Steve Fishwick: ‘I can’t get behind the attitude that new is always somehow better than old’

Trumpeter Steve Fishwick answers some questions about the album Marshian Time Slip, which nods deeply to the the Warne Marsh influence

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Marshian Time Slip (reviewed in JJ by Derek Ansell) is much inspired by Warne Marsh. What fascinates about Marsh?

Marsh, along with Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, created a new musical language and style that was based upon the jazz styles that had been developed previously. The music still stands up today, and it is still surprisingly modern. I find the playing tremendously exciting and the incredible invention and sheer dedication to improvisation is endlessly fascinating for me.

Marsh didn’t reach the heights of fame of some other jazz stars, and from what I can gather he found it difficult to sustain a paying musical career throughout most of his life. But this didn’t stop him from pursuing his musical goals and sticking to his musical path. He wasn’t motivated by fame or money. It seems that most of my musical heroes had a similar outlook!

The title track has a double dedication to science fiction author Philip K. Dick, another visionary who had some of the same qualities as Marsh in that he was ultimately interested in the art and acceptance/recognition from his peers rather than fame and fortune.

Marsh’s style is 70 years old, is it still modern?

Firstly, I don’t view music as science: endlessly pushing forward regardless, and I can’t get behind the attitude that new is always somehow better than old.

Great music is timeless and will always be valid if it is truly great. That’s the fantastic thing about it: once it is there on record it is there forever for anyone to learn from and enjoy. After all, there are no classical music scholars who would be taken seriously if they said Beethoven or Mozart or Stravinsky was better than Bach simply because their music was “more modern”.

Warne Marsh developed his style after fully absorbing the influences of Lester Young and Charlie Parker (amongst others), so new styles are always built upon the shoulders of those that went before. No Warne Marsh, no Mark Turner, for example. The contemporary tenor scene would sound a lot different today if it wasn’t for Marsh’s innovations.

‘…whilst I don’t disapprove of people expressing themselves and fully support experimentation in music and the wider arts in general, I am often disappointed in the direction that jazz has been taken in these days’

The record swings – do you think youʼll ever move into the contemporary, non-swing, grime mode?

Hahaha – no! I think that would be a suspect move considering Alex and I are well into our 40s!

I don’t relate to a lot of that music, and whilst I don’t disapprove of people expressing themselves and fully support experimentation in music and the wider arts in general, I am often disappointed in the direction that jazz has been taken in these days. Especially for the role of the bass.

Often the bass has been relegated in today’s music to holding down vamps whilst the drums and soloists shred over the top. There is much less scope for interaction and invention with the rest of the band.

When I think of all the great bass innovators, from Jimmy Blanton to Mingus, Doug Watkins, Wilber Ware, Sam Jones, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden etc, I can really focus in on and enjoy their playing alone because of their groove and the sheer invention in their bass lines.

I think it’s a shame that the swing idiom has been derided, put down and abandoned by contemporary jazz musicians. There is plenty of innovation still possible in swing-based music! Plus, it’s very, very difficult to really swing. It is much more than playing crotchets in the bass and playing “splang-a-lang” on the ride cymbal. It’s a groove, but kind of an abstract groove because there is no explicitly stated backbeat and repeated rhythmic hooks to latch onto. Not everyone can do it, even if they are, quote/unquote, a jazz musician! So, when you tell me that our record swings then I take that as a big compliment.

What sort of audiences do you play to and how do the different types respond to your music? For example, in the shires where Scott Hamilton might still be de rigueur, this will sound quite challenging. 

I tend not to think of the audience when I am playing or writing music. I think the artist must truly satisfy him or herself firstly; obviously you must have high artistic goals in the first place. Secondly, I’m trying to please my colleagues in the band. Finally, if there is an audience there and they like what we are doing then I am very happy; obviously I want people to like what we are doing.

‘…the size of the audience is not always an indicator of the quality of the art that is being produced. As Arnold Schoenberg said: “Art is not for everyone; if it is for everyone then it isn’t art!”’

However, it’s important for an artist to realise that, especially in this society, the size of the audience is not always an indicator of the quality of the art that is being produced. As Arnold Schoenberg said: “Art is not for everyone; if it is for everyone then it isn’t art!”

This can be a difficult mindset for a non-artist to understand, but there is a difference between art and entertainment. Whilst art can be “entertaining” and can take you away from the drudgery of everyday life, there is a distinction between art and entertainment which is often misunderstood, especially in today’s society where “entertainment” is often at a very low level and if you’re part of the performing arts you’re somehow expected to please and entertain the audience first and foremost, rather than pursue your artistic endeavour.

Obviously, there is an element of making the music presentable for an audience. But they must meet you somewhere in the middle and trust the performer enough to let them take you somewhere rather than trying to enforce their expectations of what they will and will not enjoy. An open mind is basically what’s needed!

We play to many different types of audiences, quite often to the older demographic but often quite mixed in terms of age. Often it depends on the presentation of the music and the venue that we’re playing in.

As for the audiences in the shires etc, I never have a negative reaction to our music these days. Although I have felt in the past that the general style that we play in is too modern for some and not modern enough for others – kind of stuck in the middle. I feel as I’ve become more established though, and now there are younger generations coming up playing in the same general style as us, then it’s a little more accepted.

When we were starting out there weren’t many people interested in playing bebop/hard bop influenced music. But if someone enjoys Scott Hamilton’s playing then I don’t see it as a huge stylistic leap for people to enjoy this music too. We have some of the same influences and we are branches on the same tree so to speak. I believe we’ve all worked with Scott at one point or another, and musically successfully, I think!

Some of my favourite records have musicians playing in older styles with more contemporary musicians. Arnett Cobb and Coleman Hawkins with hard bop rhythm sections, Lee Morgan and Grant Green playing with heavily modal style rhythm sections, McCoy Tyner playing with blues-drenched hard bop guys like Stanley Turrentine around the same time he was playing intense modal music with John Coltrane.

I could go on with numerous examples, but the point is that if there is a shared language and you’re coming from the same source, there is no reason why two musicians of seemingly different styles can’t play together successfully. It’s the same thing with listening.

‘I’m trying to create new music, even if it’s heavily borrowing from the past. But if you think about people like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane they went deep into the history of the music and investigated all of it’

Do you see yourself as engaged in a kind of musical archaeology? 

Personally, what I am trying to do is approach the music in the same way as my heroes. They all went through a period of imitation and through that they developed their own personal styles. Obviously, some were hugely innovative (a handful maybe, the big ones like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane) and most were innovative on a smaller scale, posthumously innovative like Marsh, or just individual stylists.

I’m not interested in recreation. I’m trying to create new music, even if it’s heavily borrowing from the past. But if you think about people like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane they went deep into the history of the music and investigated all of it. Roland Kirk said something like “You can only go as far forward as you’ve gone back”. So, I’m trying to do a similar thing, and I think if you listen closely to the record, we all play certain things, musical ideas, that are individual to us. There are certain elements of the language that we might individually use that are things we have developed ourselves, even though the overall picture is of us playing within a certain idiom.

Not that I’m comparing us with the greats like Warne Marsh, but I think this is what these musicians were doing. Assimilating the music from the past and trying to build upon that. That’s what I’m interested in, rather than “Oh, you can’t play that chord because it’s not within the style” or “that lick isn’t allowed because Charlie Parker never played it” or whatever. This idiom is still a living, breathing thing and I think there is still a lot to be done with it. I’m still working on it and I’m nowhere near reaching the level of the masters, but that’s part of the fun!

How did you come to play jazz and why you chose the path you did?

I got into jazz in the late 1980s when there was huge exposure on the TV and other media outlets. I was already playing trumpet, and I had heard about jazz and was fascinated by the fact that jazz musicians improvised. I had a very open-minded teacher called John Crosdale who was strictly classical but had a curious mind about music. So, he encouraged our interest in jazz.

‘I think Wynton did a huge amount for jazz, especially with the classical crossover which seemed to legitimise jazz for a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily check out the music’

I watched and read anything I could get my hands on about jazz. Courtney Pine, Tommy Smith and Andy Shepherd were on the TV a lot. There were three BBC documentaries made about Wynton Marsalis which were important (I think Wynton did a huge amount for jazz, especially with the classical crossover which seemed to legitimise jazz for a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily check out the music).

At the same time there were reruns of the Jazz 625 show from the 1960s, and Miles’s autobiography came out which was big news back then. There was a great record shop in Manchester back then called Decoy Records, so we spent a lot of time and money in there.

Then we met other like-minded musicians such as Steve Brown, Matt Miles, Les Chisnall, Mike Outram and others who were very encouraging and helpful. I don’t feel like I’ve chosen a path! I’ve just tried to play the music that I enjoy and stay true to myself.

What pushed you towards what one might call swinging, tuneful, chord-based bop in place of the rock, free, minimalist, ethnic etc currents that have swirled around the hip London and college scenes the past decade or so?

It’s the music that I love, and always have loved since first hearing it. You must stay true to yourself and play the music that you genuinely love, and that is what I have done. It’s not been a conscious decision really, just the type of music I have gravitated to.

Do you have other subjects in mind for future projects?

No, not at the moment. The music comes first generally, then I try to hang titles on the tunes. That’s how this title came about. I was investigating the music of Warne Marsh and transcribing him and writing tunes somewhat based on his style. I’m a fan of Philip K Dick and the pun on the title of his novel Martian Time Slip sprung to mind and there we have it!

Is it worth making records?

Well, this vinyl release is kind of an experiment. With the resurgence in vinyl we thought we would see how sales went without having a CD release. So far sales have been good, and feedback has been extremely positive. We’ve spared no expense on the product! We’re very happy with the quality of the pressing, the artwork (by Osian Roberts), and the sound of the recording.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and now seemed like the right time to do it. There is something about not only the sound, but the experience and ritual of vinyl that has timeless appeal and new generations are discovering it as well as older generations rediscovering it!

Recording is important for me in terms of documenting work. I don’t sit at home listening to myself every day, but it’s nice to know that there is a back catalogue of stuff sitting there that we’ve created.