“..Maybe my personality sometimes creeps in at the time I’m performing…” Bourne says, wedging his hefty rucksack under his chair. “..If anything else happens in the room, I’ve never really shied away from responding to it musically. At the launch gig for this new album I had these bottles on the piano, and after some hellos I did the first piece playing on these bottles and the piano strings, and then during one of the next pieces I was playing piano very quietly and somebody in the room dropped a glass, so I suddenly stood up and violently rattled the bottles”.
Such behaviour typical of Mr. Bourne. But, as any of his loyal supporters out there that have tracked his varied, genre-hopping career since he graduated from Leeds College of Music to the gleam of prestigious jazz awards and the Perrier prize in 2001 would confirm, Bourne performing intimate solo piano shows against samples from The Muppets and The Simpsons, or filling a Bösendorfer grand full of pebbles and hymn books to attain a fitting sound collage for a tribute to his piano hero Keith Tippett, haven’t been the major moves instrumental in earning him headline slots on international jazz festival bills, collaborative stints with the likes of Electric Dr. M, Nostalgia 77, Trio Grande and Andrew Plummer , and now a critically-celebrated solo piano (and cello) album that explores his vast creativity through the sort of receptive , lyrical and earthy expressionism that compliment his equally potent and ‘interactive’ live shows.
Bourne recalls: “When I was getting into jazz in my teens and I was going to concerts I remember there was always this invisible barrier, a chasm between performer and the audience. It might have been to the sort of gigs I was going to, but it was all very polite and impersonal. Perhaps some people want that sort of distance between the performer, they like that detachment and find it part of the entertainment, but I felt it was stifling, and thought if I ever do anything on stage I would want to bring the audience closer. Not that I resort to tricks of any kind, I don’t have a strategy or anything, but if something happens in the room, I’ll respond”.
Released on the Leaf label, home to the likes of Polar Bear, Caribou and AU, Montauk Variations is a ‘response’ of sorts, the result of a impulsive trip Bourne made to Montauk on the south shore of Long Island from New York City (where he was then working on a project) back in 2009. “I’d broken up with someone I’d been with for about four years; I was heartbroken so I just needed to go somewhere just to do nothing. I only spent four hours there. I got a very slow train from Jamaica station, found a beach and just watched the waves. It’s at the end of Long Island and I’ve always been into places that are far flung. The year after I went to the Outer Hebrides for a couple of weeks, on my own, on a pushbike, in January!” he says, laughing out loud enough to attract some curious stares from the hoodie-types to our right. “I like isolation and after going to there I was addicted; I started to understand why people live in those places, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be all rosy, but had there been a piano there it would have very difficult to leave”.
Leaving the serene shores of Montauk behind him, Bourne headed back to the hustle and bustle of New York which he recalls made him feel “like I was floating through the city”. Back at his place of stay he fired up his computer and typed the inspired words: ‘Montauk Variations’, followed by the title ‘Smile’, a reference to the classic 1936 Charles Chaplin-penned ballad that Bourne had decided even back then he would interpret for the project. “I just knew I wanted it to be a solo piano album. I spent the next two years thinking I’m going to write some text and get this guy in the Isle of Man to read out the text. The text was going to be about confusion, bitterness, my mum getting divorced. The text would be cryptic and pretentious and this music is going to communicate all this stuff. And then I didn’t do any work, didn’t write any text, I didn’t do any specific practice or compose anything for it”.
One of the only tracks formally ‘composed’ for the album would be that of the simple, two chord-strong ‘Infinitude’, a sombre, almost ambient-like affair that evokes the minimalist message of Terry Riley, or maybe some of Einaudi’s earnest efforts, had the it been cushioned with some sinister string arrangement. Bourne explains ” It was based on an exercise and challenge I’d set myself. The thinking is that each chord is made up of loads of different notes and the idea is to make one of the notes in the chord stand out from the rest. So it was an exercise to create a melody just using the notes of the chords. There are a few places where I deviate. I think it comes down to feeling where the spaces are. It is a timing thing and the only person I’ve had these discussions with would possibly be Annette Peacock.”