INTERVIEW: Lizy Exell and Old Hat / #IWD2015

Lizy Exell (second from right) and Old Hat

Lizzy Exell told Sebastian about the origins of her enthusiasm for old jazz, and the story of the band she leads, Old Hat, which has just launched its debut EP: 

LondonJazzNews: You're from Dorking, so I'm guessing being a listener at the Watermill will have been significant for you?

Lizy Exell: I went to the Watermill Jazz Club virtually every week from the age of 14 after being introduced to the place by my then drum kit teacher, Peter Howland. The first time I went, I saw Martin Drew play with the New Jazz Couriers (Mornington locket and Jim Hart were in the band I think… though its 10 years ago) and Martin knocked me for 6. I was delighted and astonished by the sound, feel and interactive of what he could get out of the drums. Up to that point I had listened to pop, rock and little bit of funk, but nothing so intricate, musical and astonishing as what Martin could do. He left me with tears in my eyes and a gust of inspiration that still pushes me today.

I saw a very broad spectrum of jazz during the 3 or 4 years I frequented the club. I remember Art Themen, Peter Cater Big Band, Pete King, Pete Saberton the sublime pianist, Sax Appeal (Derek Nash’s energy and enthusiasm has always inspired me) and Curfew, Kit Downes, Emprical, Nikki Iles, Gene Calderazzo and Dave Wickins…..

I think it was the best introduction to jazz anyone could ask for, to see the greatest musicians in London popping down for the evening. It was a blessing to be so close to London at the time when I was very hungry to hear everything but unable to go to London for gigs.

LJN: The historic jazz course at Trinity Laban in general and Malcolm Earle Smith were the original spark for this band, right? 

LE: Old Hat started after we saw Malcom Earle-Smith’s band the Nevada Street 4 playing at Oliver’s jazz bar in Greenwich. Malcom taught us jazz history at TrinityLaban and the other members of is band were: Colin Good, Martin Wheatly and Richard White. Their virtuosity and fluency in the style was breathtaking and their playfulness and enjoyment of the music was at once entertaining and engaging and unlike other jazz performances I had seen up till then. They were stellar musicians who had music pouring out of them effortlessly and performing too and the audience loved it. The fun they had with the music and the beauty of the sounds was so compelling to me that I decided I wanted to play this music which united the band and the audience on many levels.

LJN: And what enthused you in their gigs was the audience reaction?

LE: I have always wanted to play music which grooves and makes people want to dance, is widely accessible and appeals to as many people as possible because I think these are among the principle functions of folk music (which I think jazz is in a way) and doing them well is a beautiful thing. I have been so fulfilled in my time playing with Old Hat by our audiences reaction and interaction. We have played for so many different types of people and we’ve been consistently well received and appreciated for what we’ve been intending to do. We’ve played in bars, theatres, music halls, village halls, restaurants, parties, swing dance balls and jazz clubs to a very broad selection of people and we’ve moved them, physically and emotionally and I feel it’s because we are playing a style of music which relates to everyone and was developed for the people with a spirit as applicable today as it ever was.

LJN: So you got some fellow students interested? Who were the first ones on board?

LE: Will Scott (reeds) really introduced me to this music live and he loved it too and so was first pick to play clarinet. We were already playing together a lot in Will’s band, On The Roof (recently gigged at the vortex as part of Chaos Collective) which includes Mike Soper (tpt) and Louis Thomas (bass) and Elliot Galvin. These people all played in Old Hat apart from Elliot Galvin because at the time I was flat sharing with Chris Eldred who I also really admire, so I asked him to play piano and he was fantastic! So I scooped up these musicians I felt really comfortable with (who are all great friends) and transcribed a load of old songs and we got together to listen to some old versions and to play them and we had some coaching from Malcolm Earle-Smith too.

We had Adam Tyas, a fantastic bluesy trombonist, join us on Will’s recommendation but he toddled off to play on the cruise ships. I hope he comes back soon! We have had James Kitchman on guitar from the beginning who is a fantastic rhythm player and, as you can hear on our EP, a very sensitive musician and melodic improviser. Later, when deps became necessary, we added Simon Marsh to the jazz soup and he now plays with us whenever possible (gigs with a bigger band or as a dep when others are unavailable). So we were all at TrinityLaban. 8 months into forming the band, we met Ewan Bleach who was excited to find new young jazz musicians to play with and we were thrilled to play with him at his regular nights at Passing Clouds on a Wednesday and at Jamboree on a Thursday as Old Hat and as part of his band. He is now a regular member too. We changed pianists as Chris became busy with other projects and Joe Webb, an extremely tasteful and grooving pianist joined us.

LJN:  And how did you get your first gig ?

LE: Our first gig came to us by chance through Trinity Laban email. Some events production students were looking for a band for a swing night. We replied and got the gig and the dance educators Swing Patrol were also involved in the night and we met some of their students and organisers and we were picked up by them for various events. I had also investigated the scene and as I said we ended up meeting Ewan Bleach and playing as part of the circuit he has established.

LJN:  What's the biggest gig so far?

LE: We did some Rural Touring in November which was, for me, hugely enjoyable and rewarding. We were in village halls around Kent and Sussex and we played for hundreds of people who loved what we do, met some lovely people and got to see some fascinating new places. We’ve played for several swanky parties, including the annual office party for Moet-Hennessy. We’ve played to packed clubs in Brixton and East London, jazz clubs in towns near London and in theatres too. We have not yet played enormous venues or to crowds of thousands. I would not turn down offers from big venues, but there is something wonderfully intimate about the kinds of gigs we do: we see them smile and dance, we see their faces when we play and we chat to the audience afterwards and make friends with a lot of the regulars too.

LJN:  And what matters is the spirit?

LE: Early jazz has a wonderful direct spirit to it. The music is emotionally tangible and the songs are universally applicable to people: It is a people’s music, as Sidney Finkelstein wrote. A regular dancer and sit-in singer at our gigs recently told me about Dr Michael White of Tulane University in New Orleans who had been an avid collector of early jazz artefacts which were all destroyed in Hurricane Catrina. He wrote an album called Blue Crescent after this tragedy and in the linear notes, said the disaster had made him realise that it was the spirit of the music that was most precious and couldn’t be destroyed. We hope to play with this fervour and direct intensity and intimacy and to keep it alive and healthy as part of the London jazz scene and keep it growing.

LJN: And you're launching the EP - where and when, or did we miss it?

LE: We have written an EP of original songs and stomps. It was launched on 27th February at Jamboree, in Cable Street,  E1. It was a great night with an 8-piece band playing the music from the EP and other new original tunes by Will Scott and Andre Oliver; Stomps and rags from the 20s and 30s; Will Scott and Andrew Oliver (our co-pianist) playing duet in the style of Omer Simeon / Johnny Dodds and Jelly Roll Morton and our good friend and DJ, pie eye collective, re-imagining our EP and DJing with live electronics.

GIGS

Tuesday, March 17, 2015
The Blues Kitchen Shoreditch
134-146 Curtain Road, London, EC2A 3AR
Set: 10:00 PM

Friday, March 20, 2015
In it to swing it! @ Upstairs at the Ritzy
Brixton Oval, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton
Set: 9:00 PM

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
The Blues Kitchen Shoreditch 134-146 Curtain Road, London,
Set: 10:00 PM

Friday, April 10, 2015
Nightjar
129 City Road, London, EC1V 1JB

LINK: Old Hat website

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