NeWt - applying a Silken touch


She wasn’t quite a mail order bride but Silke Eberhard’s meeting with Edinburgh-based trio NeWt has certain similarities with that particular social phenomenon and perhaps against the odds, it’s turned into a very happy musical marriage.


An alto saxophonist and clarinettist from Berlin, Eberhard was one of a list of musicians recommended to NeWt by a friend of the group’s trombonist, Chris Greive, when they were looking for like minds to collaborate with on a Scottish Arts Council New Work project.


NeWt drummer Chris Wallace takes up the story: “I’d moved to the Netherlands temporarily just after we applied to the SAC for funding and I’d found a couple of musicians there who were interested in working with us. But when the letter came through saying we’d been successful, these guys turned out to be too busy. I’m not sure they believed that we were really going to come up with the goods to begin with but suddenly, there we were with the funding and no partner.”


An emergency phone call to the SAC reassured them that the project could go ahead with another musician – the idea being that this adventurous jazz group would step up both musically and in terms of profile by working with someone from the international scene. So Greive contacted a friend in Austria who knew both NeWt’s work and the kind of musician they were looking for and he furnished them with a set of options.


“John Hollenbeck, the New York-based percussionist and composer, was one of the people he suggested,” says Wallace. “And there were a couple of others whose work we knew but what we were looking for was someone who was at the same level as far as musical ability was concerned but who could give us something different and as soon as we looked into Silke’s background and saw what she’d been doing, although we’d never met her, we all knew that she was the one. Then when we actually got together, we hit it off socially as well as musically.”


Social compatibility has played a big part in the NeWt story so far. The group originally came together when Wallace inherited a rehearsal space in the basement of the Forest Café in Edinburgh’s university environs. The hip hop band he’d been playing with had split up and he found himself with a room where he could play music all day and into the night. To begin with he went along there and practised alone. Then he bumped into Greive, whom he’d met in another band. They’d talked often of doing something together. Now was their chance.


Trombone and drums didn’t strike Wallace as having a big future, so he invited guitarist Graeme Stephen along. Not long arrived from his native Aberdeen, Stephen was finding his way in Edinburgh and hadn’t met Greive before. But the trio got together and quickly discovered that they got on personally.


“We didn’t play many gigs in our first couple of years,” says Wallace. “We were really just trying to find out what worked. I mean, trombone, guitar and drums isn’t everybody’s idea of an ideal band line-up. But Chris brought in some electronics that enabled him to cover the bass angle at times and Graeme had developed a style of playing in other bass-less groups that meant he could be both guitarist and bassist when Chris was soloing, and we were really enjoying playing together, even if it was in private.”


Recorded in 2006 and released on Scottish indie label Fabrikant, the first, eponymously named NeWt album was designed to document the music that had developed through blending riffs, motifs and improvisations during their regular sessions in their mouldy old basement rehearsal space. There was no big promotion but as has become the way, the CD acted as a calling card with promoters and festival organisers. It was also to help open the door of the London-based FIRE Collective, the organisation that has brought forth leading bands including Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland over the past decade.


When NeWt got together with Eberhard and recorded NeWt 2 in 2009, the FIRE organisation quickly agreed to release the album and BBC Radio will be recording the group’s upcoming Manchester concert for broadcast on Jazz on 3.


“Raising our profile has just been one of the benefits of working with Silke,” says Wallace. “She’s also changed the way we approach our own music. When we first got together with her in Berlin, because she’s used to playing free improvisation as well as more disciplined music, she was able to just look at a sheet of music and suggest ways for us to approach something. I don’t know about the other guys in the band but I’d always felt a bit of a fraud playing free jazz. I love melody and structure and that’s what I’m used to playing, so before Silke came along, I’d worry that what I was doing in a free environment sounded like I was just messing about. But Silke showed us how to play freely with confidence and conviction.”


This united nations of a quartet – Wallace is Canadian, Greive is Australian – may not be set for a long life. Eberhard is joining NeWt on roughly half of their forthcoming UK tour but with NeWt 2 being re-promoted to coincide with the tour, there’s some further mileage to be gained from their partnership.


“We haven’t really talked about the future,” says Wallace. “We’d all like to work with Silke again at some point and I hope we will. She’s busy with other projects, though, and sometimes sorting out our three schedules for NeWt stuff is difficult enough. But she’s certainly left her mark on our music and when we get back to working as a trio again it’s going to be really interesting to see where we go musically from here.”


From The Herald, March 3, 2011.


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