The Gleam in His Eye – The Music of James Brady

James Brady 2

You start with a hot little hook and invoke a tiny rhythmic homage to Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas” – how can you go wrong? James Brady jumps into his “Everybody Has a Plan” with a masterful trumpet, accompanied by fantastic grooving from the bass (Edwin Ireland), light-as-air percussion by Matt Parkinson and a joyful harmony from Alex Hitchcock on sax. This song (with a snarky subtitle: … “Until you get punched in the face”) is from one of Brady’s ensembles, a quartet called Vesperados.

In “Manhattan” (by his biggest band, Voyagers), the bass bops through a sweet backbone and drums keep the tune hopping, while several brass players (trumpet, trombone) and saxes fill it out with cheery syncopation (outstanding solo from soprano sax); the tune includes a neon-psychedelic overlay from electric piano.

Another band, Highwalk, swings mightily in “Mike’s Blues.” The guitar funks it up, and when Brady enters on horn, you just want to strut around that room.

Overall the Brady sound is hip and light, yet layered (never bogged down), and brings each technician to the fore in generous solos. He’s working on a new noir program that sounds exciting and enticing. And, just announced — he’s the new winner of the 2018 Eddie Harvey Award for jazz!

What was your first instrument?

The Irish tin whistle! I had some group lessons when I was around six, then the teacher left. Since I never practiced it, I (and my parents) didn’t believe I would really learn an instrument seriously and in subsequent years I wasn’t allowed to take up the drums or the electric guitar because they would be “too noisy” (there was no fooling my mum and dad about my intentions!). Later, aged 11, my class was shown a video of Glenn Miller’s band which really fired me up to try the saxophone. The school didn’t have any left in stock so my attentions turned to the trombone, but someone said it was “really hard and the trumpet was easier.” So I took up the trumpet.

Although neither of my parents played instruments there was always tons of great music playing in our house – Joni Mitchell, Ry Cooder, Louis Jordan, Aaron Copland, The Chieftains – so I got a good start in my listening. Once I picked up the trumpet, music seemed to just click for me and quickly became my main interest.

How does your teaching inform your playing style or the appearance of new ideas?

Teaching has been a great way to develop a deeper understanding of how to play the trumpet as well as rounding out my musicianship in general. As well as teaching brass instruments, I teach musicianship and composition in small groups, which has led me to research methods in topics like sight-singing, rhythmic training and collaborative composition.

I’ve noticed really big improvements in my own practice, playing and writing as a result. In order to teach something, I have to understand it in a rounded way, so I’m constantly learning more about the language of music.

I teach my students to learn, interpret and remember music by ear (as well as understand notation) including complex theoretical ideas, which is not something that was much of a feature of my early schooling, and it’s helped me to join up a lot of ideas in my head and put them into practice more fluently.

Is jazz viewed differently around the world- since you have played in China, Italy, Spain, Hungary and others?

I only get a snapshot, but I think in some ways yes, in some no. For many people, jazz seems to represent personal freedom – this seems especially true in places which have a recent history of authoritarianism, like some parts of Eastern Europe. For a lot of musicians though, it seems to be a kind of international language of musicianship – you can signal your seriousness as a musician across the globe by playing good rhythm changes!

What is your hometown jazz scene like?

I live in London, which is packed with jazz musicians from all over the world right now, so there’s a huge range of players and styles out there.

The best thing is that you can go out and see high-quality music-making of a million different kinds any night of the week. The worst is that the cost of living is so high almost everyone feels rushed and it’s hard to take time out to work on something new, especially if it’s commercially risky. As a composer, though, I know I can get pretty much any instrument or style of player I need with just a couple of phone calls as long as I’ve got the cash.

You have a few bands, so how would you summarize what sets each one apart?

I’m pretty restless so I’m always flipping from project to project. At the moment I’m trying to focus on composing for larger ensembles, so I’ve got a pool of musicians I can call on for big band and other large-format projects. At one end of the scale, we just did a Christmas show in Walthamstow, NE London, which London Jazz News called “a Christmassy triumph” (which was nice); and at the other, we’re trying to put together a one-day festival of original big band music in the summer along with some other London big bands.

I guess what distinguished my big band music from other peoples’ is that I’m obsessed with musical counterpoint – I rarely write just one melody when I can layer up with others. I’ve been very influenced not just by studying Baroque and classical counterpoint, but also by Brazilian and African music, where the lines seem never to end, just get passed from one instrument to another. I’ve also just written a piece for Jambone, a youth jazz ensemble run out of the Sage Gateshead, which will be premiered at the Gateshead Jazz Festival in April, and another of my pieces will be performed in a special concert by a London big band in March (but I’m not allowed to talk about this yet…).

My main small band project is Vesperados, which is based around me on trumpet, Alex Hitchcock on tenor sax, Edwin Ireland on bass and Matt Parkinson on drums/percussion, with occasional other guests. This group is a chance to explore my interests in African, Caribbean and Latin American music in a smaller, looser format. Recently we’ve only gotten together a few times a year, but we’re currently looking forward to a run of gigs at the end of March in London and Cambridge. Our gigs seem to range from really intimate and low-key to raucous dance-fests, so there’s no telling which way these will go!

About Mode9: would you consider this experimental or next-next-gen?

Hah! What is next-next-gen? Mode9 is all about grooves and looking for hip textures to support Ollie Lepage-Dean’s sweet-toned voice. It’s especially fun for me because I get to play synth (and even occasionally solo) and percussion as well as trumpet, and we get to dig into those nasty neo-soul grooves inspired by people like Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway and Steely Dan. So it’s rooted in music which is already out there, but trying to find a unique sound at the same time.

Where does your mind go when you’re improvising?

I’m usually focused on the substance of the music, and listening to the other musicians. Sometimes I find it helpful to picture what I’m playing in notation. I wouldn’t normally think in terms of emotions or a story, if that’s what you mean.

For me, becoming an improvising musician is about getting musical language into your head so that you can ‘speak’ music fluently – once you’re there it doesn’t need translating into words for it to have meaning. Jazz is a good example of a shared language among musicians – it has its own grammar (e.g. chords, scales, ways of ending a tune) and vocabulary (phrases, styles of phrasing, tunes).

If that sounds confusing, imagine you’re learning a foreign language. At first, you translate everything in your head into your native tongue, but if you immerse yourself in the new language for long enough you eventually start thinking in it without translation. This is pretty much exactly my experience of music.

You are also a copyist and proof reader- how do you know when there is a wrong note; does it jump out at you like a typo does for a book editor?

Most my work in this area is done on notation software, which gives me an approximation of the sound in playback, but I still have to concentrate on comparing this computer version of the music to my imagined version, both to check that what’s on the page is accurate, but also to interpret symbols and ideas as the musicians who will play the music will.

A lot of the work involves not correcting wrong notes, but anticipating questions and problems that will come up in rehearsal and answering them in advance, so that the musicians can spend more time working on the music, and less deciding whether that note in bar 796 should be a forte G# ending on beat 3 or a mezzo-forte G ending on beat 4. Notation is an imperfect means of translating sound onto the page (imagine trying to notate every nuance and inflection of a beautifully spoken poem, then imagine that you had to then recreate the performance of that poem using a bunch of tubes and mechanical pistons and you’ve got a flavor of it), so you’ll never be able to cover everything, but I try to make what’s written down as clear as possible.

How do you have the energy and musical reserves to play in all these bands and produce such distinct music, and to also write, edit, transcribe, etc.?

The real question is how do I stop myself constantly starting new projects so that I can focus on what I’m already doing?! Music is like a major food group – if I cut it out I’d just get really ill. I’m a total magpie and always getting distracted by some new idea for a band or piece, or thinking up elaborate shows to develop.

I’m incredibly lucky in that I’m managing to make a living doing something I love, but it’s also a hard career choice which requires working long hours, more often than not at unsociable hours. Being around other musicians helps a lot, as well as being inspiring through their playing/writing.

Although in the past couple of years things have moved in a positive direction, I’m still at a stage in my career where I can’t just work on what I want to work on all the time and keep the bills paid. I have to do things which are useful to other people, so that means having a varied skill set. Fortunately I am a massive music nerd, so I really don’t mind spending a week editing a Purcell opera, or transcribing big band charts, or writing horn parts for someone’s album, even if it means I’m not working on my own projects. If I’m learning something about music, I’m happy.

Talk about your theatrical dramas you have been involved in.

I’m actually going to answer this question by talking about something I’m working on for the future! I’m currently in the process of writing music for a play with a 1940s/50s noir theme – think Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett. It’s going to have a jazz score for a band of five or six players (including me) and the dramatic action will alternate with numbers from the band, complete with authentic jazz soloing. The band will share the stage and set with the actors, and although they won’t take a direct part in the action (apart from one or two cameos), they will appear as equal partners in the evening’s entertainment. It’ll be like seeing/hearing the play twice at the same time: once performed by the actors in English, and again by the band in jazz. I’m really lucky to be working on this with a great playwright called Peter Roberts, who’s had 20 or so plays performed on BBC Radio. We hope to get this into some theaters in the next couple of years.

What is your favorite venue?

I really like the Vortex in Dalston, East London. It’s only a little place and largely run by volunteers, but it has a real sense of community and seriousness about the music. The programming is adventurous and high quality. I’ve seen some of the most amazing musicians and gigs there and it feels like you’re sharing in a really special thing because it’s so intimate. The audience is also pretty diverse and open-minded, and is really there for the music.

I also really like Union Chapel, also in London. I’ve seen quite a few gigs there and the atmosphere is always excellent. I only played there recently, but it’s so beautiful (it’s a 19th century church full of great stained windows) and has a great acoustic. I did a gig with fellow trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and with jazz pianist/film composer Alcyona Mick playing the church organ, and we largely improvised a set of music, playing from different places around the building to make dramatic use of the space. It was super great and I really hope to play there again soon.

Where would you most like to play that you have not yet?

 I like big, resonant spaces, so maybe St Paul’s Cathedral? More seriously though, I wouldn’t mind a gig at Kansas Smitty’s, a fairly new jazz venue in East London which is really doing great things for the local scene and has a great buzz about it.

How do you incorporate world influences, especially from Africa and South America, into your music?

At a surface level the rhythms and grooves are a big element, as well as my perpetual interest in percussion instruments. Deeper down, though, one of the big features of this music for me is the way the melodic line can be kept going indefinitely through call-and-response type textures. I’m also attracted to the way much of this music is layered, with different cycles and levels of repetitions at different points in the texture, giving the music a rich rhythmic and phrase structure.

Another aspect which informs my teaching and education work in particular is how in these cultures’ music often involves the whole community, from the small child up to the master performer, and each of these has a role to play within the music as a whole. Something we’ve all but lost in European culture is this idea that high quality music can be made by groups of mixed ability and experience – from the very earliest stages we stream our musical learners into groups of similar level, whereas in parts of West Africa and Brazil in particular, instead of separating everyone by level, they instead have different roles within the music for different levels. I’ve seen this in action in London at underground nights devoted to Cuban rumba, where only the most masterful drummers get to play the most decorative, open parts, while less experienced players take on simpler parts on clavé, shekere and other instruments, but the music wouldn’t work without these parts. You can probably tell I feel quite strongly about this! I’m near the beginning of what I hope is a long and fascinating journey into this.

I’d like to acknowledge the powerful influence of Barak Schmool in my thoughts on this. I’ve found his teaching has had a profound effect on my whole approach to music and a great deal of the things I’m talking about here are ideas that he had well before me!

What has surprised you the most about the music industry?

On the negative side, how often people don’t seem to get that if they work together, they will all gain. Too often promoters complain about and treat musicians poorly, but also musicians don’t understand the pressures of promoting and don’t put in the effort away from the instrument to make gigs a success.

On the positive side, music is like a bridge between people of very different backgrounds, cultures and even languages. It’s amazing going to somewhere far off and hearing tunes you know and being able to join in and jam, and well as to make new music which fuses different traditions.

What direction do you see jazz going?

When artists have long-term and wide-spread success, it isn’t just because their music is accessible, but because they manage to make their audience feel like they belong to something. I think this is just as true of really challenging, boundary-pushing music as mainstream, popular stuff.

I’d really like to see jazz musicians finding more ways of making meaningful connections with audiences and building relationships with them as well as with each other. Musically (in the UK at least), I think a fruitful avenue for this is in exploring more connections with native folk music – one of the key differences in jazz here as opposed to the US is that here the music has been imported and has no native root in our folk culture, where it does in the States, and I think that makes its place in UK culture much more precarious. I’m not saying everyone needs to start playing “Scarborough Fair,” but I think there’s more ground to be explored in working with folk musicians and exploring folk repertoire in a jazz context.

Current projects?

Honestly, if I tried to list all the things I’m working on here you would die of boredom. I’ll try to pick the highlights:

– The big band festival, which I mentioned above, and returning to Union Chapel in the summer.

– I’m hoping to record and release an EP with “Vesperados” sometime this year, and am looking into doing a tour of Scotland as a collaboration with a folk-fusion group, the Causeway Trio, which my friend David Swan plays piano for (he’s awesome).  

– The play, which I mentioned above, which is ticking away in the background.

– Writing new works for large ensembles, finding new groups to write for, and reconnecting with some people I’ve written for in the past.

– I’m in talks to expand the Christmas big band show across multiple venues this year and build on last-year’s success.

– Most importantly, I’m getting married!

How will you grow your bands this year?

Slowly, erratically and involving a lot of luck! Seriously though, I’m trying to build up my online profile as well as develop closer relationships with promoters across the UK. I’m on Instagram, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook and will be overhauling my website in the next few weeks/months. I also have an e-mailing list. I’m currently sitting on about 400GB of unpublished video footage from recordings and gigs over the last 18 months so I’m hoping to get some more of that out soon.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of James Brady.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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