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Peter Johnstone - Scottish accents


“It’s good to know that you’re on the right track,” says Peter Johnstone of his success in winning the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year 2012 title in August.

Having appeared in the previous five finals and watched friends and band mates step up to receive the first prize each time, twenty-two year Peter must have thought that the title was always going to elude him. But his success at the sixth attempt is a tribute not only to his piano playing - and composing – talent but also to the dedication he’s shown since beginning jazz piano lessons at the age of sixteen.

Although he actually began playing piano aged five, it wasn’t his first instrument. His mother being a violinist wanted Peter to follow her example and started him on a small violin at a very early age. He decided it wasn’t for him, however, and persuaded her that he would apply himself to the piano instead. And he did: he spent ten years studying classical piano, which gave him a good basis for switching to jazz. But there’s another twist to this story.

When he was eight, Peter took up the trumpet and went on to play in youth big bands (he could still do a job on trumpet if asked) and it was this that turned him on to jazz.

“I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before but I must have been in fifth year at school and I was listening to the radio one night when an Oscar Peterson track came on,” he says. “And I suddenly thought, I could translate what I’ve been doing on the trumpet onto the piano.”

He began taking lessons with Paul Harrison, pianist and keyboards player with Scottish groups Trianglehead and Breach and now jazz piano tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, travelling through to Edinburgh from his home in Milngavie (pronounced “Mull-guy”),  just outside Glasgow. Then, having joined Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra on trumpet he was able to call on Dave Patrick’s tuition at Strathclyde University. Gigs on piano with the university’s smaller jazz combo led to SYJO chief Stewart Forbes suggesting that there might be an opening for a young piano player at Bill Kyle’s Jazz Bar in Edinburgh on Saturday afternoons.

So began an intense ‘apprenticeship’ and some good training for the life of a jobbing musician. Trio gigs at the Jazz Bar on Saturdays led to Peter playing piano in the venue’s big band on Mondays and often appearing in the World Premiere Quintet, where five musicians who might not have met before are thrust together on the Jazz Bar stage and decide the repertoire on the spot.

At this point Peter was also playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland and its more compact Collective and was shortly to enrol on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course and join the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra. There were other gigs on the horizon, including drummer Corrie Dick’s quintet with whom Peter recorded the Scenes for Someone digital album.

“Looking back on my first year at the Conservatoire, or RSAMD as it was back then, I remember always feeling very tired,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t drive at the time and I’d go through to the Jazz Bar on Mondays, do the big band and the late night jam till 3am, stay in a hostel, get the bus back to Glasgow in the morning for a 9am lecture and then head back to Edinburgh at night for the Tuesday jam.”

The RCS jazz course, he says, is totally inspiring. It’s been a great help in developing his own trio with fellow students, bassist Brodie Jarvie and drummer John Lowrie, and working alongside Tommy Smith, both on the course and in the saxophonist’s youth orchestra, has proved hugely motivating.

“Tommy encourages you to compose right from the start and that’s something I’ve been working on a lot for my trio,” says Peter. “It’s also been great getting to record with TSYJO and to play the same charts as the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – as it has such a vast and diverse library. I’d like to record with my own trio at some point and get out and play outside Scotland. There’s a gig at London Jazz Festival as part of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year prize, which is a scary thought at the moment. But I feel really comfortable playing with Brodie and John. I think we’re developing a definite group identity and it would be great to get out there and let people hear it.”

From JazzUK, October-November 2012

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