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Lucky break helps trumpeter look to the future
Jay Phelps is great believer in the possibility of good outcomes from bad situations. The Vancouver-born trumpeter cracked a rib while rescuing his mother’s dog from the canal where she moors her houseboat. The injury would be a painful experience for anyone but for Phelps it had the added effect of putting him out of work temporarily.
A favourable solution was at hand, however. Searching the internet, Phelps found a flight to Thailand for £200. He has a friend there so he knew he would have accommodation, although he wasn’t expecting to find himself being given the run of the family’s beach condo, where he was able to spend every day composing music as he looked out over the ocean.
“It was a golden moment,” says Phelps, who brings his quartet to Scotland twice in the next few weeks. “It’s not often as a musician you get to work in such a relaxed way. I wasn’t listening to much music at all, other than what I was working on, so I was able to compose with a clear mind. I’d just wake up and go to work and it was a great feeling, really freeing.”
The fruits of these relaxed labours take up much of Phelps’ new album, Free As The Birds, which will be released this autumn. It’s the music he’ll be playing on his Scottish concerts and, he says, it marks a transition from the old Jay to the new Jay.
As he approached his mid-thirties – he’s lived in London for half his life, having left Canada at seventeen in 1999 – Phelps began to feel that he needed to change within himself and within his music.
“I want to be current, be a part of my generation,” he says. “The old me was a purist for the jazz tradition. I was an old fogey. In fact, I was an old fogey when I was quite a young musician, whereas the new me is open to whatever. I’m thankful for the old me because it gave me the playing ability that’s got me this far but this new album is a sign that I’m growing, looking forward.”
Phelps’ arrival in London as a teenager was initially daunting, he says. He didn’t take long to find his feet, however, thanks to his then step-father, trombonist Dennis Rollins and a network of musicians he was able to plug straight into including Courtney Pine and the London big band Tomorrow’s Warriors.
Having been coached by Vancouver’s top jazz and classical trumpet players, he had a highly developed playing style and was quickly seen as an asset for his knowledge of his instrument’s history. Gary Crosby, the bassist who runs Dune Records and leads Jazz Jamaica, was an early supporter and encouraged Phelps to form and co-lead Empirical, a band that achieved the rare distinction for UK jazz musicians of gaining world-wide attention.
Another admirer is Phelps’s boyhood idol, Wynton Marsalis who, in 2012, hired Phelps to play with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in performing Marsalis’s Congo Square. A ground-breaking evocation of the corner of Marsalis’s native New Orleans that was the only space in America where African slaves could play their own music, it was, says Phelps, a weighty work.
“It was an amazing experience for me, doubly so because I was given Wynton’s chair,” he says “I had to take his solos while my childhood hero conducted me. It was hard music but it made me a better player all round. It certainly made me practise a lot more and it taught me to perform better under pressure and to play at a high level whatever the circumstances.”
Aside from his recuperative trip to Thailand, Phelps has spent much of the past two years travelling. He toured to New York, Hong Kong and Brazil with director Peter Brook’s play The Suit and enjoyed being able to experience the food, the culture and the people rather than the hectic itinerary of hotels, venues and airports that goes with a musician’s normal tour schedules.
That experience, as well as touring with two of Brazil's great musical exports, Ed Motta and Banda Black Rio and Afrobeat Master Orlando Julius, has also fed into Free As The Birds, where Phelps sings for the first time as a professional musician.
“I used to sing in a jazz choir, and I’ve dabbled over the years, and then I wrote the track Angel for the album with the intention of hiring a singer,” he says. “People have asked why I don’t sing so I thought, let me try it. Now I’m singing with the band. I sing through the horn anyway, because that’s the truest way to play, direct without a bridge between you and the instrument, and I think singing adds something. It gives me a deeper scope.”
Jay Phelps Quartet plays Jazz Bar, Edinburgh on Wednesday, May 24; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Thursday, May 25; Glasgow Jazz Festival, Wednesday, June 21; Tolbooth, Stirling, Thursday, June 22.
From The Herald, May 24, 2017
photo by Kris Kesiak
Catriona McKay - My Instrument
When Catriona McKay took up the harp, she didn’t so much acquire a third instrument as collect her passport. The Glasgow-based Dundonian was already studying piano and playing organ in St Mary’s Parish Church, one of Dundee’s imposing City Churches with its locally famous Old Steeple, when in her early teens she took a notion for the harp.
“I’ve no idea where this came from,” she says. “I just got this idea that I should play the harp.”
Things may be different nowadays but back in the late 1980s and early 1990s Dundee wasn’t exactly harp central. There was one player of the clarsach, or Scottish harp, that McKay was put in touch with in slightly mysterious circumstances, Fiona Davidson, now best known as a keeper of the storytelling harper tradition, and she agreed to give McKay lessons.
“My mum was a ballet teacher and she used to hold demonstrations in the Caird Hall, so she knew the caretaker there,” says McKay. “Maybe she said something to him but there was an open day in the hall and Fiona was there, and apparently the caretaker told her I wanted to play the harp and off we went.”
Except, the pupil had no harp and for the first few months McKay would go along for a lesson every week and not practise between times. Not ideal but eventually McKay’s father got hold of a harp kit and put her first harp together, narrowly avoiding making it back to front apparently.
“That harp served me really well and it’s still around, although I’m not sure where exactly,” she says. “When I moved on to a better instrument I didn’t want it lying unplayed somewhere, so I gave it to some friends in Shetland. The last I heard it was in Unst, being used by student harp players, which is great, but the people I gave it to aren’t in Unst anymore, so who knows. I hope it’s still being played. I’m pretty sure it will be, knowing how highly Shetlanders regard music.”
Fast forward to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow where McKay took an honours degree in music, specialising in organ and pedal harp. On the same course, studying violin, was Chris Stout. McKay quickly discovered that Stout, originally from Fair Isle in the Shetlands, played traditional music. She approached him and asked if he fancied playing some tunes. His response on discovering that McKay played the clarsach, may cause him to look away now.
“He turned up his nose and said, Naah,” says McKay, laughing.
From this inauspicious beginning a partnership developed that now leads the field in daring explorations of traditions from Shetland to Brazil. Then, on a visit to Shetland not long after Stout relented, the pair having struck up a friendship with another student, piper, saxophonist and whistle master Fraser Fifield, McKay found herself taking the vacant piano stool in Fiddlers’ Bid, which Stout and some school friends had formed as fourteen year olds. McKay’s harp, as well as her keyboard playing, gave and continues to give the band another dimension.
To date, McKay and Stout recorded two duo albums of tradition meets white hot creativity as well as recording with Irish singer-accordionist Seamus Begley and collaborating with Stirlingshire-based composer Sally Beamish and the Scottish Ensemble, on their Seavaigers album. In addition, McKay has a working duo with nickelharpist Olov Johansson, of Swedish virtuosi Vasen. She has also recorded with electronics composer Alistair MacDonald and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and has guested with Salsa Celtic, Aidan O’Rourke, of Lau, and bassoonist Laurence Perkins, among other projects.
On all of these she plays her regular gigging clarsach, which she had her harp designers, Starfish, adjust specially for the first album with Johansson to match the baroque tuning system he uses for the sympathetic strings on his nyckelharpa. Away from stage and recording studio – mostly – however, she works on her own custom designed Starfish McKay harp, which featured on her album Starfish.
With a chromatic scale in the middle of the clarsach’s normal range (five extra strings, all with levers that when engaged raise the string a semi-tone) this favourite harp offers McKay all sorts of possibilities.
“It’s bigger than my gigging harp and I’ve never got round to buying a flight case for it, so it can’t travel with me, and that’s the way I like it,” she says. “I can try out things, new techniques, and although that can sometimes mean possibilities that are a bit of a challenge to transfer to a regular harp I usually manage to incorporate the ideas somehow.”
As we speak McKay and Stout are in the middle of recording the follow-up to their White Nights duo album and have larger scale works in the diary with Edinburgh-based chamber music adventurers Mr McFall’s Chamber, composer-arranger Henning Sommerro, who worked on fiddler Aly Bain’s orchestral album Follow the Moonstone, and Finnish pianist-composer Timo Alakotila.
The Starfish McKay harp probably won’t feature directly on these projects but McKay is certain that it will contribute to them in some way.
From Songlines, May 2017
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