As the eighth anniversary of Total Refreshment Centre – the de facto home of London’s flourishing jazz scene – approaches, the man behind it is gearing up for a special show as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
Lex Blondin has been digging through the back catalogue of Blue Note, the influential music label which was at the forefront of jazz in the 1960s. Having unearthed a collection of catchy and overlooked tunes, he’s also enrolled the cream of the crop of UK jazz to re-work them. Emma-Jean Thackray, the Free Movement Ensemble, and a TRC supergroup made up of members of Maisha, the Rosie Turton Quartet, and more will put their own stint on these jazz classics for Total Refreshment Centre and Blue Note on Friday 15 November.
But before that, we caught up with Blondin himself to discuss jazz, the art of the cover, Blue Note and the mysterious role and legacy of A&Rs...
Southbank Centre: Your Church of Sound gigs at St. James the Great Church quickly established a loyal following, and were very well received. How did that series first come about?
Lex Blondin: I had been experimenting with the Songbook format on a couple of gigs I organised with Shabaka Hutchings and the Comet Is Coming lot at Total Refreshment Centre. The renditions were faithful in the sense that the melody or hooks were very recognizable, but each musician’s individuality shone through.
The idea of doing it in a church came from my friend and partner in crime Spencer Martin. He had built relationships with a couple of churches in Hackney, where he would use them as rehearsal space for this band Lunch Money Life, in exchange of him playing the organ on Sunday mornings. He came to me with the idea and it was just great timing, as I wanted to expand on what I’d tried and tested at TRC.
Jazz, perhaps more so than any other strand of music, has a strong tradition in covers and reworkings of tracks. Why do you think that is?
Jazz musicians have an infinite number of ways they can make a theme or motif very much their own, be it through arrangements, instrumentation, and in today’s context, production. There is no set recipe for a jazz tune, unlike say pop music, so there are many ways jazz musicians can come up with a new structure or concept to approach a cover. An existing melody could be compared to a subject that a painter might use as inspiration, the end result will be determined by the artist’s influences and palette, and his or her individuality.
Also, improvisation is a big part of what defines jazz, and this is where musicians bring something unmistakably theirs. McCoy Tyner’s solo on Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’, which in itself is a cover from The Sound Of Music is a good example of that. Some artists will find inspiration in the everyday; Duke Ellington’s ‘Daybreak Express’ is inspired by the sound of trains in New York City. If we look at sounds this way, everything is a cover of something.
Is this show at Southbank Centre a continuation of your Church of Sound series? And, what prompted you to delve into Blue Note’s back catalogue?
It’s been a dream of mine to tackle the Blue Note catalogue for a while and I was waiting for an occasion as dreamy as the songbook, so when EFG’s London Jazz Festival mentioned that date at the Queen Elizabeth Hall I knew It was the right time.
Blue Note have of course been around since the 1930s, how did you hone in on a particular era?
The early 1960s is the golden age of the label for me. If we pick the year 1964 alone, we find classics like Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’ or Horace Silver’s ‘Song For My Father’, but there are also a lot of influences from West Africa, and Brazil. Both Salomon Ilori and Art Blakey expanded their usual quintets into Afro-Drum Ensembles, whilst others got inspired by the sounds emanating of Brazil, with tunes such as Donal Byrd’s ‘Cristo Redentor’, Kenny Dorham’s ‘Sao Paulo’ and Charlie Rouse’s ‘Bossa Nova Bacchanal’. It was just an immensely rich period for jazz, and I love it all to bits.
In curating this event, would it be fair to say you’re essentially mimicking the work of some of the A&Rs of that 1960s period, in identifying the perfect blend of composition and artist?
It’s difficult to have a clear image of what A&Rs were up to in the 1960s. From what I’ve read, Blue Note artists were always encouraged to follow their creative instincts and the label was just there to capture the experience as well as possible.
But there were also key figures like Ike Quebec who, as an A&R, had a key role in Blue Note’s early days, bringing people like Thelonious Monk for their first sessions for the label. Still, I can’t imagine him or anyone wanting to steer Mr Monk away from his already unique trajectory. That said, if the meeting of like-minded musicians didn’t happen organically, an A&R out and about in all the jazz clubs would be in a good position to suggest collaborations.
For the Songbooks, the way I approach it is more of a discussion with the artists, making suggestions around a curational angle I’m looking to explore. But the artists have to be inspired by the material they will work on, and the way they rework the tunes is totally up to them.
A&Ring to me also means going out to gigs , listening to demos, sitting in rehearsals and from there giving feedback. I really believe that creating the right environment and being surrounded with the right people will influence how well a session will go, so I make sure these things are in place.
In the latest documentary about Blue Note, there’s a scene where Herbie Hancock imitates Alfred Lion’s dancing, stating that when he got that wiggle on, they knew they had the take, that dance is a form of feedback that I practice too [laughs].
How easy is it to match an artist with a track? And which way round do you find yourself working? Are you finding the perfect track for an artist; or the perfect artist for a track?
There’s a lot of music that I carry with me at the back of my brain at all times. Some musicians’ particular sound, touch and artistry is instantly recognizable to me, so when I hear someone play live, I will often hear connections with other artists that came before them.
A good example of that was the way our first Songbook night at Church Of Sound, where I got Yussef Kamaal to play the music of Idris Muhammad. Having seen the duo’s Yussef Dayes play with the band Ruby Rushton, I was tripping out on how much his playing reminded me of Muhammad’s style. I mentioned it to him and it turned out it was no coincidence; his dad used to play him those records a lot when he was younger so it was in him. It was a match made in heaven.
A good knowledge of music, or a strong record collection must be vital for divining the ideal pairing of artist and composition?
Having a strong collection is essential, but even more essential is to listen to it a lot. That’s how you train your ear to recognise a musician’s particular touch, a producer’s sounds. Having been introduced to jazz through the samples used in the golden years of hip-hop, I’ve always kept an ear out for references of past works in music. It has been an obsession of mine for a while now.
Is there a difference in how A&Rs work these days? Presumably profit and potential sales will be the overall driver for the bigger labels, but are people out there still keeping the music-led A&R spirit alive?
An A&R’s main role these days is to get an artist signed to a label. Most artists these days have the capacity to produce an album themselves. If a label wanted to steer artists in a certain direction, they would pair them with a producer who would have a more hands on approach and give feedback on the go. That said, I think it’s still useful for young bands to have someone help them polish a vision to produce a coherent project. Producers are today’s A&Rs.