Interview: Nat Birchall

Saxophonist Nat Birchall saw great acclaim for last years ‘Live in Larissa’ album, and this year he embarks on a new project with a new ensemble. Joining forces with Canadian drummer Franklin Kiermyer, he has formed Birchall-Kiermyer Transcension, a group making one of the first ever live appearances at Band on the Wall in September. Franklin Kiermyer is notable for playing with Pharaoh Sanders and later with Azar Lawrence, the saxophonist who succeeded John Coltrane in McCoy Tyner’s 1970s line-up. We spoke to Nat Birchall ahead of the show at Band on the Wall, to discuss how the new group was formed and the characteristics that set apart certain jazz players.

Tell us how you first became acquainted with the musicians in Birchall-Kiermyer Transcension.

Well I was aware of Franklin’s music for some time. I knew his great “Solomon’s Daughter” album that he did with Pharoah Sanders on it. He also appears on at least one album I have by Tisziji Munoz (Tisziji is one of my favourite musicians, a guitarist who plays with a depth of Spirit not unlike that of the Master, John Coltrane). Then when I released my “Live In Larissa” album in 2014 Franklin had a new release at around the same time, “Further”, and some people mentioned both albums together in reviews. A short while later Franklin contacted me online and we began talking, by email at first and then by Skype. It immediately became obvious that we have similar approaches and motivations with our music so we agreed that we should collaborate in some way.

Yourself and Franklin share a mutual love of Coltrane and his classic quartet line-up, is he an artist that underpins the sound and approach of this group, or is it an amalgamation of many styles?

I think the sound of any group of musicians is determined to a large degree not only by the concept, compositions and playing of the leader, but also by the musical chemistry of that particular line-up. The music of Coltrane’s classic quartet, and the later groups he had with Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali, are really the benchmark of playing in a way that allows for individual expression within a musically collective endeavor. But also, importantly, the surrender to the source of the music, or the “Spirit”. There is a certain form that the music takes when you play in a “selfless” way that cannot be engineered, you can only reach it by letting go of any desire you may have to sound a certain way.

Personally I have been trying to follow this approach for some time and I try to find other musicians who also operate in this way. Besides all this, we are all affected to some degree or another by all of the music we listen to, and all the music we have listened to in the past. So all of our individual sounds and playing styles are formed, consciously or unconsciously, by the influence of our experience, which will include numerous different styles even if they are not immediately obvious to the listener.

When assembling a group like this, what characteristics are you looking for in your fellow musicians?

As outlined above, I try to play from a “Selfless” place and allow the music to happen by itself as much as possible. All the thinking is done beforehand. So I try to find musicians who can allow themselves to “let go” on stage and to just let the music happen. Not everyone plays this way of course, and it can be deceptive for the listener. From the audience it can sound great and it can seem that great things are happening on stage, (and I’ve been caught out this way myself on several occasions…) but on stage it can feel very different. You can tell when you play with someone what their motivations are for instance, and to what degree they are listening to you and the other musicians. You can’t have people going their own way, or “grandstanding” (or even “Bandstanding” as someone once eloquently put it to me!) so I try to play with people who are hip to letting go of themselves on the bandstand, it makes for better music every time.

Are there projects or recordings of Franklin’s you particularly enjoy?

I think when a person plays from a particular place, that place of egoless surrender, then all of their music tends to be of a special nature and it’s hard to differentiate. Having said that, I have a fondness for Franklin’s “Solomon’s Daughter”, (maybe partly because of Pharoah’s presence but maybe not…) and also his latest album “Further”, which has the great Azar Lawrence on saxophone and legendary bass player Juini Booth, who both played together in McCoy Tyner’s classic quartet of the early 1970’s. Both of these albums have a spirit and an energy that speak way beyond the music.

What other music are you currently enjoying, be it old or new. Are their any emerging acts who’re impressing you?

I always listen to John Coltrane of course, no surprise there! But his music is the most revealing of his motivation, his intent. His soul even. And it seems to connect to the higher source every time and to the highest degree. Some of Albert Ayler’s music does a similar thing and also sometimes the music of others does to some degree or another. But with Trane it always did it, and the later you go in his discography the more it did it.

I listen to a lot of other music as well of course. Tisziji Munoz who I mentioned before. Lately I’ve discovered that there’s a big scene of musicians in South Africa who are playing some really incredibly music right now. People like drummer Tumi Mogorosi, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, saxophonist Nhlanhla Daniel Mahlangu, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and many others. But I listen to a broad spectrum of music, African music, Indian classical music, European classical music, 60’s and 70’s Jamaican music. And Count Ossie’s music has had a special place in my heart ever since I first bought the “Grounation” LP back in 1973.

Birchall-Kiermyer Transcension with Davis Whitfield and Nimrod Speaks

15 September / 19:30 / More Info / Buy Tickets