Drummer/composer Tristan Banks has worked with a host of stars: Roy Ayers, David Gilmour, Mike Lindup, Beverley Knight…. He has just released his first album as leader, recorded at Steve Winwood’s Wincraft Studios, with saxophonist Paul Booth, pianist John Crawford and bassist Davide Mantovani. The London launch is imminent (booking link below).
As Event Curator at the Verdict club in Brighton, Tristan also takes not just an interest, but a genuinely pro-active role in helping to maintain and build the grassroots jazz scene. Interview by Dan Paton
Drummer and composer Tristan Banks understands that View From Above, his debut album as a bandleader, has a specific quality. “It has a certain vibe”, he says, “you’re not going to put it on if you want to chill out.” He also describes it as “quite full on”. From the opening title track onwards, the album explores a range of material that is mostly propulsive rhythmically, from the Latin influenced pieces such as Cidade Alta, Tempesta and Capelinhas to more funk and rock influenced pieces such as Ex Machina. Whilst Banks is keen to emphasise the challenging nature of the material, he also suggests that it avoids some of the common preoccupations of contemporary jazz. “It’s not super polyrhythmic, or tricksy drummers music”, he says. Instead, the challenges seem to come in part from Banks’ long-standing interest in Brazilian and Cuban influences, and he assembled a group of musicians well placed to handle those styles.
Banks grew up in a musical household in Brighton (his father was a bass player who played with Mike Westbrook) and has a long career of over 30 years as a performing musician. From a young age, he was working with bands such as Cubano Bop and Batu. He moved to London in 1997, and became part of a hugely successful acid jazz and Latin scene that also involved some of the musicians who play with him on View From Above. An interesting question is why he waited until now to record his first album based on his original compositions? “I had always wanted to be more into composition, and a better band player”, he suggests. “But maybe it’s taken me this long to actually be able to play the music!” It seems that a combination of different factors came together, from a simple feeling that it might be the right time to the fortunate availability of Wincraft, Steve Winwood’s recording studio in the Cotswolds (Banks was due to join Winwood on the joint headlining shows with Steely Dan in the US, until Covid intervened).
It is also intriguing that Banks decided to focus around an acoustic jazz quartet format on this album, particularly as someone used to playing in larger ensembles playing very arranged music. He is honest that “part of it is the economic side” in having a project that can tour without incurring too many costs, but also “the intimacy of having a smaller project – I wanted to have that more stripped down quartet sound”. Banks suggests that the idea of having trio improvisation plus lead voice (in this case Paul Booth on mostly tenor saxophone or flute) was a key factor in the album’s creation. “The way most of the music is written”, he explains, “is that there’s often a very rhythmic or chordal element.” As a drummer, does he tend to start with this? “I’ve worked in lots of situation where you start with a groove but I would often try to pare it down to melody and harmony first”, he says, although he also admits to sometimes being unaware of how his music first begins.
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Another crucial element in the album’s fluidity and sense of purpose is the strong connection between the musicians. “Even though we don’t play together consistently, when we do, there are reference points and it’s easy – like an old shoe”, Banks suggests. He also emphasises the rapport and humour between them: “People who have seen the band can see that communication, and we don’t have to rehearse that too much”. Banks thinks he first met pianist John Crawford on a Snowboy gig, and they both subsequently played in a band called Vida Nova. Banks explains that Crawford has “a vast knowledge of Latin piano”, as well as a strong understanding of jazz harmony, making him the perfect pianist for Banks’ music that incorporates elements of both. Banks played with bassist Davide Mantovani in Cubano Bop, and both have also worked alongside Paul Booth in his Bansangu Orchestra. Banks and Booth have known each other since the mid-90s.
The album also affords Banks, as leader, plenty of space for improvising on the drum kit, often involving extended soloing alongside or around written riffs (there’s some particularly exciting interaction on “Dust Devil”). While Banks states that he is “mainly interested in playing grooves”, he also considers the importance of the drum kit having a role at the front as well. “I do sometimes think that British jazz avoids the drum kit in terms of expression – the drum kit is built for jazz! It’s 100 years old and has this great history.” Perhaps the key is the need for the drummer to be able to both improvise expressively and support others. Banks highlights the role of Steve Gadd on “Three Quartets”, the 1981 Chick Corea album in doing exactly this.
While Banks’ own performing career has been diverse and not focused exclusively on jazz, it seems that he has been exploring the contemporary jazz world more closely in recent times. Part of this has been his role in reopening The Verdict jazz club in Brighton, beginning with live streamed gigs during Covid lockdowns and now back to in person live performances with an audience. He sees the work as “dutiful in some ways”, in helping to make sure that at least some grassroots venues can continue their important work after the significant setbacks and challenges that came with the pandemic. He is clear that it has influenced him musically in addition to this: “It’s definitely made me have one more foot in the jazz camp”. Banks seems excited by the range of music offered by younger jazz musicians. “There’s a whole new generation of artists coming through – Shabaka, Camilla George, Emma Rawicz. Projects like The Comet is Coming (Shabaka Hutchings’ collaboration with Soccer 96) opens the genre up to different listeners. If we don’t reach younger people, we’re not cultivating the next generation of players or listeners”. While he may have waited a while to step out as a bandleader, Banks is clearly still driven to keep things new and to connect with a wider scene.
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LINKS: View from Above on Bandcamp