“Fire Hills” (West Hill Records), the new double album from bassist/composer Olie Brice, marks a significant step forward in his career as bandleader and composer: one album by his trio with Will Glaser and Tom Challenger, and one for octet (with Alex Bonney, Kim Macari, Jason Yarde, Rachel Musson, George Crowley, Cath Roberts and Johnny Hunter). Both groups will perform at the launch (Cafe Oto, 13 Sep.) The octet is also booked for the London Jazz Festival.
Olie Brice, born in London, raised in Hackney and Jerusalem, and now living in Hastings is one of a significant group of UK musicians who are just as comfortable in the free improv scene as they are in the world of written compositions, indeed who want to be in both spheres. Interview by Sebastian
LondonJazz News: Do you feel a sense of evolving a musical language which people who know your previous work will be familiar with, or are you breaking new ground?
Olie Brice: Both! I think there’s an audible connection to my two previous albums as a composer/bandleader, ‘Immune to Clockwork’ and especially ‘Day After Day’ – and indeed a couple of the pieces on the trio half of the new album were played by the ‘Day After Day’ band before I formed the trio. As always I compose music for improvisers and give the musicians a lot of freedom and room to be themselves. However, this double album is the result of a process where composing has become a much more important part of my ongoing practice – challenging myself to write for larger and more varied ensembles than I’ve written for before. I do think that I’ve found some approaches to harmony and counterpoint that I hadn’t explored before.
LJN: What gave the spur to start the composition of the music for “Five Hills”?
OB: The first step was a commission from Jazz South to write a new piece for trio, to be streamed at a time when Covid meant there were no live performances. I wrote a piece for a trio with Jason Yarde and Nick Malcolm, and between having more time than usual on my hands and a first ever commission as a composer, I really threw myself into the process and wrote a 20 minute piece (video below). That piece seemed to suggest some new compositional ground for me – it has ended up as the title track of this album, with versions recorded by both the Trio and the Octet. That really triggered something in me and I found that composition became a significant part of my daily practice, along with studying scores, transcribing other people’s voicings and other research – and for the first time felt like I was an actual composer rather than just coming up with a few pieces for an album or tour. I successfully applied for an Arts Council England fund called ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ to write for three different improvising ensembles, which gave me time and money to write and also to workshop and rehearse my ideas.
LJN: So lockdown and the pandemic have actually .. partly … helped the process and your development as composer?
OB: Yes! Funny to admit anything positive about such challenging times, but I do feel like I’ve come out the other end as much more of a composer than I went in…
LJN: How did the two groups on these recordings come about? The trio…?
OB: The trio was formed when I was offered a streamed gig by the Vortex, as part of the 2020 London Jazz Festival. Due to the Covid regulations at the time, we could only have three musicians on stage, and I didn’t want to ask three of my Quintet and leave the other two out. So I asked two other musicians that I love playing with – Tom Challenger and Will Glaser – thinking it would be interesting to hear what they would do with the Quintet’s repertoire. The gig was a complete joy, and I immediately realised it was a project I wanted to pursue more seriously. Both Tom and Will are so creative and responsive, and also share my desire to play music that is deeply informed by a love of the jazz tradition but also free from restrictions and continually evolving. The whole set is still online, here:
LJN: .…and the octet?
OB: The Octet was a direct result of the composition project I mentioned earlier, and the Arts Council England funding. I wanted to challenge myself to write for a larger ensemble, but also wanted to continue the rhythm section plus lots of horns approach that I had explored with my Quintet. I love the combination of the harmonic freedom of no chordal instrument with the ‘big band’ colour and noise of loads of brass and woodwind. All of the musicians involved are friends of mine, and musicians whose playing I love. Some of them – Rachel Musson and Alex Bonney spring to mind – have been playing my music almost as long as I’ve been writing it, while others are newer relationships but all really musically and personally significant to me.
LJN: Whose methods of composing and writing for improvisers have you studied closest in the preparation of this project
OB: There are four pieces dedicated to musical heroes of mine on the album – Julius Hemphill, Andrew Hill, Johnny Dyani and Eric Dolphy. Dyani is one of my very favourite double bassists, and I also really love the way he wrote joyous, catchy tunes that work in wild, free contexts – managing to be both song and free jazz at the same time has always excited and influenced me. Hill and Hemphill I think are two of the most significant composers in the history of jazz – both groundbreaking and innovative in ways that I think musicians are still coming to terms with. Both of them have very personal and fascinating approaches to using complex compositional ideas – overlaying polyrhythms, detailed counterpoint, unique voicings – that never get in the way of the freedom, propulsion and creativity of the musicians. Embarking on this composition project happened to coincide with the release of an incredible boxset of previously unreleased Hemphill recordings, and I was studying that very closely.
LJN: And Dolphy’s shadow is here too??
OB: Yes, definitely. Dolphy has been one of my heroes since before I even started playing this music, and there was a specific influence in this writing process. I was working out of Yusef Lateef’s book ‘Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns’ and realised that the mode he describes as Dolphy’s synthetic scale was only one note away from Dolphy’s tune Gazzelloni. That started me down a route of inventing synthetic modes and exploring different ways of overlapping them and deriving voicings from them, which became a big part of the Octet composing.
LJN: And I gather Ingrid Laubrock has had a role?
OB: When I applied for the Arts Council funding I included a few mentoring sessions with Ingrid. We used to play together before she moved to New York, and I thought she’d have really useful ideas as she’s done a lot of composing for large ensembles that incorporates improvisation. She did have lots of useful practical advice on the process, but also – beyond what I had envisaged – at times the sessions moved into informal composition lessons, which were fantastic. She showed me some fascinating techniques she got from Henry Threadgill.
LJN: Is the two-record set the complete project?
OB: No. There were three ensembles included in this phase of composing, the third being a string quartet piece, entitled ‘From the Mouths of Lions’. I had the privilege of workshopping my ideas and then recording the piece with three incredible and virtuosic musicians – all of whom are active both as contemporary classical interpreters and as improvisers; Mandhira de Saram on violin, Benedict Taylor on viola and Alice Purton on cello, with me making up the quartet. That recording is still looking for the right home, but will hopefully be released soon-ish If anyone is reading this who runs an open-minded contemporary classical record label, do get in touch!
LJN: With a string quartet there are presumably other musical sources that have inspired you?
OB: The the three composers I was listening to the most while working on the piece were Luigi Nono, Guillaume Dufay and György Kurtág, and they certainly had an influence on the writing – especially Nono’s string writing in the 1980s, such as ‘Hay Que Caminar’, ‘La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura’ and ‘Fragmente – Stille An Diotima’. Another big influence was less direct but just as important – I’m a bit obsessed with the history of string quartets as ensembles, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the process of that love influencing my composition. I’m not sure I could explain the process of that influence but its definitely somewhere there in the piece. If I start talking about all my favourite string quartets this interview will end up very long indeed, but just to give a taste – of particular interest to me are ensembles who were playing both the classical repertoire and very contemporary music in the middle of the 20th Century – the early versions of the Julliard Quartet, the Hollywood Quartet and the LaSalle being three great examples.
LJN: Your degree is in history and sociology…. What’s going on in the world outside / What hopes / dreams/ fears do you have and can we hear them in the music?
OB: I’ve always had radical politics, and before I was a full-time musician I was very involved in activism – first in Palestine and then here in things like antifascism and environmental and anarchist direct action. There’s definitely a connection in my mind between the freedom and lack of hierarchy in the music I play and my politics, although I’m not sure how directly you can hear specific hopes and fears. It’s a pretty scary time, with the rise of racist, far right governments and imminent climate disaster. I struggle with on one level believing that as artists we make the world a better place – ‘music is the healing force of the universe’ to quote Albert Ayler – but on the other hand knowing that isn’t enough for concrete change.
LJN: Will the same personnel as on the albums be at the launch?
OB: Yes! To my surprise and delight everyone was able to make it – so on 13 September at Cafe Oto in Dalston both the Trio and the Octet will be appearing in the original lineups. The Octet can also be heard at the Vortex during the London Jazz Festival – on 17 November.