As a child you lived in Barbados for ten years studying clarinet. Would it be fair to say the West Indies is still key to the music you play today?
Yes, definitely, especially with Sons of Kemet. That was one of the reasons that I formed the group. I realised that the kind of stuff that I hear, and all the hip stuff that comes to me, is essentially from that period in the Caribbean playing clarinet, reggae and calypso. When I was getting my head around the idea of the band and the formation of Kemet I tried to clear my head of the contemporary stuff around now, and think about what I hear in my head, what I’m humming to myself, and it is that music from that period.
From the ideas in your head, how would you describe your writing process?
It’s more or less inspiration influenced. I try to place myself in a position where it will just come to me. I’m kind of a believer that you source the type of inspiration that you have. For instance, if I’m writing for Kemet I might decide to research music from say the Caribbean, then leave it for a couple of months so I’m not trying to do like a pastiche of it, and then just trust that it will come out at some point in the near future. I don’t sit down and think today I’m going to write. I’ll kind of say this is the period I’m going to write this kind of thing, and I’ll do more long-term preparation. It’s like having my mind ready to do that kind of music. I can be anywhere, like on the tube, and I’ll hear an idea in my head, and if I’ve got that idea or the nitty-gritty of it, the composing is almost the secondary thing. As long as my mind is in that position where I’m kind of hoping to get the ideas together, that’s the main thing for me. The composing and small details are secondary.
What would have been the first music you remember hearing and connecting with?
The first music I remember hearing was reggae and calypso, which is what my parents were listening to. They tried to get me into jazz but back then it wasn’t for me, I found it boring and also pretty alien because I was still in Barbados. I lot of guys play jazz out there and there are loads of great musicians. There’s a guy called Arturo Tappin and he’s kind of the reason for me being receptive to jazz. He presented jazz in a way that included Caribbean elements in a kind of non-stiff way. A lot like Courtney Pine actually, very similar.
Courtney took part in a documentary about the (vocational) Alpha Boys School (in Kingston, Jamaica) and their teachings.
Yeah, and I think Courtney and Tappin have worked together. But it’s their presence and the way they give the music to the audience is very similar, and I think that is really essential in terms of young people getting into jazz. It’s not stiff guys playing stiff music, it’s something to relate to.
How would you describe the relationship your classical studies have with jazz in your music?
When I came to England I was thinking about what I wanted to study at a degree level, and I decided that it would be the clarinet so I was going to study its history and where it was coming from. That’s the reason I decided on a classical course, to find out as much as possible. In doing that I think the benefits for me have been learning about big bits of music. For instance, in one of my years at college my teacher decided we were going to focus purely on a certain classical period. Not so I can be a musician that does that, but more so I can understand and appreciate how the phrasing of that is different to what I had been playing, which was more romantic or twentieth-century. It opened me up to different phrasing and tackling music. With classical music you’ve got to be open. One day you will be playing a Mozart piece, and the next a Stravinsky piece, and they are from two different worlds even though it’s all called classical music. The same thing is fed into jazz. You could be playing be-bop one day and the next an Anthony Braxton piece.
What would you say was key to the real resurgence of British jazz over the last three of four years?
I think it always just goes in phases. When I hear people talking about ‘the scene’ and whether it’s dying or it’s healthy, it’s easy to forget that the scene is just people. So if the scene is dying for a couple of years there is another set of youngsters coming up, getting their ideas together, and it will be there again. Right now, at this time, there are a lot of people coming of age as it were. A lot of the guys I was at college with, a lot of the Loop Collective guys, they are coming through now.
Jazz has been given more exposure.
The British scene is detaching itself from America, which is really exciting. It is also detaching itself from Europe, and what you think of when you say that word, because it has certain connotations. The European audience is also different to a British audience. The only thing you can do is make music that’s relevant to the audience you are part of. Right now it really feels like there are people that are making music that relates to London. It’s like when I played with Tom Skinner’s band, we played at the Vortex and all the hipsters were there listening to the music because it’s what they want to hear, whether it’s called jazz or not, it’s kind of irrelevant.
It’s interesting that a lot of jazz-labelled groups with a certain edge such as Acoustic Ladyland, Trio VD and what has been seen of Sons of Kemet, are attracting a ‘rockist’ crowd.
Well somebody like Seb Rochford (from Acoustic Ladyland) for example, is kind of a rocker. He’s not someone that’s been brought up listening to jazz and that calls themselves a jazz musician, or is gratified by Jazz Times or whatever. He is just somebody that likes loads of music and is open to the intensity that is present in this music. A rock fan might go to a gig like that and feel an intensity that appeals to them. It’s a feeling, an energy.
Would you say your role as a band leader alters your approach to the music?
As a band leader I tend to pick my musicians carefully so I don’t choke the music. In my experience that’s the worst thing that can happen ,for somebody to have a really strong idea and try to bang it into the musicians. My general vibe is to pick the right people, explain the sort of thing I want to happen and then let them do what they do best. With drummers for example, I will basically explain the basic sort of groove or rhythm I have in mind, but I’ll let them do their thing. It’s that whole Miles Davis -like approach of picking the right people and letting them do what they have been practicing to do all their life.
Putting together Sons of Kemet, What qualities were you looking for in your musicians?
I was looking for earthy musicians, and with drummers, a feel for intensity. I kind of wanted something that sounded really West-African. The image I had in my head, even though it’s kind of a mythical image, was of a bunch of drummers sitting round a fire and playing for hours and hours.
Yeah, tribal and ritualistic. I wanted drummers that could get into a zone and stay there. That’s what Seb (Rochford) and Tom (Skinner) do.
The choice to feature two drummers is interesting.
Yeah, it’s back to that tribal drums thing. At first, I was thinking of just drums and sax so the rhythm would be the main thing. But it changed for me because I didn’t want this thing to be sax-led.I wanted a band as a whole to roll the music along, in the same way free-jazz is faced with an intensity, but is not going towards any focal climax point. Having two drummers is them driving themselves as well as playing with me. With Oren (Marshall, Tuba) I didn’t want to him fulfilling the role of a bass player. In this band he has so many roles, he provides a bass line if it’s called for, play a horn line in a solo, or maybe use sound effects, The thing I tell him all the time is you’re not a bass player. He’s a free agent and I trust his musical judgement.
How did Sons of Kemet come about, what was the original vehicle for this group?
Well, I just had the idea for the sort of music I wanted to write, called the guys up I wanted to use, booked an initial gig at Charlie Wrights and started to write. I had been through a bit of a rough patch of general exhaustion and was uninspired as to where I was going musically. It was a period of six months of feeling low and writing this music. I was thinking all of it was rubbish and that I should throw it away. Coming out of that I discovered that the stuff I was writing, all of this music, wasn’t really for me. I thought, what’s my wildest dream, what do I really want to do? I had close my eyes, clear my head and think about the core of my music. I thought about the Caribbean and that non-solo-driven music. Then all the music I’d written off as rubbish, I turned it into something.
Would you say that the intensity and edge of this music was influenced at all by those months of musical fatigue?
Yeah, probably. It’s maybe got that edge of somebody saying ‘f**k it, I’m just gonna do it’. Basically, if you see the void and there is no musical truce, or that it doesn’t necessarily reflect you as a musician, it’s maybe a music you can feel proficient in. It’s that thing of thinking the proficiency is the personal character of the person. For example, somebody could study be-bop and become proficient at playing it, and getting off on interacting with others in that style. Music for me has to be a very personal experience, an almost spiritual experience that brings out the personality of the musician. I realised I needed to be giving everything, no holds barred. So there’s probably that angst in the music.
How would you describe the atmosphere on stage with this band?
When I’m there it’s just a big, swirly void. I have so many goals and grand theories which all sounds quite conceptual, but when I’m there and the instrument is in my mouth it’s just like I go for broke. With everyone on the stage it’s the same vibe. It’s like we can talk about it all we want, but once we’re there and the red light comes on so to speak, everybody just goes at it as hard as they can. And they don’t look back.
The band are recording an album, what can you tell me about that?
Yeah, I’m really happy with it. It was recorded about a month ago and I have now given Seb (Rochford) free range in mixing it. We recorded the album and I wanted that mix of vintage and modern so we recorded it to tape, all in one room, with no preparation. I wanted that modern element but to still sound like some guys playing live in a room, so Seb’s remixing it and being creative, but retaining that live setting feel. I could have had it mixed and put out straight away but I thought I’d rather wait for him to work on it, and let him treat it like his own project in a way. I think the album will be called ‘Burn’ but that may change depending on what Seb does with it.
How did the commission for this new project and forthcoming show at this year’s London Jazz Festival come about?
Through the BBC’s New Generation Artists project. I just thought it was coming to the end of the programme and I wanted to compose for an orchestra. It’s just a big, scary prospect and I quickly thought “No Shabaka, don’t be silly” before thinking why not? I’m not an orchestral composer, and probably never will be in terms of dedicating that much time to that craft, but I do know what I want, so I ‘m gonna get that many people in that orchestra to play this music. I asked the BBC if that was possible and they said yes, and I thought oh shit, there’s no going back!.
Do you think your classical ear will help in directing a performance of this scale?
Yes and no. Yes, it terms of I know what the instruments can do. I have worked with enough orchestras to have a good idea of the feel and sound of an orchestra. In a way I want to get that thing I have with Kemet, that escaping from the hip-setters. I don’t want it to be an orchestral piece that would be judged on the whole cannon of orchestral pieces in the Western tradition because I’m necessarily concerned with being a part of that cannon, I just want to compose music that I like. For me, if your idea is strong enough it should be able to be transmitted in any setting. It’s like, are my ideas strong enough to put across and be played by forty or so straight musicians that don’t care on a conceptual basis, they just read the dots.
And without spoiling the surprise, what can your audience expect from this new work to be premiered at the LJF?
Intensity. Kemet will still be there having that element of ritual, general intensity, and bigness in terms of the rhythm, and the orchestra will further the use of their instruments. It will be interesting to see what people will get from it.
This interview was conducted on May 1st, 2012 and featured on the offical website for the London Jazz Festival.