County Durham-born pianist/composer Paul Edis is best known for his work as Musical Director and co-songwriter for Jo Harrop – they are originally from the same town, Chester-Le-Street; Paul Edis is now based in London. 19 July sees the debut of a new sextet. They will give the premiere of a new suite of pieces by Paul Edis at Pizza Express Dean Street. Interview by Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: Of the musicians in this sextet, Vasilis Xenopoulos is the one you have known for the longest – how did that happen and what do you admire in his playing?
Paul Edis: I first met Vasilis when I was studying at the London College of Music in 2003, meaning next year we’ll have been playing together for 20 years! He very generously asked me if I wanted to play a regular duo gig every Sunday at a bar on Uxbridge Road. This residency lasted for about 18 months, and came at the perfect time, as I was nearly broke!
Alongside the regular jazz workshops led by Pete Cook, and occasional piano lessons with Eddie Harvey, I credit this duo gig as a formative part of my jazz schooling. Vasilis was already a fantastic player back then, and he seemed to know every tune under the sun. So, each week for 3 hours I would get roasted on a diet of standards, rhythm changes and blues with absolutely no rehearsal!
I’ve always admired the melodic conviction in Vasilis’ playing. He really knows how to tell a story, and he has an encyclopaedic, audible knowledge of jazz history in his playing, but still manages to have his own voice.
LJN: And who are the others?
PE: The rest of the sextet are also incredible musicians, I feel really privileged that they’ve agreed to play my music! Joining Vasilis in the front line is Freddie Gavita (playing trumpet and flugel) and Rory Ingham (playing trombone). With Vasilis, they’ve already blended as a horn section in a way that bodes very well for the future!
In the rhythm section, alongside myself on piano, is Adam King (playing double bass) and Joel Barford (drums). We’ve been playing together a lot as a trio in the last year with some gigs at Hampstead Jazz Club and elsewhere. Playing with Adam and Joel is an absolute joy, they really, really swing!
LJN: Do you write with them in mind?
PE: The new music I’ve written was with this line-up in mind. Knowing the capabilities of the players, and thinking about their musical personalities allows me to create compositions in which they should feel at home. My role as composer is to set the scene for them to tell their stories, to create a musical backdrop or context they can explore.
Some of the tunes we’ll be playing in the first set were written a few years back for my original sextet, from when I was based in the Northeast. I’m really proud of the two albums I recorded with that band, and very grateful for all the time and energy Graham Hardy, Graeme Wilson, Chris Hibbard, Adam Sinclair and Mick Shoulder put into playing and recording my music. I think the tunes are certainly still worth playing and I’m excited to hear them again with this new line-up and to see how they might morph and develop.
LJN: This looks vaguely or superficially… like an Art Blakey sextet. Similarities? Differences?
PE: I love Blakey! There is a similarity in the line-up with some of his recordings, and there are some really swinging numbers in the set that probably have their roots in Blakey, but I think there are also other influences in the music and my approach to the writing that are from much, much further afield!
LJN: What themes or events have inspired the music?
PE: Many of my compositions for sextet have been influenced by encounters and anecdotes or inspired by family and friends. For this gig however, we are premiering a new suite of compositions inspired by the events and language we all endured living through the pandemic. For example, terms like ‘new normal’, ‘daily briefing’ and ‘the vaccine’. It was a time of so much loss and misery for so many, but also moments of inspiration and hope, and occasionally the bizarre!
LJN: What is “Perilous Dance” about?
PE: ‘Perilous Dance’ is one of the movements in the suite. It’s a rhumba with a willowy sort of melody and meandering harmony, inspired by that moment when your footsteps become interlocked with a stranger on the street, a “shall we dance” moment, when neither of you can seem to get away from the other. This seemingly very minor, slightly awkward occurrence took on a whole new meaning because of Covid, as we were supposed to keep two metres away from each other, meaning for a perilous dance until someone finally broke free!
LJN: You describe the pieces as a suite. What does that imply compositionally?
PE: I’ve written a few suites in the last 10 years, as I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of creating long-form jazz. As a music, jazz doesn’t necessarily immediately lend itself to this idea. We tend to just play a tune, say something about it and move on to another, often completely unrelated tune. In these suites I’ve tried to bring some of the approach often seen in symphonic music, using recurring themes and motifs that gradually evolve from movement to movement. The idea is that on some subconscious level, the listener senses a connection between each movement, and that this makes the experience more rewarding, perhaps more meaningful. The challenge, however, is to do this without placing too many restrictions on the music and the soloists and to avoid it becoming contrived. There still needs to be freedom within the music and scope for exploration.
LJN: Is there a melodic motif or set of motifs that recur/ dominate?
PE: Thanks for asking! Here are a couple of examples of how I use motifs in the suite. The opening idea for ‘New Normal’ (motif x) is transposed into a new situation, with a different time signature and harmony for ‘The Daily Briefing’.
The bass riff from the opening of ‘New Normal’ (motif y) becomes the first four notes of the melody that open ‘Perilous Dance’. The context has completely changed – ‘New Normal’ is in 6 and essentially a blues, where ‘Perilous Dance’ is a rhumba in 4 with very different harmony – but these motifs or musical characters are still present.
LJN: Do the motifs just help the listener – or do they “represent” something.. like in Wagner…?
PE: There are definitely some musical motifs in the suite that represent things. One slightly silly example is a recurring figure in 5 in the movement called ‘The Daily Briefing’, as of course these were pretty much always at 5pm. It’s good fun to include this kind of thing, partly to see if anyone notices, but also in this example this was the initial inspiration for this movement.
LJN: What are your hopes / plans / dreams for the sextet?
PE: During the pandemic I played a lot of solo piano, including a weekly livestreamed lunchtime gig from my flat. This led to an album of solo piano on Lateralize Records released last year. After so much time playing solo piano, I’m very grateful to be playing in bands again and to be in a position to write for these incredible musicians. In terms of the future, I’d love to record an album of this new music with this new line-up, and to get the band on the road!
The Paul Edis Sextet is presented by PizzaExpress Live in partnership with Hampstead Jazz Club.