Ollie Howell - how Radiohead, Q and serendipity helped rising star drummer's career
Photo by Rob Blackham
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.
Ollie Howell - taking inspiration from illness
Ollie Howell had a headache that wouldn’t go away. Looking back now he says he should have gone to see about it long before he did. But when you’re young and at college and everything that you’ve always wanted to do seems to be falling into place, you can delay things like going to a doctor. Add the arrival of two musical legends whose endorsement, support and encouragement would distract any young jazz musician and it’s easy to understand – if not condone – Howell’s neglect of his health.
“Over about a year and a half, this headache got worse and I tried to ignore it,” says Howell, who has been widely tipped as a drummer and bandleader to watch. “But eventually I realised I had to go and see about it and I was lucky because when they did a scan, they called me back for surgery the next day and if they hadn’t have caught it when they did, I could have become paralysed.”
The scan showed up a brain malfunction and two major operations were required before Howell was given the all-clear in January this year. A glass half full kind of chap, Howell even managed to create something positive from his illness, the debut album by the quintet he brings to Scotland next week for the first time, Sutures and Stitches.
“Being ill certainly seems to have been a catalyst,” says Howell. “I’d always composed music, going back to my teenage years with rock bands. But when I went to the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Drama, I stopped writing and concentrated on studying harmony and arrangement. Then suddenly, these ideas started coming so I wrote them down and soon I had a whole album’s worth of material and more.”
Learning the piano from the age of six helped bring these new compositions to fruition. Howell had shown a musical ear from an early age, when he’d pick out tunes he’d heard on radio and TV, and the piano teacher that his parents sent him to noticed and encouraged an aptitude for blues and jazz phrasing. It was the drums that Howell really wanted to play, though, and at the age of eleven he was given his first kit.
He wasn’t to know then that the great Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s multi-million selling Thriller album among hundreds of other achievements, would become an admirer or that Jimmy Cobb, who played drums on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, would take him under his wing, although he knew who they were from an early age.
“My folks listened a lot to Frank Sinatra when I was growing up and I loved Quincy’s arrangements on Sinatra at the Sands especially,” says Howell. “Then I went to Cardiff and the college decided that, since Quincy is one quarter Welsh, they should give him an honorary doctorate and I was delegated to fetch him from his hotel. We got on well immediately and after he heard me play on this students concert that they put on for him, he said to me, You can stick with me for the next few days.”
There followed meals together, invitations to New York, to Jones’s house in Los Angeles and to Montreux Jazz Festival. All the while, to begin with, Howell was trying to cope with the aforementioned headache. Then he met Jimmy Cobb at Hay on Wye Jazz Festival and a misunderstanding over a masterclass the great drummer had been invited to give meant that Howell’s band played to Cobb and his wife, rather than the fifty students that Cobb was expecting to address. Cobb, like Jones, was impressed by Howell’s drumming and Howell found himself hanging out in New York at Cobb’s invitation and giving a joint interview with him to Rhythm magazine.
“It’s been amazing meeting these guys,” says Howell. “And what makes it even more pleasing is that they saw me first about five years ago and I feel I’ve grown so much in that time. So they must have seen potential. They’ve been incredibly supportive and I still can’t believe that I’m going to Los Angeles to see Quincy Jones to discuss my next album in a few weeks.”
Other people have endorsed Howell’s talents. He won the prestigious Peter Whittingham Development Award in 2012 and is the first musical recipient of a Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, which will result in a television documentary being screened on the Sky Arts channel next year.
“I’ve had lows as well as highs and I do have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure the highs are real,” he says. “But having got the all-clear medically, my main focus is on my band who are all good friends. That’s important because if you’re going to be stuck on a motorway for hours, as well as playing onstage together, you want it to be with people you get on with.”
From The Herald, September 2014