Guitarist Carl Orr is about to head back to his native Australia after almost three decades based in London. The 606 Club will hosting a Farewell Gig on 22 August, where Orr will be alongside what he describes as his “dream band”: Laurence Cottle (bass), Tomasz Bura (keyboards) and Francesco Mendolia (drums). Interview by Laura Thorne (*)
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LondonJazz News: Was guitar your first instrument, and were you always into jazz?
Car Orr: My first memory of any kind is of trying to play the guitar. I must have been two years old. I was singing “She loves you yeh, yeh, yeh” and ‘accompanying’ myself on the guitar. The singing sounded OK to me but I knew nothing about how to play the guitar so I was producing a quietly cacophonous little racket with the plastic strings on my plastic guitar. This frustrated me no end and I remember thinking “I have to figure this thing out” (the guitar). That’s the first thought of mine that I can remember and I never quite got it out of my mind. I had to wait till I was ten years old to get a real guitar, which felt like an eternity.
My first guitar was an inexpensive but comfortable classical guitar that sounded pretty good, which gave me a lifelong love of the classical instrument and of playing solo guitar. I took classical guitar lessons in school, which turned out to be a great thing as, while I playing sublime compositions by JS Bach and Fernando Sor, every other guitarist I knew was just mucking around with the blues scale and playing Stairway To Heaven and Smoke On The Water. I played flute and alto sax for a couple of years in high school but I didn’t enjoy them very much as I never really had a passion for playing them, but I am sure the experience made me a better musician.
As a kid I enjoyed the popular music of the day, which, back then, in the sixties was actually pretty good. However, my Dad was a bit concerned about my love of pop and rock music, which he thought was mostly rubbish, and he made a lot of effort to get me interested in other forms of music.
When I was fourteen he took me to see The Modern Jazz Quartet. This turned out to be a life-changing experience. I remember sitting in the Adelaide Festival Theatre and four grey-haired old men in tuxedoes walked onto the stage. I couldn’t have thought of anything worse. As I was sitting there feeling rebellious and angry at having been dragged out to this feast of boredom, something amazing happened. This strange, otherworldly music cast a spell on me and I went into a kind of trance, an altered state of consciousness, the likes of which I have never experienced since. I was in a magical fantasy world of music and I just didn’t want it to end. Jazz suddenly made perfect sense to me and seemed like the most fascinating thing in the world. I just couldn’t get enough of it, listening to jazz on the radio at every opportunity and buying jazz records with my pocket money, and I have been exploring jazz ever since as a musician and a listener.
LJN: You’re from Australia. What led you to move to the UK originally, what was your ambition?
CO: I originally moved to the UK as I thought that, if I did so, I had a good chance of playing in Billy Cobham’s band. I will answer this question in full later.
LJN: What was the scene n the UK like when you arrived? Did you find it easy to establish yourself here?
CO: While I initially found the London music scene strange and intimidating, I quickly met some very kind musicians who helped me out. I found a part-time guitar teaching job at Brunel University and I started to get a few gigs; theatre shows, restaurant gigs, functions and a few jazz gigs in pubs. One day, after I had been here for about a year I was talking to guitarist Dave Cliff and saying how difficult I was finding things and he calmly and encouragingly said “You just haven’t been here that long. You will find that things will naturally improve the longer you stay here”. And he was right. Some of the people who helped me out in the early days were Jonathan Gee, Frank Griffith, Christian Brewer, Paul Carmichael, Jason Bruer, Mark Johns, and a couple of great singers; Sarah Moule and Caroline Loftus. I am thankful to all of them for choosing me when they all knew plenty of other guitarists.
LJN: Among other high-profile artists, you worked with drummer Billy Cobham (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra). How did that gig come about, and did it affect your style as a player?
CO: As a teenager my favourite band was the Mahavishnu Orchestra and I remember in 1975 looking at Billy Cobham’s photo on the back cover of “Birds Of Fire” and thinking “He looks like a nice guy. I would like to play in his band and be his friend.” I was just a kid; I had never kissed a girl or done a gig. However, I persevered with my music, (and eventually kissed a girl), and much to my astonishment, fourteen years later in late 1989 I received a phone call from a booking agent asking me “How would you like to play with Billy Cobham?” He was doing a tour of Australia with pickup bands and I was chosen to play in the Sydney band. We did three gigs in April 1990 which went extremely well. He gave each of us his business card and I stayed in touch with him, sending him my first three albums over the next four years. When he heard the third album “Mean It”, he liked it so much he rang me up and told me he was going to come down to Australia to do a tour with me. We did an Australian tour in January 1995. I told him that I had decided to move to London later in the year with my wife and daughter. We sold our house in Sydney, moved into a rented flat in Tottenham, and I resolved to ring Billy Cobham once every two months until he either gave me the gig or told me to go away.
After half a dozen of these two-monthly calls he asked me to do a tour of Switzerland and Austria in November 1996, and that was it! I was in his band until mid-2000. My natural playing style is funk and rock based, which was a good fit for his music, but he also asked me to play classical guitar on a ballad and a bossa nova and he also wanted me to play in a more conventional modern jazz guitar style on some of the tunes, so my playing really broadened in its scope. Playing over his thundering drums forced me to learn how to project onstage. In order to do this I would ‘aim’ my playing at the people at in the back row, which made me simplify and clarify my overall approach, and prevented me from getting bogged down in obscure ‘brainiac’ solos. The validation of such a giant of music changed my life and gave me a quiet confidence in myself as a musician that nothing can destroy.
LJN: You compose a lot of your own music as well. How did you build confidence and experience, and is it an important part of your music-making?
CO: I started writing rudimentary songs as soon as I knew half a dozen chords, so it’s something I’ve always done. When I was seventeen a friend of mine said to me ‘If you want to be good at composing, you have to do it every day, just like practising your instrument.’ This was good advice which I took to heart, and since then I have composed most days, usually for about an hour. The thing that helped me the most with writing was learning hundreds of compositions; jazz standards, pop songs, bossa novas, folk songs, rock songs. I regard every composition I learn as a songwriting lesson. For example, while music tends to be written in sections of four and eight bars, The Beatles used some odd section lengths in their song forms, e.g. the A section of Yesterday is seven bars long. And Miles Davis did amazing things with the 12-bar blues form in the tune “All Blues”, giving it a kind country and western waltz feel and changing a couple of the chords, with astounding results. I have recorded ten albums of original music, and have recorded only a handful of covers.
Composing is absolutely central to my music-making and my development as an instrumentalist has gone hand-in-hand with my development as a writer. Plus, I must add that there is nothing better than the satisfaction of doing a compelling performance or recording of an original composition; for me that’s true happiness, a very different experience from performing covers or standards. I built confidence and experience through the diligence of writing daily for many years, and, of course performing my compositions regularly. I have also built up a lot of confidence through my practise of Nichiren Buddhism, chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and studying Buddhism every single day for the past 38 years.
LJN: Some might call you a jazz musician, but of course music styles tend to overlap with and influence one another. How do you describe what you do musically?
CO: I think of myself as a jazz-trained or jazz-influenced musician, rather than a jazz musician. I studied jazz at Berklee College of Music and I trained onstage with Billy Cobham and others. Jazz training is unique in that, to perform effectively, the musician needs to understand musical theory and puts it to work with split-second timing through improvisation in a way that’s unique to jazz. In addition, learning jazz repertoire helps the musician to develop a deep understanding of harmony, melody and form. Some of my music is jazz of one kind or another and some isn’t, but it’s my jazz training that gave me the resources to develop my musical ability and scope.
LJN: Tell us about your latest album, ‘Bordertown Sunrise’ released in 2022.
CO: I recorded “Bordertown Sunrise” at home during lockdown, recording for approximately two hours every weekday for about a year. It is predominantly overdubbed classical and steel string acoustic guitars, covering quite a broad range of music; jazz, Americana, bossa nova, a classical piano piece and trace elements of flamenco, baroque and Indian influences. As I am seriously bogged down with moving back to Australia, it’s not yet properly distributed, but it can be purchased directly from my website http://www.carlorr.com
LJN: You are moving back to Australia soon. We will miss you! What will you miss about the UK?
CO: I will miss the thoughtful ,quiet intelligence, patience and generosity of many British people, the incomparable sense of humour, the spectacle and buzz of London as a city, the abundance of live music and other art forms, the amazing public transport, the warmth of friends, relatives, neighbours and music lovers, the great diversity of people, the easy access to mainland Europe, the master musicians I have had the pleasure of creating music with, and the musical opportunities provided to me over here that could never have happened anywhere else. I will also miss the British landscape, particularly Northumberland and Scotland.
LJN: Your farewell gig will be at the 606 Club London on Tuesday 22 August. What do you have planned for that show?
CO: The gig on August 22nd features my DREAM BAND of Laurence Cottle (bass), Tomasz Bura (keyboards) and Francesco Mendolia (drums). They are all master musicians and great friends of mine, and I am sure they will help me to make sure that everyone walks out of the 606 happier than when they walked in. The gig will feature my original music from start to finish including a few solo acoustic guitar pieces from the new album. My deepest thanks to Steve Rubie for giving me the opportunity to play at his club many times over the years.
(*) Laura Thorne d marketing manager at the 606 Cluub