Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist, fluteist and singer Kim Cypher. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Kim Cypher: – I was born and grew up in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. My passion for music was clearly obvious from a very young age. I remember in primary school having an amazing music teacher (Mr Harrison) who encouraged me and allowed me to pretty much run the school music. I have a memory from around age 7 where I was a one-man band for the school production, playing all kinds of instruments…xylophone, recorder, percussion. I also remember being selected to play clarinet. My excitement on receiving the instrument was so overwhelming, I couldn’t wait to get home so I stopped in the church yard, set up the clarinet and started playing it. I just seemed to know instinctively how to play it (much to the amusement of passers-by!)
At home, my parents always had music playing … The James Last Big Band Orchestra, Dave Brubeck. My dad would turn the music up loud and we’d spend hours listening, singing along with my dad pretending to conduct the band (he even had his own baton!)
As I moved into my teens, I was developing a bit of a rebellious streak and music became a way of expression for me. I took up the saxophone as I wanted a more funky instrument, something a bit different that I could express my personality. I would often come home from school, lock myself in my bedroom and just play my sax for hours or sit at the piano and compose a song. My parents used to say i’d then reappear as a different person. Somehow the music had allowed me to offload any stresses. It was my therapy!
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
KC: – In the early days I don’t really remember even thinking about developing my own ‘sound’. It was more about just playing and expressing myself. I started listening to lots of different sax players and I was introduced to some great music by my (now husband) Mike. I loved music by Grover Washington, Andy Sheppard, Dean Fraser, Courtney Pine and Barbara Thompson to name just a few.
It’s only in later years when I started thinking about my playing a bit more seriously, having taken the plunge to give up the ‘day job’ and pursue music professionally that I truly realised my own sound. More recent influences have included more funky style players including my favourites – Gerald Albright, Maceo Parker and of course my tutor Pee Wee Ellis (who features on my new album). Singing came much later for me, although I have always enjoyed singing and been in school choirs etc. I love the greats – Ella, Billie Holiday. I also love Liane Carroll who I have been lucky enough to perform with a couple of times.
It’s always tricky for me to describe my own sound because the music I play is so varied and I am also a saxophonist and singer. So, I usually sum it up as “funky saxophonist meets 1940’s jazz singer”.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
KC: – Practising scales and phrases with a metronome is great discipline and helps to master the instrument. I have to confess though that I do get a bit fidgety during practise routines and often end up throwing in some funky grooves! At the moment I am out playing so much alongside incredible musicians that I really find this beneficial in terms of improving my ability. It’s amazing how much you pick up from others. I’ve also trained alongside some of the best tutors including Pee Wee Ellis and Andy Sheppard, for which I am incredibly grateful.
JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
KC: – I think you’re spot on when you say I drift more towards harmony than dissonance. I have always been a very melodic player and improvise by ear rather than by chord progressions. I do like to hear a melody and I’m drawn more to playing from the heart and soul. For that reason, I don’t really analyse my playing or think about what I’m actually doing. However, I guess much of my playing is based on the Blues scale and I definitely love major 7ths and whole tone scales.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
KC: – I believe the key to this is to always be true to yourself; believe in your music; trust in your own style; stick to your values, what you’re trying to communicate and what your music is all about; remain true to yourself always.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
KC: – A very interesting question and one which gets discussed frequently with my band-mates at gigs. For me personally, it is always about heart and soul. A very special quote from Pee Wee Ellis confirms that this is evident in my music and performances: “Hats off to a true heart and soul performer”.
That’s not to say that intellect doesn’t come into it and having musical knowledge can only be a good thing. But, I’d champion a true heart and soul performance over a technically brilliant performance with no soul any day!
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
KC: – Absolutely! This is exactly what i’m all about. I love my music and I love my audiences. I could not be more grateful for everyone who supports me. This is something I feel very passionate about. A connection with the audience is absolutely top priority for me when performing my music. I want to have a positive influence on how they feel … almost a little bit of escapism from life. I am also there to entertain so I will always involve my audience and be sure to entertain them with great music but also with a lively, passionate, professional show and always with an emphasis on positivity. My audience will always leave knowing how grateful I am to them. Afterall, without them my music has no purpose.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
KC: – There are so many gig memories / stories it’s difficult to know where to start! They normally revolve around something funny and there have been many occasions when something has really tickled the band and we’re on stage trying to hold it together, always in a highly professional manner of course! A recent occasion that springs to mind was at a lovely dinner jazz gig. My quartet was performing some sophisticated music and a very thoughtful mother brought her young daughter to come and see the band close up. So, they stood right in front of us as the gorgeous little girl proceeded to stick her fingers firmly in her ears as she watched the band intently. The longer this scenario went on, the more the band members began to see the funny side of this. One by one we started laughing. Having gained control back once the little girl and mother had returned to their seats, they later came back again, this time the little girl bringing her dolly with her. As soon as the little girl stood in front of the band she turned her dolly upside down and started hitting the dolly’s head to the floor. As if that wasn’t funny enough, the dolly had an Elastoplast plaster on her head so clearly she had been subjected to this before. Of course, the little girl then stuck her finger’s firmly back into her ears. You can guess what happened next! Anyway, we do love our job very much and our wonderful audiences. Thankfully, the mother also saw the funny side of it all.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
KC: – It seems that more young people are beginning to become interested in jazz and this is absolutely crucial. I think there needs to be a change in attitude and people should be more open and accepting of all kinds of jazz rather than sticking to the same styles. I find this a lot with my music as I like to take a well-known song and recreate it in my own quirky, jazzy style. It allows jazz to be more accessible for the younger generation and it takes away any preconceptions people may have when they say ‘I don’t like jazz’. Jazz is such a broad spectrum and music venues / festivals etc need to embrace all kinds of jazz and let the music speak for itself.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
KC: – For me, somebody’s spirit is the essence of what / who they are. It will radiate from within them. I totally get that quote. Music is within the spirit, the heart and soul of a person. This is why the power of music is incredible, the connection you can achieve between people, the power to evoke emotions. The best musicians will have the strongest spirits … and I believe a spirit never dies.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
KC: – Total acceptance of what people are about / stand for. Allow people to be themselves and embrace what they have to offer with no prejudice or criticism or pre-conceived ideas about what they should or shouldn’t be doing.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
KC: – My musical taste is very eclectic and my mood will dictate whether I need to listen to some full-on funk from some of my favourite sax players (Maceo Parker, Gerald Albright, Pee Wee Ellis) or something a bit more chilled. I do love a bit of high-energy funk to blow the cobwebs away … it’s a bit like therapy for me! Some of my other ‘go to’ music is Liane Carroll who I absolutely ADORE! Her music can make me laugh or cry, but it always absorbs me and I admire her absolute brilliance. I also love a bit of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
KC: – Just enjoyment and happiness really. Life’s for living and music can have such a positive influence on how people feel. I just want people to enjoy life and if I can create a special moment in life and have a positive effect then I’m totally happy with that.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan