Interview with Matthew Halsall and Nat Birchall (Gondwana Records)
Matthew Halsall & Nat Birchall
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - March 2012)
Nat Birchall: sax. Matthew Halsall: trumpet. Two men from the Manchester’s area brought together by a sole passion for modal jazz and a constant quest for Beauty. A unique friendship that goes beyond age gap and the kind of story that only happens in art or music. Imagine this, Nat celebrates 30 years of playing the sax (a lot of reggae then jazz) while Matt isn’t even 30 and began trumpet at 6… Together (and each playing on the other’s records) they write one of the most brilliant pages of UK’s contemporary Jazz. Matt runs Gondwana Records, a label that welcomes Nat’s music and his own. Nat has just released his new album, Sacred Dimension, while Matthew’s last album (On The Go, 2011) has recently won best jazz album of the year at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards 2012. We’ve interviewed the two friends separately but with common questions, and you will see how their visions and aesthetics converge. At last Matthew Halsall, who’s also a talented DJ and a true vinyl lover, has done an exclusive guest mix (download it here) featuring the partners in crime’s peaceful music.
Matthew Halsall & Nat Birchall
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - March 2012)
01. Gondwana brings us back to supposed origins of the world. What does the name evoke to you?
Matthew Halsall: I came across the name via my mother. She had a furniture shop called Gondwana, which imported furniture from all over the world. I really liked the name and its meaning so when the furniture shop closed I decided to use the name.
I also like the fact that Miles Davis did an album called Pangaea and one of the tracks titles is Gondwana, even though it’s not my favorite Miles period.
Nat Birchall: Well, Gondwana is Matthew's label of course and so it was his idea for the name. I think it's a great name because to me it has connotations of pre-history and foundations of the world that we know, so it has a resonance of something strong to build upon and something that has roots in the past. And, as we all know, we need these things to build our creations on. So it's a very appropriate name I think. As a word it's good too, it has a certain 'ring' to it that I like, and it's all about sound of course! Only time will tell if it breaks up into smaller continents though!
02. What's spiritual jazz according to you?
MH: To me spiritual jazz is soulful, honest music that brings together instruments, musicians and influences from all over the world. It often has a mystical eastern feel to it that’s quite magical, meditative and dreamy.
NB: This is a tough question! To me 'spiritual' as applied to music has several meanings. One is that the music has to have 'spirit', which is difficult to quantify of course. You can have 'spirited' playing which is energetic, but not necessarily having'spirit'. So it's a way of playing where you give yourself (your 'ego') up completely to the service of the music. When you play this way it's kind of like you yourself have no decision in what comes out of your instrument, the music is just coming through you from a higher source. What this 'higher source' is can be a matter of opinion, some say it is God, some say it is a spirit, some say it is your subconscious, etc etc. But it doesn't really matter what you think it is, you just have to let IT dictate what comes out. So to me,'spiritual' music is any type of music which is played this way.
There is of course a style of jazz, a genre, which is called 'spiritual jazz', and people have slightly different interpretations of that term (like 'jazz' itself!) but I don't see it having much to do with instrumentation or harmonic or melodic forms, although there are some of these elements that seem to be more prevalent in this genre.
03. Can you remember how you met and began playing music together?
MH: I remember asking my friend Bernard Moss if he knew of any saxophone players who where into the music of Coltrane and he recommended Nat, so I went to see him perform at Matt & Phreds Jazz Club in Manchester. I remember him playing a nice cover of Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda, which is one of my favorite tunes of all time. After the show I introduced myself and asked him if he’d like to do some gigs with my band and he said yes, and it was that simple!
NB: Matt and myself had mutual friends and I had heard of Matt and his music from some of them but never heard it. I think he contacted me via Myspace and asked me to do a gig with him. He sent me his music and I really loved it right away. I was so happy that finally there was someone else, not living 1,000 miles away, who was into similar music to myself, I had always struggled to find people to play the kind of music the way I wanted to do it, but Matt had managed to do it! Plus, his whole set was 'modal' jazz. I always loved to play modal music but musicians, especially piano players and guitarists, like to play music with lots of chord changes so much that after maybe 2 modal tunes they are crying to play a 'standard' tune with chord changes in it! I turned up at the gig and we played and the 'rapport' was instant, our sounds worked very well together I thought, and his band was fantastic so I had a great time!
04. @Matt: Name a Nat Birchall quality you envy ; @ Nat: name a Matt Halsall quality you envy.
MH: Nat has a great knowledge and understanding of music. He’s been digging for records for over thirty years and has an amazing collection. He’s also very wise and has helped me on a number of important decisions over the years.
NB: Well I don't think 'envy' is the right word but I really admire Matt's ability to know exactly what he wants in his music and also to know how to achieve it.
05. @ Matt: Three adjectives to describe Nat' musical style ; @ Nat: Three adjectives to describe Matt's musical style.
MH: Spiritual, soulful and honest.
NB: Well I would say Matt's style is 'honest'. He really only plays what needs to be played, or says what needs to be said if you like, none of his notes are played just for the sake of playing them, everything has meaning.I would say it is also 'beautiful' Myself I believe that as 'creative artists' ( a very grand term but I can't think of another one at the moment...) we should strive to create beauty, anything else is negative I think. Of course our definition of what is beautiful can be different to different people, but to me Matt's music is really beautiful. And I would say that his sound and his playing is 'vocal' It 'speaks' to me. It has a real voice-like quality to it, which is a mark of true music I think.
06. What do you think you could improve in your playing?
MH: I’m always trying to improve my technique. I spend a lot of time working on my tone, fluency and range. My aim is to be able to play anything that comes into my head straight away.
There are so many things to improve in my playing! Where do I start? I'm always thinking about the actual sound (tone) that I get. NB: Sometimes I think it could be stronger, sometimes I think it could be more beautiful, have more edge, more body, more depth etc etc. I think my articulation (the way you start each note) could be better, and fluency in phrasing definitely could be better! So many things, I could go on and on. But everything can always be made to be better, so I try to make it all better little by little every day.
07. You live far from London sound and fury. Tell me how your surroundings and countryside influence the way you make music.
MH: Well I live ten minutes away from Manchester city centre and have the countryside not far from my doorstep. I live here because I have a lot of family and friends, plus I’ve spent many years building relationships with musicians and people in the industry. It only takes me 2.15hrs to get a train down to London, so I don’t really need to live there.
I’m not sure whether I’d make my music differently if I lived anywhere else. For me composing is a time to escape reality and all the stresses of life. It doesn’t really matter where I live as long as I have my trumpet and a piano to compose on.
NB: This is something that a few people have picked up on, in my case anyway. It's true I live in the hills with nice (although a little bleak sometimes maybe!) countryside around me. I'm from the countryside originally and I feel more at home here, I like nature in general and it gives me a sense of peace within myself to be near the hills especially. But I didn't think that manifested itself in my music until people started to mention it so maybe it does. It certainly helps me in a creative way that I live where I live, it makes my mind more clear so I can focus on the music more. People say they can hear the hills or see the landscape in my music and maybe they can, and I always imagine places and things when I listen to music that moves me so it's a good thing I think. But then maybe it's just suggestive because they know I live where I live and they make that association, I don't know really.
08. Your music is quiet, peaceful, timeless, anyway the antithesis of our times of western speed, greediness and frenzy. So maybe you are the real anarchists and Manchester subversive outsiders of today?
MH: As I said in my previous answer, composing helps me to take my mind off the crazy things that are going on in the world. I can create all types of different moods and atmospheres to have fun in. I’ve also studied various meditations over the years, which have helped me to stay chilled.
NB: Like I mentioned earlier, I just try to make beautiful sounds. I have learned that to be myself in music I have to play what I really want to play, in a way that I really want to do it. I used to try to play in a 'modern' way, but what I was doing was just trying to play like some other people do. Now I just try to let the music come out in its own way, even when composing, so it's not a conscious choice to play a certain note, or a certain sound or rhythm, it has its own life. So I'm not making music for any other reason than the pursuit of beauty. How it is perceived in relation to everything else depends on the observer's (listener's) perspective. The main thing in music is the intention, the reason why we play at all and the reason why we play a certain way, or a certain note. The intention colours the note and reveals everything. Some people ( especially some critics! ) miss this entirely I think and focus only on the outward appearance of the music, the instrumentation etc, which is not important at all. So if the music seems 'against the grain' of everything else that is going on then so be it, but it's not intentionally made to be that way.
09. Some of your tracks are really crafted like poetry with verse, recurring sounds and structure, but also like a story. Do you agree if I say there's a narrative dimension in the music you make?
MH: Yeah each track is like a musical journey. My compositions tend to start with a main theme in which the musicians can all lock together, then I like to give soloists the chance to express their own thoughts and feelings within the music.
NB: I think all good music tells a story, it doesn't have to have words of course, but it should hopefully sound like singing or storytelling. And like I mentioned before, music can be evocative of things, places and feelings etc. So I would hope that the music does sound that way yes!
10. Are chamber music and/or medieval music an inspiration for you?
MH: I’ve listened to quite a lot of classical music over the years including chamber music and I guess it has had an affect on my music. I compose nearly all my music on my piano and I’ve definitely been influenced by the solo piano work of Erik Satie and Ravel over the years. NB: I don't really know about chamber music but I do like medieval music, I can't say that it has really influenced me because I haven't really listened to that much, but what I have heard I really like, and there are some reggae tunes which have horn lines that are a little like medieval music to my ears!
11. @ Matt: Fav Nat track ; @ Nat: Fav Matt track
MH: ‘Higher Regions’, I love the combination of kora, harp, soprano sax, piano, double bass, drums and percussion.
NB: My favourite Matt track?! There are some things that Matt has recorded that he hasn't released yet, maybe several albums worth, but there are a couple of those songs that I really love, my favourite might be one called 'Loving Kindness' but he has many such songs, and I don't even think he has released the best ones yet!
12. There's something happening in British jazz with new blood (Greg Foat Group, Portico Quartet Hackney Colliery Band, Neil Cowley Trio, etc.) these days. Do you think it's the beginning of a golden age?
MH: I hope so, I’m always amazed by the amount of positive vibes Gondwana Records receives. People seem to be really into British jazz and the more they support it the more it can grow.
NB: I really don't know about a golden age, these are things that sometimes get ascribed to events long after they have happened. I know about the people you mention but I only actually know Greg personally and have played with him a couple of times. But I guess time will tell whether there is something bigger happening!
13. Tell us about your record collection and your fav vinyls.
MH: I’ve always been fascinated by vinyl. My parents had a great collection of 60’s folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and soul. I also remember them having a pretty far out record player designed by Bang and Olufsen, which looked like something from a space ship. I remember sifting through all the records and looking at the gatefold sleeves of the vinyl’s and reading the liner notes. I think that’s where my addiction started. As I got older I began digging deeper for new and interesting music. I listened to a lot of the DJ’s on the radio. Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide show on BBC Radio 1 has had a massive impact on me over the years and it’s still is one of my favorite shows. He’s introduced me to all types of artists (Yusef Lateef, The Cinematic Orchestra, Matthew Herbert, A Tribe Called Quest, Art Blakey, Fela Kuti and so many more). I used to record his radio shows onto cassette tapes and then go out and buy all my favorites from each show on vinyl. Another DJ that has been a big influence on me is Mr Scruff. I love going to his Keep It Unreal nights in Manchester, in fact that’s where I first heard the Pharoah Sanders track ‘You’ve Got To Have Freedom’ and Fela Kuti’s ‘Water No Get Enemy’.
My record collection continues to expand all the time. I’d say it mainly consists of jazz, soul, funk, afrobeat, reggae, dub, hip hop and electronic music.
NB: My record collection?! Where do I start?? Well, I have been buying records since 1972, so 40 years!! I started really buying regularly when I got into reggae later in that year. I used to buy records every week from then until about 1978 or so. Unfortunately I sold a lot of my big reggae collection about 25 years ago when I wanted to buy a soprano saxophone so I could play with the band of a Turkish drummer. I have since bought lots more though and still do quite regularly. But I wish I still had some of those records man! I got into jazz in 1979 when I started playing the saxophone. I'd already bought a couple of John Coltrane records ( 'Blue Train' was the very first jazz LP I bought ) and a couple of Charlie Parker records, but when I started to play the saxophone I really went out to find as much jazz as I could, and back then, before the internet, sometimes the only way to hear a record was to buy it! I used to go to Paris quite a lot in the 1980's and always brought back a lot of records! I used to go to shops in St. Michel, like Rive Gauche Musique, and Crocodisc and others I can't remember now! Some of my favourite records are the reggae records I still have from the 70's, LPs like Keith Hudson 'Flesh Of My Skin' and Count Ossie 'Grounation' and 'Tales Of Mozambique' also Cedric Brooks 'United Africa' which might be my favourite LP sleeve! And 45s like 'Black Up' by Karl Bryan and Count Ossie and 'Black Is Black' and 'Mun-Dun-Gu' by Im and David. Jazz-wise, John Coltrane's 'Afro Blue Impressions' is an LP that I have played to death over the years, it's not a rare record but it has the best, by a long way, version of 'My Favourite Things' on it, truly incredible music. Clifford Jordan's LP 'Glass Bead Games' is also one that I have played over and over and never got tired of. The very first jazz gig I did, we played 'Biskit' from that LP as the first tune so it has a special meaning for me! And 2 LPs that feature my favourite tenor player after John Coltrane, John Gilmore, one is 'Turkish Woman At The Bath' by Pete LaRoca, and the other is 'From In To Out' by Jamaican trumpet man, Dizzy Reece ( recorded live in Paris!! )
14. What job would you do in another life?
MH: The same one I do now, I love it!!
NB: Well really this is my 'other life'! Or put another way, in my other life, which I had already, I was a tree surgeon mostly! That was a long time ago, and I never thought that I would one day play the music that I loved to listen to so much. Even though it's what I wanted to do I wasn't brought up to believe that it could be possible to do what you really want to do, but learning all about the music has shown me that anything is possible in life really.
15. In which animal would you be reincarnated?
MH: It would have to be a peaceful and possibly lazy vegetarian animal, maybe a Koala or Sloth, but failing that I’d be a cat.
NB: You really have some different questions! I guess I would be a cat, but a wild cat, living in the hills! I don't like to rush around, just take my time and quietly get things done according to my own timetable!
16. What comes next?
MH: Lots of gigs across the UK and Europe and I’m currently working on a new album, which I plan to release later in the year. I’m also expanding Gondwana Records and I’m in the process of signing two new artists to the label.
NB: Who knows what comes next? I am just trying to make the music better, make my playing better, make my sound better. I'd like to release a new LP/CD every year until I leave the planet. Hopefully that will spur me on to keep making better records and to leave something for my children when I join the Celestial Arkestra!
Discography at Gondwana Records :
Matthew Halsall : On The Go (2011) - Colour Yes (2009) - Sending My Love (2008)
Nat Birchall : Sacred Dimension (2011) - Guiding Spirit (2010) - Akhenaten (2009)
Matthew Halsall : official | discogs | facebook | myspace | soundcloud | twitter
Nat Birchall : official | discogs | facebook | myspace | soundcloud | twitter
Gondwana Records : official | discogs | facebook | flickr | myspace | parisdjs | twitter | youtube
Higher Regions (unreleased outtake) by nat birchall
A Prayer For... by nat birchall