INTERVIEW: Cellist Shirley Smart (new album Long Story Short, launch party at Vortex, 24 Oct)

Shirley Smart
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Last time we published an interview with SHIRLEY SMART (link below), comments came in, praising her as "erudite and sparkling", "a genuine one-off, both personally and musically..." and as a "wonderfully talented and eclectic musician." The cellist is about to release the first album in her own name on Paul Jolly's 33extreme label. Interview by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: Why have you called this album Long Story Short?

Shirley Smart: Ha! Good question. I suppose because this album does draw on and brings together a lot of things that it is quite a long story to explain – both in terms of having lived in the Middle East for a decade or so, largely by accident, and also being in jazz as a cellist, which has its own stories behind it, and an awful lot of things that might be interesting to someone, but not necessary to know to enjoy the music.

LJN: Is this your first album in your own name or as leader?

SS: It is my first in my own name, yes. It's not my first as a band-leader – I released an album with my band Melange in 2016, although that project was more centred around traditional repertoire, whereas this one has more originals and a different balance of interests, I think.

LJN: Is there a structure running through it?

SS: Yes, I hope so... although it does draw together quite a few different strands of influence and styles, I have tried to construct the album in a way that coheres, as well as highlights those differences. So I have generally arranged it in mini-sets of two or three tunes that share similar lines of influence. I also tried to take into account spacing the tracks with the different guests on, so that sonically, in terms of the variety of instruments it is balanced as well. I hope it worked!



LJN: Do you see the jazz and the middle eastern influences as separate or as things you want to combine?

SS: I think this is something that is possibly quite personal to me, as my journey into jazz was via various projects that involved Middle Eastern music as well, even though a lot of the musicians were also very fine jazz players. I got involved with both whilst living in Jerusalem, which has a very small but also very fertile and intensive music scene with a lot of really excellent musicians – the bassist Omer Avital was in one of the main bands I played with there, and also pianist Omri Mor, who played for a long time in Avishai Cohen's trio. Obviously jazz and traditional Middle Eastern music are two very different traditions with wildly different historical trajectories, but at the same time, jazz particularly has always been a genre of music with various tributaries, so it is unsurprising to me that musicians with Middle Eastern backgrounds start exploring links and using that as a ground for creative development, as for example, both Omer Avital and Avishai Cohen have done, as well as people like Omer Klein, Ibrahim Maalouf, and, closer to home, musicians like Yazz Ahmed also. I certainly find them inseparable as the way I came into both fields was a very intertwined experience, and I cannot really change or undo that, so although I have spent quite a lot of time disentangling that, I find the interplay a very natural one for me.

LJN: Are these originals or tunes from other places? If so, where?

SS: Most of the tunes on this album are originals, by me. There are a couple of traditional tunes - one Macedonian one which I think you ask about further below, and one Algerian tune called Ticaraca Tchoub – the title of which no-one seems to understand or to have a clue as to its meaning (even the Algerian guys I learned it off!) But it's a fun tune, and I thought it fit well in the set, so in it went! There's also one tune by Anouar Brahem, who is one of my favourite musicians – a beautiful tune called Halfouine, which I have played in many guises for a long time. Orphy Robinson added some beautiful effects on vibraphone in the version. My tunes are a mixture of influences from swing, be-bop, jazz musette – the first tune was influenced by both Bireli Lagrene and Richard Galliano, both of whom I admire greatly and love their music, Arabic and North African. Some are more straight ahead, Mobius Blues for example is a fairly straightforward swing tune, and Tetouan is I think a bit of a mixture of Algerian chaabi and a jazz waltz. Then there is also a slow tango tune and a 3/4 samba influenced tune.

SAMPLE TRACK: Waltz for an Amethyst

LJN: You have a Macedonian tune what is the background to it?

SS: Aha! This tune is a longstanding mystery to m. It is basically a very simple 7/8 folk tune, which happened to be on the radio when I was in a car on the way to a gig in Haifa with an oud-playing friend of mine from Jerusalem. It was going round and round, but they never said what it was (or if they did, we were talking about something else and didn't hear it – probably more likely!). Anyway, by the time we got to the gig, we had kind of picked it up, so we played it on that gig and then every Thursday night in the residency we had in this restaurant in East Jerusalem, so we got to know it pretty well. I kept playing it when I moved back to the UK, because I like it, and it's now gone through so many versions, that I probably should release an album made up of just that tune! People often come up to me after gigs, and offer suggestions as to its title and provenance, and also quite a few have sent me links, but it's never quite the same, so I would love to know what it actually is. (Although this would ruin a really good gig story...)

LJN: Who else is on the album – is there a core band ?

SS: Yes, there is a core trio of myself, John Crawford on piano and Demi Garcia Sabat on drums/percussion. John has Spanish roots, and also a great interest and love of world music, so it's been great to play with him on this and he's also a great friend of Demi, whom I have played with now for several years, so it worked very naturally. A few tunes also suggested some other sounds – on Halfouine, for example I really loved the idea of the vibraphone on that tune, and then of course, as soon as you open that door a million possibilities throw themselves up, so we did end up with a few very special guests as well.

LJN: Demi Garcia Sabat is an unfamiliar name - tell us more about him musically - and he has another life too?

SS: Demi is unfamiliar? That's so wrong! He is an amazing drummer and percussionist – and really a unique player because he has roots in flamenco and North African rhythms as well, so like me, the fusion of jazz and world music is very natural and inseparable for him. He is Catalan by birth and grew up playing flamenco (and also being a fire-eater, apparently – although he doesn't as yet do that on gigs...) He's been on the scene for quite a while – he plays also in Nicolas Meier's trio and with Alec Dankworth's Spanish Accents and Chris Garrick's Budapest Cafe Orchestra. He is also from a family of pastry chefs and has been known to turn up to morning rehearsals with freshly made croissants that he made during the night. He is a thoroughly marvellous character and I totally recommend anyone who has a chance to get to a gig he is on to go and see him in action. (You may also become the first person to see his glasses actually fall off his nose during a cajon solo – every time, they get right down to the end, but somehow they defy gravity and stay on his nose. I have no idea how!)

LJN: And there are guests?

SS: Yes! Orphy Robinson plays vibraphone on a couple of tunes – Halfouine and one other one, Nikki Iles plays accordion on two tracks, and Nicolas Meier plays guitar on a few tracks. I think this gives the album a nice variety of sounds across the whole – and I was really happy and grateful to these fabulous and lovely musicians for coming and giving their talents as well.

LJN: Is it a studio album or more 'as live'?

SS: I suppose it's as live as you can get while being in a studio. We recorded it at Session Corner, at the Hat Factory in Luton, which is a studio I really like. I recommend the engineer there, Nick Pugh, extremely highly. I recorded an EP there a few years ago with Sawa, another project I am involved in, and I really liked both the piano and the live room, and I remember thinking when we were there " when I do my own album, I want to do it here".

LJN: When is released and how will people get hold of it?

SS: It is being released on 33 Jazz Records, on their 33xtreme label.

The release date is yet to be fixed, but I imagine it will be around November/early December.

We are having an album launch party at the Vortex on 24 October – so it will be for sale at that gig, which will feature the trio and Nicolas Meier on guitar. And probably some biscuits from Demi.

LINKS: Bookings for Vortex 24 October 
Interview for IWD 2018

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