Interview with Jake Mcmurchie: Only that music is a force for good: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Jake Mcmurchie. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Jake Mcmurchie: – I was born in London but moved to Bristol when my parents divorced (I was 9 years old). My dad had always been a fanatical jazz fan and around the age of 15 I borrowed some of his records, mostly ones where I recognised the covers. I remember listening to Basie meets Ellington and Black Market by Weather Report and, though I hadn’t heard them since I was 5 or 6 years old, I knew them note for note. So I borrowed some more. A friend lent “It’s Okay to listen to the Gray Voice” by Jan Garbarek to me, and the Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett. A school friend lent me Courtney Pine’s first album. I just kept going.

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


JM: – Around the same time that I (re)discovered jazz there was a jazz revival in the UK and Bristol had a particularly fertile scene with musicians like Keith Tippett, Paul Dunmall, and Andy Sheppard all playing regularly in the city. The latter was on particularly stunning form at the time and it was seeing him at a great local club called the Albert Inn that made me think “That’s what I want to do”. So I persuaded my mum to buy me a saxophone, a lovely silver alto, and I started playing. I didn’t have much in the way of tuition. A great local saxophonist called Mark Langford set me on the path of improvising, but from then on I just played. I’d go to jam sessions, sit in on local gigs, play with anyone who would have me. These were the days before jazz education became institutional and it was all about learning on the bandstand.

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


JM: – Long notes and overtones! I’ve always tried to practice tone production. I transcribed solos, particularly Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, George Coleman. I tried to emulate the sound of players whose sound I loved, like John Coltrane, Jan Garbarek, Wayne Shorter. I played in bands, attended jam sessions. I got together with musicians who were better than me and played with them. I listened a lot.

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


JM: – I don’t practice much these days, but when I do I play with a metronome. Mostly I practice with other musicians. Rhythm is about finding where the pulse sits and working out where you want to play in relation to it, which is determined as much by the musicians you’re playing with as by the metronome.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?


JM: – That’s very kind of you! I suppose I’d describe myself as a melodist, and melody has evolved from consonance to dissonance, historically speaking at least. So, in a sense, dissonance is relative, and I think can have more impact if one starts with harmony and uses dissonance as a device for building tension. And I approach improvisation in a linear way – every note is a conscious decision, a consequence of or reaction to the last. In that sense, I’m not sure if I employ harmonic patterns, I’m just trying to construct a line that makes sense and is leading somewhere. And hopefully has some inner beauty. That last bit is the tricky bit…

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?


JM: – I’m the other way round: I hope to bring as many colours as possible to what I’m doing. I listen to many different styles of music and think musicians shouldn’t be constrained by stylistic rules. Be aware of the rules, learn how to abide by them, sure, but not constrained by them. It’s just a shame I’m inevitably a prisoner of my own (bad) habits!

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


JM: – Such a good question. All I can say as an improvisor is that I feel I should use as much intellect as possible to try to understand why I play what I play and how I would like to progress, but when I’m performing I leave all that behind and just play. That’s where the soul comes into it.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?


JM: – It depends what you mean by giving them what they want. I’m always conscious that a performance is for an audience, that they’ve made the effort to get to the gig and have (usually) paid to listen, but I’m also conscious that they’ve come to see me do what we do, that they want to see us give our all and produce great music in doing so, so I always try to do that as best I can.

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


JM: – I did a recording session once where I hadn’t heard the track, didn’t know the key, had no guidance as to what the composer wanted. I asked to listen through, I played a little, tried to find what might work, made a few mistakes. When the track had finished I told the engineer I was ready, and was told that they had it, thanks. Basically, they really liked my fumbling around. It was a real lesson in spontaneity and playing without inhibition.

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


JM: – As someone who is nearly half a century old himself, I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that question! but I think if the music is delivered honestly and true to jazz’s inherent spirit – that of embracing all styles of music, including modern music – then young people will find it.

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


JM: – Funnily enough, I saw the John Scheinfeld documentary “Chasin’ Trane” a couple of days ago. It’s a beautiful insight into the great man, both as a musician but also as a person. I think he expressed his understanding of those concepts through his music, and I’ll always defer to him.

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


JM: – That more people would listen to music, appreciate it as the life and soul of us all and particularly the musicians who make it, and – most important – attend live concerts. Very little beats it.

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


JM: – All sorts. I’ve been listening to Coltrane again, particularly the albums with Miles Davis from the late ‘50s, but also some of his later albums, Crescent, Interstellar Space, etc. I’ve discovered (or discovered a proper appreciation for) Tangerine Dream and some of the early German electronic music pioneers. I’ve found myself listening to Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” again. I’ve been enjoying the new Low album. And Talking Heads. And Stan Getz. And Colin Stetson.

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?


JM: – Only that music is a force for good. There are so many things, people, corporations, media that are trying to put forward a “message”. For me, music is important because it takes us somewhere else – a higher plane, out of ourselves, away from the mundanity of modern life, whatever you want to call it, it takes us somewhere else, in a way that’s not simply escapism.

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

JM: – I read somewhere once that the innovations of technology and modern life have started to take us backwards in terms of happiness and contentment, in the UK anyway. And that we reached peak happiness in 1976. So I’d like to travel back to London in 1976, work out what it was like and bring it forward. Also there was a lot of bloody good music happening in London in 1976…

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


JM: – Ha! Probably the most important question of all: what’s for lunch?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Cup and kebab!!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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