UK violinist Tobie Medland’s new album ‘The Aviary’ mixes gypsy jazz with his original writing, influenced by 20th century composers; as if Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli had recorded with Ravel and Shostakovich in a 9-piece band. He evokes a “mystical and magical” world, where “the only things in that world would be birds.” He talks about his jazz and classical influences, and how he set up London’s Gypsy Jazz Festival and the Future Fable record label. Feature by Alison Bentley.
London Jazz News: How did you get into jazz?
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Tobie Medland: I learned classically as a kid. Then I got into hip hop, psy-trance (trance) and dance music, and then I started DJing it. Through hip hop I got really into jazz, and I picked up jazz piano. A friend reminded me I could play the violin and introduced me to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Jazz and hip hop are quite interlinked- it feels logical in a weird way.
LJN: You started on piano and moved to violin?
TM: I went through the grades. I have a good friend who is a great guitarist- he plays a lot of Django Reinhardt and we started jamming together. But the piano didn’t quite match the style, so I tried some of the violin stuff. It was quite fun and the rest is history.
LJN: You set up the Gypsy Jazz Festival in London?
TM: It just kind of happened- the first edition was meant to happen in 2020. I was like, there’s no gypsy jazz festival here, so I just did it. It was quite organic really- it wasn’t like a business decision. It was cancelled, and I brought it back in 2022, so now there have been two editions. They both went really well and sold out across the board.
LJN: Future Fable is your own record label?
TM: It’s good fun. I was always into producing, so I guess the label is slightly more varied than the Festival is.
LJN: Your new album came out of your experience of lockdown?
TM: I went on a lot of bike rides out towards Biggin Hill looking at the birds flying around. They had no idea there was a massive pandemic going on- it was quite liberating to watch them. It helped me deal with two close family bereavements. I love Messiaen and Vaughan Williams- a lot of classical composers have written about birds.
LJN: How much of The Aviary Part 1 is written and how much improvised? Some of it recalled Debussy.
TM: In a way, more Ravel- the French Impressionists as well as Bartok are my favourites, so I guess when I’m writing in a classical style it sounds like them because I listen to them the most. Some of Debussy’s symphonic poems, like La Mer.
The strings, the clarinet part and the melodies were written. The clarinet solo was improvised over chord changes. The piano part was partly written, and had chords that Sam Leak improvised on. In the last of the tracks, (The Aviary Parts 2 & 3) the first part was almost entirely free improv with a few little hints- I did a graphic score, just to give the shape. The second part was completely written. Marcus Penrose was the bassist. I literally wrote on the score something along the lines of, “Walk about angrily.” In the second half at least, all the string parts are written. Shostakovich was probably the main inspiration for that one.
LJN: You really bring dissonant classical music and gypsy jazz together in the last one.
TM: That was the aim- it’s not really something that’s been done a lot, and I thought it would be quite an interesting approach. For the rhythm guitar, similarly to the bass, I just wrote: “chug away!” That style is called “la pompe”, so I just said, “la pompe atonally!”
LJN: “Murmuration” is about starlings?
TM: Absolutely- inspired by starlings, but more imaginary birds. I was thinking of the concept of birds and fantastic weird things as well. I was trying to depict something.
LJN: There’s a fine piano solo on this.
TM: Sam Leak is great- it was a real pleasure to work with him
LJN: And a Django-style guitar solo...
TM: That was Bim Williams– I still haven’t come across a more tasteful arch top guitarist so I always bring him down from Manchester when I can.
LJN: There are two jazz standards- “Del Sasser” and “Django”.
TM: An album has to fulfil a couple of things: it has to be an artistic thing, but also I do have to get some gigs from it so I thought it would be a good idea to put a more swingy jazzy tune in there. [Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s Del Sasser] I love playing more straight ahead jazz. Those tracks were mainly improvised.
LJN: They sound really different with the gypsy jazz treatment.
TM: “Django” was by the Modern Jazz Quartet and I like the Joe Pass version a lot. He was quite explicitly influenced by Django- Pass is one of my favourites jazz musicians, so I thought it would be a good idea to reference him on the album.
LJN: How did the band get together?
TM: The band started as a quartet with me, Bim, Sol Grimshaw on rhythm guitar and Marcus on the bass. For this album I wanted a string section so I got in touch with Shirley Smart (cello) and Kit Massey (violin), who I’ve worked with quite a bit. Shirley recommended Helen Sanders-Hewitt who played the viola and pianist Sam Leak is well-known on the scene. Tom Smith, who’s on clarinet, is an old friend.
LJN: Some of the classical composers used folk tunes- how does that connect with gypsy jazz?
TM: That’s an interesting link. Gypsy jazz does very much stem from a folk tradition. It has dual influences: the influence of jazz, going all the way back to Django Reinhardt, who was very much into Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and those guys. It also comes directly from Romani music from Central Europe. Benjamin Britain and Vaughan Williams use Celtic folk music and it still has the same logic to it. A lot of Bartok’s music might as well be gypsy jazz- there is a massive connection there.
LJN: Which violinists do you admire?
TM: When listening to jazz I usually favour pianists, guitarists and saxophonists: Joe Pass, Bill Evans, Chick Corea. When it comes to violinists, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stephane Grappelli, Didier Lockwood. Anglo-Parisian Daniel John Martin has been a mentor over the years. There’s a guy who works in Paris at the moment called Florin Niculescu. Jason Anick from America is one of my favourites of the current ones.
LJN: Have you studied writing string arrangements?
TM: I studied Composition and Philosophy at university. It comes naturally. I find it quite a practical way to express myself in music. I know the instruments, what they can do and how strings sound together.
In my mind I wanted to evoke an almost physical realm. I was trying to describe a faraway planet, and the only things in that world would be birds. It’s a world where humans and their problems don’t exist, with all these birds flying around getting on with their lives- mystical and magical.
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LINKS: Future Fable Records