Interview with Jazz pianist Michael J McEvoy. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take oﬀ? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Michael J McEvoy: – I was born in New Jersey state, but I spent most of my formative years growing up in London. Music was always a part of my life as far back as I can remember, and I knew I had to be musician from a very early age. I started my first band, ‘Cloudy Heaven’ in America when I was nine years old with three other kids who were also passionate about music. After my family moved to London we kept in touch, and amazingly we’ve all had careers in music. One of the guys, Duke Levine, now plays guitar with Bonnie Raitt. I went on to play with other young funk rock bands in London as a teenager.
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According to my parents I showed a profound interest in music from the age of three. I took piano lessons aged six and began teaching myself guitar at nine. I remember quite clearly deciding around that time that music was going to be my life. When I was thirteen, my Dad convinced me to learn the viola as he felt I would benefit from learning an orchestral instrument – and he was right! That opened up new sound worlds and provided me with the basic groundwork that later enabled me to evolve into film and TV composition.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
MJM: – My sound has evolved from an eclectic mix of influences. As a teenager I played viola in orchestras while also leading a jazz funk and fusion band, playing tracks by The Crusaders, Weather Report, and Steely Dan, as well as our own original compositions. This was the late 1970s and a lot of great music was being made. The soul music being produced around the time was incredible. Producers like Quincy Jones and Arif Mardin were hiring the best musicians in the world and their work was a big influence on me. I was also deep into Earth, Wind and Fire. From there I went back in time and got into many of the seminal jazz musicians: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and arrangers like Gil Evans, and Claus Ogerman. Classical music has also been a great influence, especially Debussy, Bartok, and other 20th century composers.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
MJM: – I’m always trying to develop my vocabulary as a musician: working on intervallic patterns, scales, or thinking about how I emotionally interpret different modes. However, I’m not such a technician on the piano. There are virtuoso pianists out there who are incredible improvisers; I like to think of myself as more of a facilitator and composer. So, I approach my piano practise as a way to expand my harmonic/melodic palette so that I can draw on this later in my compositions. I also have a repetiore of daily piano exercises that I do: a few from Hanon, some are Claire Fischer, some I’ve developed from different sources. I’m also a big believer in the importance of life experience as a source of inspiration and direction. How one engages in the world, with the world, how one treats other people and all life on the planet – this is what activates musical direction and purpose for me.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?
MJM: – I’ve changed enormously. In my earlier years, my focus was songwriting and performing as a musician, mainly in the studio. Becoming more serious about composing lead me into TV and film composition, which I found very absorbing and challenging creatively. The form is dictated by the film’s structure and the vision of the director, so there is a strong collaborative element that I enjoy.
It also introduced me to the overlap between sound and vision; the language is often very similar when describing both mediums. My recent interest is moving towards a more collaborative and collective approach to music-making. I feel that the music industry has not served creativity and musicians well. Being a composer gives me the opportunity to own and control intellectual property. However, I rely on musicians to breathe life into those musical ideas. So in my current work, with a group I call the ‘Metanoisia Collective’, I’m making experimental works that involve visuals and graphic scores, which invite a more equal and democratic way of making music. My intention is to make these works open source – an invitation for collaboration and co-authored performances.
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
MJM: – I start my mornings everyday with 20 minutes of meditation. I did a course in Transcendental Meditation ten years ago as I found I was working too obsessively and getting stressed out. I also try to stay physically flexible and limber with gentle daily exercise. I stopped all mood-altering substances, including alcohol back in January 1991, so that’s also helped me remain healthy and focused. The lifestyle of a freelance musician can be quite destabilising as there’s no consistent routine in regard to work. Having my own maintenance routine keeps me even tempered. I do daily walks by the seaside where I live, and nearby there are some protected natural environments, which are great places to recharge and find inspiration in nature.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2023: Michael J McEvoy – The Jazz Sapiens Remembrance: 1955 to 1963, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
MJM: – The compositions on the new album are based on themes I composed for a documentary film, ‘The Jazz Ambassadors’ that was broadcast in 2018 and won the Peabody Award. The versions composed for the film were very short and the director, Hugo Berkeley, was very supportive and encouraged me to go ahead and expand the themes for live performance. We occasionally perform the score with a ten-piece big band alongside a screening of the film. The film is a wonderful document to the power of music! It tells what happened when the U.S. state department sent American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck overseas between 1955 and 1963 to perform in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, to demonstrate American values during the Cold War.
JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
MJM: – Most of the musicians who performed on the album also performed on the score for the film, and I’ve worked with many of them on and off over many years. Some I hadn’t worked with before, but I’d seen them perform in London with friends or with artists I have great admiration for. I first heard drummer Mark Mondesir playing with Jason Rebello who’s an incredible pianist and friend of many years. Mark has also performed with John McLaughlin, John Serry, and saxophonist, Chris Potter. One of the musicians, saxophone player, Paul Booth, has worked with me on many projects and was an enormous help with the arrangements. He’s an awesome musician!
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
MJM: – I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to play with some amazing artists. I think one of the most exciting performances was at Woodstock 1994, performing with Steve Winwood’s band, Traffic. There were around 350,000 people in the audience all going crazy! The entire performance is on YouTube. I’m very lucky to have had the chance to play with some incredible musicians. A special moment in the studio was when I had the chance to record Brazilian percussionist, Airto Moriera for my CD ‘Terra Cognita’. He’s such a special human being. I’ve always been influenced by percussionists and drummers. One of my early mentors in my late teens was Reebop Kwaku Baah. Reebop had been a member of Traffic, and it was through Reebop that I met Rosko Gee, who was also in Traffic. So, when Steve and Jim Capaldi we’re reforming the band, Rosko put my name forward to join the line-up.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MJM: – That’s a very interesting question and to be honest it’s a difficult one to answer. I think it’s a matter of taste. However, for me, feel or soul trumps intellect. But I also think it’s important to have a developed musical vocabulary, which is more of an intellectual pursuit. I believe that every musician who is honestly motivated to uncover and define their own creative voice will find the right balance. Some musicians can say so much with only one note – B.B. King for example. B.B. King could play one note with so much passion and soul, whereas there are musicians out there who have a technical facility which is mind blowing, but they’re not saying half as much as that one note that B.B. King plays.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
MJM: – It’s difficult to really know what an audience is looking for, so I have to just trust in the integrity and truthful expression that I aim for in my music and hope that the audience will connect with it. I find that as long as a musician is being truthful in their expression the audience will come along with you.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
MJM: – There are so many ways to define jazz. Most people understand the jazz tradition as the interpretation of standards. However, jazz has developed so many different strands and sub genres and is really taking off with young players these days. I prefer to view jazz as a living musical art form that provides a platform for freedom of personal expression, and democratised ensemble collaboration.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
MJM: – That’s a deep question! Could you give me a few more weeks to think about that? (Haha)
Where I am in my life right now, I want to use music-making to build bridges between people, especially for people who may feel they are in opposition to each other; to use music as a holistic practise that allows people the space to communicate and express emotions in a safe space. There are opportunities to be more ethical in how musicians work together, turning away from the rules of commodification, and perhaps working more collectively.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
MJM: – I would love for music to be taken more seriously in education. Learning how to play an instrument and work together as a group to create a joyful noise is such an important and inspiring activity. These days most young people are making music on computers in isolation, and they’re missing out on the excitement and magic, which happens when you play together live. Besides the social skills that group music-making allows us to develop, there is the recognition that the sum is greater than its parts.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
MJM: – I don’t listen to that much music because I am often immersed in my own music projects, however I’ve just recently discovered Fado, the music of Portugal. There is a Fado artist named Teresinha Landeiro who my wife and I heard singing in a wonderful restaurant in Lisbon called Fama D’ Alfama. She is incredible! Her performance was mind blowing. The music is curated by Joana Amendoeira, another amazing artist.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
MJM: – I’d love to be hanging around in Paris in the 1950s, when Miles Davis and Juliet Greco were together, with all those existential writers, artists and poets. That period fascinates me…
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
MJM: – I hope that the music I make brings a message of soulfulness, joy, and excitement, and inspires people to be kind and compassionate to each other, regardless of where you come from or what you look like.
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JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
MJM: – Thank you for these questions – they’ve been challenging me to think about my life in music.
My question to you would be: what is it in the music of jazz and blues that inspired you to create this website and to reach out to music artists like myself?
JBN: – Jazz and Blues are the life and essence of the president of our Media Holding, jazz expert Simon Sarg, which he instilled with love and dedication in our employees. Otherwise, it is hard to believe how consistently he deals with these areas, he created the website 11 years ago, for several years he has been organizing big events in the capitals of Europe – Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Sofia and every year he expands the scope to new ones. capital cities.
And through you, we discover new names both for us and for our audience, we present them at festivals, sponsor them, help them with everything, as long as they are grateful, polite, well-meaning musicians who do not gossip about others․․.
JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
MJM: – I am always looking for opportunities to share my music. I have often performed at music conferences and universities for no fee.
I try not to have too many expectations about the future. ‘My serenity is directly in proportion to my expectations’, and maintaining daily serenity is my number one priority. Of course, I would love people to discover and enjoy the music I make and perhaps this interview will inspire people to seek it out.
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Interview by Elléa Beauchêne