Philip Clouts - exploring a world of jazz


You can take the boy out of South Africa but it seems that you really can’t take South Africa out of the boy. Even when the boy was very young at the time of removal, as was the case with pianist Philip Clouts, the music from the country of his birth can have a lasting effect.


Clouts wasn’t yet two when his father, the respected poet Sydney Clouts brought the family to London from Cape Town in 1961 to escape South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime. But growing up hearing the records that his parents had brought with them, he came to realise what was special about this music – it felt like home. And having played African music as an adult with musicians who settled in London as exiles, Clouts retains a strong feeling for it as well as for folk music from all over the world.


“Music was an important part of the soundtrack at home,” says Clouts, who brings his new quartet to Scotland for the first time this weekend. “I think my parents were able to associate the good times they’d known with the records they brought over. Then a cousin gave us an old upright piano and my two older brothers took lessons. I’d hear them practising and I was able to pick up by ear some of the things they were playing. So I got piano lessons too, although they weren’t such a great success.”


It was hearing the great Stan Tracey’s spiky, very physical solo piano playing on a television programme at the age of twelve that piqued Clouts’ interest in jazz. Through his teens he took jazz piano lessons from a kindly old chap who lived nearby and let the youngster play a few tunes on gigs in return for his roadie-ing services. Then university beckoned and while his time at Cambridge, where he studied social anthropology, included spells as a guitarist in a folk band and as the improvising pianist accompanying a student theatre production and some informal sessions with fellow jazz buffs, playing standards for fun, music was still very much a hobby.


Then came an epiphany. Shortly after finishing at Cambridge, Clouts realised that instead of studying other cultures, he really wanted to focus on his own culture and to do that through playing music. He was fortunate, he says, in that he returned to a London that offered the possibility of playing with and learning from African musicians including the pianist Bheki Mseleku, who became a mentor for a while, and the percussionist Thebe Lipere, who joined the first incarnation of the band that Clouts worked with for the next twenty years, Zubop.


“There was a lot of South African music on the London scene at that time in the 1980s,” he says. “I’d missed the Blue Notes live, being too young, but there were bands that had grown out of them and were carrying on that spirit that they’d brought over. Their saxophonist Dudu Pukwana was a real force in those days and, of course, listening to Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath was a huge inspiration.”


Even as Zubop was developing into a popular attraction around the UK – their 1990s tour of the Highlands has retained its magic for not a few people who caught them – Clouts continued to improve his piano technique formally. He studied with the one-time enfant terrible of British jazz but by now a much respected figure on the European scene, Howard Riley and with the classical pianist Michael Shak on his way to a post-graduate degree from the Guildhall in London. Later, Zubop joined forces with the BBC World Music Award-winning riti player Juldeh Camara, expanding into ZubopGambia.


African music remains very much at the heart of the groups Clouts has worked with since he moved from London to Dorset in 2006, although living in Thomas Hardy country has brought the added influences of nature, especially the sea, as well as other music. His recently formed quartet will feature music from his latest album, the Hour of Pearl, on tour but also new pieces including a homage to Nigerian human rights activist and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and something that developed from listening to South Italian folk music.


“I often just develop new music by improvising at the piano,” says Clouts, whose group features saxophonist Tom Ward, bassist Tim Fairhall and the Yamaha Jazz Scholarship-winning drummer Dave Ingamells. “But there are ways in which my composing has been shaped by both my father and my uncle Cyril Clouts, who created very expressive music in the 1960s and 1970s. My father was profoundly affected by the landscape around Cape Town, and I like to think that living near the sea has drawn me closer to his ability to express his response to nature, except I use notes where he used words.”


From The Herald, October 29, 2014.

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