Feature/Interview

Alex Merritt (new album ‘Common Threads’ by Fresh Sound Ensemble, marking Fresh Sounds Records’ 30th anniversary)

Bristol-based saxophonist Alex Merritt has been given a unique honour. He has been commissioned by Jordi Pujol, the founder of Fresh Sounds Records in Barcelona, to record and produce a double album for various groups from quartets to nonets drawn from an eleven-piece ensemble of (mostly) UK musicians, in celebration of the label’s 30th anniversary.

The album, Common Threads, will be released this Friday 23 December. Interview by Sebastian:

Photo from the second of the two sessions.L-R: Alex Hitchcock, Jay Davis, Ronan Perrett, Conor Chaplin, John Turville, Alex Merritt, Sam Braysher, Steve Fishwick. Not present in photo: Tom Ollendorff, Michael Chillingworth, Adele Sauros. Photo credit: Nick Taylor

LondonJazz News: If I understand right, you have been a long-term fan of the Fresh Sound label, but you only had a first contact in late 2019?

Alex Merritt: Yes exactly! Like many jazz musicians of my generation, I have been listening to Fresh Sound New Talent albums since I was a teenager, and had always loved the sound, look and style of records that Jordi put out. The label seemed to have a feel and integrity that I admired even as a young musician and I quickly fell in love with a lot of their output from the 90-00’s.

The quintet that I co-run with leading UK trumpeter Steve Fishwick had recorded a set of original material that we imagined might work well on the label, with the contemporary straight ahead aesthetic of this band and knowing the sound and feel of the records. Therefore, we reached out to Jordi, and sent him the masters for our album. He liked them and this became ‘Mind-Ear-Ladder’. It was released on Fresh Sound New Talent in February 2022. 

LJN: What happened next:

AM: Following the release of Mind-Ear-Ladder, I spoke to Jordi about how, ever since first listening to Stranger Things Have Happened by Seamus Blake, age 19, I had admired the label and it’s ethos and approach and thought it would be amazing to release something with them one day. It is when we spoke that Jordi first mentioned how he had been thinking about a larger scale project featuring UK musicians for a while… And as FSNT has an increasing roster of up and coming musical talent from the UK scene, who have released for the label in recent years, this might be a good time to do something. Furthermore, 2022 has marked the 30th anniversary of FSNT so this was the perfect time to hatch a plan for a collaborative album to commemorate this. 

Jordi asked me if I could l head up the project in the UK; put together a team of musicians affiliated with the UK scene to record this album, personally/collectively write music for this special collaboration, and pull the strings on the rehearsal/ recording and general production side of the project. I thought this sounded like something I would be keen to get my teeth into, and of course I was very happy to work on co-ordinating the production of a record that specifically marks the 30th anniversary of this fantastic European label.

LJN: Who were the first people you approached

AM: I called long-term collaborator Steve Fishwick. I was very keen to have him involved with this project. I was then in a very fortunate position of being able to contact friends and colleagues who have released on FSNT in the last few years, who I believed would be a good fit for the project. Some musicians I knew very well as improvisers and composers already, and others I have really enjoyed getting to know better throughout the course of this project. 

Alex Merritt . Publicity Photo

So I invited guitarist Tom Ollendorff, who I have known and musically admired since his times as a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and then saxophonists Sam Braysher and Alex Hitchcock whose Fresh Sound recordings I knew already and was a big fan of. Alto saxophonist Ronan Perrett, I had heard his debut for Fresh Sound quite recently and knew his sensibility would be a great fit and tenor saxophonist Adele Sauros, I knew brought quite a specific melodic approach to her writing and playing that I thought would lead to a brilliant contribution (listen to Adele’s ‘Erased’ which opens the album.)

Jordi and I were also keen for a piano guest feature and I knew that my good friend John Turville would contribute some majesty to proceedings and was happy to be able to invite him to guest on some tracks here, including an octet piece, ‘JT and The Planets’, that I arranged specifically with John in mind as a soloist. Jay Davis, I have known for a long time to be a fantastically versatile drummer with a fantastic energy that adds to any group dynamic so a number of us agreed Jay would be excellent for the ensemble. Conor Chaplin also features on Tom Ollendorff‘s Fresh Sound debut A Song For You, a leading musician of his generation, we knew he would add to any situation he is part of. Michael Chillingworth, a musical polymath, who contributed beautifully to the album on tenor sax and bass clarinet, actually joined for the recording session at the eleventh hour and we are very indebted for his help here. 

LJN: Was there a specific brief to the composers or what was the process of assembling the music

AM: I set a brief that anyone who wished to could compose something for the project for any format, aiming for a range of line-ups and formations as was Jordi’s wish. Everyone responded really well to this challenge and wrote some fabulous music, from chord-less quartets right up to five-horn octets and nonets.

One thing I am very happy about is that despite having a massively diverse, and varied, set of original compositions I feel like this album maintains a consistent feeling and approach throughout. I think this is testament to the level of musicianship involved as well as the hours rehearsing and the collective feeling of celebration (of FSNT) we were trying to harness. I hope this comes across as much as it does to me listening to it now! Jordi was definitely very keen to capture a snapshot of a generation of creative artistry in UK jazz, that he has seen evolving, has helped document and hoped to unite for this project. He has made a lovely comment in the booklet for Common Threads: 

“this project could be a unique meeting, in which a group of musicians of the same generation and from the same country could at the same time offer together to the world all the talent they treasure.” (Jordi Pujol)

LJN: Tell us about the recording sessions…

AM: We recorded ‘Common Threads’ over two days at Porcupine Studios in South East London. The sessions were a couple of months apart, to account for people’s availability, but we got there! The first session was recorded on 11 August 2022, and the second session was recorded 6 October 2022. Both sessions went very well, we co-ordinated flights and travel so that Adele could join us from Helsinki for the first session, and that day between all of the ensembles we managed seven (!) pieces that made it onto the record. The second date the fabulous Alex Hitchcock joined proceedings and we recorded the three other pieces on the album, two of these featuring pianist John Turville as a guest. 

Adele Sauros. Publicity photo.

LJN: The one non-British player is Adele Sauros who features on the first track. Can you introduce her to LJN readers

AM: Yes, Adele is a wonderful saxophonist and composer from Helsinki; she studied her postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is now currently studying on the prestigious Focus Year jazz course in Basel, Switzerland. I knew Adele a little from her time in London and knew she would relish involvement in this anniversary recording, for FSNT, a label she greatly admires. She wrote a full nonet ‘Erased’ and contributed a very poignant original quartet tune, ‘Simplicity’, to the record. It is great to have her involved with the ensemble and I am glad that we could make the logistics work 🙂

LJN: Can we also celebrate the Fresh Sound Records with naming a few favourite or important albums.. three maybe?

AM:

  • I have already mentioned my first introduction to the label which was Seamus Blake‘s Stranger Things Have Happened, which is a beautiful album that features Kurt Rosenwinkel.
  • I would also have to name Kurt’s debut as a leader East Coast Love Affair, recorded live at Smalls in 1996, and released on FSNT the same year as surely a modern classic album and certainly one I have really enjoyed over the years.
  • For a label that released early career albums of the likes of Kurt, Brad Mehldau, Ambrose Akinmusire etc. it is definitely a hard task to select just three albums; but just to pick one more of personal significance for me is Live At Smalls by the Ethan Iverson- Bill McHenry Quartet from 2000. I love the daring, risk and electric interplay on this album – it is also the first album I checked out that featured the amazing US drummer Jeff Williams, a long time friend of Jordi’s, with whom I recorded my debut album Anatta in 2015. 

The output of Fresh Sound New Talent has been hugely inspiring for me and I’m sure many others, over the last 30 years and it has been a brilliantly fun project to bring together many leading young UK-affiliated jazz musicians to create this album. We hope that we can continue to add to this legacy of fantastic music and keep building momentum for FSNT into 2023, and onwards! 

Common Threads signifies shared/ overlapping aesthetics, musical ideas and inspiration and we hope that you like the album. 🙂

LINK: Buy Common Threads

LJN coverage of Alex Merritt

Alex Merritt’s website

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