May 22, 2024

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Interview with Alexander Hawkins: I suppose when making music like this, I’m trying to present a coherent work … Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist Alexander Hawkins. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Alexander Hawkins: – I was born and grew up in Oxford, UK, where I still live. I was very fortunate in that both my parents are music lovers, so I’ve always been surrounded by music; and I guess it was natural in these circumstances to develop a love for music.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano?

AH: – We always had a piano at home, and having developed a love for music, I suppose it was unsurprising that I should gravitate to this big thing in the corner of the room which could be used to make it!

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

AH: – I was very fortunate always to have great teachers – so in this sense, the answer to your question is ‘all of them’. I’ve only ever studied classical music, at least in a formal setting; and in fact, until the age of 18 or so, I was predominantly an organist, rather than a pianist – at least, I was always technically more proficient on this instrument. However, like all of us, I’ve also learned a great deal ‘empirically’, by playing with other musicians (not to mention by listening: and if I were to broaden the list out to include those from whom I’ve learned by listening, it would soon become unmanageable!). There are many of these musicians from whom I’ve learned ‘on the job’: but I would certainly have to mention the likes of Pat Thomas, Dominic Lash, Taylor Ho Bynum, Harris Eisenstadt, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Evan Parker, and John Edwards amonst them.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

AH: – This is a difficult question: and I think the answer is in one sense incredibly complex, and in one sense very simple. Probably what I mostly do to develop is to listen. I listen constantly to all sorts of music, and clearly, there is endless inspiration to be taken from this. I will occasionally listen to myself; and where I hear things I don’t like, I reflect on this, and see what I can do to make things better. I try not to focus too much on the things I do like in my playing, for fear that this might lead to any kind of complacency; although of course, sometimes I hear something in the course of an improvisation, for example, which might an interesting compositional kernel, or something like that.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

AH: – I play a lot of classical music to keep my technique in good shape. I have always played a lot of Bach; and recently, have been playing some Chopin too. I enjoy Bach not only for the technical workout, but because it helps me to maintain a sense of scale and architecture: it’s great practice because it helps you learn what a perfectly structure 5 minutes (say) of music feels like.

I also like various of the very traditional classical exercises, such as those by Dohnanyi and Brahms. I also deriving exercises from non-keyboard sources: so for example (and in part to address your question about rhythm), I enjoy working from drum patterns. I’m also a fan of the Yusef Lateef ‘Repository’: a lot of those shapes are very saxophonic, and so a good workout on the piano. In general, I look for materials which will keep my technique in shape, but where there is no risk that anything might solidify into a pattern which in an unguarded moment I might play in performance.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

AH: – I don’t really have preferences like this – it really varies too much according to the context.

Image result for Alexander Hawkins Unit[e]

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album: <Unit[e]>, how it was formed and what you are working on today. Next year your fans like we can wait for a new album?

AH: – I couldn’t pinpoint a single element of the album that I love; I suppose when making music like this, I’m trying to present a coherent work, where no one thing in particular stands out. I’m proud of the work for a number of reasons: it’s the first release of my large ensemble music, as well as representing my first compositions featuring electronics – but in another sense, I’m reluctant to talk about the album in relation to ‘me’, because I hope it is equally a vehicle for all the wonderful musicians who contributed to it.

My newest album is by my quartet, co-led by the wonderful vocalist Elaine Mitchener, and featuring my longtime partners in crime Neil Charles and Stephen Davis on bass and drums respectively. It has just been released on Intakt Records, and represents our humble attempt to do something interesting with songs. So in 2018, this group will be appearing live. I’m very excited about this, because it can also be a very visual group – even though we were very careful to conceive of the album in such a way that it absolutely works as a freestanding listening experience.

I am also working on more solo music at the moment, and look forward to presenting this. Alongside solo and the quartet, I’m very lucky in having a number of ongoing musical relationships and projects, and these will continue through the next year and beyond. One thing to look out for is a new recording from the Louis Moholo-Moholo Quintet, by which it’s fair to say we’re all very excited.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

AH: – This is tough, because circumstances vary for everyone. All I would remark is that I believe that making music happen is not just about the ‘gig’; it’s about the relationships. I believe very strongly that music is a collaborative enterprise: I happen to play it, but without people to help me play it live, that doesn’t count for anything; without people to record it and make it available, that doesn’t count for anything; and so on. We are all completely equal in the enterprise of making music happen.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

AH: – I think this really depends on how you define ‘business’. If the question relates to one’s ability to make a living from music, then yes, it is possible: I think it simply hinges on an ability to adapt to the modern musical ‘ecology’. We don’t live in a ‘golden era’ (if there ever was one) where playing gigs pays all the bills. But with sensitivity to balancing a performing career with different enterprises (it might be teaching for some; it might be taking other types of musical work; or whatever), it certainly can be done. Too much hinges on it for people not to find a way.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

AH: – Well, many of the words in our respective languages are far more than fifty years old; and yet we can still express new ideas with them. Football is an old game; and yet new patterns continue to emerge, and new talents express themselves in innovative ways. Beautiful and radical buildings can be and are still made from wood and stone. I think the age of the raw material is not a problem; the age of the attitude to the material is perhaps more crucial. More pertinently, though – the standard tunes are only a small (tiny?) part of the musical landscape. Countless composers write original material: and many great musicians have barely touched the ‘American Songbook’. There are plenty of other ways!

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

AH: – I don’t really know; I suspect that ‘spirit’ is a sufficiently personal concept that it would be too hard to try to express this.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

AH: – This is difficult; I always aspire to develop and grow as a musical presence, but it is tough to know how to do this. So I hope to get better; on a good day, I’d say I expect to get better, but for everyday at least, this is a bold claim. Anxiety? Tough question; although I think we all harbour insecurities about being able to remain creative.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

AH: – I don’t know; in some ways, if I could see the frontier any more clearly, I’d like to think I’d be trying to be there.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

AH: – I would argue that jazz itself is a vernacular, folk music. And although it had its crucible in the USA, its influences are from far beyond that country, and by this time, its forms have spread far beyond that country. So in a very real sense, it is a type of world music.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

AH: – Over the last months, I have been spending a lot of time with the work of the Carlos Kleiber. His officially recorded output is very small, but there are many wonderful bootleg recordings out there. His Beethoven 7, for example, is for me one of the greatest recordings ever made. I have also been listening a lot recently to the Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Like another of my heroes, Maurizio Pollini, I find the stripped-back, uncompromising nature of his approach incredible ‘human’ and endlessly beautiful.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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