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Radiohead, Q and serendipity set drummer's career soaring
OLLIE HOWELL has a habit of coming into contact by chance with people who go on to help him with his career as a musician. There was the time Philip Selway, the drummer with Radiohead who lived near the Howells, heard through the Oxfordshire grapevine while on tour that the twelve year old Ollie was looking to start playing drums. A pair of drumsticks duly turned up at the Howell household, labelled “from Phil”.
More recently, Howell, by this time into his mid-twenties, was being presented with the first-ever Sky Academy Arts Scholarship when Cam Blackwood approached him. One of the preeminent pop record producers of the past decade, with credits including Amy Macdonald, British Sea Power and Alabama 3, Blackwood offered to mentor Howell and guide him through the music industry. This resulted in Howell becoming an apprentice producer, arranger and orchestrator and has led to work on records by singer-songwriters Jack Savoretti and George Ezra and others in Blackwood’s artist development stable.
Howell’s best happy chance meeting, however, was when, as a nineteen year old student at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, he was asked to meet a recipient of an honorary doctorate at his hotel and act as his companion. The visitor turned out to be none other than Quincy Jones, arranger for Frank Sinatra, producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and all-round music business legend.
Jones heard Howell play drums and the pair hit it off, with Jones inviting Howell to Los Angeles to jam with some of his other proteges. Jones also offered Howell advice on recording his first album, Sutures and Stitches and helped him through his recovery from the brain surgery that inspired the album after Howell was diagnosed with a brain malformation.
The man often known simply as Q followed up this and other acts of encouragement by inviting Howell’s group, which tours in Scotland from tonight, to open his jazz club, Q’s Bar and Lounge in Dubai with a three-month residency starting last November.
“It was a crazy email from Quincy that led to us going to Dubai,” says Howell by Skype from his London flat. "He's been an incredible presence in my life since the day we met, giving me the confidence to start composing, all sorts of things. But what was the most amazing thing about his invitation to Dubai was that he didn’t want us to go out there and play standards. He wanted my band to play our own music because there isn’t a music scene there as such and he wanted to encourage musicians there to be creative.”
Howell and his band – saxophonist Duncan Eagles, bassist Max Luthert and pianist-keyboards player Matt Robinson – were encouraged to be creative also. With three sets a night to play over sixty-one appearances, it became a challenge – in a good way- to keep the music fresh.
“We had about six hours-worth of material, which is just as well because it wasn’t a case of one group of people coming in to listen to a set and then a different group replacing them for the next one and so on,” he says. “We had to keep impressing – and surprising – the same people over the three hours we were onstage. It’s a bit like the Beatles getting their thing together in Hamburg, I suppose, without the hardships they went through, and we’d try to make every solo go somewhere completely different in every tune every time we played it.”
With accommodation five hundred yards away from the plush Palazzo Versace Dubai, where Q’s Bar and Lounge is located, the residency was like being on an extended tour without the travelling from gig to gig.
“We benefited as a band like we would have done on a tour,” says Howell. “We’re all good friends and have been together for eight years now, so the band spirit was there before we went to Dubai. But in terms of developing the music it was a real boon. We’d recorded most of a second album, Self-Identity, a year or so before we went and I’d been spending quite a lot of time thinking about how we should finish it while doing other projects and working out business things like finding a new label and new management.
“So coming back to these tracks,” he continues, “and working on different ways of performing them live every night really helped firm up my ideas for completing the album. Shortly after we got back I signed with Ropeadope, an American company, who released Self-Identity this spring and I’m really pleased with the way that relationship’s going.”
One effect of Dubai is that Howell’s group, which was essentially an acoustic jazz line-up on its previous tour of Scotland in 2014, now features electronics, sparingly used. Saxophonist Eagles has been incorporating an effects unit for some time into Partikel, the group he and Luthert work in away from Howell’s band and with time to work on new ideas in Dubai, Howell began to experiment and complement Eagles’ effects.
Working as a composer and arranger when not leading his jazz group – he has a commission for London Chamber orchestra due to premiere in March – has developed Howell’s interest in instrumental textures. Also, as someone who plays drums because he wants to be involved in making music with other people, rather than through love of the drums, he was open to, as it were, adding more colours to his palette.
“I didn’t see the electronic thing coming, to be honest,” he says. “I just really loved the sounds that Duncan was able to make and wanted to try something similar. It hasn’t changed the music dramatically in terms of the jazz content. I have a laptop and a little keyboard set up beside my kit and I can add atmosphere without the electronics taking over.”
As we speak Howell’s group has just recently opened the new series of late night jazz concerts in the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room and he is about to go to a special BAFTA screening of The Energy Within, a short film for which he provided the musical score. Another film he worked on, Run Run as Fast as You Can, directed by Katie Smith, won Best Drama at the Los Angeles Film Awards last month and at the end of August Howell was seconded as shadow to Jules Buckley, the conductor of the Metropole Orkest, for the internationally lauded Dutch orchestra’s Prom performances.
Heady stuff but Powell is very much aware of – and grateful for – the role that the people who have encouraged him have played in his rising success. He is now an ambassador for Friends of Youth Music an organisation dedicated to giving all young people, irrespective of their backgrounds, access to music.
“I know from personal experience how music can change lives,” he says. “It helped me through my recovery from multiple brain surgeries and I think back to those drumsticks Phil Selway gave me. I don’t know what became of them but I know I used them until they snapped and didn’t keep them in a glass case as a memento, and if I gave someone a pair of sticks, I’d want them to do the same.”
The Ollie Howell Group plays The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh tonight [Wednesday, October 11]; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, Thursday, October 12; Tolbooth, Stirling, Friday, October 13; and Nairn Community & Arts Centre, Saturday, October 14.
From The Herald, October 11, 2017
Smith rises to the Coltrane challenge
Tommy Smith is celebrating turning fifty with two challenges. Firstly, this week at Rochester Jazz Festival in New York, the saxophonist is playing his first-ever solo concert.
Smith has played onstage by himself many times before. In the early noughties he toured his Alone at Last project to over forty venues across Scotland and further afield, working with soprano and tenor saxophones and samples of his late friend and collaborator Edwin Morgan’s poetry, natural sounds and special effects. He has also recorded alone, on his 2001 album Into the Silence, which saw him working with what was at one time the longest echo in the world in Hamilton Mausoleum.
The Rochester concert, however, will be his first time “playing with no help”, as he puts it, in front of an audience and it’s something he finds scary but at the same time, exciting.
“I’ve seen some great saxophonists playing completely solo and even someone like Michael Brecker, who used awesome virtuosity and fantastic technique to prolong his compositions in that setting, played too many notes,” he says. “It’s a really big challenge and there’s the temptation to fill the space available because you’re exposed by the silence, but to me space is important. It gives you time to reflect on what you’ve just played and what you’re about to play. It lets the music breathe. If you just play constantly, for the audience it’s like listening to someone talking non-stop, twenty to the dozen, and that can just get annoying.”
As with everything he does, Smith will have put much thought and preparation into his essentially improvised “naked saxophone” recital and in a way his reliance, in performance, on his imagination and especially on the pure, unamplified sound of his instrument is related to the second challenge he has taken on.
Back in February, Smith decided that the time was right to face something he’d been putting off almost since he began his career, a tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, John Coltrane. With the fiftieth anniversary of the great saxophonist’s death approaching on July 17 and conscious of his own mortality, Smith put a new quartet together to record an album comprising some of Coltrane’s best loved compositions and a few of his own pieces written in dedication to the master.
“It’s something that saxophonists do on every significant anniversary and I could have done one at any time, I suppose,” he says. “I actually recorded Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps on my first album, Giant Strides, when I was sixteen, but I’ve never felt ready to do a full-length tribute. I’m not sure I’m ready now, to be honest. Coltrane died when he was forty and here I am at fifty, still not playing at his level, but I felt, if I don’t do it now, I might never get round to it.”
He remembers his first exposure to Coltrane, as a teenage saxophonist in Edinburgh, and it didn’t go well. Up until this point Smith had been listening to Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon, players of an older school to Coltrane. He was inquisitive, though, and was already holding down a residency with his group at La Grenoille in Abercromby Place. So he saved up money from his weekly gig - £5 a time minus expenses such as reeds and bus fares – and went into a record shop in Cockburn Street. There he saw an album cover with Coltrane looking cool on it, sitting holding a soprano saxophone, and he decided to buy it.
When he got the album home and played it, he took it off after two bars.
“It was horrible,” he says. “I skipped through the tracks and just couldn’t get my head round what this guy was doing. So I put it back in the bag, got on the bus – it was a long way from Wester Hailes to Cockburn Street – and took it back to the shop but the guy in the shop refused to give me a refund or exchange it. Eventually, as my ear developed, I got into it – it was called Ascension – but it took some time.”
Someone, it might have been fellow saxophonist and broadcaster Gordon Cruickshank, pointed Smith towards Blue Trane, an earlier Coltrane album that was more conventional than the free jazz-slanted Ascension and showcased the rich sound and passion that Coltrane brought to everything he played without his later full-on intensity. Blue Trane became Smith’s entry point into a player whose music he has returned to constantly over the years.
Fast forward to February this year and Smith has called together pianist Peter Johnstone and bassist Calum Gourlay, two young musicians he has brought on through his own youth orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, an old colleague with whom Smith worked extensively in the early years of this century.
With no preparation – Smith sent all three their parts ahead of the recording – they went into the Castlesound studio in Pencaitland, just outside Edinburgh, and produced the imminent Embodying the Light over four or five hours.
“We’d never all played together before but I knew they were a group of good spirits with good energy,” he says. “The session was exhausting, because the concentration levels were intense, but it was fun, too, and considering we met in the studio, the album turned out well.”
The new group made its public debut in a short concert before an invited audience for BBC Radio Scotland’s new jazz programme, Jazz Nights at the Quay in early April. Smith, whose diary contains work with Norwegian double bass master Arild Andersen’s trio and pianist Brian Kellock, as well as his commitments with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course, has been itching to show it off in more detail since then.
He gets his wish at Edinburgh Jazz Festival next month and then has concerts booked throughout Scotland and beyond in the late summer and into the autumn. As with his solo saxophone concert the new group will feature the natural sound of their instruments only, something that Smith has been very keen on for some time. His duo with Brian Kellock eschews PA systems in favour of a more intimate presentational style and in Arild Andersen’s trio only the bass, which uses sound effects, is generally amplified.
“A few years ago my quartet at the time was about to start a concert when the PA blew up,” says Smith. “So we just went ahead and played without any amplification and we all listened harder and played better. The audience response was very positive too. It depends on having a drummer who can play really intensely without being too loud and a bass player with a big sound, which the new quartet has. The pianos we use have to be big enough to carry to the back of the hall and finding those can sometimes be difficult. But I much prefer playing acoustically because the audience gets to hear the true sound of the band – we sound the way we are.”
Embodying the Light is released on Spartacus Records.
Tommy Smith Quartet: Embodying the Light tours from September 26.
Tue 26: An Tobar, Tobermory
Wed 27: Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock
Thu 28: Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
Fri 29: Paisley Arts Centre
Sun 1: Eden Court, Inverness
Mon 2: Websters Theatre, Glasgow
Mon 23: Ronnie Scott’s, London
Wed 25: Capstone Theatre, Liverpool
Thu 26: Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
Fri 27: West Kilbride Village Hall
(Click on the logo above to find local jazz gig information)