INTERVIEW: Alexander Hawkins (new solo piano album Iron into Wind, Intakt Records)

Alexander Hawkins
Photo credit: © Monika S Jakubowska

Pianist/composer Alexander Hawkins talks about his new solo piano album Iron into Wind (released today on the Intakt label), about the way he works, about his live gigs coming up, and about Mal Waldron, Cecil Taylor and Janáček. Sebastian asked the questions:

LondonJazz News: This is your second solo piano album, after Song Singular (Babel) released in early 2014. How has your playing moved forwards in the five years since then?

Alexander Hawkins: This is an intriguing opener, which I find a little tricky to answer. It's true that the album does 'feel' different to the previous effort in some ways, although naturally, many aspects of the earlier approach remain. I suppose that one thing which makes the question a tough one to address is that much of a playing style 'moving on' is an unconscious activity, and by the same token, deliberate efforts at moving 'forward' can sound contrived. I put the 'forward' there in parentheses, because I think one aspect of developing is also to guard against moving 'backwards' – for example, by yielding to the temptation to rely on known 'winning' formulae.

That said, I could point to a few things which I've tried to bear in mind over the last few years as I've continued to play solo. One is to be more parsimonious. So many of my musical heroes are incredibly sparing in their use of material: take for instance Monk, Mal Waldron, or Janáček (and also very often indeed, less obvious examples such as Cecil Taylor). But on reflection, a few years ago, I think I was occasionally guilty of 'doing' because I 'could', rather than because there was any musical need. Or to put it more simply, I was often a little prone to spray notes around which didn't need to be there.

I feel that the contemporary culture is very much to be cavalier with information – I'm thinking, for example, of social media or piped music in public spaces – and I'm in no hurry to be part of that noise. So the new solo music – and the same is also true of my newer music for ensemble – is much 'tighter' in a certain sense (I have no problem with a lot of notes, so long as they're doing something!).

Another aspect in which I think my playing has developed is that it's somehow more 'integrated'. I try to listen and study widely, and there is a risk that this can lead to a grab-bag or, worse, a pastiche approach: a record contains 'the cluster piece', 'the impressionistic piece', the 'deconstructed standard', the 'free ballad' and so forth. I hope that I haven't been too guilty of this in the past, but nonetheless I hope I'm increasingly able to synthesise diverse influences into something coherent and personal.

LJN: What does the album title Iron into Wind mean?

AH: This is a phrase lifted from one of my very favourite authors – the great Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano (I have Richard Williams to thank for introducing me to his work). One of Galeano's numerous masterpieces is Soccer in Sun and Shadow, and it contains a chapter about the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, who had been a goalkeeper for Real Sociedad before a career-ending injury. Chillida's work was often both massive in scale and material, whilst at the same time conveying a sense of lightness and movement: hence Galeano's description of the artist as being the man who turned 'iron into wind'. This idea of something being at once forged from the toughest of materials and nonetheless being airy and even transient has real resonance for me with how I think about improvisation. I was in Amsterdam to play at Paradiso only a couple of days before the recording session for this album, and went for a wander (/wonder) around the Rijksmuseum before the soundcheck. The Rijksmuseum had a beautiful temporary exhibit of some of Chillida's work in their gardens at that time, hence this phrase being in my mind when I travelled to Zürich very shortly afterwards.



LJN: Intakt has other pianists such as Sylvie Courvoisier and Irene Schweizer… does this label feel like home now?

AH: It absolutely does, and I'm very fortunate for that to be the case: anyone who has any Intakt releases will understand the care and attention lavished on every production. As players, we're only one part of an album's production: the notes we play mean little if they're not captured and presented to the listener in a very particular way (an album is a very different thing to a live performance in many ways, after all). Everybody at the label is a true 'music person', and I believe that comes through in the quality of their productions. Alongside Sylvie and Irene, I've also long loved records in their catalogue featuring the likes of Marilyn Crispell and Cecil Taylor, and more recent albums featuring musicians such as Aruan Ortiz and Kris Davis: so there's definitely lots of piano to be heard there... [An aside: I recently heard Sylvie and Irene play a duo concert, and it was very special indeed!]

LJN: The preparation for this album took place at a creative residency in Italy – what’s the story there? And I understand that some of the track titles  – Gossamer Ghost Trees and We all Bleed… owe their existence to that sojourn...

AH: I was incredibly fortunate to be named a fellow of the Civitella Ranieri last year. The residency attached to this provided an almost unique opportunity to work virtually uninterrupted for nearly six weeks in beautiful surroundings. I used the time to work on a number of projects, and honing the solo materials for recording was one of these.

But possibly even more valuable than this time for focussed work was the opportunity to spend time and exchange ideas with an amazing array of creative minds. My 'cohort' included writers A. Igoni Barrett, Dan Chaon, James Galvin, Jessica Helfand, Emily Van Kley, Azar Nafisi, and Deborah Willis; visual artists Vince Briffa, Paulo Nimer Pjota, Siska, and Christian Vinck; and musicians Füsun Köksal, Celeste Oram, and Esperanza Spalding. I learnt a huge amount from each of these people, and was forever making notes of things I picked up along the way.

Among the jottings I collected were two short phrases which seemed to have particular resonance with a couple of the pieces I had recorded, and so I titled them accordingly by way of dedication to the whole group. One of the things which is so affecting for me about James Galvin's poetry is the utterly unmannered way in which it marries the vernacular with the incredibly crafted: something which of course has clear parallels for jazz-derived languages. 'Gossamer Like a Ghost Tree' is a phrase taken from his collection Everything We Always Knew Was True. Azar Nafisi is not only a very great writer, but is possibly the most astounding public speaker I have had the fortune to hear live. She gave a talk whilst we were in residence which ranged far and wide, but which at one point had as a refrain the phrase – I think borrowed from Václav Havel – that 'We All Bleed'.

LJN: In the sleeve notes by Richard Williams you mention Janáček as an important influence, the idea of how he “works away at a motif”. Has Janáček been a strong presence with you for a long time?

AH: I grew up with classical music from a very young age, so have probably been familiar with the likes of the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass for upwards of 25 years; shortly afterwards would have come works such as the string quartets (although curiously, I never played any of the piano music, and these pieces are much more recent discoveries for me). In the last few years, I have come back to the operas, listening virtually incessantly at certain points. Janáček for me is a shining example of the sort of parsimony I was just talking about: such economy with materials, and never a hint of self-indulgence. I think it was Ira Gitler who described Thelonious Monk as manifesting 'sentiment without sentimentality': this is also how I hear Janáček. For me, how that cragginess and doggedness can coexist with such a devastating melodic sense is one of the miracles of 20th century music. I also find Janáček's sheer range to be inspirational: Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen, Kát'a Kabanová, Broucek..., The Makropoulos Affair, From the House of the Dead and so on... each of these pieces really inhabits its own completely individual soundworld, and yet could somehow only be by Janácek; just as the Sonny Rollins of 1957 sounds totally different to the Sonny Rollins of 1997, even though there is never even the slightest doubt as to who could be playing.

LJN: And then there’s also mention of Mal Waldron. Is there a particular period of his long career that you home in on? Or particular traits or devices (I'm wondering about the repeated note or chord as echo/dying fall?)

AH: I'm fairly indiscriminate here: I love all eras of Mal's playing, from the very early things on Prestige and with Billie Holiday, right through to the end. Again, a lot of what I admire is the minimalism: the almost shocking extent to which he will worry a single idea over and over. He is without a doubt one of the most single-minded pianists I can think of (and yet, at the same time one of the greatest accompanists in the music). There is not a single clichéd or generic gesture in his language: and in being so brilliantly 'non-jazz' in so many respects (left hands like that do not appear in the texbooks), is of course on some views right at what the heart of what it means to play this music.

LJN: Did you hear Mal Waldron live?

AH: Yes, many years ago. It was one of the most unremittingly difficult, dark sets of music I've ever heard. This is another of the things which intrigues me about his music: he is in many respects one of the very 'hardest' pianists to 'get', and as such, really draws in the curious listener in an amazing way. This gig was in trio with Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman, and I was at that age where I probably felt that I should like it more than I actually did like it. In hindsight, I think to find music that challenging was the real thrill. My consternation really led me to spend more time with his music trying to find the 'way in', and as often with these things, this led to perhaps a deeper bond with it when I did 'crack' it for myself.

LJN: The death of Cecil Taylor last year and thoughts of him in this context were (I’m guessing), in that phrase of Heinrich Boell’s “neither intentional nor accidental but unavoidable...”

AH: Cecil Taylor's innovations are such a massive part of the contemporary musical landscape that I think on the one hand I could say his presence always looms, and on the other, that the challenges of dealing with these innovations are simply part of the challenge of being a contemporary piano player. His passing was of course tragic, and it goes without saying that the world would be all the richer for his continued presence: but he had thrown the gauntlet down many, many years ago. In preparing to play solo piano music, much of the information we're forced to deal with comes from Cecil: absolutely an unavoidable phenomenon as you say, but I would argue that it has been unavoidable at least from the time of the very earliest music he committed to record.

LJN: There are 12 tracks, and the sixth track sounds like a “first-side closer”. Is this a game of two halves?

AH: My friend the cornettist and composer Taylor Ho Bynum once suggested that a nice way of thinking about programming across CD length was sometimes nonethless to consider how the music might be programmed across two sides of an LP, with the necessary pause in the middle required to flip the record. I found that this approach worked well to my ears with this music: so yes, the programme does have the sense of two smaller 'arches' within a longer structure. Part of the challenge of programming these compositions was that sometimes when I play them live, I play them in an unbroken hour-or-so long set (and various compositions have deliberate similarities, serving as ways to navigate back and forth between them). It was certainly interesting to see the different character they took on when recorded as discrete compositions (which I preferred to do in this context rather than play unbroken), and also in the studio, as opposed to live.
Alexander Hawkins
Photo credit: © Emile Holba
LJN: Tumble Mono is a transition from a meditation to a toccata/perpetuum mobile – what’s going on there?

AH: This composition is fairly open – it's essentially built out of a series of intervals (major thirds and perfect fourths) which can be used melodically, harmonically, or indeed, I suppose, in any other way. There was no particular 'grand design' to the shape of this version, other than that over the course of a few takes, it began to crystallise in the way you describe, and into a shape I liked. As an example of the compositional similarities I mention in the previous answer, these same intervals can function as a way to bridging into the Etude which closes the album.

LJN: The last track Etude sounds as though something of John Adams has got into the machine…

AH: I have to say, I've never really gone into Adams' music in depth, though I have often enjoyed it. I did go to see Dr Atomic when it was in London recently, which was great: I thought the choral writing in particular was spectacular. I can definitely hear that the repetitive nature of this Etude, and the way it uses phasing, are cognate with aspects of American minimalism (I realise that when we're talking about Adams, we're talking about something qualitatively different than earlier Glass and Reich, for example, but it seems fair to call it 'minimalism' in the context of this discussion). If I were looking for the classical analogies which could have been near the front of my mind when working on the piece, I'd probably go back to Janáček, who is for me the genius of ostinato: but the truth is that this simply grew out of something I was working on as a way of investigating strange time and phase relationships between the hands. I should acknowledge the wonderful Veryan Weston here too: the basic five-note shape which is the jumping off point of the study is something he showed me – and his extraordinary work with tesselating pentatonic scales would provide countless potential ways of opening up this material in completely different ways.

LJN: How were the recording sessions? Keith Jarrett’s sound engineer Martin Pearson was involved. That must have been interesting…

AH: The sessions were quite something. We made the recordings in the large hall of the Swiss Radio building in Zürich – an incredible Max Bill design, with a huge Bill mural adorning the back wall of the space. It was great to work with Martin, who has of course engineered so many classic piano albums – Cecil Taylor's Willisau Concert, also on Intakt, being just one of them (indeed his CV across various genres of music is fairly mind-boggling). It's probably fair to say that engineering the piano can be a treacherous business, and the sound Martin gets is quite something. When Patrik Landolt played me Aruán Ortiz's recent solo on Intakt, I was knocked out by both the playing and the sound, so was genuinely thrilled when he suggested we work with Martin on this recording. Of course, you can only capture the sounds of the instrument to hand, and I was also very lucky to have a particularly beautiful Steinway D on which to play.

LJN: What will be the big events for you in 2019?

AH: I'm really looking forward to solo concerts to coincide with this release. Coming up, I also have a project featuring Evan Parker and myself improvising with a scored work I've written for the fantastic Riot Ensemble (also on the bill is music by Kit Downes and Enemy, also played with the Riot Ensemble) - that's on February 19 (at the MAC, Birmingham) and 20 (at Cafe Oto, London). April sees the first gigs of a new trio I'm particularly looking forward to, with Nicole Mitchell and Tomeka Reid. Our UK performances with that are in Glasgow and London. Also coming up are a reunion with Joe McPhee, plenty of concerts with Louis Moholo-Moholo in the Autumn, and much else besides... so I'm fortunate enough to be staying out of trouble, for the time being!

LINKS: Alexander Hawkins' website

Intakt Records website

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