Rhythmically boppy with unexpected chord changes and thick strands of textures, the UK’s Philip Clouts Quartet is accessible and joyous. As an example, the song “Umoya” shows its optimism with an ever-present sax noodling throughout, piano subtly giving it a foundation, and multi-dimensional rhythm urging us forward. The joy is easy to spot.
Frontman Clouts’ musical journey started in South Africa where he was born. Though he moved to the UK as a baby, the African influences seeped in.
What was your first experience with piano?
When I was about five years old, a family friend who was leaving the country gave my family her piano. My two older brothers began taking piano lessons and when I heard a piece they were playing that I liked, I sat down and played it by ear, and then made up some things of my own. I loved the sound of the piano and the wide range of notes to play. Later on, I was very struck when I heard jazz pianist Stan Tracey’s spiky, very physical solo piano playing on a television program, and I realized jazz would be an important direction for me.
Have you ever composed to your father’s poetry?
My father Sydney Clouts was a poet whose work captured the South African landscape. I was born in Cape Town and although I came over to London with my family as a young child, I grew up hearing the music of my homeland as my parents had brought their favorite records with them.
I really like and respect my father’s work but I haven’t yet set any of it to music. Interestingly a South African composer, Hans Roosenschoon, has done a choral setting of my father’s poem “Firebowl.” I think one day I might do a performance that alternates readings from Sydney’s book One Life with my pieces.
You talk about African influences that include Township jazz, please explain.
Townships were the poor, black residential areas created under the apartheid regime in South Africa. Marabi was a music form which had developed in these, and the addition of influences from American jazz led to what is referred to as Township Jazz which usually has simple harmonies and very resonant melodies.
Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s piece “Mannenberg” was a breakthrough hit in that style, and all of his music has been a major influence on me, along with many others including pianist/big band leader Chris McGregor and trumpeter Hugh Masekela.
In the 1980’s when I was starting out in earnest as a pianist, there were many exiled South African musicians living in London. Some, like Dudu Pukwana, the great saxophonist, had come over in the 1960’s as my own family had done, with the Blue Notes who became celebrated for their vibrant music. But there were others from a younger generation, including drummers Brian Abrahams and Thebe Lipere and for me, the pianist Bheki Mseleku who was a great source of inspiration and who mentored me for a short while.
I have felt a direct emotional connection with this music from an early age, and I often find that when sitting at the piano my inspiration comes from that source. I think in pieces like “Direction South” and “Umoya” on my latest album you can hear that clearly; but more subliminally I think it comes across a lot in my writing, so I felt very complimented when critic Stephen Graham said of my music “there’s a Township twist hardwired into the sound especially built from bass guitar up, that makes it a signature Clouts sound.”
Versatility to play klezmer. What is the main characteristic of the genre and why do you like it?
Thinking about it now, I guess klezmer is another music where you have a strong, rootsy harmony and a powerful heartfelt melody, often tinged with a plaintive feeling. I like that the literal meaning of the word klezmer is “vessels of song.” It is a folk form that has distinctively evolved with influence from jazz over many years.
Yes, I’ve played some klezmer in my time, often in collaboration with fiddler Chris Haigh. If I think back over my compositions I think you can definitely hear some klezmer in “Clef Mona” on my “Hour of Pearl” album, and perhaps more recently in my piece “Amor.”
When was Zubop and its spinoff formed?
Zubop was formed in 1986 when I met sax player Ricky Edwards and he introduced me to his fellow horn section players Jon Petter and Will Embliss. We shared a love of Township music and an openness to many other world musics and spent many hours jamming and composing together. We released four CDs and toured extensively including performances at WOMAD and Glastonbury Festivals, with Duncan Noble on bass and Sean Randle on drums.
In 2001 we started collaborating with Gambian master musicians Juldeh Camara and Njega Sohna, and within a couple of years we had expanded to a nine-piece band which became ZubopGambia. We released an album which was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s in London and did a lot more touring including a gig at Birmingham Symphony Hall.
Over time, the nine of us have become ridiculously widely spread geographically so performing together isn’t really viable at the moment.
Your favorite jazz artists, living or passed?
Pianists Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau have been long time favorites, as have guitarists Pat Metheney and John Scofield, and I also love bassist Avishai Cohen’s music. All the South African jazz artists mentioned earlier plus saxophonist Joe Malinga who was perhaps less well-known. There’s a lot of great music coming out of South Africa now. I’ve recently been listening to Thandi Ntuli. And I like listening to Latin American players like Michel Camilo and Leo Blanco.
What themes inspire you when you compose?
Almost too varied to mention. I had an interesting period when I was composing music for the “Hour of Pearl” album when I was improvising vocally on an Indian harmonium over a drone (two notes fixed in one key), which I then continued at the piano. It meant I could get very deeply into the music and led to about three pieces which share a tonal center, although they developed with very different grooves.
For the title track of the latest album “Umoya” I was interested to stretch a musical idea I had which was firmly rooted in Township jazz, so I pushed it further into modal jazz territory to mix things up a bit.
Listening widely to different sorts of music also opens windows into new areas. My latest compositions have included Nigerian Afrobeat rhythms, Moroccan Gnawa music and even inspirations from European folk-in my piece “Taranto” I have used the bright sound of southern Italian tarantella as a starting point, bringing in denser harmonies to intensify the musical journey of the listener.
Is your region of the UK jazz-friendly?
There is a lot of jazz in the southwest of England, though it is wider spread than in an urban center like London. There is a thriving multi-arts scene in my area and I have contributed in a small way by starting some regular jazz nights in local arts centers (in Bridport and Lyme Regis), featuring a variety of both local artists and national touring bands.
Talk about the personnel in the quartet, and what strengths each musician brings.
On alto and soprano saxophones we have Samuel Eagles. I love the way he uses the whole range of the sax, his sense of phrasing is unique, and apart from being a great jazz player he also brings his experience of Afrobeat on the London scene.
Bassist Alex Keen is someone I’ve been playing with from early on in my career. By chance we were playing on the same gig once, and we immediately clicked. His sense of groove is really strong but also bouncy which really lifts the music.
Drummer David Ingamells has phenomenal technique which he always puts in service of whatever the music needs at any moment. He can go from total sensitivity to powerhouse in an instant. That’s very inspiring.
Favorite place to perform and why?
Ronnie Scott’s in London. It has a great piano, intimate atmosphere and when you step on stage you’re somehow sharing a space with all the great artists who have played there.
Plans through the end of 2017?
The quartet is currently doing a tenth anniversary tour of the UK, including one of the places we played on our debut tour. We’re playing music from “Umoya” and also some newer material including a blues inspired by the biram, a five-stringed harp from Eastern Niger.
How do you wish to grow your music in 2018?
More writing, more playing, always looking to push the boundaries and enter new areas!
For more information, visit http://www.philipcloutsquartet.co.uk.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© Debbie Burke 2017