The Forge June 2014

Guitarist and Soundcellar organiser Rob Palmer interviews John Law for The Forge

RP: Tell me about your new project John.

JL: It's something I've been thinking about and planning for quite a while now: a new band line-up and a new recording. The new line-up is partly an extension of my previous trio, Congregation, because I've still got the amazing Yuri Goloubev on bass. Now I've got, on drums, a simply stunning new talent: Laurie Lowe. I actually first played with him in a gig with you, Rob, in Jon Lloyd's group. I had the idea that these two players would be so different - Yuri coming up with such achingly beautiful melodies and Laurie tight, muscular and with a fearsome, controlled energy - but in complementing each other they would, between them, cover all the different territories I've always tried to do with my trio. And on top of that I wanted to work with Josh Arcoleo on tenor saxophone. Apart from a couple of special projects, now in my more distant past as well, with Tim Garland and then later Andy Sheppard, I haven't worked that much with saxophonists playing my more jazz-based material. For more freer projects I've worked over the years a lot with Jon Lloyd, on soprano saxophone, but only occasionally played my other compositions in a quartet format. To be honest, the ubiquity of the saxophone ("the Belgian novelty instrument" as some pianist unkindly called it!) means that, for me, I really want to work with a saxophonist if I'm attracted to them as a musician. Tim Garland was a very special musician, I have to say, and someone I'll never forget having the privilege of listening to on the same bandstand. Andy Sheppard was also someone special. And Josh Arcoleo, still a very young guy only 25, is in that league: a really special musician that I just want to work with, whether he plays the saxophone or the kazoo.. Well, maybe not quite the kazoo!

RP: Did the idea for the new trio come before the Boink! project or was it as a result of you delving into more groove based music? (Or was it just hearing Laurie that unleashed your inner funk!?)

JL: I only thought of using Laurie after I heard him play, obviously. First within the Jon Lloyd quintet and then in my recent electric project Boink! When I listened back to that recording we did of the first Boink! gig, when I heard a couple of things he did behind me, and then later when I heard some of the things he was doing with the group Preston/Glasgow/Lowe, I then started to think he might be someone to work with. I got the idea his really contemporary sound would help me to get into areas I'd been thinking about for a while. Later, when he did a few dates on a UK trio tour I had, which I partly used as an opportunity to try out a few different bass players and drummers, when I heard the super tight way he played some of my trio tunes, with a strength I'd never heard them played before.. that's when I got the idea it might be kind of cute to pair him with someone like Yuri, who I think is aesthetically very different.

RP: Cute indeed John, they sounded great together! Was the combination how you imagined it and what qualities do you think they brought out in each other? I was also wondering if the thought of them playing together informed your compositional ideas for the group?

JL: Yes it was largely how I imagined it. I think we still need to develop more the areas where each one is not naturally immediately at home. So with Yuri that would be the more functional, groove-based tunes (occasionally involving me trying to persuade him to use some effects like distortion - that's a bit of a running battle!) and with Laurie it would be the ballads, where I need him to be really understated in activity and volume, so that Yuri's amazing melodic qualities can shine through.

As it's not a settled group by any means yet, I haven't actually written specifically for the two of them, but I did partly choose the pieces we'll be performing on this short tour and then recording immediately afterwards, from all the new ones I'd written, that I thought would best suit them. And then I've been planning the way we'll do these pieces (the form of the pieces plus who's featured on which piece and on which section) round the sound and approach that they each have.

RP: The rhythmic aspect of your music is obviously an important component. Can you take me through the evolution of your rhythmic concept?

JL: Well partly I'm trying, the whole time, just to stay up to date with current developments by all the younger musicians, who - as you know from running your venue The Blue Boar in Poole, and seeing all the amazing musicians coming through all the time - are really concentrating at the moment (and have been for quite some while now) on rhythm and rhythm-related issues of metre and metre change. I have to say it's not something I feel I'm naturally that good at.. which is why I'm enjoying the challenge!

So firstly the new tunes explore some different time signatures: 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13.

As far as how my rhythmic concept has evolved, like I say it's something I'm trying to develop and work on. It's an area where I'm inspired by younger British or British-based musicians, like Phronesis, Ivo Neame and all those guys; also from what's coming out of the US (which is mainly I think where we're getting all our initial inspiration from): Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, lots of different musicians all developing the rhythmic concept. Nowadays it's such a huge area, one where the main thing is not necessarily a central beat at all, but maybe where each bar is slightly different. And there are other influences as well: like Indian rhythmic concepts that almost imitate vocal phrases. But behind it all there are always more basic concepts or skills: in the case of someone who has a great medium tempo swing there's often a fantastically strong triplet feel embedded, for example. And in the case of these more complex time signatures there's always an unbelievably strong faster beat embedded, like semi-quavers, which allows the musician to drop one or add one here and there, and still be 'in the pocket', as they say.

Having said all that I think I'm probably nearly as far as I want to go in this area... I feel a counter reaction is not far away! Maybe getting back to pure melody or something like that.. Or just 4 in a bar swing!

RP: Apart from the musicians involved what inspired your writing for the project and is there anything else you would like to tell us about the new recording?

JL: Well the first thing to say is that three of the new compositions are based on poems by my (at that time) 15 year old daughter Holly. They're really powerful poems. One of them, written in memory of the events of 9/11, is called Incarnadine Day (which produced the rhythm of the 9 feel bass hook). Another one, the title track of the album, called These Skies In Which We Rust, is an amazing piece of writing with a closing verse of great power and mystery and vision. Really inspired me, in the writing. This piece has a sample from Brahms Requiem included! The last of the poems produced a ballad. Actually it was sort of the other way round with this poem; the music came first. It's funny, people have often said to me, when they've heard my compositions played at gigs, either that they've thought about visual images and wouldn't the tunes work really well with films, or they say that the melodies sound like they really want words. And when I looked back at some of my ballads I found that quite often the first line of the tune fitted, syllable-wise, the title of the tune, even though I never thought about that consciously when choosing the title. In this case I wrote the tune, then I looked through Holly's poems to find one that fitted and there was this beautiful poem called I Hold My Soul To The Wind, which fitted absolutely perfectly, not just in atmosphere, but also the first phrase of the tune fitted the words really well.

Another tune, called Lucky 13, was written in a hotel, while I was on tour, for my son Jasper, who was going to be 13 the next day. I was sort of gutted that I was missing this important birthday of his (like I often have done, unfortunately) and so I went away on tour with a little idea for this piece, managed to complete it in my hotel bedroom the night before, and the trio rehearsed it and I filmed it the next morning, before we set off on tour again, and I emailed it to him as a birthday card!

So obviously the recording is firstly a very personal statement for me, it's something I've been planning for a while now, and it means a great deal to me personally.

The other thing that's a bit unusual for this new recording is that three of the tunes will have some electronic music backing tracks that they grow out of. This is something I've been developing in the new group Boink! as you know. But I always planned to bring it in to my acoustic trio project. In fact my most recent trio recording, Three Leaps of the Gazelle, introduced this a little, with some added electronic sounds... Some sampled insects from a French summer holiday (!) some ipod app sounds.. So it's something I wanted to try and develop, maybe in a more organic fashion, on this new trio/quartet recording.

Another thing that's new for me, in this recording, will be the introduction of a small vocal element. The ballad I Hold My Soul will feature my daughter's voice at the end, and another tune, called To Do Today: To Die, features some unusual vocals by the band. You'll have to wait and see what I mean...!

I think for a largely acoustic album it's going to have a very wide sound palette. As well as piano, tenor sax, bass and drums, there'll be some keyboard used, some glockenspiel, some ibo drum (a wooden udu) plus the electronic music additions and occasional vocals. Also, some added effects to piano and bass: some distortion here or there, even a little rudimentary stuff like paper on the strings.

It's all sort of planned and thought about but, as with all these things, it will undoubtedly turn out really different and improvised. I'm looking forward to it!

RP: Lastly, John, any other projects in the pipeline?

JL: Yes indeed. Quite a few actually. Firstly I'm in the middle of writing a whole new album of solo piano pieces. Really want to record and play more solo piano. Top of my list that is.. I also have quite a few interesting arrangements of other peoples tunes I'd like to record either just in trio format or maybe also solo piano. Still planning this one.. And last but certainly not least I have a new project currently coming to fruition, called Goldberg. I recorded, just before Christmas, the whole of Bach's epic work the Goldberg Variations, on piano. I honestly think it's a wonderful recording which bears comparison to some of the great ones available. I genuinely do. And on top of that I'm working with an amazing visual artist, who's doing a visual realisation of the whole work. He's called David Daniels and he's worked with people like Led Zeppelin and Bryan Adams. And as an extra, unusual feature in this reworking of a classic masterpiece I've composed two electronic ambient pieces, to open and close the whole work, which contain within them the harmonies and bass line of the aria and variations, so a distillation of everything that underpins the whole 50 minute work. Quite excited about this project. Looking for a major label for it now.

Questions by Rob Palmer, guitarist and organiser of Soundcellar. Rob plays in two projects with John: in Jon Lloyd's quintet group and in John Law's electronic project Boink!