Born and raised in rural Hertfordshire, the son of liberal and creative parents, Aaron Liddard’s initial foray into the world of music came via one of the most eccentric of instruments, the tuba. From this unusual starting point and via brief dalliances with both the piano and guitar, he settled on the saxophone, discovering a natural affinity with his chosen instrument that would influence his existence to the present day, taking him on a truly varied and fascinating voyage of discovery.
Receiving school music lessons from the classical composer Nicholas Sackman and renowned choral director Dr Charlie Beale provided an initial enthusiasm, but it was Liddard’s discovery of the Buntingford Jazz Club that truly ignited a spark, absorbing the intricate and dexterous guitar playing of Jim Mullen and the mellifluous tones of Alan Skidmore on sax. It was at this club that Liddard improvised for the very first time, in front of his newly discovered heroes.
Hi Aaron, great to speak with you about your new music release! As mentioned before, you were born in Hertfordshire, UK, to creative parents. How would you say your musical background was impacted in your childhood growing up in your family?
Great to speak to you too, Emily. I’m super excited about this release.
My folks are big fans of live music having met at a folk club. My dad bought a piano with his first paycheques as a teenager, and would spend his lunch breaks playing penny whistle. He attended Jimmy Hendrix’s first UK show, saw Pink Floyd at a warehouse party, and was a big fan of the Stones. Mum & Dad were keen for me to live “an interesting life” and discouraged my early ambition to become an accountant. Music was a favourite subject at school, but lessons were basic, consisted of a listening game. My musical hearing has always been strong and I won the game every time. But at that time none of my teachers or parents thought any more of it. From the age of 9, my school offered private 1-2-1 lessons, and I’m very grateful to my dad for signing me up.
As a well-known session and gigging saxophonist, your musical journey began with tuba, piano, and even some guitar! Was there something about the saxophone in conveying your musical message that you connected with more and led this to be your lead instrument?
Yes thats right. I think the options were guitar or trumpet. I fancied a bit of brass but due to my asthma didn’t have the lungs for trumpet. The school had run out of trombones, but had a spare euphonium. I couldn’t pronounce euphonium so my teacher kindly called it a tuba. I shifted to piano for about 4 years and got my music theory down. Whenever I write music now, I have an imaginary piano keyboard in my minds’ eye. Much to dad’s chagrin I only lasted a year on guitar. Changing chords were just too fiddly and tricky. I got up to bar chords and gave up. Then for my GCSE I got to choose a new instrument and it was all provided by the school so I chose a pipe dream – an instrument so esoteric and expensive – the saxophone. My first school sax was Chinese. My teach explained in the first lesson “This is the only one and its horrible and the glue smells of sick. They’re all like it. Sorry but you’ll get used to it eventually” Mr Filby became my hero. He’d performed in Soho for the Kray Twins, on the QEII, hung out in New York City.. he taught me to love the sax and jazz. So I’d say that my teacher was a huge part of me settling on sax. His approach to teaching was very inspiring. He wasn’t classically trained, could barely play piano, wasn’t overly interested in scales; but he taught me to listen, how to play a ballad, how to improvise melodically, and to be selective about which notes to play and which to skip. Sax is incredibly expressive. Any one note can go in almost infinite directions in tone, volume, pitch. Coming from piano (which is a percussion instrument) the sax felt liberating. I could express myself in pure sound.
You began with classical training and then moved on to jazz. When you look back, do you think your background in classical training added in any way to your musical explorations in jazz?
Oh yes absolutely. Classical theory and piano are completely intertwined. As an example the 12 note names are split into letters, sharps and flats. The letters get white keys. The sharps and flats share black keys. This is pretty obvious on piano but less so on a wind instrument, and its just silly when applied to a guitar. So I’d say that learning piano and classical theory was the first step. Classical theory gave me a somewhat two-dimensional mastery of musical comprehension and the most common conventions. Jazz added the third dimension of possibilities and understanding. Jazz theory feels like a large evolution from classical theory but the root conventions remain. It’s a real shame that the classical approach rarely incorporates (at its introductory levels) musical understanding in terms of harmony, improvisation, composition, and how each can be used to portray emotion. It was a great starting place, and I was glad to get away from it once the inconsistencies and contradictions started mounting up.
Reflecting on both jazz and classical music, and knowing that classical music of the past had many improvisational elements which is less so today, what are your thoughts about classical music, elements of improvisation and freedom in performance?
Whoa this is a big question! Personally I believe that music is at its most powerful, most magical, most ethereal, when it is of its time, when it reflect its surroundings, or when those around impact the reality of their combined experience. When a composition or performance reflects the present time and surroundings then I think, for me at least, it feels truer than anything else. I’ve been fortunate to experience the transformative power of group improvisation in many situations. One of the most memorable was a praise and worship session. With the support of masterful improvisers, people who have never sung before can sometimes become beguiling messengers of their faith with perfect tuning and with incredible passion. Whether we share beliefs or not, this connection feels very deep and nourishing. So I believe that improvisation is an obvious technique to achieving the magical state of music. Another term for improvisation is live composition. It’s my understanding that classical music once excelled at combining composition with improvisation.
When visiting Brighton Royal Pavilion, I learned that composers of the day were brought in to entertain guests in a game of improvised composition. Guests would be invited to play three notes at random on a piano then each composer in turn would improvise a full composition using those notes as inspiration. I imagine it may have been utterly magical, spellbinding, incredible. But I feel that classical music art form has gradually painted itself into a corner. Improvisations were replaced by transcriptions of the most popular improvisations, and the art of improvising was gradually vanquished from the classical musicians’ assumed palette of expertise. The art form we know as “Classical music” (those inside call it “serious music”) appears to have become almost solely interested in the preservation of history. For a few years it felt as if the art form we call “jazz” was headed down the same dead-end. But recently it feels as if jazz has re-awoken, with a renewed interest in evolution.
After a decade of playing music in Manchester, you really ‘cut your teeth’ in technique, and delivery from aspiring musician to professional musician. How was this journey for you and what musical explorations stand out in your mind?
Its been journey of three cities: Manchester, London, New York. Manchester was easy and very naturally. Before I left I’d become quite a renowned musician and bandleader. I’d headlined the festival with my twelve-piece all-star band (Nat Birchall, Ed Kainyek, Neil Yates, Matt Steele, Myke Wilson, Sylvan Richardson). But I was missing key elements: I able to play my own material as well as I wanted. I hadn’t built any status outside the city. And I had no clue how to build beyond what I had. I left in order to be challenged to grow.
London, has been very tough but I’ve grown a lot! I came to London seeking to exploit my strengths and strengthen my weaknesses. Unfortunately any success I had enjoyed previously had utterly zero currency in my status here and so I set about building from the ground up. Unless you strike lucky a musician must build a portfolio of clients while aspiring for balance of income, musical challenge, self respect, opportunity, creativity, evolution. Its a very tough road, made all the more challenging when trying to create a piece of original work and the financial burdens involved. I’ve certain had some good fortune along the way. Many would say “luck” but none of that came without one hundredfold hard work. Overall, things gradually improved. After two years I was getting enough gigs to scrape a living. Eight years later I was enjoying all the gigs. I was able to improve as a musician and as a saxophonist. I gained clients of international acclaim, began to perform around the world, and increasingly performed with musicians who inspired me.
New York is a city I’ve experienced through sabbaticals. The level of musicianship, dedication, and professionalism always inspires me to improve. NYC musicians are surprisingly friendly and inclusive. The most inspiring times have always been during group improvisation. The first time I sat in on a praise and worship session, Sitting in with Mike Stern at the 55 bar, playing call and response with an audience of 500 at Magic Mirrors in France, returning to St Nick’s bar in Harlem and playing myself rather than the bebop I’d assumed they’d prefer, I once had an out-of-body experience at Manchester’s Band on the Wall. Went up to the ceiling and looked down at my head, the band, the audience, and listened to what we were playing. I remember another time with my Manchester band we were jamming away for an hour in a sweaty music cafe and then suddenly and without any cues we all stopped. All ten of us just stopped for like two beats of complete silence, before crashing back in. In those moments the reality of our spiritual existence becomes undeniable, in my mind. I believe that one of the central roles of being a musician is to remind us all of our innate spirituality.
At one point you were performing regularly with 15 local bands (pretty incredible!) How did you handle such a huge workload?
Easy! I was just gigging a lot and loving it all. That was not long after I’d arrived in Manchester. I was a disciple of David Sanborn, so I was playing alto with a Dukoff mouthpiece and had a sound that wasn’t the same as his, but was instantly recognisable. One of my first gigs was BBC radio Jazz in the Round with Kevin Davy and Clive Hunte. Just before we went live the presenter told the audience “there’s about thirteen million people listening, so please avoid saying anything rude.” I think I’ve always had a reputation for loving gigs. At that time, it was easy to remember the music, and a lot of what we played was improvised. We had a saying in Manchester “once you’ve blagged 101 gigs with no set list, no singer, no songs, then you’re good for anything.” With its dance music heritage, Manchester gigs were about partying, getting people dancing to grooves and group improvisation. I was playing loads of funk, latin, jazz, and reggae.
You formed a musical bond with the hugely renowned singer Amy Winehouse becoming a touring member of her band! What was it like working with such a legend on the same stage?
It was a huge honour to work with Amy, and to have enjoyed her company. In terms of career, Amy has opened a lot of doors for me and I’m very grateful. Professionally and emotionally it was tough at times. Not least as I was living as a lodger opposite Stockwell bus garage with a crazy old hoarder. The gigs and rehearsals were paid, but not well enough to upgrade my living situation. It was my first “pop gig” and I wasn’t prepared for the psychological element. Amy was both incredible and incredibly troubled. We had no choice but witness both sides right in front of our noses, and that was tough on all of us, including her. She was strangely powerful, able to connect deeply to millions simultaneously. Its really incredible to have known her and worked with her.
Congratulations on your next upcoming album, ‘Nylon Man,’ we love it, with its eclectic compilation of great ‘sounds’ and musicians, and each tune being stand out in its own way. You describe it as ‘roughly 12 years in the making’ and ‘a summation of your career to this point.’ Was the journey to this point plain-sailing or were there bumps and learning curves which deepend the creative experience to this point, and how did it feel to finally release and get your well-honed music out there?
Thank you very much 🙂 Was it plain sailing? Wouldn’t have taken twelve years if it had been easy! It was a nightmare! Where do I start? First off I wanted to record two rhythm sections simultaneously with great sound quality without putting myself into a decade of debt. That proved impossible and I spend years searching for a compromise eventually finding it I Tim Bazell and Nikolaj Bjerre, two independent drummer producer sound engineers. We worked on average one day per month. It was all self-financed and as you know gigs don’t exactly leave you with a profit, so I was living as a guardian or lodger, playing the best paid gigs, and siphoning off money to get back in the studio. Often for very slow progress. But progress it was and I knew that by hiring masters in their field the result could reach more ears.
Eventually I had the opportunity to build a recording studio from scratch with my own hands. Fortunately I did a good job inbetween tour dates with Sugaray Rayford, and my core group competed the recordings for the album (Giulia Marelli, Harry Greene, Paul Michael, Jimmy Norden and Eric Young). The project has required all my emotional & financial resources, patience, belligerence and reserve. I needed to convince others that the sounds living in my head would work and didn’t need standardising. Respect has to be earned, but once its been earned, you get a free ride until you screw up. So its been 12 years of earning the respect of the musicians and technicians and owning up when I got it wrong, constant self reflection, crippling doubt, bravado, confidence, and occasional joy. The finally release it feels incredible! Cathartic. Emotional. After twelve years its time for the music to being its own life and journey. And part of that experience is performing it live around the country on our launch tour this October.
You say that ‘Nylon Man’ summates your whole career to this point. Do you feel your album conveys a message about you or your work? How 12 years of working on this album influenced you as an artist and composer, and how much of your musical journey to this point has fed into your creating this album?
The saxophone lends itself to many musical situations and I’ve been fortunate to learn from masters of many genres. I’ve experience how the saxophonist’s role changes from one style to another. And I’ve gotten my ears into the heart and soul of what makes different musics tick. Working with Amy, then Beverley, the Boomtown Rats; performing with Prince, and then having a decade stint with rock’n’roll bands all taught me the value of short songs, especially on recorded music. All killer no filler. With this record I’ve focussed on composition and character rather than soloing opportunity. My sax is not dominant, though I’m also playing keys on almost everything. Ultimately these are just my ideas. Every once in a while an entire song downloads from the ether into my conscious. Or maybe I get a few strands of fabric, and by teasing and teasing the whole garment is revealed. Sometimes two come at once and I struggle to separate them. Or three come at once but I make them into one crazy arrangement. More often two thirds of a track is “delivered” readymade and I’ll leave the rest to evolve.
I think the message is balance and the subconscious equilibrium we often reach through our favourite music. I’ve intentionally “touched the sides,” and combined extremes. For example Carleen Anderson sings a sublime soul chorus over a 65 bpm grove, with bebop interludes at 260bpm – quadruple time. We also have metric modulation harmonic modulation, and genre mash-ups. But none of this is simply for the sake of it. Its intentionally a combination of composition, interpretation, improvisation, and a balance of extremes. Incidentally there’s no samples or sequencing, at all. Every note was recorded intentionally for this album, by masters in the appropriate style and with appropriate recording techniques to each concept. Listening to this album, with all its twists and turns delivers me to a tranquil state of mind. Balance. Between acoustic and electronic, vocal and instrumental, calmness and frenzy. I’ve no idea whether it’ll have any effect on others, but its had a positive effect on me and maybe someone else out there will enjoy it too.
You’ve recorded forty two musicians for Nylon Man, including Miss Baby Sol, Omar Puente, and Carleen Anderson. Can you tell me what lead to their involvement?
Sure thing! They’re all musical friends I made along the way and I’m very grateful for their un-forced involvement. Baby and I have shared many projects. I’ve arranged and recorded horns for her albums, and when seeking help with lyrics she’s one of my first calls. She’s able to read my drafts, reach into my mind and find the sense, then rewrite them without losing any of my intention. Baby has worked on the lyrics for My Kinda, and Beautiful, and performs Beautiful. I met Omar Puente working for Carlos Acosta at the Royal Opera House. We became good buddies and he was an obvious choice guest soloist for Manana, which I wrote in Cuba. Carleen and I met on a celebration of the music of Michael Henderson and Norman Connors. I was musical director / arranger / band leader / saxophonist, and Carleen was a special guest. The music was the star that evening, and Carleen and I recognised a kinship and agreed we should work together sometime, somehow. Eventually I suggested she may wish to write a vocal for Frisco and it transpired it was one of her favourite cities having lived there prior to loving to the UK. We worked remotely for about a year, and then came together for the recording, and video shoot.