Geoff Hearn: blues in space

The Brighton-based woodwind player talks about his adventures in the blues, free improv and world music

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Geoff Hearn. Photo by Mark Rea

Born in London in 1947 but for many years domiciled in Brighton and Hove, Geoff Hearn (ts, ss, bar, f) is a major figure on the south coast scene. Recently I was lucky enough to hear a pre-release copy of the latest CD by the Root Strata duo which Geoff and long-time collaborator Simon Robinson (p, kyb) initiated with the 2011 The Secret Of Root Strata. Like that release, Deep Song was produced by Robinson.

‘Whatever I play today, there’s still a blues foundation somewhere deep down. You could argue that at root all great music of the world is the blues. Without that human “sob and joy” the music is empty, for me at least’

Building on the mellow moods of the first album, Deep Song contains some of the best post-CODONA music I’ve heard. It features Geoff on concert C and alto flutes, shakuhachi, Native American flutes and soprano saxophone. Throughout, his spare, poetically arresting figures are complemented by atmospheric textures and diversely energising rhythmic figures from Robinson. The music merits the widest possible distribution: Don Cherry would have loved it.

Geoff achieved international recognition early in the new millenium, when his rhythmic authority, earthy yet searching tenor and now lyrical, now searing soprano contributed much to (ex-Pinski Zoo) drummer Steve Harris’s free improvising group ZAUM. Featuring musicians from jazz, avant-rock and contemporary classical backgrounds, the group drew rave reviews: Brian Morton felt that the band constituted a new and distinctive chapter in the history of British free improvisation and deemed ZAUM the most exciting improvising group of its time in Europe.

While Geoff Hearn has long relished the sui generis world of free improvisation – in the late-1990s, for example, he worked with free player Ken Hyder (d, pc) – the roots of his creativity go way back into the history of jazz. “Whatever I play today, there’s still a blues foundation somewhere deep down. You could argue that at root all great music of the world is the blues. Without that human ‘sob and joy’ the music is empty, for me at least.

“When I first heard the blues something clicked which has never left me. Seeing Howlin’ Wolf at one of the early-1960s touring American Folk and Blues shows changed my life. Living in Liverpool at the time of the Merseybeat boom, I bought an electric bass. This was a really formative time for me, playing in blues, R&B and rock and roll bands, the last often covering Little Richard material. Then I heard Dexter Gordon’s Gettin’ Around – and that was that! Out went the bass and in came the tenor saxophone.” 

After moving to Brighton, Geoff met and worked with fast-developing musicians in the area such as Steve Harris, Nigel Thomas (b, elb), Terry Seabrook (p, kyb), Dave Hastings (elg) and Tristan Banks (d, pc). Over the years he has been involved in many a striking venture. These have included the legendary Brighton-based Ten Men quartet and the long-lived The Blues Corporation, the jazz-funk outfit Hipnosis and the American singer Joe Lee Wilson’s The Joy Of Blues band – as well as Geoff’s own world-ranging Akima and Planet Earth ensembles. Akima, which sometimes featured Yoruba bata drum masters, received Arts Council funding for two successful UK tours.

An autodidact, Geoff has worked to generate opportunities for others: following Steve Harris’s lead in Poole, he set up a Safe House collective space for improvising musicians in Brighton. His current projects include Trio Akima with Hugh Bance (g, elg) and Joe Philogene (who plays African percussion and n’goni, the hunter’s harp which is part of the kora family). A healthy number of gigs were set for 2020 but the Covid crisis put paid to them.

A new free improvisation trio has Geoff with Ollie Brice (b) and Milo Fell (d) and energy is also going into a revivification of his Wolfbone Jack trio with Bance (v, elg, elb) and Tony Shepherd (d). With Geoff on baritone sax, this builds on the blues as well as aspects of Tom Waits and the Morphine trio which came out of the Boston area in the 1990s. (For another side of Geoff’s baritone work, hear the torrential power of much of ZAUM’s The Phantom Of The Opera from 2013).

A special aspect of Geoff’s playing is his organic sensitivity to time. The film director Andrei Tarkovsky believed that it was essential to “let time live in the image” rather than compress it within the jump-cut narratives of mass-culture cinema. I think Tarkovsky (1932-1986) would have appreciated the way in which the often liminal art of ZAUM allowed time to breathe, just as I think he would have warmed to the poetically wrought work of Geoff Hearn – particularly as evident in Root Strata’s Deep Song.

“When I was a child (and also as a teenager, of course) listening to music took me completely from one reality to another. Later on, books, paintings and film offered more of that ‘something else’ that jazz has always had. Dexter, Trane, Rollins, Kirk, Mingus, Miles, Ornette and Don (and many more, including Hendrix, Stan Getz, Albert Ayler, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd and, especially, Ben Webster) all nourished me. So too has music from all over the world, as well as the films of Fassbinder and Tarkovsky, the wisdom of Khalil Gibran and Rumi and the ‘philosophy’ of Taoism and Zen. And also painters like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. When I improvise now I think mainly in terms of texture, shapes and colour.

“Steve [Harris] and I got on well right from the initial Ten Men days of the late-1970s with Nigel [Thomas] and Josh Greifer (p, kyb). There were some private jams we had in the mid-1980s, just the two of us, which maybe set the ground for some of the later things like the live duo sessions of 2003 released on As Slow As Flowers following the first album ZAUM from 2002. The titles on As Slow As Flowers are mine: pretty much all the other ZAUM pieces were titled by Steve after the live event.

“Being a part of ZAUM was as exciting as it was terrifying! Udo Dzieranowski (elg), Cathy Stevens (vla, violectra), Karen Wimhurst (cl) and Adrian Newton (samples) were permanent members; ‘J’m Black (elg, elecs) appeared on three albums – he’s also on the Torque trio’s Lost And Found cuts from 2006-7 with Steve and me – and there were further contributors from time to time, including Andrea Parkins (acn, laptop), the four-piece Chrome Strings, an all-female vocal quartet, Matthew Olczak (elg) and Mary Potter (p).

“Everything was done live and the goal always was to keep the music fresh. Steve put a total ban on rehearsing and the only cues we got in performance were some brief visual images uttered by him. So everyone was on their toes, all the time, listening as much as playing. Knowing when not to play was just as important as playing.

“ZAUM got plenty of excellent reviews. In their Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD Richard Cook and Brian Morton even included the band’s Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open from 2004 in their best 1001 albums in jazz history. We played the ICA, the Vortex and Spitz in London (the Spitz gig was released as The Little Flash Of Letting Go) as well as lots of arts centres and theatres around the UK. Steve and I did a couple of ZAUM duo gigs in Germany to pave the way for concerts with the full group, but before that could happen, Steve became ill. A few concerts in New York were also planned, including one at the Knitting Factory (John Zorn was a big fan) but they never materialised, as Steve’s illness got worse.

“ZAUM was really something else. I always thought it created music that would have made great soundtracks for some new kind of film. I loved the Futurist ideas which lay behind the name Steve gave the group – just as I loved the lyricism, the Paul Motian-like space and depth, of his work.

“It’s hard to think it’s over a decade since Steve left us. He was so committed to ZAUM that he even remortgaged his house to support the music. Playing by his grave during his funeral down in Dorset in January 2008 was one of the heaviest experiences of my life. Fortunately, all the ZAUM albums are currently available, together with Epilogue (2009) which was recorded at St. Aldheim’s Church, Poole in memory of Steve, and The Phantom Of The Opera. Both have Tony Gill doing a great job on drums. The music, the spirit, lives on. It has to. Always did, always will!”

Deep Song is available now on Spotify, iTunes, cdbaby etc.