Interview with Nat Birchall

Thursday 29th January sees Nat Birchall making a return to Band on the Wall. The acclaimed saxophonist brings his Sextet to the stage, performing music from throughout his career and a few new pieces too. We interviewed Nat recently, asking him about live albums, his love of dub reggae and his new forthcoming material.

Your most recent release “Live in Larissa” appeared top of many Jazz albums of 2014 lists, and was unanimously praised by reviewers. Last year also saw the re-issuing of many live Jazz albums, like John Coltrane’s “Offering: Live at Temple University” and Roy Brooks & The Artistic Truth. Is this proof that the live album is still crucial to the jazz listener, and do you believe live recordings show a new side to many jazz musicians?

I think live albums will always have a place in the Jazz world. The music tends to work best in a live situation, it’s the truth of the moment and that’s what Jazz is all about, to me at least. Even when we record in a studio situation, we play live in the same room with no overdubs etc. Of course, in a performance setting where there’s an audience, there is an extra urgency because you can’t stop and start again, the music is played from the first song to the last without any going back. But in a live situation, the audience also becomes part of the process, how they receive the music and their reaction to it is felt and influences the way we play to a great degree. The energy is a two-way thing and is very important. I don’t know about a “new side” to the musician; I’d like to think that I approach playing in exactly the same way live or in the studio, despite the differences I mention above. The approach is the same.

In your blog, you talk about not just jazz but reggae and dub reggae, and you speak very highly of King Tubby and his production abilities. With the emphasis you put on enjoying the sound of the music, have you ever considered taking a production/engineering role yourself, and experiment from the other side of the desk?

I have done a little “hands on” mixing myself in the past, but I instantly forget what all the knobs and buttons do as soon as I walk out of the studio! I’m really not a technically minded person. I know the sound I want when it’s time to record or mix, but I have no real desire to learn the engineering side. My head-space is mostly taken up with the music and mastering the instrument. I’ve been lucky to work with some great engineers who can understand what I’m trying to achieve and can interpret my sometimes vague instructions/desires into technical terms, but I leave the engineering side of it to them. I’ve thought about the Dub aspect quite a bit and wondered to myself why I don’t apply it to my own music. But I think it’s to do with the type of music that I play. By which I mean that Reggae music is basically dance music first and as such has a pretty steady rhythmic basis, or beat, although it’s reasonably flexible. But my music, and Jazz in general I think, has more flexibility and space within it already, so it already has inherent qualities to it that Dub mixing introduces to a basic reggae rhythm track. But also right now I’m completely into playing the music “in the moment” and interacting with the other musicians in the band and seeing how far we can take the music that way. In the future I might see if someone could do a Dub mix of one of my songs, as an experiment. But we’ll see. 

Your group has expanded from Quintet to Sextet, with Christian Weaver bringing additional percussion from around the world to develop the sound. What led you to bring in this extra percussion, and are there any favourite jazz pieces of yours that maybe inspired the decision, or that you especially enjoy for their percussion?

I’ve always loved hand drums and percussion sounds, from Count Ossie in particular to begin with but also just in general. I’ve experimented with percussion in the band before, and there are usually at least two of us who play a little percussion as well as our regular instruments. But I’ve been thinking about how to bring some of that Count Ossie or “African drums” kind of sound into my music for some time. Not in any specific way but the spirit of it, in sound and approach to playing. I’ve known Christian a long time and have played in some of his ensembles from time to time. He has been a serious student and practitioner of drumming, and especially Cuban drumming, for a very long time but he also plays drum kit and saxophone and plays Jazz too. So it eventually occurred to me that he might well be the right musician to bring some of that sound to the music. I went around to his house and we spoke about what I was trying to achieve, which was difficult because I didn’t have any particular sound in mind that I could explain easily. I talked about the kind of sounds that I like and would possibly want to hear but I didn’t have any recordings of examples to play, because I’m not really aware of any in the Jazz area. After a while, we began to talk about music in very deep, abstract terms, which I found encouraging. Talking about specifics could easily lead to missing the point of the idea that you are trying to get across. In the end, I left him to think about it, to let him decide which instruments to bring to the session and how to approach the music. When we recorded, he just played beautifully, exactly what the music required. I think it brings a deeper, almost ritual element to the sound and I’m very happy to have him playing in the group. 

Could you tell us about the ethos of your record label Sound, Soul & Spirit, and what defines the sort of music you wish to put out through it?

To be perfectly honest, the label is just so I can get my music out there. I never had any intention to have a record label, I just needed an outlet and if you can get the money together you can just do it yourself. I have no plans (and no money…) to ever release anything other than my own music. I’m far too busy just trying to deal with that and trying to keep the wolf from the door! But if I were ever to release other music, it would have to have the three qualities in the label’s title: good sound, in the individual instruments plus the group sound and the recorded sound; Soul, because what use is music without it? And Spirit of course, which can have many meanings and is too complex to go into here! 

Will you be premiering some new music at Band on the Wall later this month, and, if so, when can we expect to hear the recorded versions?

There will be some new music, yes. Maybe even a song or two that hasn’t been recorded yet, but certainly some music from the next album. The album will be released in the spring, probably around May, by Jazzman Records, which I’m very happy about. They have released some fantastic music and I’m feeling very positive about working with them.

Nat Birchall Sextet

29 January / 19:00 / More Info / Buy Tickets

Hailed by Gilles Peterson as “one of the best musicians in the UK”, saxophonist Nat Birchall remains one of the UK’s hidden jazz treasures. Playing tenor and soprano saxophones, he is a bandleader, composer and arranger (and occasional DJ) who has grabbed listeners attention with his soulful sound and inspirational spiritual music. His latest release, ‘Live in Larissa’ won over critics, and was voted ‘album of the year’ by UK Vibe, as well as topping the best jazz/improv albums list in Wire Magazine.

Having been recording last year, the group now expanded to a Sextet has a more textured sound, and will be playing new compositions from a forthcoming release here at Band on the Wall. Here’s a video of the group as a Quintet, playing “Sacred Dimension” from the 2011 album of the same name.