huw warren 23/01/19

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Huw Warren ahead of his upcoming release, Everything In Between, to be released on March 15th on the CAM JAZZ record label. Recorded in northern Italy with Dudley Phillips and Zoot Warren, Everything In Between masterfully showcases the passion and expression that Huw Warren is well-known for, whilst covering a wide variety of genres; from “wonky hymns” to ominous free jazz, the scope of Huw’s upcoming release is magnificent.

T: So, the album. It’s called Everything In Between, and it’s with Dudley Phillips and Zoot Warren, Trio Brasil, isn’t it?

H: Yeah, it’s effectively a continuation of Trio Brasil. As you know, I’ve been seriously addicted to Brazilian music for as long as I can remember now, and I kind of wanted to make sure that rather than just being a sort of Brazilian covers band (as much as I love that, and also when I say covers, hopefully we’re reinventing some of these tunes, putting a bit of spin on them, not just reproducing someone else’s arrangements), I certainly wanted to make a record that had original music on it as well as Brazilian music, very much in the same sort of model as my “Hermeto+” record, which had half Hermeto (Pascoal) tunes, half my tunes. So that’s why the Trio Brasil name is now gone, and we are where we are. Also, I just like the title, “Everything In Between” because, you know, there’s so many times when I say “I really like English folk music, and heavy, abstract, avant-garde free jazz, and everything in between!” so it’s like an afterthought title, rather than an “Everything In Between” title.

T: It fits really well, and it feels like you’ve really dug into that idea of making it your own rather than just doing a covers record. Tunes like Mente Clara and Porto Alegre come across as so individual.

H: Yeah, well to be honest if I was to make a jazz record and I wanted to play a standard, I’d be desperate to not make it sound like the versions of it that I know and love. What’s the point in that? There’s always that kind of thought process of “let’s just make sure it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s version or it doesn’t sound like the original”, and of course sometimes that can be hard, to find something that satisfies you and satisfies that condition. Sometimes you can try a little too hard and you just end up with weird versions of stuff, so it’s like a way of really celebrating tunes but trying to be individual with them. Also, I’ve done a couple of interviews about this album already, and one of things I was really trying to do with this album was to, broadly speaking, play like a singer rather than like a pianist. Of course, I can hear everyone going “that’s nonsense, Huw!’ but just in the sense of presenting the tracks as songs rather than as vehicles to go nuts on; to try and find some emotional meaning in the music rather than just some technical bravura. And again, you might listen to it and say that there’s a lot of technical playing on it, but somehow that’s where I was coming from, in the heart of this music, to try and really be like a singer.

T: Has that come off the back of your collaborations with June Tabor?

H: Partially with June; I always say that I’m really lucky in that I’m able to play with some amazing singers, June Tabor being one of them, Maria Pia (De Vito) being another, Norma Winstone (who I’m playing with on Saturday night) being another, Lleuwen Steffan; just a whole host of singers with real character. And in June Tabor’s case, there’s also the idea of singing something that’ll make you cry rather than singing something that’ll show what a great voice you have. Definitely trying to take something from that world into my world. I think the idea of making a record as opposed to a live gig, it’s a slightly more reflective space and it gives you that chance to go to those places rather than… I think possibly in my early records sometimes I was so desperate to get everything I could do in, and now I’m really happy just to play less as long as it creates the right vibe. Obviously you don’t want to play so little that the music becomes lifeless, the grooves definitely come from that Brazilian influence, but just as a sort of overall landscape for a record, it’s just me trying to play songs as a pianist.

T: Well the emotional connection certainly comes across. Tunes like Lampedusa switch between this sense of joyful longing and an almost dark, ominous place, and I feel like you’ve really played around with the emotional aspect.

H: Do you know what Lampedusa is?

T: It’s an Italian island, isn’t it?

H: Yeah, it’s an Italian island where the vast majority of refugees who are coming from the Middle East or North Africa end up. That’s one of Dudley’s tunes by the way. Dudley Phillips original. I think you’ve really hit on what he’s trying to capture in that; there’s a celebratory side of it, but there’s also something quite dark and looming underneath it, which is probably a gross oversimplification of the refugee situation but…

T: But if it comes across then it’s working?

H: Yeah! And also there’s something that happened that wasn’t planned, we didn’t talk about it; in the improvising section of that piece, it suddenly goes very free (it’s over an odd bar length), and it goes quite Arabic as well, and that wasn’t done with any great symbolic intention, it just came out. Like so many of the great things in music, it just came out.

T: Coming back to the Brazilian influence, in so many of these tunes there are various Brazilian grooves; whether it’s you playing it, or Dudley or Zoot. Where and when did the interest in the Brazilian thing start for you?

H: Good question! Obviously I was aware of Jobim tunes when I was a teenager; I was probably playing Wave and Girl From Ipanema when I was 15 and playing Hammond organ in working mens’ clubs. My glamorous roots! My roots that I’m very grateful for though; the amount that I learnt on the bandstand. So I was probably aware of the most commercial side of bossa nova. Like most things in music, someone has to play you something. Someone that you know knows some music that you don’t know, you hear it and you go “Wow, that’s amazing!” and then you go a check as much as you can of that music. Or you have to know someone, and in my case it was a little bit of both really. I remember hearing Hermeto for the first time in a jazz club in London; someone was playing a record in the background, and I just remember thinking “what the hell is that?!”. In a shocked but sort of curious way.

T: Morbid curiosity, perhaps?

H: Well, it was just… It had a sort of beauty and a sort of craziness about it, it had all the stuff I still like about Hermeto. It’s very earthy music at its core, but it sort has high art and low art all thrown together with nothing in the middle sometimes. It can have the most complex of ideas but everything is rooted through these grooves. So when I heard that, and then just started exploring a bit; being in London in the late 80s, I had a lot of great experiences of world music by playing with people from those cultures. I ended up playing Congolese dance music, Arabic music, Iranian music, Brazilian music, Argentinian music, Indian, Pakistan; just music from a lot of different cultures, sometimes without really knowing what was going on. It’s a good way to learn. And in terms of Brazilian music, there’s a great guy, percussionist, who set up the London School of Samba, and was in a lot of different jazz and pop music projects called Bosco De Oliveira, and he became a friend and I played in quite a few bands with him. He was great, he had a real open attitude towards it; the opposite of what we rather rudely call the Clave Police, you know, the idea of “if you don’t play that pattern exactly like that, you’re wrong!” sort of thing, and there’s a fair bit of that around in some of this music. But his thing was always open, always about just playing music, making music. There was a lot of rhythmic stuff that I learnt from him, in a practical sense, often just by getting lost and not knowing what I was doing. That’s a really great way to learn. And then it was like anything, like now when you go on Spotify and Spotify recommends this because you like that; we had a much more informal version of that in real life before the internet. If you heard about an artist you’d then try and find anything else they did. It was a lot harder, but it was a lot more satisfying!

T: Lots of time spent digging through record shops?

H: Yeah, all kinds of stuff really. Sorry, I didn’t really mean this to be a sentimental throwback to the 80s, but a lot of music was exchanged on tapes and mixtapes as well. I can remember having cassette tapes of some of the first Afro-Cuban music I heard, and all kinds of stuff that you get into. And there’d always be someone who knew more music than you, and you could swap stuff. I think the whole Brazilian thing just went on a gradual learning curve for me. I guess I was firstly really attracted to Hermeto and Egberto (Gismonti) and the kind of Jazz side, and then when I met Maria Pia for the first time, she had a much greater knowledge of the lyrical, song side of it all, the song tradition rather than the Jazz tradition.  Maybe that’s tied in a little bit with this idea of trying to play songs. Someone said to me once about Brazilian music, you know that idea of “you’re being dispatched to a desert island and you can only take one style of music” and for most of us who are interested in a wide variety, that’d be a hellish decision but there’s something about it; if you had take one, it might be Brazilian music because basically it’s all incredible joyous rhythmic grooves, brilliant harmony and melody (a lot of it classical). Jobim famously said that he’d learnt more from Chopin than jazz. And there’s incredible lyrics as well. As good lyrics as the English folk tradition that we always think about as being really symbolic, you know, use of language and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a pretty killer package altogether, isn’t it? And it just makes you feel great. I think that’s the whole Brazilian thing in a nutshell. And as I get older and I think I know more about something I suddenly realise how much more there is than meets the eye. If I go to Maria, we often do a lot of listening, checking out new songs, and she’ll introduce me not to new songs but to artists that I haven’t even heard of. It’s a huge big world out there but I like it.

T: It certainly comes across, especially when you listen to Egberto and Hermeto and then listen to your records. It’s obvious where the influence comes from, but you take it in a completely new direction. It seems like there are so many more influences in your music that a lot of people that play the Brazilian thing don’t have.

H: Possibly. Certainly for me, part of that sense of wanting to sing through the instrument is completely linked to touch and sound. That’s something I’m fairly pleased with on the new record actually, just the way everything sounds. It’s something I’ve worked at for years and years and years and it’s a lot to do with playing quite softly as well, so a lot of those solo piano pieces I’m actually playing pretty softly to get that sound. If we’re talking about the jazz world in general, sometimes I think that gets a little overlooked, but actually, if you get six pianists on a Steinway D piano, they’re going to sound like six different people on the same instrument, which is interesting.

T: Everyone has their own way of doing things, I guess. Do you feel like some of the lyricism you’ve been striving towards has come from the folk and traditional Welsh influences?

H: Yeah, I would say from two areas that I’m really interested in, and one of those is folk music in general. I’m not sure I’m the best person, even in Wales, to speak about traditional Welsh music, just because I’ve had some experience of it, but it wasn’t part of my upbringing. Neither was English, Scots or Irish folk music, but there’s certainly something about it. Strangely enough, hymns have been really important to me. I’m a devout atheist, but there’s something about hymns. It’s a kind of musical thing I think.

T: There’s something so primal about them.

H: It’s just that simple thing of a melody that doesn’t move very much, and harmony that basically comes on every note, so right the way through from my first records, you’ll hear a lot of that.

T: For example, in the start of the title track?

H: Yeah! It’s like a sort of… I keep calling them “wonky hymns”. It’s definitely the idea of the movement, and the voice leading is all to do with hymns. Sorry, I’ve been teaching jazz all day, so I’m talking about voice leading. I don’t talk about voice leading in an interview normally! But actually, all the roots are displaced and it’s got this slightly dissonant… I suppose you could say that that’s really what I’m striving for sometimes; something that’s almost singable and whistleable and melodic, but with this slightly odd underbelly of harmony which, if you check it out, it actually doesn’t make any sense. It’s sort of like a bubbling dissonance, and I really like that combination. But I think there’s a tradition of that in the UK’s scene anyway; Django’s writing, Iain Ballamy’s writing, John Taylor. John Taylor possibly has a less dissonant but special and particular way of going about it, and also he has that alarming knack of things that are really hard to play sounding really easy, like Pure and Simple, that tune. Someone said once that it’s not really very simple, it’s not very pure but it’s an incredible tune. Really beautiful. So yeah, I definitely think that the lyricism comes from a number of sources, and John, and John Surman would be part of that for me, as would Django and Iain, Julian Argüelles and Mark Lockheart, many of my contemporaries really. We all have a slightly different take on it but there is some common, melodic thing coming from… A British thing, somehow. I don’t know quite how to define it any better than that. It’s definitely to do with melody. There’s a sort of melodic direction, which might not always fit on the grid of it being in four bar phrases, or anything else, but it has that sort of sense, almost like a free melody that’s there all the time.

T: The melody is the most important thing, I guess, and the harmony and rhythm is there to help the melody along.

H: Possibly! We’re sort of really generalising, aren’t we? But that’s definitely one approach where the melody carries everything; it carries the direction, it carries the intensity, it carries the emotion and everything else just serves the melody. Of course, then there’s just really open grooves, where everything serves the rhythm. I’ll take them both!

T: You mentioned Mark Lockheart; am I right in saying you’ve done a recording with Mark as well, also to be released this year through Cam Jazz?

H: Yeah. When Cam gave me the opportunity to do two records, their first idea was a trio and a solo, just because that’s a classic piano thing, you know, and I said “yeah but look, I’ve just done a solo record, so I don’t really want to do another solo record. Can I do a duo with Mark?” and they went “yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s a great idea!”. They make a series of six records each summer linked to the wine industry in… Northern Venetta? I’m not quite sure exactly what you call it but it’s north of Venice, near the border with Slovakia. There’s an area of wine producers that make incredible white wine.

T: Hence the incentive to go!

H: Well, yeah, it’s great! “Would you like to come to this really nice vineyard and make a live record?” So the idea was great, and of course, Mark and I had been talking about doing something again together for a while, and had been playing in different combinations; Perfect Houseplants are about to relaunch ourselves in some shape or form, you know, we’ve done a few gigs, written some new music for that as well, blah blah blah. So we jumped at the opportunity. The practical thing that we hadn’t thought about was that the record was actually recorded in the wine cellar where they keep the wine. I just presumed it would be a stage outside, you know. And it’s white wine, and they keep it at a set temperature, so it was like, eleven or twelve degrees which is pretty cold. So we were in this room, there was a live gig in the afternoon and we recorded a bit in the soundcheck as well, so the record is a mixture of the two. I think for Mark the temperature was quite challenging because the horn stops working, but we had great fun! And the record sounds great. Sometimes you can make a recording and everything feels really easy and really great and then you listen to it and it’s somehow disappointing? This was the opposite. Making it was quite stressful, with the temperature and all that, and then when we heard it back we were pleasantly surprised. That record has a little bit of a theme, I mean, it’s mainly my tunes, one of Mark’s tunes, and the opening and closing tunes are both John Taylor’s. It wasn’t really meant to be a tribute to John, but it just seemed a logical thing, and also it’s on the label that he recorded a lot for (Cam Jazz). So it ended up that way! It’s a very different record, but again, I think that’s something that Mark and I… It was almost a conversation we had about how would we arrange these tunes and how do we make it… For instance the opening track is Windfall, which is a beautiful tune; one of the things we did is we just checked out if there were any versions with saxophone and piano with John Taylor playing it, just to make sure we weren’t straying into that territory. It’s for that exact reason that we talked about before, just of making it your own, giving it a good reason and letting it stand on its own, rather than being a version. That record comes out in June I think, but I don’t think we’re going to tour it until the winter.

T: You mentioned the Houseplants; obviously Dudley is a big part of the Houseplants as well. When can we expect to see something new?

H: Good question. Realistically next year, that’d be 2020, in terms of anything recorded, but it’s the classic thing also; four really busy musicians who really want to do it but we’re all pretty wrapped up with various different things, including two albums, and Dudley’s on one and Mark’s on the other! But it will happen. It might take longer than we think, but you have certain musical relationships in your life, you know, making collaborations (which I’ve done all my career), it’s really interesting because sometimes you meet people and you play for the first time and it feels like you’ve been playing together all your life, it’s just like “how did that happen?”, “that’s strange” and you go “great!”, and there’s other relationships that you have where you have been playing for the vast bulk of your professional life, and it doesn’t matter how long the gap is, or what happens to anyone’s lives; you start playing again and you’re instantly in that world, as if you were there, before the coffee break. I suppose that’s a relationship thing. A continuation of your relationship in music, but it’s very nice. I feel very privileged to have these situations and to be able to make music with people that are already close friends. I can’t imagine how it would be any other way, but I guess for some people it is.

T: Speaking of relationships, Zoot, who drums on the record is your son, and the interplay between the two of you (and Dudley of course) is beautiful. You’ve seen every stage of Zoot’s musical development; when would you say was the point at which you felt like you were on equal terms?

H: My natural thing, just because Zoot’s sort of grown up with this situation to a greater or lesser extent… I have to be really careful, because, am I his dad or am I his bandleader, almost, you know? I say to some people sometimes, “he’s playing really well, you know” and I’m not saying that because I’m his dad, I’m saying that because I think he is. I think the thing with Zoot is, or was, that I played with him when he could hardly play. I say that, he’d probably kill me for saying that! Maybe he was 13 or 14 and he had a few basic things together, and we were playing at a summer school, playing a South African tune, Hug Pine or something like that, a really simple tune. He was playing a groove, and it was the usual summer school thing, really mixed ability of people, and I was playing piano and I got to solo. And as I was playing, I realised one thing; he didn’t really have much together, but he knew exactly where to play to make me sound good. So even though he didn’t have the chops to really do much, he had that sort of thing, the instinct. And I think that that instinctive approach is something… It’s really hard to teach someone how to do that. You’d have to ask him where he got that! He had a few lessons with a local teacher but he was mainly self-taught, and he said that he learnt to play drums basically by listening to Martin France on the Houseplants records and Jack DeJohnette in the Keith Jarrett Trio, which are not too bad influences, I have to say. So, he’s still really developing, as a player and as a musician; that’s always been a really nice thing. In some ways… I don’t know about equals, but I really feel that he’s probably at that stage now. It’s often an incremental thing. And also there’s the difference between playing a gig, playing at the Flute & Tankard, or making a record for an international jazz label. It’s a step up. So I think in his development, there were a few things… A year and a half ago, I think, we went to play as a quartet with Iain in Germany (that was a radio broadcast for Bavarian radio or something), and that was for him, a big step up, cause you know, “I’m in quite a big room, I’ve got the radio guys telling me not to play too loud”, you know. One thing about this kind of music is, you can learn it, you can learn how to play it, but as you know, that’s only the beginning.The next stage is how do I react in real time and modify; it’s like you’re always recalibrating.

T: “How do I stop thinking about what I’ve learnt and play?”

H: Well exactly! “How do I stop thinking” is a really good one, isn’t it! Especially for people studying jazz, because we’re asking you to think all the time, and then we say “no, no, no, stop thinking and just do it!” So that was like a little step up for him; before that we’d just done gigs, and everything sounded good and all. I mean, you know, he’s really taken the Brazilian thing apart as well. He can show me stuff! I can learn from him, and that’s cool! We can all learn from each other. Do you know what I mean? We all know something that someone else doesn’t, so he’s got into a lot of different things through that. And then when we made the record, that was probably the next step up. You know how it is when you make a record, sometimes the tunes just sound great instantly; sometimes the tunes sound great, but not right for the record, and you have to do that real-time problem solving thing again. So the very opening track from the record, “Mouli Baby”, which is a really simple West African-style tune of mine from way back when, but I’ve never recorded it, we’ve played it in all kinds of settings and it’s been more out and more in and what have you. And we sort of struggled a little bit to find a way of how to play it best, you know, it didn’t quite sound right for the record and in the end, his approach to the drums made it all sit. But that was literally in the studio, 5 minutes before the take. It’s like “what can we do?” “let’s try this”.

T: That’s the beautiful thing about a studio recording as compared to a live recording, like you were saying earlier; you’ve got that time to chop and change, and redo.

H: Yeah. I don’t believe in overproducing all the content out of stuff, cause there’s a danger of doing that if you’re not careful, but I’ve always liked the combination of… I’ve made live records as well and I love the fact that if you play something you don’t like, it’s there. Tough. I like that thing but… My ambition has always been to make a record that will sound good in ten years time, or twenty years time, do you know what I mean? Give it some sort of longevity. Sometimes what that means is getting rid of some of the gestures that sound great for the first five or ten listens. When you make a record, you’re going to listen to it fifty to a hundred times by the time you’ve mixed it, mastered it, everything. Edited it, listened back to the takes. So sometimes in the past, there’s been a technical gesture or something, and you go “yeah, that sounds brilliant!” and everyone’s saying “that sounds mega!” and then after like five listens you’re going, “actually, that’s beginning to annoy me now” because it’s a little false. So that’s the sort thing that in a record, in a studio approach, you can just pull back on that a little bit. On a gig, there’s plenty of excuses for it not being exactly what you want, because it’s transient, isn’t it? It goes, and it’s gone. In the studio, you don’t have that excuse, so it’s a chance just to think a little bit more about that.

T: Okay. I think we’ve come to our last question. Bit of an odd one. This album obviously is influenced by everything you’ve done over your career. There’s hymnal stuff, there’s classically inspired stuff, there’s the Brazilian thing, there’s things that are uniquely free jazz in the middle of what has been a Brazilian piece up until that point. But if you were to pick three albums that you think have most inspired this recording, could you?

H: Ooh. That’s a tough one, isn’t it? I’m not quite sure that I can separate stuff that’s inspired this recording from stuff that’s inspired my music, you know? And I usually use a couple of examples, they’re actually records by people I know that have sort of fed my sense of how I want to make records and music, and the first one would be the very first Human Chain record, which is really hard to find now. It’s just Django Bates and Steve Argüelles, playing duo mainly, with a little bit of Dudu Pukwana on one track. I’m not quite sure what year it’s from; it’s gotta be eighty-two, eighty-three or eighty-four, it’s early days anyway. And what I liked about it was the fact that there’s no sound to the band. Each track is completely different; it’s like a world, a world, a world, and I think all my records have done that. Some a little too extreme, I think, sometimes! I’ve never been interested in making a Kind of Blue record, where every track sounds the same. But hey, this is all subjective, personal stuff, isn’t it? Some people like that. I like that variety, and I like the fact that you produce each track separately as well. So you produce each track on the merits of the track, not on some global sense of, you know. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite records, a lot of ECM records also have that sonic beauty, that linearity to them, but that’s more to do with the kind of music, I suspect. So that would be one; the other record that I always quote to people is All Men Amen, by Iain Ballamy which… I think it’s the tunes I like. Obviously it would be hard to say that I don’t like Iain Ballamy, Django Bates, Martin France and Steve Watts, cause that’s a pretty killer band, isn’t it? But there’s something about that deep, melodic thing, harmonic English thing in the writing that does it for me. And then probably, I would probably have to say, for a Brazilian influence, one of three things, and that would be… With Hermeto it’s hard to say an exact album because they’re all pretty incredible, but possibly Festa dos Deuses, which is a more sort of fusion-y album. Egberto, there’s an amazing solo piano record that’s really influenced me a lot, which I think is called Alma. It’s incredible, and it has a solo piano version of Loro which has been very influential. And probably a modern Brazilian record, something like Sérgio Mendes’ Brasileiro from the nineties, which has all that shiny, nineties production and sort of like a pop music approach, with killer tunes and grooves. I think that’s a fair reflection.

T: I think so! Well, thank you very much.

H: My pleasure.