Anton Hunter c Cara Courage

Named after an act that gives citizens its freedom of assembly, the new CD by Anton Hunter called “Article XI” is a patchwork of each musician’s imagination, stitched together with an eye towards harmony and color. Hunter, with his composer/guitarist hat on for this album, has created music that is inventive (the sax which defiantly talks back in “I Dreamed I Spat Out a Bee”); melodically beautiful (a left turn at what might be a tease to the beginning of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” which continues sweet and plaintive); and rhythmically risk-taking (the jumpiness of a tribal drum and squawking of the trumpet in “I Almost Told You”).

The opening of the impressionistic song “Retaken” has an orchestral feel. Once the drums stir it up, the brass enters and is soon joined by saxes. Slowly things heat up as tension is created with a stronger beat. The trumpet slides into lyricism and comes to a crescendo. A break – a pregnant pause – and then a solemn bass solo. A flittering sax makes its statement, then all instruments come together in a proud declaration of a new theme. The song is a display of the band’s flexibility as well as the individualism of each member.

How did you conceive of this project?

I think the idea first formed in a concrete sense while I was watching a Trio Riot gig. I’m not quite sure why a sax-sax-drums trio inspired me to put an 11-piece band together, but here we are!

Going back a bit further, a whole bunch of things came together, including reading Graham Collier’s book The Jazz Composer, being part of a student band led by Per Zanussi and hearing an album by Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble for the first time. All of these, in different ways, were successfully combining free improvisation with large ensemble writing that still featured riffs and melodies.

I liked that the improvising wasn’t always just taking turns to solo over chord changes, and I wanted to explore more ways of doing that myself. And then, the opportunity arose to apply for the Manchester Jazz Festival (MJF) Originals commission which then meant all these ideas could become a reality.

What is the concept behind Article XI (Freedom of Assembly) that resonated so much with you?

At the time, 2014, the Home Secretary Theresa May was making a lot of noise about trying to scrap the Human Rights Act, and Amnesty International ran a huge campaign to protest this. I learned that the eleventh article of the European Convention on Human Rights is all to do with the right to form trade unions and the right to gather together peacefully to protest.

These are fundamental to protecting ourselves and our rights. Manchester has a strong tradition of both, and as there are 11 people in the band it seemed like a perfect fit.

Of course, since then, there has also been the decision to leave the EU which puts it all in a much bigger, scarier context. If anyone wants to fund an Article 50 project with musicians from all over Europe, let me know… 

Recorded live in concert in 2014, what changes did you make for the new CD release?

It was recorded at the premiere in Manchester, and then again three days later at the Vortex in London, with no changes or additions since then. Part of the difficulty in mixing was the two rooms sound so very different that I wasn’t sure they would sit together okay on the album, but Alex Bonney has done his usual excellent job in bringing it all together. 

What behind-the-scenes info would you most like people to know about this CD?

The way I set about writing it was to send a snippet of material (often just a couple of bars of melody) to each musician involved, then I asked them to record themselves playing it and immediately improvising a response.

The results of this I wove together in a variety of different ways to create the finished score for performance. 

What guidelines did you have to ensure the solos could be assembled?

I didn’t give any guidelines other than “play this and then immediately improvise” because I wanted their contributions to be as honest as possible. I wanted people to contribute to the writing of the music in a way that is difficult to do with large ensembles because, as much as I am hugely grateful to MJF for the support, there just isn’t enough money to get everyone in the same room for regular rehearsals over several months, like might be possible with a trio or quartet.

As for sewing it all together cohesively, part of that came in my selecting what elements of each improvisation to use, and part of that was up to us all in performance through the various improvised sections. 

The “pieces” were literally just short phrases, two or three bars long (see https://manjazzfest.wordpress.com). I didn’t want to give too much information, to leave as much space as possible for the musicians to contribute.

How did you choose the musicians?

I went around to all my favorite musicians at the time and asked if they were up for it! Some of them, like my brother Johnny, or Sam Andreae for example, I’d worked with loads before this. With others, like Richard Foote, it was a chance to play together properly for the first time in public, and to introduce everyone to each other.

What is your music background?

Mixed! I didn’t study it at university initially (although I have since gone back and done so), and my background is a mixture of growing up playing in post-rock bands, then discovering instrumental music and improvising through that, and then starting to explore jazz in my early twenties.  

Do you play guitar on this album?

Indeed I do. I have written a small amount of music over the years for other people to play, but I much prefer writing for bands where I’m an active part of performing it. 

Does the result match your vision?

I love it. I’m really proud of it, and it feels good to have a finished thing in my hands that I’m excited about showing to people. As to whether it matches my vision or not, I guess “sort of” is the answer.

I tried to remain open to the input of all the musicians. I think we managed that, and feedback suggests this came across to audiences.

What did the musicians feel about the end product?

I think they liked it! Everyone’s been really supportive and enthusiastic. It wouldn’t have been possible to do this kind of music if they weren’t into it.

It’s not the kind of gig you can just read the dots and go home. It relies on people putting their personalities into it, and I’m really fortunate they did that.

What inspired the hands-up cover design?

Anton Hunter CD cover

I leave the artwork on all my releases up to Angela Guyton (angelaguyton.com). She is a phenomenal artist across an incredibly broad range of approaches and media, and I trust her implicitly. We had a conversation about the background to the music, and the freedom of assembly-based inspiration for the name, and she went from there. She free-hand embroidered it, and I think it may even be the first time she’s done that. Next time I might ask her to do the cover art first and I’ll try writing music to fit it.

As Angela put it: “This design was done free-hand and hand-stitched. That I could pull off the combination of those two things really surprised me, since I’ve never really stitched anything before! Article XI of the European Convention of Human Rights protects freedom of assembly, so making this image in thread (a thing that binds) made sense to me. Also having the ability to stitch is very empowering; to mend one’s own clothes, and more generally speaking to fix the things in your life is something we should aim to do. I tried putting some of that salt of the earth positivity in this.”

What style of jazz would you characterize this album as?

I have no idea! That’s a question for the critics I guess, but broadly it fits into the “improvised music” heading, or somewhere between that and a Mingus-style big band. I hadn’t picked up the Mingus influence, but several people commented on it, which is nice, as listening to his records was a big part of what got me into this music in the first place. 

Which tracks represent the two most different styles or views?

“C# Makes the World a Better Place” and “I Almost Told You” might be the most radically different. The former is a disconcerting sound world that Sam Andreae inhabits with his arsenal of clicks, pops and mutes; whereas the latter features actual chord changes which Simon Prince and Nick Walters solo over. 

Do you have a favorite track?

The opening few minutes of “Retaken” are really special to me. Most people are taking cues from other people in the band, so I really just get to sit there and let it all envelope me, which is lovely, and because a lot of the written parts are cued by different members of the groups, it never unfolds quite the same way twice. 

How are you marketing this?

In conjunction with the very talented Daniela Gerstmann at Efpi Records. Efpi (and Ben Cottrell who runs the label) have built up some good connections over the years, so it’s fantastic to have the support of the label when it comes to getting reviews, radio play and so on. Some bits I’ve done myself (and I set the label up with Ben many years ago), and I’m fairly active on social media (@HunterAnton), but the bulk of press coverage has come from Efpi’s work.

What did you do for the official release?

We experimented with touring before the release, so when the actual day came around I spent most of it tweeting wildly, with a small amount of walking to the post office to post the orders that came in. And then celebrated with a pizza, some ice cream and a weird ginger-flavored cola drink that I wasn’t sure I liked.

What is the initial reaction from critics? From audiences?

It seems really positive so far! We’re lucky to have a few journalists/blogs/radio shows that are interested in the more improvised end of the spectrum, and I’m really grateful to them for saying nice things in public about me 🙂

Audiences have been really receptive so far too. The tour we did in December was met with some strong positives. During our set in Sheffield, someone passed the promoter a beer mat on which they had written “This is the proper shit,” which is about a good review as I could hope for! I might put it on a sticker for the front cover.

Where will you tour?

We toured in December in a double bill with Cath Robert’s Favourite Animals, which is the ten-piece group that she put together for the Lancaster Jazz Festival of 2016. There’s a certain amount of crossover between the ensembles in terms of personnel, so we thought we’d tour them both together. Incredibly, it worked!

We got funding and visited Birmingham, Sheffield, Morecambe and Newcastle. I’ve worked with Cath for a few years now, initially in our duo Ripsaw Catfish, then Article XI, then her quintet Sloth Racket, and the ten-piece Favourite Animals. Working together on the tour was a new challenge, but it felt good to realize it and show audiences what happens when we invite all our mates along for the ride. 

We’re hoping to pitch the double-bill to some festivals this year and next, so watch our social media for that. And the last gig of the tour was recorded by sound ninja Alex Fiennes, with a couple of new “Article XI” tunes, so that will see the light of day at some point too. 

What do people seem to be the most curious about with this CD?

They seem quite interested in the methods used to put it together, and a few people have asked how much is written or improvised. The thing that often get attention is the trombone section, though. Seth Bennett is mostly known as a fearsome double bassist, but not many people know he’s a strong improviser on brass too, trombone included. 

Other comments?

Thanks for taking the time to ask about the music!

For more information, visit www.antonhunter.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Anton Hunter. Top photo © Adam Fairhall, second photo © Cara Courage.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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