INTERVIEW for #IWD2018: Shirley Smart (Cellist)

Shirley Smart
Photo credit: Monika.S Jakubowska

"I never really felt afraid of improvising, I find it both fascinating as a process and challenging and I can't imagine not doing it now." Cellist SHIRLEY SMART is a lively presence and brings that positive attitude to many London-based groups. Interview by Sebastian: 

LondonJazz News: You spent a whole decade in Jerusalem - and then you came back. What's the story ?

Shirley Smart: Its a pretty long story and I certainly can’t tell it all here!! But, essentially, it really was a bit of an accident that was sparked off by a slightly wine-infused conversation in the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada. I would never have thought of going to Israel to study had that conversation not occurred, but it stuck with me, and a few days later I went and found it on a map... and thought "hmm, this looks like it might be interesting..." I went for a year in the first instance, ostensibly to study at the Rubin academy in Jerusalem, although I remember clearly thinking on the plane on the way over, "well, if I don't like it, I'll get on a place and come back again". And eventually I did - but it was 10 years later!

It was obviously a pretty life-changing and defining experience, as 10 years is a chunk of your life – especially at that stage for me. I feel very fortunate that I actually went without too much (or, being strictly accurate, practically no) knowledge about the Middle East, and not really too much of a fixed plan, because it meant I had no preconceptions, certainly about the political situation there. I was also very lucky that I met some really amazing people (largely again, by chance) pretty early on, and got involved with some very interesting projects. One band in particular, which was a Moroccan jazz fusion group, introduced me to a whole lot of music I never even knew existed – chaabi, gnawa, classical Arabic and Turkish music. The majority of that band were also extremely fine jazz musicians, which was also something I had long wanted to get involved with (so, naturally of course the most logical way of doing this is to go to the Middle East, but never mind!). Omer Avital, the Israeli bassist, and pianist Omri Mor, who now plays in bassist Avishai Cohen's trio were both in the band at that time, and also Nizar Rohana, who is an Israeli-Arab oud player with whom I did a lot of work, so it was a very cosmopolitan introduction to both Middle Eastern music and jazz.

I also started teaching for the Palestinian Conservatory of music during that time. I worked with them for about six years, as well as a number of Palestinian bands, which was another very interesting facet to the time there.

I suppose I came back for a variety of reasons - partly, obviously, because the political situation there is very volatile, and in the last few years it was going progressively downhill, sadly. Moving between the various things that I was doing was getting practically impossible, and there is also a point where you get a bit fed up with things exploding and an endless context of instability and conflict. I am lucky that I hold a UK passport, so I had the option to leave and move on.

London had changed so much in that time also, and I thought it had a lot to offer again, so it made sense.

LJN: How does the intersection of the jazz and world music scene in Jerusalem differ? 

SS:  It's very different, and it took me a while to figure this out when I moved to London! I think this is a lot to do with both the history of jazz in the UK and the influences that are dominant on the UK scene, and the fact that the 'world' and jazz scenes are quite distinct. In Jerusalem, so many of the jazz musicians there have roots also in Arabic countries – particularly Morocco, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq, and you are also in the region where all those musics are indigenous, have long and overlapping histories, and a very much present in life, so they inevitably merge more – the whole perspective is from a very different angle. I think also this has a lot to do with the institutional structure of both 'world music' and jazz in the UK. There is definitely a very fertile area in between the two, which I think is more fluid somewhere like France at present, although I think now it's definitely starting to grow here and be explored more. People like Yazz Ahmed and Arun Ghosh, for example, are exploring their own heritages through jazz. An influence I would like to see permeate the scene here more is also the kind of acoustic sound world of someone like Sylvain Luc, the French guitarist, but one thing at a time!!

LJN: If I understand right, you are now finding the kind of projects you like, but coming back there must have been things you found it made sense for you to say no to , not because they weren’t quality but because they weren't right for you?

SS: Definitely. It took time, because I had been out of the country for so long, that I didn't really know anyone at all, and had to start again from scratch. I knew that I wanted to stay playing the variety and styles of music that I had been doing, so I did actively start looking in those areas. I was again pretty lucky, because I also got involved with some projects that were great at that time, even if they weren't ultimately where I wanted to be. Its all part of the journey!

LJN: At what point in your playing did you start improvising? Was there ever a fear of it?

SS:  I suppose I started seriously improvising when I was in Jerusalem. I had definitely had leanings that way before I went, and a bit of experience, but not much opportunity to develop it. Some friends in the band I mentioned earlier introduced me to a saxophonist called Arnie Lawrence, who was a large presence on the Israeli jazz scene. He was a Brooklyn man, and had played with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles so he was fairly serious!! He also pretty much singlehandedly created most of the scene by setting up gigs and getting all his students playing in bars and restaurants all over the place. He ran a centre called the International Creative Music Centre in Ein Kerem, which is a small village just outside Jerusalem, and on Tuesday evenings he held improvisation workshops, so I started going along to those.

After the workshops, which ranged from a lot of groove based fairly free improv (he used to prefer to term it collective composition), there was always a gig and a jam at the Lebanese restaurant right next door, which generally was more straight-ahead standards and be-bop stuff, but often diverging into all sort of stuff during the evening. I miss that in jam sessions here a bit – there was something very organic about the way those evenings developed, and they could get very experimental. I never really felt afraid of improvising, I find it both fascinating as a process and challenging and I can't imagine not doing it now.

LJN: Watching you play now you inject energy and confidence into it. You must enjoy it/find it fulfilling? In what way?

SS:  That’s very nice of you to say! I do really enjoy all of the projects I am involved in at the moment – such an important part of that is playing with the right people for you and finding the right creative spaces. Knowing that is crucial I think to finding the right network of people and projects to make the best of what you have.

LJN: Who are the people you like? What are the current projects?

SS:  At the moment, I am developing a couple of my own projects. I've just recorded an album with my trio – with John Crawford on piano and Demi Garcia Sabat on percussion, and lovely contributions from Nikki Iles, Orphy Robinson and Nicolas Meier. I also have my band Melange, which ranges from a quartet of oud, guitar, cello and percussion to an eight-piece band and is based on more traditional material.

Other projects that I am involved with are Sawa, with Alya al-Sultani and Clemens Poetszch, mostly based around quite a free improvisatory approach on Iraqi folk material. I love this band! Sefiroth is another band that I really love playing with, which is the brainchild of Alex and Nick Roth. It's based on medieval Sephardic ballads, and the arrangements with that combination of people result in something really atmospheric, dark and weird, almost gothic sometimes, and very beautiful. I’m also playing in Issie Barratts's Interchange Dectet, for which I composed a work last year. This is a totally different type of project, and has been a great opportunity to work with a new group of people, and play their music also.

I play quite a lot of gypsy jazz also, which is interesting, and another bit of an unintended tangent, but it's all good! What does an ideal day consist of? Coffee, practice/composing and either a jam, a gig, meet with friends and hang in the evening. Possibly wine could be involved... I like reading a lot too, so if I can fit that it somewhere it's good, and the occasional game of tennis.

An ideal week might be a better time-frame to get everything in!!

LJN: Electronic sound or acoustic/gear/amplification ana al that.... are you a gear freak/what do you use? 

SS:  I'm not really a gear freak – I hate fiddling round with cables! I have a DPA mic which is good for most acoustic situations, and an AER amp. If I need more, I add my AKG contact mic and any more than that, I'll go electric!

My main approach to gear is "does it work"? If its works, sounds good and is reliable, I'm happy with it. At the same time, I'm very interested in the potentialities of electronics and effects pedals, so maybe one day I will explore this further – when there's time!!

LJN: This is an IWD feature. Are you a feminist and what would you mean/understand by it?

SS:  I would describe myself, I suppose, as an equality feminist. I think some angles on feminism can run the risk of being more counter-productive than they are helpful, and I think one of the biggest mistakes in the feminist movement is not to include men in debates and in the process of change – not because we need permission, but because the changes of the roles of women in society have a huge impact on men also. It is as much a social realignment process, as it is redressing of imbalances and inequalities – and I think ignoring that aspect of it is a mistake.

LJN: Your years in the Middle East must give you a different take on women's rights? What experiences have formed it?

SS:  Well, that's quite a long one! Sometimes it's actually more difficult to deal with here because a lot of things are more implicit and less obviously in your face (for want of a better term!). Also, sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the notion of an automatic 'respect for culture' with social attitudes to women in the Middle East (or anywhere for that matter – it's a fairly universal issue, and the same things come up all over the place in different cultural clothing). I don't really know what this phrase means any more – it's something that sounds like it should be right, but when you unpack it a bit it's not so simple.

LJN: Make a wish for Womens Day?

SS: Ultimately, that it is unecessary!

Shirley Smart has a new trio CD which will be released later in 2018 

Upcoming live dates : 23 March - duo with Robert Mitchell (piano) at City University Concert Series 1pm, Free Entry.

LINK: Shirley Smart's website  


  1. Erudite and sparkling as ever. Shirley is a genuine one-off, both personally and musically...

  2. Excellent interview with a wonderfully talented and eclectic musician