As Natural as Air, with Great Color: Tommy Andrews


Tommy Andrews 1

There’s a “laggy” feel to Tommy Andrews’ “Crystal Car.” His alto sax soars wide and lazy like a bird that’s in no hurry. And there’s a certain held-back quality of “Toscana,” where the keys are rolling in the background. Yet Tommy can also punch out those double-time rhythms and offer complex beats. The common thread is a soft cottony one. Tommy has an ease that makes the sax an extension of his physical body. He breathes/it breathes, and melodiously so.

At what age did you know you wanted to play woodwind?

A music course that my parents were running had instrumental demonstrations throughout the week, with a different family every day. I was six at the time. On the woodwind day, the clarinet coach Phil Rawnson noticed that I had an instant affinity with the clarinet, and coerced my parents into getting me an instrument (and getting lessons with him!). My entire family plays brass so I was happy to buck the trend! 

Your favorite sax musicians through time and why?

This is hard! I’ll go for those who have shaped my musical existence and continue to inspire me today. This doesn’t include all the amazing sax players that I get to play with every week, who inspire me just as much. [Tommy offered a beautiful explanation of how each has inspired him, which follows below, after the main article.]

Charlie Parker; Sonny Rollins; Lee Konitz; John Coltrane; Michael Brecker; Dick Oatts; Wayne Shorter; Joe Lovano; Chris Potter; Will Vinson.

Favorite venues in the UK? Outside of the UK?

For jazz, it has to be the Con Cellar Bar in London. Amazing vibe, loyal and appreciative audiences and you’re right on top of the crowd! It’s intimate, and that’s where live jazz thrives. Abroad, I really enjoyed playing in Cantina Benvoglio for a few days in Bologna. Great food and super-sized gin and tonics! Europe sure beats the hell out of the U.K. when it comes to respect from audiences and looking after musicians.

Place you always wanted to perform?

I’d love to perform in the U.S. I’m also a climber, so I’d love to perform in the mountains sometime! I’d also like to try taking on a tour in Europe with my quintet soon.

One of my last compositions is based on Jupiter’s moons, so I reckon that we should play that in an observatory.

How does a gig for musical theater differ from a live jazz performance?

For me, playing in a show is all about accuracy and constantly trying to do a better job than the night before. Going in there and consistently ‘nailing’ the pad so that the paying audiences are experiencing the same great product every night. I want to do the best ‘job’ possible.

For a jazz gig, it’s more likely that an audience is there to hear something new and creative. They have the chance to experience music that will be played only once in that particular way, and then never again (pretty magical, huh?). With this in mind, I try to make sure I’m fully in the moment, reactive to the players around me and performing in a way that’s fully representative of the mood in the room. Sometimes I get wrapped up in a kind of meditative trance if the band is connecting musically. It’s a very enhanced form of chamber music.

What’s the most important element of being a good coach? 

Treating every student on an individual basis. It’s actually engrossing to discover how every single student learns most effectively and then teaching them how best to teach themselves.

Creating strong foundations both instrumentally and musically. Building a student’s ability from the ground up will give them a greater appreciation for the music and how it all works. This immediately allows them to connect to it on levels beyond sound alone. A strong affinity with their instrument not only allows greater progress, but improves their scope to become an improviser and feel the instrument as an extension of themselves.

The application of any knowledge is really important to me. What use is musical knowledge without using it to write or improvise music? It would be like teaching a kid what colors can be created mixing different paints, but never letting them experiment with it on the canvas.

Listening. Would we give a British/American child a French textbook and expect them to obtain a legitimate accent just from reading the words on the page? It wouldn’t happen. They need to hear it from the source. It’s the same with music. Music is a language, so it relies upon imitation and assimilation before any innovation can take place (per Clark Terry) so I’ll always provide ways for this to happen. Promoting concert-going is also important, so that any prospective young musician can see an end product to their hard work.

What do students most ask about technique?

It depends on their level. It can range from “Sir, why is it all screechy?” to talking about extended techniques and everything in between.

When you compose, do you immediately hear it for the sax, clarinet, or…?

I hear and compose most of my music on the piano or vocally. As my piano playing is mediocre at best, it means that my creativity isn’t stunted by muscle memory or other playing habits. Everyone with writer’s block should try composing on a more foreign instrument and see what happens.

I switch instruments in my compositions to create new colors as well as utilize their different ranges. The sonorities are different even in similar ranges so it allows lots of flexibility. I use the clarinet a lot when I need to subtly float above textures or when the texture is stripped down to just duo. There are also some moments in my newer works that are more contemporary classical than jazz and it suits that perfectly.

What technique do you feel you have to develop more, and why?

I’d like to develop my extended techniques on my instruments, such as double/triple tonguing so that I have more tools in my arsenal both for improvised and contemporary written music. I’d also like to develop my arranging/orchestrating for larger ensembles such as big bands and orchestras. 

I also need to develop a better technique when it comes to organizing and running my group. Since the album launch and having a child, it has become a bit more of a side-project and I’d like to bring it to the fore again. Technique in hustling for gigs and funding is something that should be taught at music college as it’s pretty important.

Your sense of adventure like rock-climbing – does it inspire you musically?

Everything inspires my music, to some degree. My adventurousness definitely plays a part in my writing and I am drawn towards odd combinations of phrase lengths as well as choosing harmonies and melodies for their sound rather than their function. 

The outdoors is where I feel most at home, so it inspires not only my music but my approach towards everyday life which obviously then infuses into my composition. I’m the kind of guy who will see an amazing peak or natural feature and decide that I WILL get up there and explore instead of wondering HOW I will. Over-thinking can sometimes stunt my writing, so I try to follow my instincts and block out any voices in my head that would pin me down. 

 “Toscana” sounds like a journey. What were you trying to capture with that song?

Thanks for listening to it. Here’s a breakdown of the tune:

I composed “Toscana” in a way that the musical almost unveiled itself as I went along, rather than piecing different things together. It’s one of the only tunes of mine that has a classic A-B-A-Coda form which is why it perhaps has a nice direction and sense of beginning/middle/end. I think having a memorable melody that travels through different moments of tension and release creates a sense of a character journeying through a series of twists and turns.

Talk about your quintet and what each person brings in terms of sound and texture.

Nick Costley-White (guitar) has such a wonderful way of spanning the history of jazz. He has a great knowledge and appreciation of the music so he can tap into approaches from any jazz era and add his own spin on it. I find his playing very deep and searching. The soundscape that I write for him is so beautifully played that I’m in danger of putting it in every tune. I write a lot of unison lines for Nick and I, so that the guitar and saxophone mesh into one instrument (listen to “Sirens” and “Steep” for examples of this).

Rick Simpson (piano) has this ability to always surprise me, and this means that every gig has me excited to hear what he is going to bring to the table. Rick can create incredible sonic landscapes that are rich and quasi-impressionistic, then suddenly play something that has me giggling! 

Dave Manington (bass) is the clan elder (though he probably looks the fittest and youngest!). Dave’s music and playing has inspired me since I moved to London. I listened to his album “Headrush” quite a lot, which features Tim Giles, Ivo Neame and Mark Hanslip. Dave is a very precise bass player, and is so good at switching roles between holding everyone together by playing quite obvious grooves and then playing around interactively with Dave on the drums. Not only is Dave’s playing amazing, but he is a role model for me in terms of writing and putting out an album. His experience was invaluable during “The Crux.” He also inspires me as a father, able to juggle a successful creative career with his family as well as compete in triathlons!

Dave Hamblett (drums) is one of the U.K.’s top drummers. To have him involved is such a privilege when he’s also on everyone else’s hit-list. My music has him doing everything from delicate brush-work and ballads to full-on rock shred in crazy time-signatures and he just excels at anything I throw at him. 

All of the guys are brilliant bandleaders and composers in their own right, so I’d urge anyone to check their music out too. 

How do you alter your presence and strength from big band to smaller ensemble?

I get to play a lot of lead alto in big bands, which gives me so much scope for directing the sound of the section. The thing I love about this is listening to whatever is going on, and trying to assume the most appropriate role for the section. This could be supporting or accompanying a soloist with a warm shimmer, creating energy and drive in rhythmic passages or letting rip with vocal-like expression in a section soli. 

It’s so engaging for me as I constantly listen to everything around me, trying to slot into the areas that need support, or poking out of the texture with phrases of interest. Good big band playing is all about teamwork and as soon as that gets lost, it just becomes egotistical noise. The London City Big Band is one of my favorite big bands to play with. We’ve played for so long together and pride ourselves on tight, dynamic playing.

The Andrew Linham Jazz Orchestra’s stated goal per your website is to dispel that ‘both jazz and hope are dead.’ Do you think jazz has been snubbed in mainstream culture?

I can’t pretend that I have a universally correct answer for this, but I can try and shed some light on it from my own experience.

If Andrew’s orchestra is anything to go by, then he is trying to bring back the playfulness and inclusiveness of jazz. Perhaps it has become too self-indulgent, to a degree where only the schooled have a chance of appreciating it. Jazz perhaps scares off the mainstream by barraging them with music that has no sonic “handrails” (devices that create cohesiveness and structure) for them to feel guided by. In the U.K., jazz is also woefully funded which means that any publicity in the mainstream sphere is inaccessible to most of us not championed by the few remaining funding organizations and publications.

Venues can’t pay the musicians appropriately so a lot of us turn to the commercial sectors (theater/sessions/pop/functions) to pay the bills and jazz becomes a hobby. Those of us who are lucky enough to be busy can take time out in order to tour, play the clubs and smaller venues knowing that we have work on the horizon. However, it must be so difficult to make a living just from original jazz.

I think that jazz is struggling to compete with diminishing attention spans. So many of the great recordings, and the best gigs will feature music and solos that are crafted to take the listener on an amazing journey that only makes sense in its entirety. Mainstream pop is full of two- to three-minute songs, mostly listened to on devices that offer instant access to almost every album so people can just switch tracks and artists at whim. It’s hard to expect people to engage with 10-minute tracks and full albums. 

When you arrange for a horn section, how does it differ from arranging for your quintet?

Arranging for a horn section is great fun. Inspired by the great Jerry Hey, I try to enhance what is already there, rather than put an overwhelming stamp over the music. It’s about finding the gaps where the horns won’t distract from the song and lyrics, rather creating an extra punch or warmth to a song.

This then hopefully leads to the horn lines becoming something special in their own right, instead of something that’s there for the sake of it. Usually I will keep a track on repeat and sing ideas in the gaps before sketching them out and playing them.  

Do you switch instruments within a song, and if so, what is that adjustment like?

In musical theater, this happens all the time. I find no real difficulty in this unless I’m going from a very tight single-reed embouchure (high sustained clarinet, for example) to quiet and exposed flute playing. The adjustment is something that can be practiced, but a tired face on a two-show day can result in slight unfocused flute playing! 

Current projects in production?

I’m looking to record my next album. The compositions are all ready to go so it’s a case of procuring the funding for it. I’ve also been writing some saxophone choir arrangements of my favorite prog-rock instrumentals so I would also like to record some and see how they sound.

I also am keen to do some more qualifications in the outdoor sector (mountain leadership) and in the Alexander Technique. 

Goals for your music in 2018?

Keep writing! It’s really easy to let this fall by the wayside when I’m busy with playing work and being a Dad. I need to schedule some writing time to keep my creative muscles strong and up to scratch. 

Try to have more regular gigs with my quintet. Venues book so far in advance that even a few months of slack on a bandleader’s part can result in big dry patches for a band. I’ve definitely been slack since my son was born so I need to get back on it.

I do a lot of writing and arranging for my groups at school too, so I’m trying to find a way to publish some of that. I’ve probably done around 40-50 so it seems silly not to try and utilize their potential!

Other comments?

I’m so fortunate to be able to do what I do, so I want to thank everyone who has supported me and continues to do so. It can be such a brilliant way to live when everything is balanced just right.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Tommy Andrews.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

TOMMY ANDREWS: Musing Upon the Masters

Charlie Parker – There’s not much I can say about Bird that hasn’t been said, but for me, it’s his soaring tone, freedom, playfulness and the incredible way in which his playing still sounds fresh and pioneering today. ‘”Bird is Free” encapsulates the aforementioned qualities, and the recordings with Lennie Tristano are a really amazing meeting of two approaches.

Sonny Rollins – Sonny always surprises me, and I love that. He didn’t just hold a firm grasp on the be-bop tradition from a ridiculously young age but he continually explored and re-invented himself. This was both in the short-term (within a solo or record) and across his entire career. Where other tenor players would struggle to keep with the new trends, Sonny just kept seeking new versions of himself. I always go back to his trio live at the Vanguard and ‘The Bridge.’

Lee Konitz – My first and second years at music college took me through a Konitz binge! Konitz (along with Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano) went off on this incredible tangent towards incredibly intellectual and dense language, partnered with motivic creativity. His understated tone is always a refreshing contrast to the predominant be-bop players and his phrases could become an unpredictable journey towards unknown release points, through enclosures and chromaticism.

John Coltrane – When I first got my saxophone, I received loads of new CD’s and books to check out. One was a John Coltrane compilation CD, a best of his Atlantic output. I got hooked! He had an amazing control of color. Tracks like “Giant Steps,” “Moment’s Notice,” “Like Sonny” and “My Shining Hour” had this incredible brightness that brought me so much joy, whereas his ballad playing could just stop me dead in my tracks with its poise and depth of emotion. I also love the musical journey he took through his career, and hearing how he was taking risks with new approaches even on the recording sessions. 

Michael Brecker – Brecker took what I loved about Trane and hit the turbo button! Intense tone, flawless technique across the instrument, control of color and bags of emotion. 

I met Michael and Randy when I was a kid. My dad and I used to listen to the Brecker Brothers on the school run, and we went to see them play. Upon walking in to pick up our tickets, they were both sitting in the café in plain view. My dad isn’t the most confident chap so he decided to push me towards them instead! I remember Michael being so kind and generous, and he signed the back of a “reserved” notice from Ronnie Scott’s which already had Randy’s signature on it. Pretty cool! 

Dick Oatts – He not only has an amazing tone and approach to the ‘language’, but he manages to span two of my favorite worlds: big band and small band jazz. His lead playing with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band inspires me greatly as does his improvising work on one of my favorite saxophone albums, “Saxology” (with Jerry Bergonzi).

Wayne Shorter – Wayne manages to keep me on my toes with his playing and writing. Every time I go back to his albums I’ll find something new, whether it’s something interactive with his incredible quartet or a piece of writing that I haven’t appreciated before. Masterpieces like “Speak no Evil” are objectively important in jazz history, but it’s albums like “Alegria” that astound me with his composing.

Joe Lovano – Joe’s sound and approach are so unique. It’s exhilarating and beautiful. I’ll never sound like him and there’s not a huge amount of his playing in mine, but his honesty and creativity make me ask important questions about my own playing.

Chris Potter – I first got into Chris Potter through the Dave Holland album “Prime Directive.” He’s pretty peerless when it comes to instrumental facility and execution of musical ideas. His writing is also world-class. His albums range from acoustic quartets and electric small groups, through to more produced and multi-layered works.

Will Vinson – I went through a “Vinson” phase at college. I aspired towards his cutting clean tone, articulation and fluency. Will has an amazing time-feel and facility. When he came to London, we’d all go and watch, and his gig at Charlie Wright’s club with Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of the most outrageous live gigs I’ve ever been to. One thing to stress with all of these players is that whilst their studio recording output is so incredible, I’ll always favor their live recordings and going out to see them live so find all the bootlegs you can and go see them if they are still playing!


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