Interview with Tori Freestone: The music is my meditation and my therapy: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist, fluetist Tori Freestone. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Tori Freestone: – I was born and raised in London and my family are all musical (my sister is a professional musician now too and we used to play in folk clubs as a family) so there were lots of musical instruments around the house (piano, lots of different stringed instruments such as guitars/banjo/mandoliin as well as whistles, a bugle, harmonium, autoharp and a violin etc).  There were also great vinyl recordings – folk, jazz, blues and Brazilian and my parents would have many parties where different musicians would come and play and sing – especially folk tunes and sea shanties, so I couldn’t really not be interested in music 🙂   I feel very lucky now when I look back.  Over the years I’ve performed a lot of workshops in schools and it saddens me to realise that many children aren’t exposed to much music at home.  That’s why I’ve tried to do these kinds of workshops as much as possible over the years.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the your musical instrument?

TF: – I started off by playing Irish whistles as out of all the instruments in the house I was drawn to these for some reason.  It was always wind instruments that I was drawn to even though there were more stringed instruments at home (my dad played guitar, my mum piano and my sister guitar and violin).  I started violin and played mostly folk music, and played in folk clubs with my family from the age of 7, but I also listened to a lot of jazz at home.  I always wanted to play flute, mainly because of the flautists I heard a lot of on my dad’s Brazilian records which I loved so I pestered and managed to get group lessons on flute at school. As soon as I could play enough notes, I used to have jam sessions with my dad and he showed me a few bluesy ideas to improvise with.  It was mostly blues and Brazilian influenced standards that we would jam on,  The saxophone came a lot later after I left Leeds college of Music where I studied flute and violin only.  I went and bought a soprano saxophone as after all the years of listening to Wayne Shorter from as early as I can remember (on my dad’s Joni Mitchell and Weather Report albums) I had an urge to go and buy one.  I bought a tenor 6 months later as I had a place offered at the Guildhall School of Music Postgraduate Jazz course  as a flautist and tenor saxophonist and haven’t looked back since 🙂

In terms of teaching,  I was extremely lucky that Will Michael a wonderful jazz pianist and composer (brother of Richard Michael who runs the Scottish Youth jazz Orchestra) happened to join the music staff at my secondary school when I was about 15 and all of a sudden jazz seemed to be involved in the curriculum and a jazz group was set up and finally what I’d been doing for so many years was taken seriously.  I have a lot to thank Will for. Sadly he passed away some years ago and I never got to thank him and let him know what I’d been up to, but I’ve been in contact with his brother and family which is wonderful.

At music college a wonderful pianist/composer and teacher Bill Kinghorn tutored at Leeds College of Music and gave us harmony classes.  His lessons were very inspiring as he encouraged you to learn to teach yourself which I think is the most valuable lesson any student can learn.  You can feed a jazz student information parrot fashion but the joy of hearing a sound then internalising it and then working out how to use it in your own way with your own voice is something special and I’m glad that process was never taken away from me.  I also had a few lessons from inspiring tutors such as Nikki Isles and Indian improvisation lessons which helped to look at improvisation from a variety of perspectives.

At the Guildhall School of Music in London I had some classical flute lessons from a great teacher Katie Gainham even though I was on the jazz course.  She allowed me to be involved with all the masterclasses that the classical students were part of and I would perform contemporary classical repertory at many of these.  She was an incredible teacher and I think I learnt the most about correct technique and also about good teaching practice from her lessons.  I feel her lessons taught me how to teach properly too and I think that’s the sign of a great professor – to be able to pass on the tools to the next generation.

As well as this, I would say my colleagues at college and other band members in ensembles were and are constantly teaching me too just by getting the opportunity to perform and talk with them.  Improvising is a language and you can pick that language up in all sorts of ways.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

TF: – Although I have gone through phases of becoming obsessed with various players at various times, I don’t think I’ve ever consciously plagiarised ideas and have had a more organic approach to allowing a musician to influence me.  I never practiced specific licks which I know can be an approach to teaching and learning in jazz education.  Instead I always would take ideas that I had heard and transcribed to be a springboard for my own ideas.  I think this is a natural way of developing the language.  Each musician is using the same kind of grammar and vocabulary but with their own unique accent.  In terms of the actual sound I have  in terms of tone, again I think that goes into what you do organically if you listen to various players with an approach.  Hopefully in my playing there is a mix of all the different players I listen to.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

TF: – When I’m busy with various projects and various tours I’m often limited to the type of practice I can do as often it is restricted by the type of repertoire I’m learning.  However, when I have the time and am not touring I like to be a little more disciplined.  I’ll always start my routine with a lot of tone development and then scale/pattern exercises, then move onto applying some kind of line/rhythm to a harmonic/rhythmic device or set of changes, but in terms of rhythm I like to work a lot on polyrhythmic ideas and internalising odd time signatures and also this often works it’s way into my compositional approach.  When I was lecturing at Leeds College of Music I devised a whole system of a rhythmic approach to improvising for the second and third years to study and this is still implemented at the college to this day.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

TF: – Although I really enjoy playing over contemporary harmony (modal non functional harmony) like you would find in Kenny Wheeler tunes for instance, I still love to play over jazz standards.  You can do so much with a standard and substitute interesting contemporary harmony over those standard changes.

In terms of patterns, I enjoy trying out hexatonics on some of these changes at the moment, but it really depends on what  repertoire I’m working on.  To me, the key to using patterns is how you use them as it is a challenge to use them musically.  I love John Taylor and Julian Arguelles’  playing for this reason as a couple of examples.  They use so many patterns in their lines and yet each one is used so musically and so melodically.

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

TF: – It’s hard to say as for me as I don’t necessarily check out new music immediately – I’m often going back to albums and rediscovering them. For instance I’ve ben listening a lot to Tony Malaby ‘Apparitions’ yet this is an album recorded back in the 2003 but feels like it could’ve been recorded yesterday as it sounds so hip. One of the more recent albums I really love is ‘Tetra’ by Julian Arguelles This wasn’t released in 2017 but a little before, but I listened to it a lot in 2017. Also Django Bates’ ‘Saluting Seargant Pepper’ album. This is a 2017 release.  I’ve always been a big fan of Django Bates (and the Beatles of course) and all his bands and band members (who are in turn band leaders in their own right) going right back to the days of  ‘Loose Tubes’ have been a big influence on me and a lot of other musicians in the UK jazz scene and further afield I’m sure.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

TF: – I think this is a very important balance. You need both.  Like yin and yang, one can’t exist without the other. If you go to a concert and it’s overly intellectual and clever it can be very disengaging for the listener. My theory is that when you practice, you need to be more in the cognitive/left side of the brain, focussing on specifics and developing your language with a fairly systematic approach. When you’re playing/performing you want to be more on the right side of the brain allowing the music to flow from a very different place (but yet backed up with all the language/vocabulary etc that you’ve worked on previously so that you can connect with the other musicians). Perhaps this is what Coltrane meant in his quote that you mention further on?

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

TF: – There are so many special gigs I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in it’s hard to think of them all.

When I was a child I used to play in folk festivals and folk clubs with my family which was fun, but we also would play in respite homes and hospitals. My grandmother had Alzheimers disease and we often used to play in the hospital where she was a patient. Sometimes an old lady or man would be singing along to some of the tunes we were playing and I wouldn’t realise they were a patient (there were also visitors there of course) then a nurse would say that  the particular patient hadn’t spoken properly for months or even years. It really showed to me the power music can have.

Playing at my cousin’s funeral a few years ago also conveyed the power of music to me and made me understand how important it can be for your family and community. My cousin Felicity was an incredible artist and huge influence to me. It was so sad and tragic how she was taken away from us so young and in the prime of her life and work. To play for the funeral was tough but an important process for me but it seemed especially important for the friends and family of Felicity. So many people afterwards came to me to say thank you for putting into music what they couldn’t find in words.  it was very touching.

In a similar way, playing on a large ensemble project in the Manchester Jazz Festival in St Ann’s Church in 2010 was a powerful concert. It was a large ensemble made up mainly of musicians who’d performed together way back in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and I hadn’t seen most of them since those days. Sadly on the first day of rehearsals we all heard the news that the drummer from those days in NYJO, Chris Dagley had been tragically killed in a car crash. We spent that week rehearsing and at the concert at the end of the week the trumpeter Neil Yates who had been commissioned to write the music dedicated one of his very beautiful tunes to Chris. It was a life changing moment.  After this I came home and wrote the music for my first trio album ‘In the Chophouse’ (the Chophouse is the pub across the road from the church where we spent a lot of our time).

More recently, some of the concerts with the duo have been amazing.  We had the chance to play in Symphony Hall in Birmingham which is a very special and beautiful venue aesthetically and acoustically  as well as some concerts in Germany (a fantastic venue in Hamburg and a concert recorded by radio Bremen) which were also memorable concerts, but my favourite from the tour was a chapel in a small town, Ashburton in Devon in the UK where people in the audience don’t get to hear jazz very often.  The acoustics are very special in this chapel and it was perfect for the duo. The audience seemed very moved by the concert. I had the same experience playing there with Ivo Neame’s Quintet a few years ago (Ivo is the pianist in ‘Phroenisis’). There seems to be something very spiritual about this particular chapel that makes me feel very ‘at one’ with my music and I’m not sure why.  Also with Ivo’s band, playing at the Binhuis in Amsterdam was an amazing experience.  That is a great venue – the sound was wonderful.

In terms of studio sessions, finally getting to record at Artesuono Studio in Udine, Italy in 2017 with Alcyona and Brigitte Beraha for ‘Criss Cross’ was a really special experience.  I’d heard about this studio for many years and to be so comfortable from the minute we started playing with Alcyona on the beautiful Fazioli piano was a dream.  Also the recording of the first album of my trio at Porcupine studios in South East London was also a great experience.  We had been playing together for so many years and to finally get in the studio with such a great sound felt like a breeze.  We spent two days just playing and playing and having great fun.  It felt great to get that special connection captured.  I love the Spanish word for recording (grabacion/grabar which almost translates as ‘to grab’). It really does feel like sometimes that you’re grabbing a moment in time and capturing it for eternity.  We’re very lucky to be involved in such a process.

In July 2017 I had the great honour of being chosen to play in the UK all star big band to perform with Hermeto Pascoal for his 80th birthday anniversary concert in the Barbican.  This was such an honour especially as I’d been listening to Hermeto since  I was a teenager and he’s been a huge influence on my music.  I wrote the tune “Hermetica’ on the new album as a dedication to him.

Over the past few years getting to play in Germany, Spain, Italy and Austria with my trio has been a fantastic experience.  Some special memories are the Sudtirol Jazz Festival (especially swimming in a lake in the mountains after the concert and having the lovely Lagrein wine form the area) and the Leibnitz Jazz and wine Festival where we played in the beautiful castle in Leibnitz in the largest wine cellar in Europe. Wine seems to be a theme for a lot of my concerts 🙂

Travelling with my music is very important to me.  It’s an honour to introduce my music to people from other countries and cultures and in turn to meet musicians from other places and learn about their music and traditions.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

TF: – My trio is very special to me as it’s the first time I finally ran my own project just playing my own compositions.  Tim and Dave on drums and bass are such a team too and we’ve been playing together for such a long time (Tim and Dave since they were in high school) it’s become a really special bond.   Over the years though my quartet with Jasper Hoiby and James Maddren was also important.  It was co lead with a guitarist, so my first experience of touring the UK and abroad and getting my material played and hearing what these great musicians would do with the structures.  Touring with Ivo Neame’s band was a great opportunity too and really pushed me as a musician and also working with the band  Fringe Magnetic many years ago.   Both these ensembles were some of the first experiences I had touring abroad getting the chance to play in the Elb jazz festival/North Sea Jazz Festivals for example.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?  

TF: – To me it doesn’t matter what structure you’re playing on as it’s what you do with that structure and how you improvise over it that creates the interest.  Whether playing original material or standards I have the same approach.  I think it’s important to get the younger generation interested in listening or/and playing jazz by going into schools to perform workshops and also playing in venues that aren’t often the standard music venue, so might reach a wider audience.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

TF: – I think I touched a little on this in an earlier question too.  I feel that music is my meditation and my therapy and I hope somehow this projects to the audience too so that they can have this experience.  When I’m playing it often feels like I reach a good place and people often say they get this feeling from meditation.  I’m not sure if the is spirit, but it’s something that feels good and at least I have a job where I’m not causing anyone any harm (at least I hope not) and hopefully sending out good vibes in the process of doing what I do 🙂  It’s a universal language and I love that about it.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

TF: – I hope to continue writing and touring and developing the various projects I lead and co lead – my trio especially but also the duo with Alcyona and the co lead band ’Solstice’ (also featuring Brigitte Beraha).  I also want to write some big band music for the London Jazz Orchestra which I’m lucky enough to be  a member of.  It’s an honour to be part of the LJO – many of the great UK musicians have composed and played for/play with the Orchestra such as Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann, Pete Hurt, Henry Lowther, Martin Speake and now Alcyona too 🙂

My only fear and anxiety would be if I could no longer play and write for any reason such as health issues.  I had this problem a few years ago when I had problems with my hands so couldn’t play for 3 months.  It made me appreciate what I do even more.  I feel it’s an honour to play and perform and I’ll never take it for granted.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

TF: – Take away all the digital formats for the way people listen to music and go back to the only means of listening being on vinyl or in live situations 🙂

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

TF: – I think the next challenge is to write the larger ensemble pieces and as always organising the next tour/album (which will be an album with my co led sextet ‘Solstice’ and another trio album), but I don’t see this as a frontier – just a great opportunity and challenge.  All of this can be tough of course in certain respects but a great opportunity too.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

TF: – Yes definitely. I think mainly the fact that all are based on a tradition where the language gets passed on from one musician to another.  Whether I go to a traditional Irish session with my violin or a jam session with my tenor, the process of picking up the language by ear will be similar.  The grammar and vocabulary may be a different one but the tradition is passed on in the same way.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days? 

TF: – I go through phases but I’m often listening to Tony Malaby and Julian Arguelles at this particular moment.  I’ve also recently started buying vinyl again (my collection sadly got destroyed many years ago including some of the records I mentioned that I listened to at an early age) so it’s been a big event to buy a turntable and start again.  It’s made me look back a little more to the tradition, buying lots of Monk, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, George Coleman, Sonny Rollins etc.  I’m really enjoying this.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

TF: – I’ve never been to New York and have always wanted to go, so maybe now’s the ideal time if you’re offering a free trip in a time machine hehe!  New York in the 60s please 🙂

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

TF: – I’d love to know more about your interest in jazz and how you got to where you are now setting up this website. Also about your readers too. I always love to know about the audience when I play – who they are, where they are based and their cultural references.

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. I began my career as a jazz critic from 2002 onwards. First there was a Facebook group: Follow us at Jazz&Blues group on FB, with more than 79, 000 followers:

Our are read a lot from the USA, Italy, Germany, UK, France, Russia, Latin, Polish, Czech and others countries …

Now our website has 38, 759 followers, and 61 000+ daily visitors (data by Google Analytics). Visitors are spread all over the world. We have editorial offices in Boston, Paris, and Yerevan (Armenia).

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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