Ahead of his return appearance at Love Supreme Festival next month, we spoke to Courtney Pine about his beautiful new album and much more.
Tell us about your most recent release, ‘Spirituality’.
Wow! It’s taken me a long time to do this record. It’s supposed to be a continuation of the duet album I made with Zoe Rahman, but I’ve added four strings – specifically two violas, a cello and violin, as I wanted a darker sound.
I got the opportunity to record it at Dave Stewart’s Church Studios, where I recorded my solo on ‘Perfect Day’ (the star-studded ‘Children In Need’ version of Lou Reed’s classic) and I’ve always wanted an excuse to go back to use that room. It was not easy recording it as there were a lot of Covid protocols going on, but the musicians were open minded and that allowed us to record this personal album.
It’s a beautiful album, but it does have a strange selection of songs…
Yeah, well I didn’t want to record all originals and I wanted to include songs that had inspired me from the past. Every item, whether it’s Charlie Chaplin’s piece ‘Smile’, it strikes a chord and when I hear these songs, you stop, listen and you’re changed. It wasn’t really “Ooh I’m going to do songs from the 60s or the 20s”, I just wanted songs that would translate and we could improvise on and be creative on.
The title ‘Spirituality’ came from this thing where we practise as musicians, we get gigs to try to survive as musicians but there’s something else that drives us and for jazz musicians it’s not money. We get paid but we’re not getting paid like some guys in the industry who just mime to a backing track or pretend to sing over somebody else’s vocal; we actually practise for eight hours a day. So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a spiritual experience.
You covered the Welsh hymn ‘Ar Hyd Y Nos (All Through The Night)’ on the album, which seems a really unusual choice.
I’ve been doing it for quite a while in the UK and a lot of my criticisms come out of confusion when people say I should play disco music or something like that. But I used to sing that hymn at William Wilberforce school on Beethoven Street in Paddington where the head teacher was a Welsh woman named Mrs Thomas who used to make us sing this thing all the time so that song has been ingrained in my head for ages.
Once I played at the Brecon Jazz Festival and in the middle of an improvisation that song came into my head and I started playing it and all the geezers started singing the tune back, which was an amazing experience that totally floored me. I’ve always wanted to perform that piece on an album so that’s how it made the cut.
The album closes with ‘Your Majesty’, written for the Queen. Do you know if she got to hear it?
I’m not very good at self-promoting, you know on Twitter and all that. I’m really old school, I’m still in 1981, so you get a PR person and pay them to promote. I did say to Her Majesty that I would compose something and it’s taken all this time to do it and I guess I should have sent it to the Royal Family but it was too late unfortunately. I wanted the piece to be a conversation and it’s evolved over time and it’s moved on. Whenever I perform it I get a standing ovation.
Would you like to continue recording with Zoe Rahman in the future?
I hope so because she’s brilliant. Some musicians want competition and one-upmanship, but she’s so used to playing recitals and working with other musicians. Her big sister Sophie’s a concert pianist and her brother does multiple things such as The Soothsayers. He plays great clarinet and tenor saxophone, he’s a producer and engineer so she’s used to being in a musical environment. So, in terms of doing a recital, this is new to me. I haven’t done one since school assembly so having her at the helm has been perfect because as a jazz musician I just tend to go off on a tangent. If I haven’t got somebody there with me that’s open enough to allow me to express myself it can go really wrong, but at each show she’s been really pliable and she’s been brilliant, especially with the four string players who are playing from a chart and their positions are quite static. She’s been able to anchor the two sides, where I’m off on a tangent and the strings are like “what are we supposed to do now he’s playing something different?” I really like the fact that she has a different touch and approach and ambition to what she does and I really hope we can do more in the future.
Why did you choose to play bass clarinet on the whole album?
It’s a big challenge to arrange for it and there aren’t many bass clarinet-led albums out there. It’s harder to play than saxophone, but I love the range and the sound.
We saw Shabaka Hutchings’ flute concert at Brighton Festival recently and he said that, because he is learning to play them from scratch, that the instruments inform how he plays them and give him the direction he needs to take when performing. Is this something you’ve experienced?
Without a doubt, but with ancient flutes it’s different because they were designed to be performed in a different situation and composers have to adapt from that. With the bass clarinet if you listen to guys like Eric Dolphy and Bennie Maupin, they worked in a way that exemplifies the instrument. Something magical happens when you play different instruments, especially the lower flutes. They resonate with your body and give you creative impetus. To spoil it by adding a load of guitars and a Fender Rhodes on top, it just won’t work, so you have to rethink and re-address how you approach music. It does make you be more than you were before you played the instrument.
In the early days you got to play with some of the all-time greats, such as Art Blakey and Donald Byrd. Wayne Shorter sadly died recently, did you ever perform with him and were you ever starstruck?
Yes I did, strangely enough. I was in Osaka with him at the International Jazz Day concert and I’ve got the pictures to prove it! The first one was Art Blakey but, before that, John Stevens gave me an opportunity here in the UK by inviting me to The Plough in Stockwell. Yes, you do get starstruck, but before that I was playing in reggae bands with Freddie McGregor, Barrington Levy and a number of artists for who I was the horn for hire. That was more of a machismo Jamaican kind of thing. They had a huge respect for musicians but most of them, apart from Freddie, didn’t know the connection between jazz, bluebeat and ska. Ernest Ranglin was the reason I signed to Island Records and I played on his last tour a couple of years ago, so it shows that anything can happen. You just have to keep your mind open and I’m constantly learning.
Luckily, people like Ellis Marsalis and Donald Byrd understood what it’s like for a youngster getting into this music only knowing the music through albums and word-of-mouth. So they were able, Art Blakey especially, to impart those in-between-the-cracks things that happened to guide the music to be what it is today. I learned so many stories from Sonny Rollins and I will pass them on. For example, I went to see Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and Patrice Rushen at the Festival Hall and the next day I was going to the North Sea Jazz Festival, so I was at Heathrow and there was Wayne Shorter. We were discussing Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ suite and he was showing me really interesting bass clarinet bits in it and then he says “oh by the way this is Carlos Santana and Patrice Rushen”. You have to remember my age and that I was a jazz funk and disco club kid and when I met Patrice I just froze. She just smiled and could tell that I was bowled over, then Wayne Shorter said “oh this is how Coltrane used to practise” and he went into a stance and showed me this move that I’d never seen before. Unbelievable!
A couple of years later I went to the Caribbean and was listening to Weather Report’s ‘Black Market’ album and the last song (‘Herandnu’) is written by the bassist Alphonso Johnson, who also played at the Santana gig. I flew to St Kitts and on the Saturday morning there was a workshop so I walked in and who was sitting in front of me? Alphonso Johnson. I could not believe it and we had a rapport so the whole time we were on the island I just kept on bugging him. So in terms of meeting legends, it’s just unbelievable and I guess that’s one of the reasons why we want to be in this music because it’s like a tree with no roots and you try to personify that on stage.
Art Blakey was obviously a great nurturer of young musicians and you and Gary Crosby continue that tradition, so how do you keep your ear to the ground to find the up-and-coming musicians on the scene?
It’s really interesting because they come to us. “You build it and they will come”. I constantly meet musicians. I haven’t been to a jam session for a while, but I went to a classical concert by the Brixton Classical Ensemble a couple of nights ago and there was a young trumpeter who knows Byron Wallen. So, in the UK now, there’s still a situation where you have leaders in bands and you have musicians who join them from school or university who are ready and available.
Since the 1980s there seemed to be a jazz revival every ten years or so, but the music seems to have become really embedded now with the likes of Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia etc. Why do you think this is? Is it because of the underground club scene?
I think there is more availability now. I did many years with the British Council working in places far and wide but now musicians like Arun Ghosh, Denys Baptiste, Dennis Rollins, they’ve all done that and once you realise this is what’s available to you and you practise, conceptualise what you’re doing and then present it. You are right that there are lots of underground clubs, places outside of the Ronnie Scotts and Jazz Cafes that have always been around, but we do have a set of musicians now who are ready, willing and able to present this cultural evolution.
You say every ten years and for musicians like me, I have seen waves of musicians who’ve emerged like Soweto Kinch who continue to flow and find creativity in this market, instead of going somewhere else. The same thing exists in Paris, in Poland, there are musicians everywhere trying to reflect their culture but I don’t see it as a ten year thing, I see it as a generational thing. Whether it’s a different tempo or modality, or a different message it really does exist in the music, regardless of the media. Festivals, like Love Supreme, exemplify that: you can see Zara McFarlane and Ezra Collective. When I started we didn’t have those large events. We had things like the Tring Festival but I never saw anyone like me, or who wanted to play like me.
Do you prepare differently for a festival show to club dates?
Without a doubt. Club dates are more intimate and you can whisper but when you perform on a big stage, and many artists have realised this, you have to work the crowd differently. You can’t play the same thing in a club to thousands of people, so what I do is dip into my Jamaican heritage, my hip hop and drum’n’bass heritage and bring those elements in to what I’m doing. I remember playing to 15,000 people on the beach in Crimea and they responded unbelievably to what we were doing. Basically you have to approach every show differently as you get a different audience each time.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’m still touring ‘House Of Legends’, our respect-to-the-Caribbean album, which is what I’ll be bringing to Love Supreme. We’ve got a winter tour set up for the ‘Spirituality’ album so this is what we’re concentrating on this year.
Thanks for taking the time to chat to us, good luck with everything this year and have a great set at Love Supreme.
No problem, thanks I will try my best.
Courtney Pine plays the South Downs stage at Love Supreme Festival on Saturday 1st July 2023.
Final tickets are available here.