PREVIEW: Brigitte Beraha and John Turville at Cambridge Jazz Festival 2017

Brigitte Beraha and John Turville with the late Bobby Wellins (right),
their guest on the album Red Skies
Photo: artist website

London-based vocalist and educator Brigitte Behara is lined up to perform at Hot Numbers during the Cambridge Jazz Festival with pianist John Turville. She explains what’s in store, and why the piano/vocal duo is as strong a format as ever. Q&A by Matt Pannell.

LondonJazz News: What do you have in store for the people of Cambridge on 23 November?

Brigitte Beraha: John and I will be playing songs from our Red Skies album and much more. Expect our take on jazz and Latin standards, original material and other surprises.

LJN: Why do you like to work with John Turville?

BB: John is an incredible pianist and musician. We’ve known each other for years now and from the very first time we played together it felt really special. His playing is so lyrical and rhythmically exciting. We seem to be on the same page musically, so when we play together we really trust each other with any chosen trajectory. If we’ve gone down the right path the magic happens and it feels very special.

LJN: Your 2013 album, Red Skies, is a fabulously detailed recording. How does this music feel when it's translated from the controlled environment of the studio to a social setting like Hot Numbers in Cambridge?

BB: Ah, thank you! Well, we decided to record Red Skies as a direct consequence of playing together in a duo live setting. Even though we recorded in a ‘controlled environment’ we wanted to keep the same spontaneity we had playing live, so we went into the studio wanting to recreate that. A lot of what we recorded had no pre-conceived idea or complicated arrangements; we just wanted to ‘play’ and improvise the way we did live all those years. So playing at Hot Numbers is basically going back to the source, which is exciting for us.

LJN: You teach at several highly-regarded music schools. Do you find teaching a help or a hindrance, when you’re also developing and performing your own material?

BB: I love it. Teaching at conservatoire level keeps me on my toes and I couldn’t imagine one without the other now. I am lucky that I get to teach incredibly talented students who are basically the next generation of vocalists, so I learn a lot from them too. It’s important for me to keep growing and working on my own development in parallel to the teaching so I can always try to bring something fresh to the table when needed, and their excitement also feeds mine! It's also a reminder that we're all constantly learning at different stages of our musical journey. I just have to make sure that I manage my time properly in order to find the right balance between my own artistic pursuits and teaching. I'm lucky that it feels just about right at the moment.

LJN: How do you like to approach teaching? Is there a natural overlap (or not!) between the characteristics of good jazz musicians and good teachers?

BB: There are essential foundations to pass on to students which they expect to receive at music college, but to be a good teacher I think one also needs to cater for the students' individual needs and for that to happen there must be good communication. Similarly, to be a good jazz musician not only does one have to be in control of the instrument and the idiom, but it’s also important to be able to communicate and listen to each other. Often, to create something special, embracing the unknown and searching together is part of the fun, and this applies to teaching and learning, and playing jazz.

LJN: Cambridge Jazz Festival is relatively new, yet has attracted some interesting names from London and further afield. What do you make of this?

BB: I think that's brilliant! Looking at the programme it's great to see established and new names, artists of all ages and stylistically very diverse… a little bit for everyone.

LJN: The festival programme reflects our mixed-up musical world of hip-hop jazz fusion and the rest, but here we are discussing a piano/vocal duo. What is it about this instrumentation that gives it such strong and enduring appeal?

BB: I love the intimacy of that line-up, and, depending on the players, it allows plenty of interplay and space. Plus, of course, I'm sure the appeal also lies in it usually being a cheaper band to book than a ten-piece!

LJN: How do you gauge the health of jazz music in the UK? There seems to be a good supply of ‘emerging talent’ but is enough attention paid to developing new audiences, too?

BB: I think the jazz UK scene is stronger than it's ever been at the moment; there is so much talent bursting from every pore, it's so brilliant to see this happening and to be part of it. As for the development of new audiences, I think that's a constant struggle but people are trying to find new ways. I may not be the best person to talk about this, but my feeling is that it seems younger people are more into jazz these days than they were before, as hopefully the word 'jazz' is starting to lose some of its sometimes negative connotations. There seem to be new ways of making jazz accessible to them via things like 'pop-ups' and new schemes connected to companies like Airbnb, that offer something 'new' and 'different' for the general public to try out as a new sensory experience. The real challenge is for that audience to want to keep coming back after that one-off taster. People seem to be finding new ideas all the time, which is great. I'll leave that side of things to the good promoter who's job it is to make these things happen, and last!

LJN: Thinking specifically about vocal jazz, are there singers - present or past - that you feel are overlooked, whose work we ought to be paying more attention to?

BB: Anita Wardell and Christine Tobin instantly pop into my head. These are two of our contemporary vocalists who are really incredible at what they do. You and I - and hopefully most of the UK jazz scene - will know about them by now, though I am surprised that when I mention their names so many people still don't know who they are. In my view they deserve much wider recognition.

LJN: What got you into music?

BB: My dad first got me into music. He used to play piano for a famous Turkish pop star in the '60s and always entertained us at home with his 'variety' songs and his raucous voice. I used to sit at the piano and try to re-create what I'd heard, through the songs of The Beatles, Dire Straits or Elton John. Then fell in love with classical music and opera, and loved trying to sing every single part from beginning to end. (Verdi's Traviata was a firm favourite, not to the rest of my family, though!) Discovering jazz and falling in love with it didn't come till much later, when I first bumped into Coltrane - not literally though it felt like that, as it was a bit of a shock to the system to start with.

LJN: What are you listening to these days, and how does it make you feel?

BB: I seem to have gone back to listening to a lot of classical and contemporary music lately - especially Bach's organ works, which are extremely powerful (try Cochereau's versions - not for the faint-hearted). I don't think I will ever tire of them - nor the more barren Arvo Pärt. The same goes for what I see as a mixture of jazz and contemporary classical, so things like Kit Downes/Tom Challenger's Wedding Music and Vyamanikal, or Matthew Bourne's Moogmemory, which I can't stop listening to. I'm currently also obsessed with Ches Smith's The Bells, with Craig Taborn on piano and Matt Maneri on viola. All this music makes me feel the way I felt when I heard music for the first time. It makes me really inspired and excited about what's to come.

Brigitte Beraha and John Turville’s performance will take place at 7:30pm on 23 November, at Hot Numbers Coffee Shop, Gwydir St, Cambridge.

LINK: Cambridge Jazz Festival

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