lyrics to write. It’s endless possibilities,” says drummer, composer, lyricist and bandleader Rod Oughton of his octet OK Aurora, whose debut album Only in Autumn is released on Ubuntu Music on 6 August 2021. Album feature by Dan Paton
Drummer and composer Rod Oughton has worked with an intriguing roster of artists, demonstrating a mind (and ears) open to a wide range of sounds.
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This includes festival shows with Irish pop group Hudson Taylor, Welsh/Bajan folk songwriter Kizzy Crawford and saxophonist Tom Ridout. His own octet OK Aurora have released an EP (Baby Zeza in 2019), ‘recorded on a shoestring’, and now return with their debut album Only In Autumn, released in August on the Ubuntu label. There will also be a short run of
UK dates, including a show at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club (details below). ‘I think it can be called a tour if it’s at least three dates’, Oughton says.
Working on the new album, the group ‘got so lucky’ in being able to hold their November studio booking which fell between the Covid-19 lockdowns and are now able to release it as we gradually emerge from the pandemic.
The circumstances may not yet be ideal, but Oughton is to determined to grasp all opportunities, and keen to find new ways to get his music to an audience. The next single from the album, The Limit, comes accompanied by what sounds like a quirky and compelling video (‘it’s me coming to terms with the the fact that I believe I am a bird’, Oughton explains).
The music occupies a compelling hinterland between jazz, pop, alternative rock and world music. At times, it shares a certain DNA with projects such as Blue Eyed Hawk or the questing songs of Alice Zawadzki, but it also has a brightness and urgency that is entirely its own.
The band’s unique line-up, an octet including vocalist Alina Miroshnichenko, immediately makes its sound distinctive. Oughton highlights the options afforded by a larger group: ‘We’ve got a small big band, we’ve got a rock band, we’ve got a jazz quartet, we’ve got a vocalist so there’s lyrics to write. It’s endless possibilities, really’.
While performing live may not have been immediately on the band’s agenda during the pandemic, it’s clear that Oughton also has the impact of the live sound very much in mind. ‘I just wanted a band where the sound went Pow! and it grabbed audiences’, he explains. He also identifies that a number of his key influences – Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson 0 regularly performed with large ensembles. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that Oughton is a drummer, the music comes with a strong sense of rhythmic urgency and a real depth of groove. ‘The groove is most of the time where I’m starting the composition process from’, Oughton explains. ’It’s often a case of finding a chord or melody and expanding on it using rhythm. I’ve got these little tools I like the sound of – how do I expand on this using my own MO? That’s why the grooves hopefully cut through on this record’.
While some of the music is influenced by rock and pop (Oughton cites Radiohead in reference to The Limit, while Come Clean seems to hint at 60s blues and soul influences), it is also deeply informed by Oughton’s travels in Brazil and Cuba (where he also took lessons and worked with a Latin jazz group) and East Africa. The songs are often driven by rhythms from around the world, including samba and soukous grooves. One example is the current single Thomasito, which Oughton describes as a
‘Cuban-Brazilian mash-up’ and is a samba in 7/4. Oughton feels that his travels have been the single biggest factor in inspiring his writing. ‘Those sounds infiltrate everything’, Oughton enthuses. ‘It’s not just my writing – it’s if I’m playing or if I’m teaching a student, those sounds and rhythms and those ways of approaching music are everywhere. It’s impossible for them not to be.’
Whilst the role of groove might reasonably be expected, jazz trained musicians are not always so comfortable in the role of lyricist (Oughton writes all the lyrics for OK Aurora). Oughton, however, seems specifically drawn to the song form. ‘I’ve always written songs and my first projects as a teenager were rock bands’, Oughton explains. ‘I love Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash. They were all huge influences on me’. He pauses for a while and then exclaims ‘and Dylan! The fact that Bob Dylan can write something like The Ballad of Hollis Brown, essentially just one chord, and the story it tells is so engaging.’ He clearly also considers ways in which lyrics might engage audiences: ‘I really like lyrics where there’s a punchline – you wait for the end of a verse and then it goes bang! It rhymes, the melody resolves, the rhythm fits in nicely.’ Perhaps more controversially, Oughton also argues that vocals result in a more direct connection with the audience than instrumental ensembles can create. ‘I’m of the opinion that a singer can grab an audience member – something goes through the human voice that an audience can connect with in a way that a horn never will.’
Oughton and vocalist Miroshnichenko studied together at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Oughton is effusive in his praise of her qualities. ‘Her intonation, her execution, her interpretation of lyrics – she was such an obvious choice for me’. Miroschnichenko is Russian and Oughton also considers the way in which her accent shapes her phrasing and approach. It’s not directly comparable, but there is perhaps something similar in the way that Bjork’s unusual and emotive approach to expression is informed by English being her second language. ‘Yes – and another example of that is Deerhoof’, Oughton suggests (Deerhoof singer Satomi Matsuzaki is Japanese). ‘It’s just a really original vocalist in front of the band’.
Oughton suggests that the contribution of the other band members is very much informed by their experience as band leaders and composers in their own right. It is certainly an illustrious line-up of up and coming stars. Trumpeter Alexandra Ridout won the BBC Young Jazz Musician competition in 2016, alto saxophonist Ronan Perrett leads the band Twospeak, pianist Jacky Naylor has recently released his own Industrial Suite and also leads Meraki, tenor saxophonist Dan Smith and bassist Pete Komor run Howl Quartet and guitarist Billy Marrows is ‘a prolific composer’ who has worked with Becca Stevens and the Metropole Orkest.
Oughton explains that when the band get together, ‘they’ve not only got their musician hats on but also their composer hats as well. They take responsibility for the music as if it were their own’. Only In Autumn suggests a band that articulates arrangements with both precision and real feeling, performing melodically rich and rewarding songs.
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OK Aurora Live Performances
2 August – Ashburton Arts – BOOKINGS
3 August – Flute and Tankard, Cardiff
4 August – Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London – BOOKINGS
LINKS: Only in Autumn on Bandcamp
Rod Oughton music website
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)