It’s far too easy to be restless in 2009. To chase your own tail. The modern world celebrates speed, status, glamour and gratification. Buy happiness: sell yourself. Follow everybody: know no one. smart phones: distant folks. Ironically, true contentment eludes most of us. In short, we're missing the point.
So where does music come into it? Well, music is the facilitator. It sets the tone. It either accelerates our lives on the edge or it stops us in our tracks and opens our eyes and ears to the moment. The latter usually requires a lifetime’s worth of maturity to master. Not so with 26-year-old trumpeter and bandleader Matthew Halsall.
The Manchester lad cuts a modest and gentile figure, dressed casually in prescription T-shirt, well-worn baseball cap and squinting with sincerity. Over the last year he was developed a loyal following in the UK jazz scene after releasing two beautiful, breezy albums, ‘Sending My Love’ and ‘Colour Yes’, which have been championed by the likes of Gilles Peterson, who invited Halsall to perform with the Tippetts and Nostalgia 77 at his recent Ronnie Scott’s 50th birthday weekend. His striking melody, lyrical honesty and down-to-earth nature have smitten so many listeners. A purity of tone that recalls ‘A Kind Of Blue’-era Miles Davis and Chet Baker, infused with the transcendental calm of Don Cherry and Alice Coltrane, all meticulously ‘choreographed’ with a Swinscoe hand.
Davis famously presaged the age of modal jazz, promising that, “There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.” In other words, simplicity, space, lyricism and a new harmonic language. Halsall is continuing that tradition.
Our in-depth conversation on a mild Friday winter in Primrose Hill is like the proverbial rabbit hole into Halsall’s life. He’s lived a lot in a short space of time, it seems. We’re sitting comfortably so his story begins. “My granddad was a piano player. He had an organ in his house and we had a piano in ours. He’d come round and play in this Fats Waller style. You know, cheeky organ stuff. But my first proper exposure to jazz was big band at six years old – the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra. They played covers of ‘Milestones’, ‘A Night in Tunisia’, Duke Ellington… It was such an explosive and amazing thing to witness as a kid.
“The trumpet players were having a laugh throughout the gig. I thought that would be a fun thing to do. So I picked up the trumpet at six and by 13 I was in that very same band, touring the world. Today, 50 per cent of the guys in that band are some of the biggest session players in the country. Guys like Alistair White [1997 Young Jazz Musician of the Year] who’s since become the main man for trombone playing.”
Such a full-bodied immersion into high-calibre musicianship would have phased most young players. But Halsall is blessed with natural composure and optimism. “I really enjoyed that experience,” he says. “Most of the other band members were six years older than me but I didn’t feel much pressure. You don’t think about it at that age. You just soak it up. It was the same when I toured with cockney legend Eric Delaney. Soon after, I started doing my own bands.”
Living in Manchester provided an instant springboard to countless sounds and scenes for the young Halsall. He began his obsession with record collecting, tried his hand at sound engineering, filmmaking, DJing, started sneaking into sessions such as Mr Scruff’s night at Planet K and began working on promotions for Warp records in the north-west. A heady but fallow period. “I sat making loads of music on my own for three messy years, enjoying it but not really going anywhere,” he recalls. “I was trying to make music that would fit into the hip sound – Ninja Tune, Warp, club breakbeats – but I didn’t feel cool with it; probably because I didn’t know what my sound was at that age.
“At the same time, guys like Scruff and Gilles Peterson were introducing me to all kinds of music. I started to realise what I did and didn’t like. I mean, Scruff played Fela, Pharoah, acid jazz… I just thought, ‘what’s all this? This isn’t the jazz I’d been playing!’”
This combination of ‘music education’ and creative cluelessness prompted Halsall to go back to the beginning and search for a sound that could be both modern and enduring. “I sat at that piano that has been in my parents’ house for 20 years [it’s now in his house] and tried to make something stripped down and honest. Everything from my first two albums was written on that piano with just bass, chords and melody. I started to put together a band, looking for musicians who could capture my sound but play with some freedom. I had Cinematic Orchestra’s Luke Flowers on drums, John Ellis on piano, Jon Thorne (who appears on Halsall’s ‘Sending My Love’) on double bass, the brilliant flute player Roger Wickham… but they didn’t gel. So I kept searching until I found a band I was comfortable with.”
In a very short space of time, Halsall has made the transition from player to bandleader – guided by instinct as much as experience. “I learned a lot during that time. I now feel that I can work with most musicians. It’s about balance and keeping everyone happy in the band. I’m always thinking about dynamics, levels, whose solo is next…
“When I’m writing I listen to all types of music so I can hear the different kinds of instruments. Then I’ll sit at the piano. Melodies sound quite high with certain instruments like the trumpet. So that’s why soprano sax is a better option [listen to Nat Birchall on ‘Colour Yes’]. That’s also why I picked flute to float the melodies on top of my first album. That’s the composing side – taking your ego out of it. If you listen to my album I don’t even play half the heads of the tunes. I’d rather make sure the melody sits in the right place and that I’m doing it justice.”
He’s also had good spiritual mentors. Alice Coltrane has been a huge influence on Halsall, who attended the Maharishi School (www.maharishischool.com) at 15 and studied philosophy and meditation in his last two years of college. They share a belief in the intensely spiritual power of music. A healing power. “I love meditative music,” he says. “That’s why Alice is so important in my life. Listening to her music is the feeling of peace and bliss I get when I’m meditating. I think about things from every angle as a consequence. Rather than getting cheesed of about something I’ll usually find a positive. Sometimes I get criticised for being a little soppy but I’d rather people were honest about who they are.”
Manchester has been a great breeding ground for British music. Think of the Stone Roses, The Fall, the Smiths and Joy Division right through to Grand Central records. But less well known is the flourishing jazz scene, driven by one venue in particular. “I have a residency at Matt & Phreds (www.mattandphreds.com) and without them none of this would have happened,” says Halsall. It’s the most important melting pot of jazz in the North-west. Half of Cinematic play there nearly every week, including Luke Flowers, John Ellis, Stuart McCallum and Steve Brown. It’s a great place. You do three 45-minute sets and that’s a job in itself. Most people then do at least 50 per cent of their own tunes. That’s very unusual. In fact, the reason I set up Gondwana [Halsall’s record label] was because I was sitting there thinking this music is as good as anything out there.
“They have dinner and table bookings there with about 100-150 punters on the weekend. Some chat and eat, some are there for jazz. Mostly the latter. For instance, last Saturday I did my album launch at Band on the Wall (bandonthewall.org), which opened last month with one of the best sound systems for live acoustic music in the country. That gig allowed me to see how many from Matt & Phreds had come for the music. Most of the same crowd came were at Band in the Wall!”
Halsall is so refreshing, and not just because is he a young gifted musician. He’s fearless enough leave Badly Drawn Boy’s recording studio to record his first album in almost one take in a Salford hall “to capture that live feel”, thrifty enough to produce it for £500 and zany enough to eschew Blue Note studio photography for a day at Formby Beach for his album photoshoot.
He’s also a patron, patient enough to release only what he’s 100 per cent happy with on his own label but pro-active enough to explore other territories and build partnerships. “Gondwana is not just about my music,” he explains. “Nat Birchall, who plays with me, has his own album out [‘Akhenaten’]. He’s an amazing sax player, who’s got that beautiful Coltrane thing down to a tee. [‘Together’ is an example of flighty sermonic tenor sax play at its best]. So I thought I had to find a vehicle for these musicians. We’ve got to create a scene because it isn’t just about the standards and the complicated kind of jazz stuff. Where I live in Manchester people aren’t doing that smug kind of stuff. It’s honest and beautiful.”
According to Halsall, cities north of the capital often their own worst enemy, skulking in their comfort zones and unwilling to take risks. “There is definitely the talent. Speaking specifically about Manchester, people tend to stay in their home city, get conformable and then complain about things not happening for them. But I always come down to London; my brothers live here and having a record company encourages me to venture out. Every time I come down here everyone welcomes me and is very positive.”
Inspired by the Warp records, Halsall hopes to build a record company of daring and high quality. “The company model of Warp and what they’ve put out (anything from Broadcast to Vincent Gallo and Boards of Canada) were big influences on me. Not to mention their film work. They’re phenomenal.”
So where to next? “First up there’s a Maida Vale session, with Jose James and Shaunice guesting on a 'Love Supreme' tip. Then, I’m going to do another album, which I’m really excited about; and Nat has one coming out in February. There’s also a jazz album from a turntablist producer forthcoming on Gondwana, which I’ll be co-producing. I might also put stuff out on other labels. I’m at a really pleasant place at the moment where I’ve got too much music.
“An orchestra album is already in the pipeline. Being a northerner and growing up in brass bands they’re a passion but I want to do it in a fresh way. And I quite like the idea of using 18-year-old musicians from the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra.
“I’m working again with Nitin Sawhney in January. The Aftershock project [aftershockproject.com] is where they get five musicians from Manchester, Marseilles and Genoa to compose together and then combine for a gig. Out of that, I’m also working with Jason Singh [myspace.com/jasonsinghmusic] a beatboxer who’s collaborated with Nitin several times. We came back to Manchester from Genoa and realised we were into same kind of music. We just had to work together.
“Last September I recorded a big meditative album with an Indian sitar player from Leeds, straight after my first album. I like trying and exploring loads of different territories. But what I’ll probably continue to do is release the stuff that’s closest to my heart on Gondwana and that’s the jazz. I’m definitely putting out the music I believe is ready and right for the moment. But I also want to keep people guessing.”
See Matthew perform live at the Vortex on 4 February:
HALSALL’S DESERT ISLAND DISCS
Halsall’s Desert Island Discs
1. ALICE COLTRANE – Journey in Satchidananda [Impulse]
“Phenomenal. Alice puts you on a rollercoaster. I’ve got so much to learn; her string arrangements are amazing. Also check ‘Prema’ from ‘Transfiguration’ with the added strings after the UCLA gig."
2. PHAROAH SANDERS – Love In Us All [Impulse]
"The man is a genius. ‘Love Is Everywhere’ is my favourite tune on here. So powerful."
3. MILES DAVIS – Box Set: A Kind of Blue [Legacy]; Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud [Fontana]; In A Silent Way [Columbia]; On The Corner [Columbia]
"He’s the man. There are other great players such as Don Cherry, Chet Baker and Dizzy Reece but it doesn’t get any bigger or more consistent than Miles."
4. MR SCRUFF – Keep It Unreal [Ninja Tune]
"One of my favourite albums: I love the mood, the great mixture of sounds, the range of samples – from Fats Waller to Moondog – and the original mastering from MPC recording."
5. CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA – Motion/Everyday [Ninja Tune]
"Cinematic is a massive influence. I really like what Jason did with jazz. The mainstream audience and music lovers have always struggled with the waffle and exploratory nature of jazz. Jason took a beautiful slice of the cake – a loop – and made a simple tune of real warmth. Later on I’d love to do something like these."
6. HERBERT – Bodily Functions [K7]
"Matthew Herbert is a very inspiring and serious man. I still listen to this now and that’s amazing considering that it came out over nine years ago. That’s how I view music making. I want to make an album I’ll be happy with in 10 years’ time."
HALSALL'S DJ DELIGHTS
Two adventurous and impeccably mixed sets from Matthew:
1. Magic Bop Mix featuring some laid-back hip hop, trip hop, jazzy deep house music
2. 360 Degrees of Jazz for Groovement: