Features/Interviews (PP)

Steve Berry: MIUAWGA (Make It Up As We Go Along) Ensemble, Dir. Laura Jurd, RNCM, 1 April 2022

Bassist/composer Steve Berry has strong views about improvisation – “a core skill and human right that no musician should be denied” – and his new project at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester does exactly what it says on the tin.

Berry was a founder member of Loose Tubes. Now an influential figure in music education in the North-West of England, he teaches at both Chetham’s School and RNCM . In 2019, a new post at the college was created, Head of Jazz and Improvisation, at the instigation of the Deputy Principal, Manus Carey. Steve Berry is the first holder of the post.

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An important milestone for Steve in that role is now reached with the next performance by the MIUAWGA (Make It Up As We Go Along) Ensemble on 1 April. (Booking details below). The ensemble had its very first outing in December 2020 as a socially distanced livestream, so the April performance will be the ensemble’s first performance in front of a live audience. The ensemble will have Laura Jurd as its guest director. Laura will be making her very first live appearance following the birth of her baby son. Interview by Sebastian Scotney.

Steve Berry (and chopstick), Moscow 2019. Photo credit : Svetlana Selezneva

LondonJazz News: MIUAWGA is a new ensemble, but is it fair to say that the concepts behind it go back a long way, even to your Loose Tubes days?

Steve Berry: Without doubt, yes. Of central importance to the ensemble is that the participants are there only because of their commitment to improvisation and collective, spontaneous music-making. The instrumentation is almost secondary, the players and their creative instincts being the prime consideration. The music made is intended to be a reflection of their own fascinations and aspirations, as opposed to an imposed, external creative direction borne of a composer/director’s own idiosyncratic whims. In this regard it can be seen as a direct continuation of some of Loose Tubes’ original intentions.

LJN: Is the/your basic idea as a teacher that every musician gain and grow from learning to improvise?

SB: I’m persuaded that improvisation is a core skill and human right that no musician should be denied. Unfortunately music education in the last couple of centuries has managed to lose touch with this, many aspiring musicians becoming convinced that improvisation is a unique and rarefied ability, the property of a few supernaturally gifted virtuoso show-offs, people whose gob-smacking abilities cannot reasonably be emulated by mere mortals. That notion offends me greatly and I can’t bear to see generations of players demotivated and disenfranchised, believing that their job is to only channel the pre-digested creativity of others, their own ‘voice’ seen to be of no worth. I long for the democratisation of music-making, every player’s own ideas validated and feeling ownership of their own instrumental voice. A teacher’s role (in my view) is to catalyse and assist, not to dominate and control.

LJN: Is the creation of the post of Head of Jazz and Improvisation a sign that it is being welcomed into the culture of the college?

SB: I’m sure it’s meant to represent a statement of intent by the institution, the idea being to evolve its core ethos, acknowledging that the established model is in need of change, to better reflect the needs of today’s emerging players, to fit them better to deal with the present day cultural landscape.

LJN: How do you select the participants for the ensemble, or is it something they choose?

SB: A mixture of both things really. First and foremost, students express an interest in being involved, outlining their previous experience in improvising in an ensemble context. I then sift through the applications and try to select those who might be best suited to the experience. Since it is an ensemble with a commitment to public performance, players need to have some experience and the confidence derived from that. There are other ensembles and classes run in college that are not public-facing and therefore afford ‘safe’ environments for fledgling improvisers to experiment and try things without the additional pressure of public performance, sessions where they can cheerfully fail spectacularly, fear-free as they seek to improvise, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

LJN: And what is the instrumentation?

SB: This year’s MIUAWGA Ensemble comprises 7 reeds-players (saxes & clarinets), 5 strings (violins, viola and cello), 5 brass (trumpets, trombones and euphonium), 2 vocalists and a 5-piece ‘rhythm section’ (piano, guitars, bass and drums).

Steve Berry directing the first, socially distanced performance by the MIUAWGA Ensemble in 2020. Screenshot courtesy of RNCM

LJN: And the “repertoire”? Any tunes people will know??

SB: In the previous outing (with me at the helm/ image above) there was only one piece of established rep (Larry Schneider’s ‘Tomato Kiss’), everything else being created by myself and/or the ensemble itself. With Laura Jurd in charge this time, I eagerly await to hear what she’s got lined up for us.

LJN: You have already had one performance but with no audience. Was it as you expected or were there lessons learned?

SB: Livestreaming is a very strange beast indeed, and the ensemble was spread out, conforming to the requirements of social distancing in place at that time (December 2020). Happily however we did have a smattering of RNCM students scattered through the auditorium, so we weren’t only performing to the mute gaze of camera lenses. At the time there was some feeling of euphoria, the performance following many months of The Big Enforced Silence. This time around I’m very much hoping it might be performance as we all fondly remember it from pre-Covid times.

LJN: Have you worked with Laura Jurd before?

SB: I’ve been keenly following her work ever since first hearing her as a first year student at Trinity Laban, but this will be the first time we’ve worked together.

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LINKS: Bookings for MIUAWGA Ensemble with Laura Jurd (trumpet) – RNCM Concert Hall. Friday 1 April 2022, 7.30pm

RNCM also has another jazz-linked event: Goldberg: Jazz Variations / Tuesday 22 March 2022, 8.00pm – Bach’s Goldberg Variations re-imagined in Simon Parkin’s jazz-inspired arrangements.

Photo credit for the top (black and white) image: Derren Lee Poole

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