London-born Pianist Alexander Bryson will launch his debut album The Alexander Bryson Trio (Hardbop Records) on Monday 21 March 2022 at Pizza Express Dean Street. His trio features Jeremy Brown ad Matt Fishwick. Interview by Brian Priestley (*)
LJN: Could you tell me about your early musical experiences – teachers/listening/early public performances?
Alex Bryson: My family listened to a lot of classical music on the radio, so there was always a lot of listening to and talking about music. My father has a record collection with a lot of both jazz and classical music, and regularly played music in the house. The jazz I grew up with and responded to first was early Basie recordings, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. The swing generation essentially. Later on I became very interested in Erroll Garner. At the same time I also watched a lot of musicals, so I was exposed to the ‘standards’ repertoire in that form from quite early on. My family listened to a lot of classical music on the radio, so there was always a lot of listening to and talking about music.
My first professional piano teacher, after my father taught me the basics, was actually quite a well respected composer, Dario Marianelli, who has been very successful writing for films. In fact, he has won an Oscar for his work on Atonement. He was an excellent teacher; very inspiring in the way that he talked about music and interpretation, making musical sense out of a passage, and I think it was during my time with him that my desire to become a musician formed.
LJN: What live listening experiences have been significant for you?
AB: I would say the most significant live experiences that made me want to pursue my interest in jazz professionally were in New York, hearing Johnny O’Neal play at Smalls and Smoke every week. He’s so strong in the elements of swing and the blues, and just gets this extraordinary sound out of the instrument. I heard him for the first time sitting in at a jam session at Fat Cat, and it was a real revelation. I often used to go to a place called Arturo’s, in the West Village, and listen to great pianists like Michael Kanan, Steve Ash and Ray Gallon play trio there. All of them have regular weekly spots, and their sets were always really exquisite. I learned a lot about the piano trio format by listening to them, and they would often let me sit in. It was a very lucky formative experience for me to have at that point.
LJN: Favourite pianists then and now?
AB: Then: Erroll Garner and Ray Charles were always great favourites of mine. Since then Bud Powell and Barry Harris have been big influences, and some of the piano players of that era, like Red Garland, Hank Jones, Sonny Clarke, Wynton Kelly, Walter Bishop. In recent years Ray Bryant, Phineas Newborn Jr and Gene Harris/the Three Sounds have been important to me as well.
Now: I greatly admire Johnny O’Neal, Anthony Wonsey, Jeb Patton, Sulivan Fortner – someone who has been amazingly masterful and creative with the Barry Harris approach – Michael Kanan, Steve Ash, Ray Gallon, Tadataka Unno.
LJN: Were you playing any jazz pre-Trinity?
AB: I used to play jazz all through my teens, and did a lot of transcribing. I wasn’t planning on doing it professionally, but I took it quite seriously. During Trinity I got my first solo gigs in restaurants.
LJN: What dates were you at Trinity and were you mixing with the jazz students?AB:
AB: I studied at Trinity 2006-2010, and I mixed a little with the jazz students – Tom Harrison was there at the same time as me and we became friends. I also took a jazz arranging course there with Paul Bartholomew, and gained a lot of important jazz knowledge from that.
LJN: What caused the move to NYC?
AB: I moved to NYC to study classical piano at Mannes College, the New School for Music, on a masters course.
LJN: Did you play any jazz there?
AB: During that time I started going to jam sessions, which was my first real world experience playing jazz with other people. When my course finished I did a lot of accompanying for voice lessons, and among the students whose lessons I played for was a jazz singer, Marie-Claire Giraud. She began hiring me in her band when she discovered I could play jazz as well as the opera rep she was doing in her lessons. It was a real stroke of luck because the other musicians in her band were excellent, and were quite nice to me. Dwayne Clemons was on trumpet, and he started letting me sit in at his regular gig at Smalls sometimes. Murray Wall was on bass, and he told me what tunes to learn, and let me practice with him at his house, which I also did with the drummer Luc Decker.
I often went to see Murray and Dwayne play at the 11th st Bar, where they had a regular gig with Richard Clements, Grant Stewart, and the late Charles Davis on baritone, where Barry Harris would often sit in, and Richard Wyands on one occasion. It was a pretty great community of musicians for me to spend time with.
At the same time as this I was going to Barry Harris’s weekly jazz workshops, which developed my interest in bebop, and really formed the basis for the way I play now. I studied Classical Piano again at Queens College, but took some great jazz courses with Jeb Patton and Antonio Hart. I started doing little trio gigs of my own with Takashi Inoue and Ben Rubens, and after a while I began to work regularly, before returning to London when my visa expired in 2016.
LJN: What have you been up to in London since coming back?
AB: Since coming back to London I’ve primarily done sideman work. I played with Alex Garnett several times at the 606 and with a number of different bandleaders at Ronnie Scott’s. I’ve also done some playing in Ireland and Northern Ireland with Meilana Gillard at the Cork and Derry Jazz festivals, and we also performed together at the 100 Club in London in 2018. One of my most regular gigs has been Allison Neale’s quartet in which Matt Fishwick also plays. Matt and I have played a lot over the last few years, in trio, and in other people’s bands, and I’ve really benefited a lot from spending time in the rhythm section with him. Apart from being a top player, he also knows an enormous amount about the music and it’s a real privilege to be around that on a regular basis.
(*) We welcome Brian Priestley for the very first time as a contributor to LJN. He has written the liner notes for The Alexander Bryson Trio. As Brian explains : “I was flattered when he asked me to write the liner-notes. For that purpose, I quizzed him on his background and, as he came up with far more information than would fit in the notes, it seems a good idea to publish the whole interview.” – B.P.
Album launch: 21 March 2022 at 8pm, Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean St. BOOKINGS