Sophie Wales catches up with jazz pianist and composer John Law, based in the South West.
We’ve been checking-in with jazz artists and musicians throughout the South to see how their lockdown experience has been.
What was your first ever encounter with jazz?
I was living in Germany, taking a break from further classical piano studies in Vienna, after having completed my study at the Royal Academy of Music, seemingly destined for a life as a concert pianist. I travelled with a girlfriend at the time to Amsterdam and I heard some Be-Bop in a jazz bar there. I was hooked. It was almost synaesthetic; I could see the improvised choruses going past me in the air and I was fascinated by the genre. Then after that I had my fist encounter with recorded jazz: Thelonious Monk’s trio album playing Ellington. I heard the first few bars, Monk’s 4-bar intro to ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ and similarly, I was absolutely hooked.
Name a track you wish you’d written.
There are so many. You have to know I never do favourites, or top lists. But some pieces that really resonate with me as compositions are Alan Pasqua ‘Highway 14’, Jan Garbarek, ‘So Mild the Wind, So Meek the Water’, Ralph Towner, ‘Celeste’, Steely Dan ‘ I Got the News’, and most tunes written by pianist Tom Cawley. Other pieces include Radiohead, ‘Sit Down, Stand Up’. This is a fantastic example of steady build-up. From the opening, with the subtle electronic drum sounds, the eerie glockenspiel and the simple melody (in an unsettling ten beat feel), it gradually builds, particularly through percussion sounds, to a thrilling conclusion. Keith Jarret’s ‘Personal Mountains’ is also excellent. This is such a dark, mysterious, powerful tune, and quite classical and baroque-sounding in it’s own way. I love the combination of that with the driving, Bossa-type, syncopated half time bass line.
Who have you been listening to while in lockdown?
I’ve been re-listening to Weather Report’s album ‘Heavy Weather’. It’s a big regret of mine that I never heard this group play live… I wasn’t into jazz at that time. To have heard that group in concert (the one with Jaco Pastorius in), would have been an amazing experience. Superhuman musicians, all of them, and a fantastic group sound. Heavy Weather is one of their most successful albums and I’m enjoying it all over again for myself, as if I’d never heard it before.
I’ve also been listening to Hector Berlioz, ‘Harold in Italy’. It’s amazing that famous works such as this can be discovered for oneself, almost as if no-one else has ever heard them before. Personally I’ve never really warmed to Berlioz, apart from the Symphonie Fantastique. But listening to this work, ostensibly a sort of viola concerto, written for the great violinist Paganini, I was captivated. First by the opening fugal section of the first movement (I just love counterpoint… always will!), and then by the beautiful second movement, the March of the Pilgrims. This movement is so typical of him; I played it to my wife and she was amazed at how strange it sounded, how the musical movement seemed to stop and how simple and also angular the melody was. It’s a bit like naive art.
I’m enjoying discovering, for myself, the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, particularly his 5th. This is a really challenging work, full of references, I feel, to the First World War, which had just finished. The piece is really fresh and has a very different sound in comparison to German music, or French, or Italian. It’s also quite a modern-sounding work.
Favourite gig you’ve ever been to and why?
I used to really enjoy and learn from getting into gigs really cheap, as a young, penniless musician. I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s to hear amazing visiting musicians and the house band, which enabled me to study, at close quarters, John Taylor’s incredible playing. Jarrett Trio live at the Royal Festival Hall was also wonderful. Living now for nearly 20 years in the South West, I’ve been really lucky to hear, at the wonderful St. George’s Bristol concert hall, some amazing piano trios: the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (before they went mega famous), Brad Mehldau (with Jorge Rossy on drums, also before Mehldau went stratospheric), Bobo Stenson, John Taylor… It was a great education for me! I also loved hearing Phronesis at Colston Hall.
Any livestream concert recommendations?
I’ve tried a couple of livestream solos myself and I’m just trying to get in to this and feel more comfortable in the new environment. Early days…
What advice do you have for fellow musicians adapting to life in lockdown?
Try and keep practising. It’s really hard to not feel de-motivated by the whole uncertainty of life, now, and for the foreseeable future. But keep developing and keep enjoying music. It’s one of the most wonderful things that God gave us to get through this strange time on earth that we call life. Albert Schweitzer said God gave us music and cats…
Have you been working on any new material whilst in lockdown?
I’m trying to re-configure a new project of mine called ‘Renaissance’. Featuring midi keyboards and saxophone, with live visuals (which I’ve just started with saxophonist Jon Lloyd and Tangerine Dream visual artist Patrick Dunn), over electronic looped pads created by my son Jasper out of fragments of sacred vocal music. I’m also working on re-scheduling the new album tour for my quartet Congregation, with James Mainwaring, Ashley John Long, and Dave Smith. Plus trying to work on some different piano technique and repertoire which I’ve wanted to do for a while now. I’m actually really enjoying lockdown! I’ve got loads done in the house and garden, including building a pergola!
Our next ‘Catching Up With…’ will be posted on 19th August. Follow the series on our social media and hear about it directly when you sign up to our mailing list.