INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Alexander Hawkins (3-Day Residency at Cafe Oto, 26-28 April)

Alexander Hawkins, January 2018
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska
ALEXANDER HAWKINS will present four projects in the course of a three-day residency at Cafe Oto. He explained the background to Sebastian:   

LondonJazz News: Most – maybe all – musicians these days have “slash careers”... I think of you as “pianist/composer/bandleader”. Is that more or less right?

Alexander Hawkins: I would say that’s about right; although I occasionally also play the Hammond organ, almost always in the context of the group Decoy, and even more occasionally, I get asked to play the pipe organ.

LJN: You have four concerts over three days at Oto. Did they approach you and give you the choice of what to programme?

AH: Yes, they were kind enough to approach me. I’ve had the privilege of playing on many residencies there over the years – for example, with Louis Moholo-Moholo, Joe McPhee, Marshall Allen, Sonny Simmons, Han Bennink, Matana Roberts, and most recently, the Chicago/London Underground – so Cafe Oto is a really important place to me, and I was totally thrilled to be given carte blanche to programme whatever I wanted. Although I didn’t design it with a neat numerical scheme in mind, the final programme is presenting each of solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet, and sextet formations.

LJN: For people who don’t know your work which might be the best one to get to know it?

AH: This is a tough question, since of course the music sounds different depending on where you’re coming from. Part of me thinks the (albeit slightly simplistic) answer is ‘any of them’, insofar as I try to only perform music I believe in, and where I feel I can contribute something personal. But a very brief case for each of the concerts in turn: the solo set I think would be an obvious choice, insofar as solo is inevitably a special case, where you’re more or less entirely responsible for shaping all the music; and although I don’t compose exclusively at the piano, it’s true to say that a lot of my output is shaped by my relationship to that instrument.

The solo set is paired with a performance by the quartet I co-lead with Elaine Mitchener, featuring Neil Charles and Stephen Davis; and that could be an interesting way in, for example for people more familiar with the contemporary classical world, in which Elaine often works.

The second night features Evan Parker, and so I’d like to think that even people who can’t stand to be in the same room as my playing might nevertheless be tempted out, since Evan is nothing less that one of the most important innovators in our music. (MUSIC EXAMPLE / Black Top with Evan Parker)

Black Top and Matthew Wright are also performing this night, and Pat Thomas, Orphy Robinson, and Matthew would all appeal to anyone with an interest in electronic music: they each have radical approaches which mix vernacular forms with sounds from contemporary classical music (and much else besides) in amazing ways.

On the final day of the residency, there is a matinee concert where we will perform some of Anthony Braxton’s music. Whilst it may be perverse in some respects to suggest a concert of someone else’s music as a ‘way in’ to that of the interpreter, I do think a lot can be learned from these contexts: I’m thinking here of albums like Monk playing Ellington, Geri Allen playing Mary Lou Williams, the ICP Orchestra playing Monk and Nichols, and so on. And of course, I hope that quite apart from whatever we can bring to the table as a sextet, this will be an interesting concert in any case for fans of Braxton’s music.

Finally, that evening, I’m really excited to be able to bring the great Gerry Hemingway over to join John Edwards and myself for a trio concert. Quite apart from Gerry and John being two extraordinary musicians, it might be interesting to see this concert since, with its piano/bass/drums lineup, it offers a take on one of the ‘classic’ instrumental lineups, and as such, could offer some reference points for people who are unfamiliar with our music.

LJN: The Quartet with Elaine Mitchener is now established and has an album out on Intakt. How did you first get working together?

AH: This collaboration was primarily thanks to the wonderful Tony Dudley-Evans. A few years ago, he invited me to perform at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Specifically, the request was for a new duo collaboration. I was already a big fan of Elaine’s work, so she was the first person I approached. We repeated the duo several times, originally focussing on trying to find interesting ways with other composers’ material. However, we very soon became eager to perform original material, and wanted to expand to a quartet to realise this. Neil Charles played in my Ensemble and Trio, and really knows my written music, and how to bring it ‘off the page’ extremely well. He has an incredible sound on the instrument, and is completely fearless as an improviser. Stephen Davis did play one concert with my trio, so I knew that he would work well with Neil; but I previously knew his playing best from working in his group ‘Human’. He’s one of those very special drummers who can move between completely abstract and more ‘time-based’ territories with complete fluidity. What I always strive for with a group performance is to make music first, and honour the composition second: and I feel that Steve and Neil both instinctively ‘get’ this.



LJN: You and Elaine come from different areas – was there a common musical interest/approach/hinterland from the start?

I think Elaine and I certainly share many values when it comes to making music... but one concrete thing which helped us from the off was a shared love of Jeanne Lee’s work (video above). Of course the first album she made with Ran Blake, The Newest Sound Around, is an absolute classic – it’s an amazing instance of being at once somehow completely oblique, and alarmingly direct; and I also love the later work she did with Mal Waldron (to mention only a couple of the piano-centric recordings). But Lee is a far more broadly inspirational character in her refusal to be typecast and restricted according to the traditional narratives of an African-American singer working in areas related to jazz. Yes, she did perform standards with a touch of genius, but she was also involved with poetry, education, performance art, contemporary classical music, dance, and much else besides, and as such is an amazing role model for people who are less interested in being able to fit their ‘thing’ into a recognisable box than in actually doing that thing.

LJN: Have you played with Black Top before?

AH: I’ve never performed with Black Top in a small group scenario, although Orphy played in my first Ensemble, a lineup which made two albums. And Pat is, like me, Oxford-born and resident, and was really (and continues to be) an extremely significant influence on me. I say ‘in a small group scenario’, because we did perform together as part of a fairly amazing Evan Parker large ensemble at a festival in Italy a couple of years back.

LJN: What format will that evening take?

AH: Evan and I will perform a short duo set – something we’ve done a bit over the last few years (there’s a live album on Clean Feed album called Leaps in Leicester: a great title for which the credit is entirely Evan’s) – before expanding to the quintet. The quintet has never actually performed together, although the line-up itself is criss-crossed by existing relationships.

LJN: As well as Orphy and Pat Thomas there is sound artist Matthew Wright. What was the connection there?

AH: I actually first heard Matthew’s work on the album Trance Map which he made with Evan. He has an amazing approach using turntables, a computer, live and pre-recorded samples, and goodness knows what else. I hadn’t worked with him until I was looking for an electronic musician with whom to collaborate for parts I was writing in my large ensemble music (https://alexanderhawkinsmusic.bandcamp.com/track/see-k-hear-t), and he was incredibly open in helping me understand the type of things possible, and then realising them in a maverick and completely personal way.

LJN: The afternoon concert of Braxton – what compositions are you playing?

AH: The current thinking is to perform four compositions: 37, 142, 155 and 245. 37, the earliest of these pieces, was first recorded in 1974, and 245 (an example of the ‘Ghost Trance Music’) first appeared on disc in 2000. Incidentally, for people who are interested in Braxton’s work, I’d really love to link two websites here. For details on where many of the compositions appear, Jason Guthartz’s recording and composition indices at http://www.restructures.net/BraxDisco/BraxDisco.htm are invaluable. And the website of Braxton’s own Tri-Centric Foundation (https://tricentricfoundation.org) is a remarkable resource for Braxton’s creative universe more generally.

LJN: And who is in the band for the afternoon concert?

AH: Stephen Davis, percussion; Hannah Marshall, ‘cello; Rachel Musson and Cath Roberts, saxophones; Alex Ward, clarinet; and myself on piano.



LJN: Gerry Hemingway – a major figure, but unless I’m mistaken not often seen in London? What’s the story?

AH: I suppose in the live context, Gerry is possibly best known to UK audiences as a result of the 1985 tour of the Braxton quartet, which also included Marilyn Crispell and Mark Dresser. This is the tour which is chronicled in Graham Lock’s fantastic book Forces in Motion. But indeed – I’m not sure of the last time he played in this country (although he does have associations with British improvisers such as John Butcher). I think one of the reasons I identify with Gerry’s work is that not only is he a wonderful free improviser, but also an amazing composer, and these two activities on the continuum are also central to my own work.

The drummer-composer tradition is a venerable one, and many of Gerry’s contributions are absolutely seminal: I’m thinking here of classics such as The Marmalade King and Demon Chaser. Many will also know his work in the trio BassDrumBone, alongside Ray Anderson and Mark Helias. He’s also a key figure in the story of instrumental technique, with his meticulous approach (in some ways analogous to that of Mark Dresser on the bass) towards understanding the range of sounds discoverable on the drums. In short, he’s one of the most significant drummers working in this music today.

We first played together in the studio a couple of years ago, in a quartet led by Roberto Ottaviano, and also featuring Michael Formanek on bass (the music was released as the album Sideralis last year), and it was a joy from the first note. However, we’ve never actually performed together, so this will be a first outside the recording studio. As a nice counterpoint, the trio is completed by John Edwards: without doubt the musician with whom I’ve performed the most at Cafe Oto, and almost certainly irrespective of venue, come to think of it. It’s one of the amazing privileges we have in this country that John is only a phone call away for a gig.

LJN: After this series at Oto what other projects commissions do you have coming up?

AH: I have a nice period coming up. At the time of writing, I’m on the train to Belgium, where I begin a week long tour with Harris Eisenstadt’s great band Canada Day. I’m then off to Stuttgart for a duo concert with John Surman.

In April, shortly before the Oto residency, I’m on tour in Holland with Dimlicht, a really interesting project from the Dutch horn player and composer Morris Kliphuis (who people may have heard in this country recently both with his trio Kapok and at the Proms as part of Stargaze, who played in the David Bowie tribute).

Then after the Oto concert, in May, I’m on tour with Rob Mazurek, Chad Taylor and John Edwards in the Chicago/London Underground – this is almost all on the continent, although we do actually have a London stop in amongst those dates, at the Vortex.

I’m also really excited to be playing solo on a great bill at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival at the start of April, and then with the quartet which will be heard at Cafe Oto at both the Sonorities Festival in Belfast in late April and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival at the start of May.

LINKS: Event page on Cafe Oto website
Event page on Facebook
London Jazz News review of AH/EP duo:

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