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Behind The Sounds – Jason Yarde –
Jason talks about playing, writings, Windrush, collaborations & the Acoutastic Bombastic project.
You’re known as an outstanding saxophonist, plus alongside this is your prolific work as composer, arranger & producer. How would you describe yourself in a nutshell?
Musical dogsbody and traveling father. That might sound harsh but I’ll turn my hand to most things if its believed it will result in an improvement of pretty much any musical situation. That said I have been blessed with some very special tasks with some very special people.
That is a very kind comment on my saxophone playing but (over and above any moments I might have with a sax in my hands) I’d say my strengths really lie in the other areas you mention. Musical Journeyman is another phrase that springs to mind and whatever connotations are attached good, bad and ugly.
Congrats on your fantastic collaboration at the Barbican in the recent EFG London Jazz Festival, celebrating the June 1948 arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush. It’s both fantastic and not surprising to see it bursting at the seams as a sellout! This celebration, made particularly poignant in the light of the shocking emergence of the current government Windrush scandal; as composer, and Musical Director, what particularly important messages were there in the performance for you?
As you say, the timing of certain recent events with the ill judged and inconsiderate actions of the home office while not at all reasons to celebrate, could hardly be ignored in the context of that event and more over what I felt I had to tackle when invited to write a ‘Windrush Suite’ marking the occasion. As a composer, lyrics come far more occasionally for me and while the Poet Anthony Joseph curated the event and several noted Caribbean writers would be quoted throughout the night, I felt it was important for me to include my personal take on things given my background never mind the fact I now live in Amber Rudd’s constituency and personally know folks who this mess has directly effected.
While some might like to reduce things down to basic black or white issues I believe just as often things are far more nuanced and it’s sometimes not until you look at personal stories that you get real empathy. After visiting Guyana where both my parents are form shamefully only at the end of 2017 it did leave me with many questions even some that I really knew the answers to.
At its heart for me the issue became about how as ‘humans’ we share the world and who has the right (and why) to tell anyone else where and how (within the boundaries of mutual respect) to live and be. It seems very simple on the one hand but we manage to monetise and exploit the movement of people at every level of society it’s just much more acceptable for some to do more than others. Of course this whole issue has naturally come up again with the state the U.K. is currently in politically.
I have to say Derick Richards who did the visuals was of a similarly opinion touching all aspects of the U.K. black experience and did some stunning work. I only wish I had time to really take in his work during the show.
You have been described as a “serial collaborator” – what do you love about working and collaborating with people?
At their best, collaborations keep you open to doing things differently as well as giving an opportunity to share and sharpen your own practises. It keeps things fresh all round and your bound to come up with ideas you wouldn’t have necessarily have hit on your own.
Looking at collaborative or cooperative work, your Acoutastic Bombastic project looks astonishing, with an amazing list of who’s who! I think there are rumours of a recording coming soon… what are your plans for this great venture?
Well! Where to begin…! The beginning…
This started with a childhood dream that saw many instruments played by a handful of musicians.
The ensemble came to life through a Jerwood Rising Stars commission for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival back in 2005! Thanks to Tony Dudley Evans and all involved I was able to put a truly dream ensemble together but sadly didn’t get it sorted to record it.
In the interim years I’ve worked with many of the folks involved on a vast number of different projects and our conversations would very often include me being asked ‘when are you gonna do that project again where everyone doubles…’
So after around 10 years we got too it.
We recorded maybe 80% of it in 2015 but since then for various reason we had to put things on hold until now. One of the nicer things is that most of the women in the ensemble are now mothers.
You might say this recording has been a long time coming and it’s really important to me that folks are represented well on it.
Most of the band I’ve been connected to for a very long time. For a couple of quick examples Eska, Marcina and I were in Quite Sane together in our teens/early 20’s and Julian, Harry and I have played in the same horn sections together for years backing anyone form Terri Walker to the Tindersticks.
That fact that there are many friends in the band who also happen to be internationally renowned artists and musicians in their own is a great honour but often extremely difficult to get everyone in the same room! It took me a year and a half to organise the last sessions we did in 2015 finally nailing it 6/7 months before! Even then we ended up losing Orphy to a tour with Nigel Kennedy but gained Corey Mwamba and a day with Jason Lindner.
On paper alone it’s a very special ensemble but it’s also been a chance for me to push my writing for a unique lineup that can all sing, play percussion be a string Quintet or a sax Quartet etc, etc. I know now outings of this ensemble will likely always be on the rare side but that to me makes it all the more special and I truly believe this record will represent some of my best work that has already lasted a while as well as some fresh material I’m very much hoping some preorders will allow us to complete. I think I’ve pretty much used up all of my favours and besides I’d really like to give everyone the treatment they rightly deserve.
Is there a crowd-funder where people can get on board to support this, to make it happen?
Indeed there is! Please go to www.pledgemusic.com/projects/acoutasticbombastic
Officially there are less than 26 days left for the campaign to run and while it will take a minor miracle for us to reach the full target, we do get a percentage of all the money pledged regardless. With that in mind, anything anybody can give really will make a big difference as with such a large ensemble there are a lot of mouths to feed (never mind the fact that most of the band including me are now parents)!
There are lots of interesting things available in the online store in addition to being able to preorder the actual album in various formats including fully signed deluxe vinyl. Folks can get to keep exclusive music for as little as a 5er though I’m still hoping someone goes for one of the big ones and commissions some new music for the whole ensemble. Of course, should all the Christmas money have been spent in the winter sales, if people feel moved to simply just spread the word by sharing #AcouBomb that would be no bad thing.
Are there any solo Jason Yarde moments on the horizon?
I’m glad you asked. I do have a solo project called the BlueBox Diaries which is basically me with a whole array of effects pedals (in many ways I’m a frustrated guitarist!). It’s another project I’ve had for a while but doesn’t get outed too much. I started it in earnest on my Civitelli Ranieri Fellowship back in 2008 where I was afforded an isolated studio space where I could sonically experiment 24/7 for about 6 weeks in the the amazing Umbrian countryside. This was a magnificent gift at a pretty crucial time.
I’m working on an album release for this and have found an interesting way to involve a few guest poets. Ty and Gemma Weekes are signed up for the first edition of what I hope will be a continuing series of developments. The general rule is transforming my sax sound using live effect processing…
What are your greatest influences (from all areas of the arts), and what kind of stimuli do you explore for compositions?
Leaving aside the obvious music ones for a moment…
I’ll happily take inspiration from any and everywhere and I’m quite broad in my musical tastes but admittedly I’m quite visually led. I used to be heavily into photography doing dark room processing and before that painting and design and even had a serious desire to go into architecture at one point. I’m quite a fan of the Magnum Photography group particularly Henri Cartier-Bresson. One of my most stimulating creative moments came in response to a series of photographs by Annabel Elgar called Black Flag which was mounted at the Wapping Project.
This saw myself and Marcina Arnold perform a series of duets using all of the vast space in which the images were hung.
Similar to my tastes in Jazz, I’m quite into different eras and areas of architecture. This ultimately means a deep appreciation for say the work Wren while being thankful I’m around to witness the constructions of Zaha Hadid. I’ve been blessed with work taking me to the Sydney Opera House on a couple of occasions and back in the day Quite Sane had an ongoing residency in Barcelona. How can anyone creative not be inspired by the work of Gaudi!
Where do you listen to music, and where do you research new things out there?
The short answer would be anywhere I can!
Increasingly and perhaps a little sadly for me, everything is done via the mobile phone! Certainly more often than not I listen to the radio via some app or another. That said, I’m lucky in that touring, predominantly around Europe, means I get to hear lots of bands at festivals and venues I might otherwise miss. I also love a quick Shazam when you’re on the move! A lot of artist would have passed me by were it not for that app.
That said working with organisation such as Jazz re:freshed, Engines Orchestra, NYJO, NYJC and Tomorrow`s Warriors and occasional teaching at Trinity and the Royal Academy generally keeps me abreast of who’s doing or about to do what and what young bands are coming through. I’d have to say Thursday nights at Mau Mau’s is a sure shot spot to hear good selection of new music and artists and the night, as Jazz re:freshed, the organisation that runs it, has rightly garnered an international reputation.
What do you feel about streaming as it is now, and do you have any ideas as to how it could develop?
Streaming! It sounds so slick, clean and lean.
I certainly think it’s here to stay and will only get faster and slicker as network bandwidths improve etc (certainly until we all get the internal implants fitted!). As you know the main issue with streaming is ultimately how, when and where exactly does any revenue stream too.
Things are improving slightly for us ‘content providers’ as companies and individuals remember the music must come from somewhere or someone in the first place and everyone has to adapt somehow. Certainly I can see a point in the not too distant future where with improvements to storage and bandwidth capacity every single artist will be able to offer their own streaming service directly from there own cloud perhaps cutting out a lot of middle men. If folks aren’t carful with procedures and the value of art as technology develops it could still spell the end of any decent income for all concerned.
Ultimately, I feel very fortunate to be around this time of the internet, especially when it comes to checking things out and studying, yet I’m also glad my children have some concept of what an old school media player does and looks like…
What was the last tune you listened to?
Eric Dolphy – Iron Man! It hit me with pretty much the same impact as it did on first listening years ago. I was fortunate enough to be invited on to Soweto Kinch’s Jazz Now show to discuss the release ‘Musical Prophet’ – a Resonance Records reissue which gave me the best excuse to revisit some classic Dolphy, it also contains near one and a half hours worth of previously unreleased material which all sounds amazing!
If I’m honest I did go to a Heliocentrics rehearsal directly afterwards and listened to a few tracks off the new album that sound happening, but as it’s not released yet I guess it doesn’t count…
That’s one of the funny (and important) things about working in music. As a musician or anyone wearing any one of the same musical hats I often have to pull on, you’re mostly called open to listen to music in order to learn it and maybe take it apart and/or put it back together so making time to listen just for the sake of listening and enjoying can often be tricky. If I ever get to retire, this would be my main reason for maybe becoming a DJ. One or the other is a fine thing so I really admire those who can do both!
Who is on your wish list of collaborators for future projects?
There are so many… But a snapshot would be Akala, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Kate Tempest, Evan Parker, Gregory Porter, my brother James, Cassandra Wilson, Mica Paris, Jeniffer Hudson, Thomas Gould, Bex Burch and Batch Gueye…
Some of these are in discussion (or have even already happen at least once) to be fair, but I feel maybe if I put it out there now and again it’s more likely to happen in the future.
If you could pick out one career defining moment from such an illustrious career (so far!) what would it be?
Writing a flugelhorn concerto for Hugh Masekela and the London Symphony Orchestra and sitting in the front row of the Barbican Hall for the world premier in November 2007 (let alone getting on stage afterwards and playing a few numbers with them!) is certainly a highlight I’d do well to come close to ever again but as for a truly defining moment I’d have to return to the same concert hall a fair few years earlier…
I was given the job of fixing, arranging and MDing an Anglo/French Big Band for Manu Dibango at the Barbican. It was really the first time I’d been entrusted with the whole program and band for such a big artist for such a big stage. It actually involved a few different concerts and a lot of ground work including going out to Paris and catching Manu there. I remember very well the promoter/show producer John Ellson saying to me “…look I trust you can do the job…Just don’t fuck it up”! This was a pretty clear directive. Ultimately it all went fairly well, helped with my own self confidence and opened the door to many other opportunities.
What musical genius would you take to the moon?
Wayne Shorter!!! No hesitation. I’d be happy to take his lead on whatever musical experiments might be conducted up there too whether it involved me playing, singing, copying, dictating or not. No doubt a great time of learning and fun…
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