Saxophonist /composer/educator Phil Bancroft, born in London and now based in Midlothian has been called a “A significant figure in the ascent of the Scottish new-jazz scene” (Guardian). He made his mark with his own groups, with Trio AAB and with his international quartet featuring Reid Anderson, Thomas Strønen and Mike Walker.
He is releasing a fine, previously unreleased album. Degrees of Freedom, recorded in a quartet of top Scottish musicians: pianist Paul Harrison, drummer Stu Ritchie and bassist Aidan O’Donnell. Degrees of Freedom is a strong, confident album by a group which, audibly, had played and toured together a lot before making the recording.
The album is the first release on Phil’s new , artist-led streaming platform “Myriad Streams”, an initiative launched today, 5 May 2023, which is typical of a musician with such a broad field of vision about music and life in general. He trained in Medicine and Psychology at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, and worked for more than a decade as a locum doctor. Interview by Sebastian.
LondonJazz News: There is such great fluency in your improvising on “Degrees of Freedom”, and such a strong feeling of a group on top of its game…
Phil Bancroft: I have been wanting to release this album since it was made. It was a great process producing that album, they are all seriously talented players that I have history with, I was lucky to have them all in Scotland at the same time, and we had a real connection as a band- had done some touring and plenty of gigs, and I think that comes across. It was my first recording after the Headlong band with international stars using material with very open improvisational approaches. So I wanted to work with a Scottish-based band and explore the meeting of freedom and more structured improvisational spaces using chord sequences. The guys in the band were all comfortable moving from chordal to freer improvisations, which is reflected in the title. I am pleased that all the tunes are quite distinct, and I think while it speaks to the American Classic Quartet tradition, it doesnʼt actually sound quite like anyone, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, or Coltrane, and the range of tunes maybe reflect a wider range of influences, including Ornette. When it was finished I was really delighted with it. We recorded it just after moving into a house with wooden floors in the village of Glenkinchie, and for the session brought a Steinway into the front room, the mixing desk in the conservatory, and cables running through the kitchen.
LJN: And what made you go back to it to release it now?
PB: It was self-financed at the time, I didn’ʼt have a label, and when it should have been released I had just finished a big multi-media project ʻSmall As the Worldʼ, which was artistically great but financially not. I was just exhausted, and about to have a baby. Working in the non-commercial artistic sector, when you get older with more responsibilities, you have to work out how to sustain your practice, when to release things, when to focus on building your home or your family. You’re juggling income streams all the time to fit in your creative activity. You drive shit cars. I call it the beautiful struggle. I now see all of it as being part of my artistic practice. I had some experience of releases going badly early in my career, so I wanted to wait until I was ready and it would get a good release. Watching the rise of Spotify and the huge distribution platforms, with music becoming essentially free to consume, plus austerity and the squeeze on funding, I couldnʼ’t see a way to do it for a long time. I was studying saxophone a lot, playing a lot, but I wasnʼ’t releasing anything.
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4 years ago my wife, son and I moved to this small farm near Edinburgh, and this process of the unfolding of family life is now fully mixed with the process of the unfolding of my artistic life. I love that and proactively embrace it. And it so happens this farm has a barn with an amazing acoustic for saxophone. So I started practising there, and recording there with this mantra of ʻLetʼs See what Happensʼʼ. Out of this, totally unplanned, came this solo improvised saxophone suite ʻTestimonyʼ which I am seriously proud of, and which will be released later this year. And it was, “OK- it is time- I need to start releasing work again.”
So a lot of thought and discussion went into thinking, what do I need at this point in my life, personally and artistically? Do I want to try and persuade a cool label to release it, (I did try a bit) or should I find a way to release all the stuff I have made myself directly? Out of this came this firm belief that in the age of Spotify, artist-led platforms will be critical moving forward to rebalance our cultural economy away from these huge sites, where art is commodified and presented on industrial scale, and the artist feels like a grain of sand, thereʼs a hundred thousand more where you came from. So thatʼs how Myriad Streams came about, and crucially I received support from Creative Scotland, and so am planning to release loads of music, with 8 album releases planned for the next two years (thereʼs quite a backlog). And Degrees Of Freedom was the next one that should have been released when I stopped. So it felt right to release that one first.
LJN: The titles seem to suggest a lot of humour and banter going round the band. Is that right?
PB: No, the band and I are very serious people and never make any jokes 🙂 .
LJN: Could this group ever get back together again?
PB: Yes, in theory it could, and I would love that- but Aidan OʼDonnell has been playing on the New York scene for the last 10 years or so, and Stu Ritchie now lives in the South Of France, so itʼs finances that makes it tricky.
LJN: What form(s) do(es) your current music-making take?
PB: I have just recorded a new trio album with Graeme Stephen on guitar and Gyan Singh on Tabla, the latest staging post on a long journey exploring asymmetrical time signatures and improvisation, starting when I played with Carnatic maestros Gnesh and Kumaresh Rajagopalan, exploring how Indian classical music can inform contemporary Jazz. We recorded the album in my barn in October, and it will be released on Myriad Streams hopefully later this year. I also play semi-regularly with my Standards trio- with my brother Tom and bassist Mario Caribe, and we are releasing a Standards album next on Myriad Streams, and playing at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on the 21st July. There is a lot of hype around the young Scottish jazz scene.
LJN: Do you feel proud that the Scottish jazz flame lit by people like Colin Steele and yourself is being carried forward?
PB: I feel extremely proud that there is this genuinely exciting group of young musicians coming through from Scotland, with this confidence in creating their own music, which is the key for me. How much I individually had to do with it I donʼt know- but one would hope that one of the things my generation did was write their own music, and express a Scottish identity in that, reflecting the confluence of the American Black Jazz tradition with Celtic Music as an inspiration to explore the amazing thing that is improvisation. If the young guys grew up in an environment where that was just what people did, and that helped a bit, then that is great.
LJN: Myriad Streams is your venture. What would you hope it might achieve?
PB: The mantra behind my creative process now is ‘ʻ’Letʼs see what happens!ʼ, and this is not a surface trite thing, it is deeply held. I have thought and written a lot about creativity, and I am fascinated by improvisation. I see a big divide in approaches to improvisation in jazz, between players who study and wish to capture a particular sound, Brecker, Coltrane, so they often have an end-point in mind.
And improvisers who open up to the moment and allow the emerging improvisation to find out what it is meant to be. As you develop as a player you have to explore both sides I think, but in performance people tend to come down on one side or the other. I think the second is more emotionally demanding, the first more technically demanding, and of course both have their place, and I tried to do the first, to get more control, but I just couldnʼ’t do it, and now I am really glad, because I think it makes my music what it is.
So I approach many things like this now, not being too goal-oriented, trying to minimise pre-conceptions about what you are trying to achieve, put your focus into bringing great skill, focus and love to processes, often with huge amounts of preparation, but allowing things to go where they should go. I think a lot of interesting unlooked for things can emerge from processes when you do that, things which would maybe get shoved aside if you have a fixed end-point you are aiming at. For me I want to be able to release my music with love, and send it out into the universe and that will be success for me, but I donʼt have any expectations of what the universe should say back. For the platform, I hope it becomes interesting, so that other artists start to use it, and there has already been some movement there, but again I don;t hade a fixed idea of how that should work. And in the wider sphere, if we can contribute to a conversation about where we want our culture to go, who we want to control it and how we act as listeners and artists, then great.
PB: There is a connection with / inspiration from something Makoto Ozone did. Whatʼs the story there?
My old young friend Neil MacKinnon, who works in the music industry, was working with Makoto Ozone at the time of lockdown, and Makoto started live streaming nightly concerts from a grand piano squeezed into his small Tokyo flat, and hit a moment, and ended up with a big nightly audience, such that when he finished after several months, a local main concert venue offered their Steinway for the final livestream. No money changed hands, but a big connection was made, and Neil told me this story and encouraged me to think about different types of value in releasing creative work, value that goes beyond money. I found this a very interesting thing to think about, which is why the front of Myriad Streams will always be a free-to access playlist, and we will be introducing credits for sharing, redeemable against downloads or subscriptions, so people without spare cash can still support the music, through value transactions that donʼt involve money. In the noncommercial sector, money is important in so far as to make things happen or sustain practice, but only in so far that it serves deeper more important values.
LJN: And presumably there are more albums to come on the streaming platform
PB: On Myriad Streams, I will be releasing at least 7 of my albums and 1 album I made with Dundonian composer Kevin Murray, and we will be making more as we go forward, and there are a couple of others which might feature, either as tracks playlist or as full releases. So I have loads to release on the site already.
LJN: How might other artists get involved?
PB: I will be looking for artists to build their own Myriad Streams sites though. I am building the site with the amazing Paul Egan of Glasgow developers Digital Dexterity, and we are designing the code base so other artists can exploit the platform design with minimal outlay- helping others to share and sustain their practice. I havenʼt worked out how that is going to work yet, and whether we set up a structure to curate that process, like a nonprofit organisation with a board, etc etc. It wonʼt be something anyone can sign up to like Soundcloud. So I hope we might end up with a village of sites, each celebrating the work of one artist, band or collective.
PP features are part of marketing packages. Myriad Streams has received support from Creative Scotland
LINKS: About Myriad Streams