PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Calum Gourlay (Big Band 1st Anniversary Gig, Vortex, 19 February 2018)

Calum Gourlay Big Band
Photo credit: Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian

Bassist CALUM GOURLAY's Big Band, which plays a monthly Monday night gig at the Vortex, is one year old. The band will celebrate its first birthday... with a Monday gig at the Vortex... on 19 February. Interview by Sebastian

LondonJazz News: You come from a part of the country – the East of Scotland – which has a strong big band culture. Where does that come from and what were the bands you played with as your playing was developing?

Calum Gourlay: I was lucky growing up playing in a lot of great youth big bands. FYJO, NYJOS, and Tommy Smith’s Youth Jazz Orchestra. I think a big band is a great way to start playing jazz if you’re a beginner. Or even if you’re not... It teaches you all the basic disciplines that playing jazz requires if you want to get good at playing with other people. It’s how a lot of the masters started their early careers and seems like how a lot of people learned music in the first place.

LJN: Although you live in London, you keep links to Scotland and play regularly with SNJO. What projects have you done recently?

CG: So many recently! We just did two sold-out nights at Ronnie Scott’s playing Ellington with Brian Kellock and Joe Locke’s arrangements of Mandel/Mancini. Next week in Scotland we’re playing a brand new programme of Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals. The SNJO is always pushing the limits of what a big band can do and I feel really honoured to have been involved with it for so long.

LJN: What led you to the idea of forming your own big band – a lightbulb moment or a long-term imperative?

CG: It’s really something I always wanted to do. I’ve always loved writing music since I was very young. I wrote one chart at the Royal Academy and kind of got addicted to it from then on. I wanted to learn how it worked but in my own way and from experience rather than from a book or from someone else’s style.

Calum Gourlay
LJN: Your own big band had its first gig a year ago – where did you get a whole gig's worth of charts from?

CG: I wrote and arranged it all. It was a lot of work and without knowing what it would sound like in the real world I took a few chances as to what would sound good on which instruments but I also decided that there would be no open sections to the music. I didn’t want to conduct or anything so I wanted to see if I could write a chart with all the improvising and an open flow included but make it clear and easy enough for a band to read first time. I also had a small handful of charts left over from when Freddie Gavita and I used to run a big band (we played a life-changing gig at ConFest in 2010) and two commissions of arrangements for the Noise Union band that had a mixture of Birmingham and London players in it.

LJN: That's a lot of writing! Who are your main inspirations for writing music?

CG: I love lots of contemporary big band writers and I’m lucky enough to play some of them with the SNJO. Florian Ross, Geoffrey Keezer are two of that bands main writers. I love Kenny Wheeler, Maria Schneider and Gil Evans, and the big group of writers that the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra has like Thad Jones, Bob Brookmyer and Jim McNeely. There are also some great big bands in London like Gareth Lockrane’s band.

But my favourite is Ellington. Just looking at a page of one his scores is an incredible way to pick up some ideas and concepts about how instruments work in ensemble. I was really surprised at how often you think the whole band is playing but actually it’s a very select few players that he knows will sound strong. He really set the highest standard for what a band can do and with a few exceptions, big band writers are still trying to measure up to that sound and way of playing. I think it sounds super modern when it’s right in front of you and still has a lot to say.

LJN:  You mention Ellington – so I'm guessing you write with specific players in your band in mind.  Any examples to give?

CG: Oh yes completely. Now I know slightly better how things actually sound and how people interpret things you give them I can hear much clearer in my head how they’ll sound rather than how Sibelius plays them!

For example Helena Kay and Josh Arcoleo play the same instrument but both so differently. James Maddren makes everything sound good and doesn’t play like a “big band drummer" – whatever that means! James Allsopp plays baritone saxophone and the band sounds so much fuller when he’s playing the root of a chord. He’s also an incredible free improviser. Tom Walsh plays lead trumpet and every piece of music you put in front of him, it’s like he’s been playing it for 20 years already. Everyone I’ve asked to play in the band over the last year I know has their own way of playing and thinking about jazz. I’ve no interest in a homogenised “modern” jazz sound. I like bands with individuals in them.

I’ve also learned that people really make things work even if you’ve written a strange note for them or a “lumpy” or dissonant chord they have the ears to balance each other and make music from it.

LJN:  Has the repertoire grown? Who else has contributed and is it your policy to encourage others to write for the band ?

CG: I would love more people to write for it. I’ve learned so much from it I’d like to offer that chance to other people. Billy Marrows, Michael Chillingworth, Kieran Mcleod and Sean Gibbs have all written something for it over the last year. If anyone wants to try it then get in touch.

I really always wanted something with a deadline to work to otherwise I'd never get anything written. I reckon a lot of people are like that and also a lot of people probably have ideas but nowhere (outside of jazz school) to actually hear how things sound when played by real people!

LJN: Which gigs in the past year have had the best audiences? Is there a young audience for big band music?

CG: We had a great Christmas gig! It seems to be easier to get people down to something with a theme. We did a special all-Monk gig in October with my other main obsession, Thelonious, featuring Martin Speake and Hans Koller. I’d love to do that again as I think there is still a lot to be done with Monk’s melodies and probably about half the band pad is Monk tunes!

But to be honest each and every one has been a huge learning experience for me personally. Organising myself to book a band and writing at least one new chart every month has been tough but totally worth it.

LJN:  Hypothetically... if a budget suddenly landed from somewhere what would be the first priority to spend it on?

CG: PAYING THE FUCKING BAND PROPERLY.

I’d love to record the band live. As it sounds. And make an album that sounds like you’re there on a grey Monday night in Dalston hearing a great bunch of diversely talented people try and make it work.

LJN:  Any special plans for this first anniversary gig? A cake? Or what?

CG: One new chart by me based on Body and Soul and one chart by trumpet player Sean Gibbs.

Monday's Band (with Calum Gourlay on bass and directing) will be:

Tom Walsh, Sean Gibbs, Kim Macari Stone-Lonergan – trumpets
Owen Dawson, Robbie Harvey, Phil Entwistle – trombones
Michael Chillingworth, Alice Leggett, Josh Arcoleo, Helena Key, James Allsopp – saxophones
Rick Simpson – piano
James Maddren – drums

LINK: Calum Gourlay interview from 2015 about the Monk project

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