Paul Harrison - the recipe for Sugarwork


There’s a long tradition in jazz of bandleader- composers writing music specifically with the musicians they’ve chosen in mind. From Jellyroll Morton writing tunes to showcase trombonist Kid Ory’s talents in the 1920s and Duke Ellington giving trumpeter Cootie Williams the spotlight in his 1940s recording Concert for Cootie through to today’s young orchestrators like Northern Irish adventurer Sid Peacock and Scotland’s own Jonathan Silk, it’s an established practice.


So, in that sense, Paul Harrison’s framework for his new group, Sugarwork, is the work of a traditionalist. What Harrison hopes to achieve with the three players he has chosen to work with, however, is something completely new.


As well as being one of the most gifted pianists on the British jazz scene, whose resourcefulness makes him equally at ease playing the Jellyroll to Mingus repertoire of drummer Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra and the state of the art big band charts of saxophonist Dave Liebman’s 2013 indenture with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Harrison is also a passionate explorer of electronically generated sounds.


He was the tone generating brain behind one of Scottish jazz’s most pioneering bands of recent times, Trianglehead’s fusion of jazz-based improvising and electronica and for some time now he and drummer Stu Brown, who can turn his hand to revitalising the work of animated film composer Raymond Scott, have been working together in a duo at the very edge of the electronic avant garde, Herschel 36.


“The fusion of electronica and improvised music is something you hear about all the time these days and I’ve seen so many projects described along these lines and generally been disappointed by them,” says Harrison, who in his “day job” passes on his piano knowledge to students on the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “So I’m acting on the need to do things my way and see what happens.”


To the established duo of Brown and himself, Harrison has added saxophonist Phil Bancroft and guitarist Graeme Stephen, both players with a firm grasp of what’s gone before in jazz on their respective instruments but who are committed to finding new things to say in their own music.


“On a social level they’re guys I used to see and play with regularly in Edinburgh before I moved through to Glasgow to teach at the RCS and as musicians they’re people I really admire,” he says. “So when I thought about Sugarwork, my idea was to take Herschel 36 as a starting point and see what it would be like as a more structured beast with two strong players added who along with Stu will, I hope, transform what I’ve written and contribute their own ideas too.”  


Over last winter and spring Harrison spent a lot of time working on ideas for Sugarwork. With fewer gigs in his diary than he was used to having he was able let his imagination roam freely in long bursts of composition.


“Some of the things I’ve written are melody-based electronic tracks that have made me think, What could Phil, with his big sound and strong improvising style, do with this tune?” says Harrison. “Graeme also has great imagination, so the melodic aspect really appealed to me. But then other ideas are more textural where I can create sounds with my laptop and see what the other three can add, either acoustically, in Phil’s case, or electronically because Graeme has all his looping gear and Stu can add electronic effects to his drums.  I have a fair idea of what it’s going to sound like through working on a computer but adding the spontaneous human element is what excites me.”


The argument against technology being used in an essentially acoustic music such as jazz is that the sounds created tend to date the music to a specific period. Harrison is very aware of this.


“If you listen to what Joe Zawinul was doing with Weather Report in the 1970s it still sounds fresh, unlike a lot of synthesiser-based music from the time,” he says. “So it can be done. I’ve also been really impressed by a more recent band, Troyka, and the way they use electronica very creatively in what’s still to all intents and purposes a jazz band. The idea with Sugarwork is that we take the audience on a trip. I’m not going to speak during the performance, just let the music do the communicating and create a lot of different colours and images.”


Paul Harrison’s Sugarwork plays The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh on Thursday, July 23 as part of Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. For full details of the festival, log onto


From The Herald, July 1, 2015.


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