Alex Hitchcock has found amazing jazz musicians around the world to learn from and collaborate with. Every encounter adds more depth and dimension to his playing, and still young in his career, he’s got more layers than a double lasagna.
His new CD “Live at the London and Cambridge Jazz Festivals” showcases his amazing quintet and offers exciting originals like “Gift Horse,” an initially somber piece that lets the light in with superb interplay between James Copus’s radiant flugelhorn and Alex’s thoughtful, woodsy sax. “Happy Ending” bops with attitude, the plucky bass setting the stage and again that lush unison feel between flugelhorn and sax; brought to its “happy” conclusion with two gentle chords from the piano. Sitting in with the Marc Michel Quartet, Alex plays with soul-warming beauty in “Moebius.”
When did you start playing tenor sax and why?
At around ten years old. I knew nothing about jazz but liked the sound of Coleman Hawkins, Joshua Redman and my first teacher Katie Brown, who is a bebop fiend.
Where do you go in your head when you’re playing?
It depends on the context of the gig! Part of the challenge of being a bandleader is separating the fact that you’re “running” the gig in a practical sense from the fact that you also need to be a musically focused participant. In an ideal world, it would be good to think only about the music – or at least about something meaningful like Lee Morgan getting shot onstage by his wife – but I don’t always reach that point.
Which composers and arrangers are you most aligned with?
Wayne Shorter is the place to start from a compositional standpoint. I’ve listened lots to Walter Smith III (who writes amazing music, even though he’s quoted as being pretty self-deprecating about it), Ambrose Akinmusire, Jasper Høiby, Linda May Han Oh and John Hollenbeck, whose big band writing in particular sounds nothing remotely like anything else I’ve ever heard.
How could the jazz scene where you live improve?
We’re lucky to have a flourishing scene here in London, and the standard of musicianship is very high. There’s an enterprising spirit among musicians and promoters alike which means that there are always new scenes and ventures appearing all over the place, including Jazz Re:freshed in Notting Hill, Kansas Smitty’s on Broadway Market, Total Refreshment Centre in Stoke Newington, and Tom Sankey’s Good Evening Arts series across south London. And Alex Garnett is particularly supportive of younger musicians in how he runs the late show at Ronnie Scott’s on Monday and Tuesday nights.
It’s a progressive scene, and I think one of its main strengths lies in its diversity, and more collaboration between those different elements could result in some really unique music being made, so that’s something I hope to see a bit more of.
The UK scene as a whole is making significant strides in terms of becoming more gender-balanced, which is long overdue. At the same time, a lot of media coverage of the London scene at the moment seems to obsess over genre labels, which doesn’t really happen among musicians themselves, so I’m looking forward to seeing that consigned to the dustbin of bad journalism history.
We also, as a community of musicians, need to take more responsibility for protecting and supporting grassroots nights, given the recent closure of fixtures like the Jazz Nursery and Jazz at the Oxford.
What was your role at the Green Note?
Running gigs at Green Note came to an end at the start of this year, but I programmed the monthly jazz series there for three years alongside Ronan Perrett, and the night continues to run in his capable hands.
It’s a really special venue and we were lucky to be able to bring a huge range of musicians to play from as far away as Croatia, as well as Ben van Gelder, Iain Ballamy, Robert Mitchell and Corey Mwamba, Nérija, Elliot Galvin and many other groups from the London scene. It reminds me a bit of Smalls in New York in some ways. Immy and Risa, who run the venue, have created a place that is loved by both performers and audiences. They deservedly won Time Out’s Venue of the Year in 2015.
The London scene is indebted to the previous programmers, Alexa von Hirschberg and Tom Millar, for keeping the night going for over ten years!
What was the most rewarding element of leading the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra?
Touring to Istanbul in 2013 was probably the most ambitious thing we did, along with putting on a concert hall gig featuring Laurence Cottle (Quincy Jones: “That bass player is killing”) who was incredibly generous with his time as our special guest.
Do you have an agent or do you secure all your gigs by yourself?
At the moment, I book gigs on my own. I actually found booking the gigs for my quintet’s upcoming CD tour quite a rewarding process, and it’s a learning curve as a musician to find out (through painful trial and error) which angles work for promoters and which don’t.
There’s a healthy amount of skepticism among bandleaders about PR and EPKs and all the rest but ultimately it’s geared towards making live music happen, and as long as it’s centered around creating work for other musicians as well as just yourself, I think it’s justified.
“Gift Horse” has a nice counterpoint with sax and trumpet. Is this something typical of your compositions?
Actually, most of my writing for the quintet relies on sax and trumpet in unison to create a kind of glassy, synth-like distinguishing feature. I hope that this contributes to defining the band’s sound.
For our more recent repertoire in particular, I was interested in finding simple, singable diatonic melodies and combining them with more complex, shifting harmonic terrain underneath, influenced by Weather Report and Django Bates.
What inspired that song?
The full title of that tune is “Never Kick a Gift Horse in the Teeth” which is a combination of two expressions, and a misunderstanding of the well-known phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Apparently when people used to buy horses they would work out how old they were by sizing up their teeth, and it would obviously be ungrateful to do this if the horse were a gift.
Most recent CD and what was the best part of producing it?
We recorded our first CD “Live at the London and Cambridge Jazz Festivals” as a quintet during those festivals in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and the results will be available in May this year as a self-released EP.
James Copus (trumpet/flugelhorn), Will Barry (piano), Joe Downard (bass) and Jay Davis (drums) are a brilliantly creative group of musicians, and we’ve had a great time together as a band. Touring Hungary and Poland last year felt like going on holiday.
I’m proud of how the CD sounds. I think that warmth and sense of togetherness comes across really well in the live recordings. We were lucky to have both gigs sold out so the atmosphere on the recordings is great and superbly captured by the wonderful Viktor Volarić-Horvat, who did a fantastic job of recording, mixing and mastering the whole thing.
Our music sounds quite different now and the repertoire has changed quite a lot, but I’m pleased to have been able to document a snapshot of the band’s development from one year to the next. We were very lucky to be given permission by the artist Gina Southgate to use a painting she made of us playing live at Jazz in the Round in London as the cover art, so the end product looks fantastic.
Favorite track on it?
The soloing from Will and James on “Context” probably makes it my favorite track. There’s space for them to stretch out and take the tune to some unexpected harmonic places.
What country would you like to perform in?
Japan. I’ve heard there’s a very well-developed touring scene and some incredibly well-informed collectors who have the most obscure records you could think of.
There’s a really fascinating history of how jazz was popularized in the country, and how a music that developed in black America became celebrated in Japan even while they were at war with the US in the 1930s and ’40s. There seems to be a huge range of interest, too, with as much enthusiasm for bebop as there is for fusion, and ECM has a distribution arm there now.
Most unusual venue ever?
I once played inside a children’s soft play area in Barking called The Idol that had been specially designed for the Abbey Leisure Centre by Turner Prize-nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. I was balanced on a rope ladder with the trombonist Nathaniel Cross, playing accompanying music for a play starring local children that had been commissioned for the installation’s unveiling.
A musical colleague told me about a gig where she had to play saxophone in a huge novelty-sized martini glass on a raised plinth wearing a cocktail dress, which I thought sounded a bit objectifying, but I haven’t experienced any demand for those kinds of gigs yet.
How would you describe your sound and how long to develop it?
The ideal Frankenstein saxophone sound would combine the focus and clarity of someone like Joshua Redman with the color and depth of Coleman Hawkins, and maybe the articulation of Cannonball Adderley. It’s not for me to comment on my own sound but I’ve found that a practice routine that involves singing through the horn while sustaining a note in the extreme registers at the same time has helped me get closer to where I want to be.
What genres would you like to explore?
I’m playing this week with the French producer and DJ Fred Bwelle (aka Neue Grafik) at La Petite Halle in Paris. Fred combines elements of the Parisian electronic scene with UK garage and broken beat, and also explained one of his recent compositions to me with reference to John Coltrane’s soprano playing on “My Favorite Things.”
I’m perhaps less naturally at home in this context but there’s a strong jazz thread running through his music that I can hang onto. It’s important to do your research to ensure an absence of assumptions when approaching different music – in the same way as if someone coming from, say, a pop background thought they’d immediately be able to sound good over “Confirmation,” I’d instinctively be a bit suspicious. But it would be nice to do more of that kind of playing with Fred and others.
Plans for this year?
I’m excited about some gigs in London and Cambridge with US tenor hero Chris Cheek, UK linchpin Simon Woolf, and the formidable Lyon-based drummer Marc Michel, as well as gigs in Barcelona, Lyon and London with Marc and the inimitable Spanish trumpeter Félix Rossy, son of Jorge.
I also can’t wait to tour to France and Spain with jazz-funk powerhouse Resolution 88, and to take my own quintet on a 14-date UK tour ranging from Edinburgh to Cornwall, after which we’ll be recording our debut album in the summer.
Our CD launch is at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on May 14th, and you can also pick it up on Bandcamp.
For more information, visit www.alexhitchcock.co.uk.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Alex Hitchcock. CD cover by artist Gina Southgate. Top photo (c) Gareth Millar; second photo (c) Lisa Wormsley.
© Debbie Burke 2018