Paul Booth interview

Paul Booth, bandleader, saxophonist, composer, has signed to the Ubuntu label and he explains in this interview firstly why he chose Martin Hummel’s indie jazz label that has quickly become a leading new force on the UK scene over the last few …

Published: 5 Nov 2019. Updated: 19 months.

Paul Booth, bandleader, saxophonist, composer, has signed to the Ubuntu label and he explains in this interview firstly why he chose Martin Hummel’s indie jazz label that has quickly become a leading new force on the UK scene over the last few years. ‘‘I knew people already on the label. Martin got in touch and we met up. I had heard good things but we hadn’t met. We hit it off immediately. I had an album in the can. I sent some mixes across to him.’’

Those mixes became Travel Sketches, a mellow yet absorbing, beautifully played modern mainstream quartet album that stands out in terms of the quality of the writing, and which was recorded in March in Birmingham at the East Side club of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

The rhythm section of Dave Whitford on bass, Andrew Bain playing drums and Steve Hamilton on piano are on the record with Booth who was last heard by marlbank jamming on his vintage Conn saxophone at the Riverside hotel in Sligo a year ago. Paul returned once more to the banks of the Garavogue in the summer where in Sligo he has been on the jazz faculty for a few years. He enjoys it there and it is full on. ‘‘We are working in the morning doing masterclasses and ensembles, the gigs begin at 4pm and continue on until 2am.’’

Blessed with a warm and powerful tenor sound there is a pastoral aesthetic at work on Travel Sketches perhaps slightly paradoxical given that the album was recorded in an urban big city environment. ‘‘Dave had become available,’’ Paul who lives in Ramsgate says. “We were good friends which is nice: You need that first. We had worked together in a backing band for someone else, a guitarist called Jamie Dean who is from my area in Kent.’’

Back in Birmingham earlier this year where Andrew Bain teaches at the Conservatoire home to the East Side, the repertoire Booth brought to the recording was shaped around original composition by Booth plus a version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ is included. The idea was to strip down production to make the album feel as if it were a gig. Preparing, Paul brought in engineer Alex Bonney, who is also a trumpeter and who Booth had worked with in the band of bassist Michael Janisch. Bonney brought his own portable set-up along. Asked about the tender, powerfully moving song, a Gabriel hit duet with Kate Bush in the 1980s when it first came out, Paul confirms that he does play ‘Don’t Give Up’ live. He explains: ‘‘A couple of years ago I heard it on the radio and it is a beautiful song with such a strong melody. We played it at sound checks and it became a closer at gigs.’’ Expanding and more generally he notes: ‘‘Travel Sketches was written while travelling.’’ At the launch gig this week the quartet will play tunes from the album plus additional material.

Booth also produced Travel Sketches and chose not to go into a studio where otherwise the players would have had to record in specially separated insulated settings for sound engineering reasons. This was because he says he: ‘‘Wanted the recording to feel like a gig and people could come in to listen if they wanted to. We set up in the round. What you hear is what happened, mostly one-takes.’’

The Booth approach to producing is not to be too heavy handed. He says he likes to ‘‘dish out encouragement’’ — and when he is not playing himself in other situations having produced for other artists might suggest paring back a track in length say from 8 minutes to six minutes. He stresses he is not a sound engineer but in his own home studio he edits and tweaks on Pro Tools. The mastering on the new album, which he did not attend, was done at Air in London.

Playing live the quartet did not for the most part use stage monitors at East Side except for the bass amp. There were no issues about hearing the piano, he tells me, although on the ‘‘raucous’’ piano track as he refers to one particular track attention was needed to think about hearing the piano on the day in performance a bit more.

Originally from the historic city of Durham in the north east of England he was home schooled as a child and did his A-levels at the early age of 16. He had also lived in Spain as a young boy and later as a teen at the Royal Academy of Music in London he studied jazz saxophone during the Graham Collier pioneering years. He was there first in 1993 — jazz had begun at the Academy only at the end of the 1980s. His second study was piano. Later Booth would develop his interest in flute and clarinet.

As a teenager he began to play with the Colombian bandleader master timbalero, Roberto Pla. Paul says he used to play at the Farringdon Jazz Bistro in central London in 1994 and Pla heard him there first. ‘‘It was absolutely brilliant playing with him. He was the nicest guy.’’ Paul got into the latin-jazz scene a lot and played with other salsa bands around the time moving and extending his interests away from his earlier influences of Ben Webster and Stan Getz. He learned how to power hard above a 15-piece salsa band, a very different discipline to that which he had hitherto been accustomed, and with Pla performed salsa, Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican but not so much merengue which he however did with other bands that he joined at that busy time.

His own parents were into 1940s swing bands and he says he ‘‘probably grew up listening to a lot of that.’’ They liked the Great American Song book as well as swing. In his early career Booth played with two versions of the Glenn Miller ghost bands beginning in France with the European Miller and in the UK with the Ray McVay version. Booth’s more recent work this last decade with legendary global rock and blues icons is legion and includes not only Eric Clapton but also Van Morrison — and the list is a long one. Beyond jazz over the last 12 months he has performed with music theatre legend show singer Elaine Paige in New Zealand and then his long time gig inside the Steve Winwood band continued in tour dates opening for Steely Dan who in the past he has also played with. Most recently he was heard by many thousands playing baritone saxophone for The Eagles at Wembley Stadium.

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Ethan Iverson interview

Speaking on the phone from Munich ahead of going on stage at Unterfahrt in the company of Charles Lloyd bassist Joe Sanders and the Mehldau Art of the Trio legend Jorge Rossy this snatched interview with Ethan Iverson luckily snuck in ahead of time …

Published: 5 Nov 2019. Updated: 7 months.

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Speaking on the phone from Munich ahead of going on stage at Unterfahrt in the company of Charles Lloyd bassist Joe Sanders and the Mehldau Art of the Trio legend Jorge Rossy this snatched interview with Ethan Iverson luckily snuck in ahead of time because someone missed their interview slot, heralded after a “Hello. Great!” text began by Iverson uttering the word “genius” when quizzed. But who was he talking about and what was the context?

The indisputable genius in question is Manfred Eicher, the producer of Common Practice, a live-at-the-Village Vanguard quartet affair featuring trumpet icon, the elegant Eldrigian Tom Harrell which is to be released this coming Friday the context. There was a verb too and a back story. “He is a genius. I grew up listening to ECM”. The first ECM he says he recalls was Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, “early on”, and refers me to a list of his favourite 50 ECMs (available online).

As the conversation settles into the bouncy benevolent fuzziness of a mobile to mobile soundzzizzzsphere thanks to a trampoline signal crisscrossing the continent of Europe from east to west across Germany to the marlbank hole in the hedge in the borderlands of Ireland, Ethan says when asked about his preferred pianos that his heroes Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk could play on any piano although the New York Manhattan club the Village Vanguard where the album was recorded has “a nice Steinway” and he recalls first playing there with Kurt Rosenwinkel and many times thereafter with The Bad Plus, some “17 times playing there every year,” he pinpoints.

Grilled about the sound the pianist who is originally from the midwest of the USA says down there in the Village the sound is “very dry”. He took a decision to bring a “‘classical’” engineer, namely Andreas Meyer — a Glenn Gould and Bob Dylan reissue producer — in. We talk, it would be rude not to, about applause and how the applause of the audience has been captured. These things matter. The album thankfully does not sound like a vicar’s tea party when the audience respond.

More seriously this brings up the subject of how audiences are significant. Artists want to move us. And Ethan mentions how much on another more recent occasion in the Vanguard when they played together an audience member was so moved by Tom Harrell’s playing that “tears were flowing down her face” in the front row and seems to agree with my description of his blueness and mentions that there is “a vulnerability” in Tom’s sound.

In terms of historic Vanguard records the ones Ethan likes most were the Sonny Rollins, Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones et al classic A Night at The Village Vanguard issued by Blue Note, released in 1958; the Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard put out in 1962 and the Bobby Timmons In Person recorded (as was the Trane) in 1961 with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath the latter two living legends both players who Ethan has worked with extensively. I cheekily ask him if he has to raise his sartorial standards when playing with big Ron given how great a dresser the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet bassist is especially in terms of beautiful suits and ties. He laughs. Playing with Carter he says wisely that the important thing is not “to feel too intimidated” by his greatness.

As for standards on the album we talk about the Dorseys a little as quite a few of the standards included have well known versions by either Tommy (eg ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’) or Jimmy (‘I Remember You’) however Ethan steers me in the direction of Thelonious Monk for his model version of ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’. He shocks me a little by saying he will never make another standards album again.

Ben Street from the Billy Hart quartet that also features Iverson is on double bass in the quartet and Eric McPherson from the Fred Hersch trio is on drums and complete the quartet. Hersch taught Iverson. Recorded towards the end of January in 2017 Ethan tells me Common Practice is drawn from four sets of material and selected from 4-and-a-half hours worth of music and that he is “confident” that they picked the best performances. Perhaps there will be a future clamour for more from the sessions. Let’s see. However, it is a no brainer to realise as you dear readers may well discover for yourself come release time that Common Practice is nothing less, spoiler alert, than a marvel.

Track titles on it include George Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’, taken very slowly, the aforementioned ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams,’ Denzil Best’s ‘Wee’ plus a brace of Iverson originals. As for the inclusion of ‘Wee’ Iverson writing on his multi-award winning blog Do the Math in 2016 noted: “When I was in high school I went every summer to the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camp in Elmhurst, Illinois. The very first time I was placed in David Baker’s combo. “David Baker was a thrilling personality. He had hung out and played with major jazz figures, and we loved hearing him tell stories about the masters from the vantage point of being a casual friend. One day that week Baker came in and began singing Denzil Best’s ‘Wee’ to us. No chart: We had to learn it by ear, and deal. The next day he made us play Lee Morgan’s ‘Ceora’ in all twelve keys. Baker was also a serious composer. I had yet to become immersed in classical music, but Baker gave me a book that was a strong indication that I should investigate more 20th-century composition.”

Iverson too as a serious composer himself recently premiered music for Samuel Beckett’s Quad at the Happy Days festival in Enniskillen performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group. He tells me that he has written a concerto and will be looking ahead to a new record as well as touring with Billy Hart to mark the Mwandishi great’s 80th next year. SG

Ben Street, Tom Harrell, Ethan Iverson, Eric McPherson pictured. Photo: Monica Frisell