INTERVIEW: Tom Arthurs (two new CDs in October + Berlin Jazz Festival on 3rd Nov)

Tom Arthurs. Photo credit: Fotini Potamia


Former BBC New Generation Artist Tom Arthurs is known for the range and breadth of his collaborations in jazz, free improvised music, electronica, contemporary classical and beyond. He has lived in Berlin since 2008, and will be performing at this year's Berlin Jazz Festival as part of pianist Julia Hülsmann's quartet (DETAILS). He also has two new albums out this month, and two relatively new trios. This seemed a good opportunity to catch up with the current priorities and collaborations of the Corby Northants-born, Berlin-resident trumpeter. Sebastian interviewed him:

LondonJazz News: How long is it now since you settled in Berlin and what directions have your life / music taken?

Tom Arthurs: I've been in Berlin now since 2008, so eight-and-a-half years. Many things have happened in this time – on all fronts - a lot of music, a lot of travels, a lot of experiences and a lot of learning…

LJN: Have there been different phases? 

TA: Yes. There was the period of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme, where, for two years I composed for orchestra and string quartet, and got to invite some of my favorite musicians to Maida Vale, to play in the Proms, and to write the music that became Postcards from Pushkin (with Richard Fairhurst). The NGA scheme very fortuitously followed a bike accident in my first week in Berlin (where I broke my teeth) so this opportunity really came in the right moment!

Simultaneously I was deeply checking out Berlin's Improvised Music scene, where, as well as all sorts of jazz-related stuff, there was also a very strong feeling in the air from the Echtzeitmusik community and the (post-)reductionist improvisers (a movement that had been particularly strong around the year 2000). So listening to everyone from Rudi Mahall and Tobias Delius, to Andrea Neumann and Burkhard Beins. Also the German-speaking world of new music, composers like Matthias Pintscher and Wolfgang Mitterer. In those first months I was out almost every night, just devouring that stuff.

LJN: And that listening had its effect? 

TA:  It was hugely influential for my playing on many levels - learning about real subtleties of sound, silence, dynamics, timing, and during this time I was working a lot on my sound and working out more of what I was really about as a musician (which is ongoing work in any case). (Hopefully) getting clearer, deeper, truer, also through meditation and qi gong. As well as this scene it was great to get to know the musicians of my own generation, and especially my friends from Glue (Miles Perkin and Yorgos Dimitriadis) and many musicians affiliated with Jazz Kollektiv Berlin, like Marc Schmolling, Philipp Gropper, Wanja Slavin and Ronny Graupe.

LJN: And then the playing started to really pick up? 

TA: The next years were really spent as a sideman in a wide range of projects – on one hand because of the decision to do a PhD about Improvised Music in Berlin, but on the other, because during my time in London I'd mostly just been doing my own thing (along with the F-IRE collective and so on), and I'd begun to see the limitations of that. So it was challenging and good to open up to so much different music - from minimal almost-silent improvisation, through almost-classical chamber music/improv (with Denis Badault's H3B, Miles Perkin's Quartet or Marc Schmolling's Ticho), through to more jazz-related playing with Julia Hülsmann, Maciej Obara and Stevko Busch. Recording for ECM with Julia was also an incredible experience, and working with Manfred Eicher and Jan-Erik Kongshaug in Rainbow Studios in Norway was totally inspiring - especially given how much of my favourite music they've produced (much of it even before I was born!).

Also, and equally important, was to be present in all sorts of situations, collaborations and contexts that I realised weren't for me (and where the feeling was probably quite mutual!).

At some point these different musical 'styles' were quite separate (still occasionally people come and ask if “I'm still doing the other stuff”), but in the end, no matter what the context, from my point of view, all of these musics have the same basic concerns of sound, space, listening, interaction, group-playing, timing in common, as well as the common goal of touching people and bringing about something beautiful and (hopefully) positive, in whatever small way we can.

Now, post-PhD and after a short time teaching as a guest at Jazz Institute Berlin, it's a new time again, and I'm really happy to be playing a lot and getting back to some of my own projects.

LJN:  You have TWO CD's coming out ?

TA: Two duo records from the electronic/improvised side of my output will be released in October 2016

– the first, Real Time Sound Sculpting Vol. 1 (Oct 7th, Vision of Sound) is with Simon Vincent, who I know since 1999 and with whom we've slowly been developing our music-making ever since. (LINK to iTunes with samples)

- the second, Vaucanson's Muse, released on the 21st is with Isambard Khroustaliov (aka Sam Britton), and is an LP on Not Applicable.

Both Sam and Simon are friends and collaborators for a long time, but the music we make is quite different – with Simon touching the absolute subtleties of sound and silence, with Sam more bubbling and energetic and also inspired very much by our experiences on a SoundUK tour in 2014, when we played graphic scores by Wadada Leo Smith and Cornelius Cardew alongside Joanna MacGregor, Oliver Coates and Elaine Mitchener.

I'm also really happy about the artwork for both – beautiful nature photos by Britt Hatzius complement the duo with Simon, and the LP with Sam comes with specially commissioned images by architect Will Alsop and a deeply intriguing essay by writer and musician David Toop.

LJN:  You mentioned a Ph D - what was the subject?

TA: My PhD was an ethnography of Improvised Music in Berlin - based on 70 concert visits and 34 interviews with musicians, listeners and promoters. The idea was to create a huge resource of people talking about their improvised musical practices in their own words – to provide access to this world of Improvised Music that many people (in my view, understandably) find difficult to understand and enjoy. Talking about why (if at all) it makes sense to record Improvised Music, how musicians practice and prepare, what does the word 'improvisation' mean in this context, what musicians are thinking about when they improvise, and also looking at practical aspects like making a living and the economics of the scene. Hopefully this will also be published in a more public and digestable form soon!

LJN:  What did you learn for your own musical activity from doing the PhD

TA: At first I was very keen to keep these pursuits separate, and I'm also a firm believer that to play well, you should pretty much learn to forget almost everything you've 'learnt' in the moment which you actually put the trumpet to your lips and play (not to say that learning as much as possible before this point is not, of course, essential!).

But inevitably I think the research has hugely widened my consciousness and field of possibilities in all of my musical output, although it hasn't really been in a conscious or concrete way. Definitely my listening is now deeper, my understanding of what other musicians are doing is stronger, and I think I'm probably more flexible and sensitive as both an improviser and interpreter.

Reading sociology also helped me to understand some fundamental truths about why our music has such a limited audience, and this has also lead to new projects and insights, such as my involvement in Sébastien Boisseau's Musique de Salon project in France (which brings Improvised Music into community centres and people's homes in a concert-discussion format). We are hoping to do something similar in Berlin in 2017.


LJN:  And you have two new trios, the first with Richard Fairhurst, and a Finnish percussionist?

TA: Yes, on what might be loosely termed the more jazz-related side of my music-making, I'm working with two new trios, also performing my compositions.

The first is a continuation of the work that pianist Richard Fairhurst and I began a few years ago with our Babel albums Postcards from Pushkin and Mesmer. The music has moved on a lot, but still here we focus on beautiful harmony, sound, lots of space, and as much beauty as we can muster. Now we started to play with Markku Ounaskari, a wonderfully poetic Finnish percussionist who has been on several ECM albums and has played with the likes of Sinikka Langeland and Tomasz Stanko. Again, I think what we do has slowly become deeper, softer, more mature, and we are looking forward to get started with some performances soon.

LJN: And there's another trio too?

TA: The second trio returns to the kind of half-improvised half-composed no-holds barred stuff that we started with Arthurs.Høiby.Ritchie 10 years ago, but this time in another international combination, with French bassist Sébastien Boisseau (who I met first through a meeting of European collectives, around 2008, and through our work with H3B and saxophonist Mathieu Donarier) and Jon Fält – the wonderfully flexible and effervescent drummer from Sweden, best known for his work with Bob Stenson's trio.

I'm definitely looking forward to getting out and about over the next couple of years with these projects, and recording and releasing the music too.


 LJN:  And you are at the Berlin Jazz Festival on November 3rd with German pianist Julia Hülsmann....

TA: Yes, following our two ECM records (In Full View and A Clear Midnight), I've been playing a lot for the last 4 years with Julia Hülsmann in quartet and quintet (with Theo Bleckmann). The interplay and understanding in the group just gets deeper and deeper and we've also been very lucky to travel a lot with this band. Our next collaboration is a commission from Jazzfest Berlin on November 3rd, where we will be inviting Anna-Lena Schnabel – a young saxophonist from Hamburg.

LJN:  What you've been listening to? / Who have you heard in Berlin recently?

TA: I'm listening to a lot of different things – I was recently at a concert of Ensemble Intercontemporain playing the music of Matthias Pintscher, but I've been listening a lot to an incredble duo album of Chet Baker and Paul Bley (Diane, from 1985) and the Brazillian singer Gal Costa – I'm totally hooked on this strange and wonderful album India, from the 70s. Also field-recordings of 1950s Portuguese folk music, and some nice recent releases by friends and colleagues, including Benoît Delbecq's latest trio release, Kari Ikonen's trio, Marc Schmolling's solo, and Field, a Berlin-based band led by saxophonist Uli Kempendorff. Also important recently was the film Cemetary of Splendour, by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Probably not to everyone's tastes, but I loved it.

LJN:  Other plans?!

TA: Yes, many things in the works, including duo playing with Achim Kaufmann, some guesting with Julie Sassoon's next release, Almut Kühne's new project “Inbetween Skies”, a project with Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara exploring the work of Ligeti, a second Ticho album, and another international quartet with Swiss saxophonist Nicolas Masson, Patrice Moret and Emanuele Maniscalco!

As they say here… viel zu tun! (pp)

LINK: Tom Arthurs website

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