Feature/Interview (PP)

Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley (new album ‘Joy in Bewilderment’)

As well as being a jazz musician I play classical music and pop. I love it all, so why not include it?” John Bungey interviews Manchester-based composer and bassist Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley, a man with no time for pigeon-holes whose work and influences span the genres and ages. Here he talks to John about his well-received third album, which may break the rules but perfectly represents this diverse musician who “writes for himself”:

Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley. Photo credit: Dan Wiebe

Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley is explaining the title of his new album, Joy in Bewilderment: “It reflected how I felt about the world and the political climate when I was writing it in 2018 with Trump and the Tories over here.” He laughs. “It’s as comical as it is deep.”   

For the listener, the bewilderment may come when they hear the opening, title track (the joy should follow). Defying expectations from a musician building a reputation for vivid big-band jazz-rock fusion, the opener is a beautifully realised, contemplative piece for classical string quartet. Tracks that follow feature plenty of muscular rhythms and blazing brass. There are a few echoes of Snarky Puppy, a little Loose Tubes quirkiness and some of the heft of the Beats & Pieces big band, with whom Cavanagh-Brierley occasionally plays. The very best tune, I’ll Do as I Please, features some incendiary forays from the great New York-based saxophonist Chris Potter. The composer, though, continues to lob in curveballs – there’s a very unjazz solo piano piece, Attachment, and a lovely, folky meditation that features the heartfelt, unvarnished vocals of Caoilfhionn Rose Birley.

The album’s creator is a man with no time for pigeon-holes. “I know opening with a string quartet is a bit bizarre but I was writing for myself on this album. It’s almost like the Beatles’ White Album,” he says with a chuckle. “The string quartet has the odd theme that comes in throughout the album so it’s almost an overture. And as well as being a jazz musician I play classical music and pop. I love it all, so why not include it?”

The 32-year-old’s busy CV spans the genres: he has recently performed Steve Reich and Philip Glass with the Manchester Camerata; he has reproduced James Jamerson’s slinky bass grooves for Motown: The Musical.

Cavanagh-Brierley grew up in Oldham. “My dad was into everything so I heard Holst, Shostakovich, Strauss and William Walton, who was also from Oldham … That showed me it was not a shit-tip – you can achieve whatever you want.” The teenager also loved Bowie, the Beatles and XTC as well as the Yellowjackets and Weather Report.

“My own music is a complete mishmash of all of that. If I was to criticise myself – why don’t I just take one part of that inspiration and go with that sound? – the answer is I can’t. There’s too much good stuff I’d lose.”

Joy in Bewilderment cover. Artwork by Amy Brocklehurst

Further spicing the brew, Cavanagh-Brierley was exposed to big-band music for the first time studying music at Salford University. “I was just blown away, it was so exciting. I immediately checked out Mingus, Stan Kenton, and joined the local big band.”

After graduating, the bassist swiftly filled his gig diary and began recording his own albums. The title of his second, I Want to Be Everything, gave a hint of his ambitions in 2015. It was at a jazz course run by the creative music charity Brighter Sound that he met guest teacher Chris Potter. “He was the most delightful person. I just tried my luck. I said, ‘I’m doing a new album, do you fancy playing on one track?’ I thought in a polite way he’d decline but he said, ‘Yeah, why not?’

“We did the recording and left space for his part. He sent four takes back and you could tell they were done on sight. On the first take he stopped within ten seconds, the second he’s getting used to the chart and the next two were absolutely perfect. It showed how quickly he was able to master incredibly complex music that we’d all been wrestling over for two days in the studio.”

Cavanagh-Brierley is loath to say so because so many people had lousy lockdowns but he relished the break from gigs and focused on composing and practising. “I’ve written so much that there’s another album on the go and a big-band suite.”

Experimenting with a trio, the composer feels he is entering a new musical space. He’s feeling optimistic about his work – and the world in general. Any bewilderment seems to be long gone.    

Joy in Bewilderment is out now on Ubuntu Music

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LINK: Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley on Ubuntu Music

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