Feature/Interview (PP)

Trish Clowes: when making jazz is “the most fun ever”

Bandleader, composer and saxophonist Trish Clowes explains how her band, My Iris, has taken the spirit of adventure into the studio for their new album. Feature by John Bungey.

Trish Clowes. Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

The essence of jazz, it’s been said, is never to play the same thing once. For saxophonist Trish Clowes, leader of My Iris, going off script is key to the spirit of one of British jazz’s most striking small groups. The task of Clowes’s bandmates is to surprise her. “I’ll tell them I’m ready for anything,” she says with a chuckle. “If everyone in a group is not talking to each other and not improvising – well what’s the point?”

That freedom extends to the recording studio. “On the new album the last track, Almost, turned into a massive rock-out. On the chart the two sections that open out have just got the instructions: ‘Pick any tempo and play free.’ ” (Incidentally, by the standards of a “massive rock-out”, Almost is a nuanced and deftly executed finale.)

The album, A View with a Room, also highlights Clowes’s compositional skills in the more closely written sections as tunes shift mood from playful to soulful, from melody to abstraction. The leader’s tenor and feathery soprano interweave with the guitar of Chris Montague and Ross Stanley‘s keyboards in a palette of shifting tone colours and rhythms. The eight tracks are propelled by James Maddren‘s sensitive drumming.

A View with a Room is the seventh album with the London-based musician as leader and reveals the growing group mind of a quartet that has played together since 2016. “When you’re writing for the same people and seeing how they respond to your music your writing changes in response to them. It’s a really special process,” says Clowes. “You can take more risks and sometimes you just let things go and just go, ‘OK, let’s see what happens’ – which can be the most fun ever.

“The nicest thing about writing for improvised music is that it’s not all about you. You’re setting up a template.”

Clowes grew up in Shropshire in a home where jazz was in her ears from a very young age. Her grandad played the American songbook on the piano, her mother loved Ella Fitzgerald and her father played trumpet with a local big band. She swapped clarinet for saxophone (hearing the tenor saxophonist play a solo in In a Sentimental Mood with the big band was a key moment) and in 2003 she earned a place at the Royal Academy of Music. She recorded her first album in 2010 before Radio 3 made her a New Generation Artist and she was commissioned to write for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Along the way, she’s won accolades from Jamie Cullum, Gilles Peterson, Fiona Talkington and more.

One formative influence – greater yet than In a Sentimental Mood – has been the music of Wayne Shorter. When Clowes began playing the jazz repertoire with older musicians around Shropshire she realised that all her favourite tunes “were the quirky ones that Wayne Shorter had written”.

She saw Shorter’s acoustic quartet play at the Festival Hall in 2001 and heard the Footprints Live! album. “How lucky am I that he started that band at that important time when you’re absorbing everything. I feel like the life of that band has been pivotal.

“There are loads of saxophonists who have influenced me. I don’t think I necessarily sound like Wayne. People often think ‘influenced by’ means ‘sounds like’ which is not true at all. You’re following someone’s concept and way of thinking – just copying wouldn’t be part of that.”

And yes, while sharing the Shorter group’s openness to exploration, My Iris has its own clear identity. Clowes gradually wrote the pieces for the new album during lockdown, introducing them one by one as the band performed streamed concerts. Organising studio time with the risk of Covid cancellation was a financial gamble. But now the saxophonist has a completed album and a tour  planned where the new pieces can gently evolve and mutate. “It’s been quite a journey. When I think where all our heads were at a couple of years ago I can’t quite believe it, it doesn’t seem real,” says Clowes. “But that’s how I feel about it and I’m really excited to be sharing this music with the world.”

A View with a Room is released by Greenleaf Music on 22 April.

The group tours the UK from April 5 with the album launch at the Wigmore Hall, London W1, on 23 April;

LINKS: Full list of tour dates at trishclowes.com

Wigmore Hall Bookings

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