Julian Siegel: with Henderson, Trane and Shorter

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It’s amazing how many jazz musicians were influenced by music in the home. For saxophonist Julian Siegel, touring his album Vista now, it was not just jazz during his upbringing in Nottingham. Like him, all his siblings played the piano and his parents were big music fans. His Poland-born father sang and played guitar for Polish and Allied troops as part of the Anders Army in the so-called “Polish Parade”, travelling through Italy and the Middle East in the second world war.

Siegel took up the clarinet and, as a young teenager, the alto sax. The tenor came later. Weekend listening was amusingly demarcated: his father would play vinyl LPs on Saturdays (including Basie, Ellington, Joe Williams, Paul Gonsalves and Sarah Vaughan) and classical on Sundays (Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven, Bach and more). 

“My parents took me to lots of concerts”, he told me. “Stand-outs include the MJQ, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ray Brown, and. Carmen McRae. But I also remember some great classical concerts. As a teenager, I was obsessed with the music of Stravinsky, as well as being into punk and new wave”. These catholic tastes account for Siegel’s continuing formal studies. At the University of East Anglia in Norwich he did  a degree in music, playing a lot of contemporary, chamber, symphonic, early and electro-acoustic music, as well as studying composition and conducting. Jazz was not included.

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“At some point you have to study your craft”, he said. “You have to learn to play your instrument, get your technique together and listen to and learn from the great history of the music. I think people find their own route in accomplishing this, whether it’s via university or music college, or maybe gigging from an early age; by taking lessons from an experienced professional player; or learning music at school – something which should be celebrated and nurtured in the UK”.

‘If you do go to college at some point you have to pay your dues and do some gigs’

After leaving university, he made contact with jazz head-on in London in 1991, having played for four years from 1989 in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and meeting, among others, pianist Liam Noble and guitarist Phil Robson. Noble is now a member of the Siegel quartet, with drummer Gene Calderazzo and bassist Oli Hayhurst.

“I met some great players and teachers”, he said. “I learned loads from them. I asked lots of questions and kept my ears open. When you’re getting together it helps to find a community of musicians to perform with, and being at a jazz school is definitely a way of finding that. But if you do go to college at some point you have to pay your dues and do some gigs!”

Driven by originality and some enthusiastic press – Vista has made it into a few “best of” polls for 2018 – Siegel and his colleagues are busy, and he’s not fazed by the recent comment of New York saxophonist Chris Byars, who opines that, on Byars’s Big Apple patch at least, the supply of jazz will always exceed the demand. Siegel commented: “We have a large community of musicians, jazz fans, promoters and others and that surely justifies the view that the more people who are into jazz and involved somehow in the jazz scene, the better”.

He’s also happy with recent UK newspaper disclosures that there’s been another jazz “explosion” in Britain. Such stories often derided as airy puffs written every few years by music journalists short of material but he’s in favour: “Any big story about British jazz in the national press can only be a good thing. On a slight tangent, it’s a big shame that the Guardian cut its jazz reviews down so much. Articles about jazz can make a big difference to album sales for new releases, so I hope it brings its weekly reviews back to sit alongside classical and pop reviews. There’s always been so much happening on the UK scene and we have some amazing musicians from all generations who deserve much more exposure”.

His father’s favourite tenorists were from the Ellington and Basie bands –  Paul Gonsalves and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis – and he remembers him saying that they had “their own way around the chords”. Siegel’s fascinating route is one of his attributes, fully on display on Vista. He remembers precisely when and where he first heard some of his favourite tenor saxophonists in the throes of chord negotiation: Joe Henderson on McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy album; John Coltrane on Transition (JC’s second solo on the title track he describes as “terrifying”); and  Wayne Shorter on his “beautiful” album Native Dancer.

Among gigs he recalls attending early on were those by the Mel Lewis Orchestra, featuring Joe Lovano, in Cambridge in the late 1980s, and the Henderson quartet at the Jazz Café in 1994, with Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Al Foster, and bassist Larry Grenadier. All grist to the tenor mill.

‘Liam … comes back with 20 times what I could imagine, with an amazing sense of freedom and daring and an original harmonic approach’

These groups had history, and Siegel ascribes his quartet’s qualities to the length of time its members have been together, the current one for 10 years; he’s been with Noble in the group for double that period.

“Writing for the band is a great opportunity, as they are all such strong players with individual voices. Most of the music we make is improvised, so the charts are just starting points. When I give a new piece to Liam, for instance, he comes back with 20 times what I could imagine, with an amazing sense of freedom and daring and an original harmonic approach. Gene has a fantastic feel and perception of time: there’s always a challenge there with so much forward motion. And Oli swings; he can really play the bass and he just gets better and better”. The disc’s superlative sound Siegel attributes to the recording engineer, Chris Lewis.

Whirlwind Recordings are issuing on a double vinyl release of Vista and he’s hoping for a Vista follow-up of some kind with the quartet. Then he’s involved with Partisans, co-led and co-written for with Phil Robson, which has an album due for release, recorded at the Vortex last September and touring the UK in May. (Robson has been New York-based for three years.) “I’m also hoping to be able to announce a gig for my Jazz Orchestra and at some point would like to record its music, including a Derby Jazz Commission called Tales from the Jacquard. Last year I was invited by Paul Dunmall to record alongside  trumpeter and bassist Percy Pursglove and drummer Mark Sanders, the result being As One Does, an album on the FMR Records label”.

Busy or what? Travel is involved, but Siegel accepts life on the road as part of the deal. “You have to travel to find the audiences for your music. There are some great UK and European clubs and, to play a lot, a musician has to develop a touring circuit over time. Lots of travelling can be tiring but a nice gig at your destination makes everything worthwhile”.

Siegel’s music-loving father died in 2006, but his mother still attends gigs. Keeping music in the family might be a fit description for someone with an interest in deepening musical relationships in the bands he’s involved with. It certainly comes out in what and how he plays.