Violinist Faith Brackenbury continues her collaboration with avant garde free jazz drummer Tony Bianco with the release of a new double album ‘Wayward Mystic’, improvisations on the music of St. Hildegard von Bingen, and sets off on an Arts Council England-supported summer tour of churches in the Shropshire/Powys/Herefordshire borderlands. Interview by Mary James:
LondonJazz News: How did the Brackenbury/Bianco duo come together?
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Faith Brackenbury: I met Tony, who’s from the Bronx, NY, two years ago this August. His life had somewhat miraculously (for me) landed him 15 miles from me in rural Shropshire – it’s a beautiful place, but not exactly a jazz hub – via Berlin and London, where he played and recorded with Alex von Schlippenbach, Aki Takase, Elton Dean, Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall, Dave Liebman on the jazz and free scene. We released ‘Rising Up’, on Discus, in 2021. Our new double album is very different, and although it has three of our long free improvisations on it, it also has five tracks based on the sacred music of St.Hildegard von Bingen.
LJN: How did you get into St.Hildegard von Bingen’s music?
FB: I came across it when I was playing with Martin Speake’s Mafarowi band with Rob Luft and Will Glaser in 2015/16, and researched her. I was inspired by everything about her work, her life (1098-1179) and her music.
Tony Bianco: So, one day Faith came over with a Hildegard record…I had nothing to do that afternoon, and just drummed to the whole hour of it…and it was great…and Faith liked it…and I liked it also. I love the melodies and the rhythms, so that’s how it started, with us.
FB: Tony’s rolling drums underneath the Hildegard sounded so earthy and grounded, in response to the ethereal quality of the monophonic vocals. Then I thought that maybe I could even sing some of these beautiful liturgical songs, and loop background drones and riffs on my violin and viola, as backing, and then improvise over that. The Latin, containing all those vowels, is so natural to sing. And the intervals, and freeness she wrote with, as well as it being modal, meant a crossover of classical, spiritual, jazz, folk; fantastic for improvising on.
LJN: What is it about Hildegard’s music that will resonate with the audience?
TB: I’ve always listened a lot to Ravi Shankar and Indian music. I also practised yoga… I got into that world listening to the Beatles ‘Within You Without you’. I loved the way the tabla played in an improvisational way with the sitar, and I thought, maybe we can kind of do this with Hildegard – and it worked out like we were making the Hildegard into some kind of Christian meditation music, that’s similar, to me, to aspects of how Indians regard their music, in terms of the spirituality.
FB: And each track we do is over 10 minutes, which is (apparently) the point at which the human mind starts to go into a trance, listening to music.
LJN: Most of your gigs are in churches, and local to you, is there a reason for that?
FB: After the last two years of social isolation, restrictions and loneliness, we decided to try to encourage the communities around us to re-engage with live music, just going out and being together socially again, which is vital to the overall health of all humans – and we are so privileged to be able to play in these most beautiful buildings, that have such a sense of peace, belonging, and are so ancient.
TB: We hope people may feel a sense of universal consciousness, a connection to spirit and each other, again. I’m glad that our tour is in churches, to bring that even more to our understanding, and to the people, because I think churches are the perfect place to hear that music. And also there are elements of jazz that are spiritual; we’re jazz musicians, and it’s emphasising that. Plus it’s fortunate it is local, because of fuel prices!
LJN: Would you like to take the music further afield?
FB: Absolutely, other regional UK tours or gigs would be great. I’d like to go to Germany with it too, where Hildegard was from, and elsewhere of course.
LJN: How important is it that you are receiving Arts Council England funding?
TB: It’s great – we do eat! And it means we’ll be able to put fuel in the car to get to the gigs with less worry. It’s not easy packing up your drums and going to these gigs and such, without any kind of financial security, especially in these times. So thank you, Arts Council England.
LJN: The new double album, ‘Wayward Mystic’, is being released on Discus on 2 September…
TB: Yes – Faith liked that title. It’s a jazz musician’s version of things. Hildegard was a mystic, poet, dramatist, physician as well as a composer. She was quite a rebel. And maybe at this point in the world, try to believe in a higher power – the power of man seems to have failed totally! We’ve moved away from taking a higher power seriously, so maybe a contemplative, spiritual, prayerful thing, if it comes into our life in a way that’s meaningful and sacred and peaceful, without any judgement, might bring us hope, that’s real and not from politicians.
FB: She had visions from an early age, hence our project name of ‘Visio Improvisus’, which has since given some critics an excuse to ridicule her – but she was very respected in her time, advising and giving her opinion to royalty and the Pope. She was ahead of her times, a political moralist.
TB: But then, she was kept hidden from the world for centuries, as Truth and profound things are…
FB: Yes, but she was canonised 10 years ago in 2012, and also made a Doctor of the Church. The tour actually finishes on 17 September, which is St. Hildegard’s Feast Day, so that’s very satisfying.
LINK: Tour dates and tickets