Mark Lockheart – peppered with the fab four

    Not just rendered unemployed by SARS-CoV-2 but a proper victim of the disease, the saxophonist issues a new record that sounds 'unique'

    Mark Lockheart (third from left) and band. Photo by Dave Stapleton

    The Covid-19 pandemic has provided challenges for all musicians. Saxophonist Mark Lockheart, however, has suffered more than most for he not only lost all his gigs, like everyone else, but he actually contracted the illness, in 2020. “I got it really bad, back in the first lockdown,” he sighs. “I was one of the first to get it and I was in hospital for three days. I wasn’t on a ventilator, I was only on oxygen, but I was really bad. And then the worst thing was recovering. It took me over a year to get back. It was horrible.”

    More happily Lockheart is releasing a new album, Dreamers, on which he collaborates with Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Tom Herbert (bass) and Dave Smith (drums). “I’m very happy with the variety of sound that’s on it,” he declares. “And I’ve been trying to write simpler in the last few years and trying to get to the essence of the ideas I have so I like that element about it. And I like the fact that stylistically it doesn’t really sit anywhere: it’s inspired by lots of different things [and] it sounds unique to me.”

    The press release for the album in fact describes Dreamers as “psychedelic” and certainly there’s a trippy vibe to several tracks. Might, perchance, Lockheart be not unfamiliar with certain hallucinogenic drugs? “Only very mildly, over the years!” he guffaws. “I would be fibbing if I didn’t say I’ve tried a few but I never got massively into psychedelic drugs. But when we started rehearsing it was just the way the sound world of the band started to go. 

    “For me Marmalade Skies is the most psychedelic [track] because of the reference to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” he adds, namechecking the Beatles song that first appeared on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and which, indeed, includes the lyric “Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies”.

    Lockheart, it transpires, is a huge Sgt. Pepper fan. “I love that record. I think it’s amazing: the variety, the songwriting, the radical arrangements [like] the string arrangement on A Day In The Life, the humour in When I’m Sixty-Four … It’s an unbelievable record. It’s like Kind Of Blue – a perfect album. I can’t imagine a note different on it.”

    Another rock band also influenced the album. “Radiohead influenced it sonically,” acknowledges Lockheart. “That comes mostly from Elliot – some of the sounds he’s doing come from Radiohead sonics a little bit.”

    Of Radiohead: ‘They’re amazing and they were actually lovely and super-respectful – they were saying “We’ve never worked with proper musicians before”’

    As it happens Lockheart himself once actually worked with Radiohead, playing, with other jazz musicians, on The National Anthem on 2000’s Kid A and playing several gigs with the band. “They impressed me because they were experimenting,” he says of the recording session. “They wanted a kind of Mingus-y effect on the track, they wanted it a bit loose, and we ended up improvising it. They’re amazing and they were actually lovely and super-respectful – they were saying ‘We’ve never worked with proper musicians before’ when we went to America and played with them!”

    Playing to vast audiences of fans going nuts is of course something most jazz musicians never experience. “It was really exciting,” agrees Lockheart. “The only frustration was that we went all the way to America and were only playing on one tune! We were up there – and then we had to go off! But it was incredible. And you can imagine the buzz in the band when Kid A went to number one in the States when we were out there. They were gobsmacked because they thought it was going to be a difficult album and people would think of it as weird.”

    Another influence on Dreamers is Indian music, as can be heard on Jagdish. “I like listening to Indian music,” says Lockheart. “I’ve never studied it but I’ve been to India quite a few times and the last time particularly I managed to hear quite a lot of music in the temples. In Udaipur there’s the Jagdish temple and I recorded bits of music on my phone, for inspiration. It was more the atmosphere than trying to use the musical material. It was the vibe I liked.”

    Yet another track, the title track, has a Kraftwerk influence. “I’m not an expert on Kraftwerk but there were a few tracks I heard and I enjoyed the sound world. And when I started working with Elliot he knew some of those Kraftwerk things as well so it was a good reference point. So, again, it’s trying to use all the things around us that I’m interested in and not be tied down to a particular sound. And as it turned out when we started to rehearse a sound emerged that was really unique.”

    All but two of the tracks on the album were composed by Lockheart alone. “It’s a mysterious process,” he says of his composing. “But usually things come out of me improvising something on a keyboard or the sax. Once I get a little idea that I get excited enough to develop, that’s when the hard work starts, trying to knock it into some shape and form and structure. There’s obviously a lot of being quite academic at certain points but it comes from improvisation.”

    Lockheart’s colleagues have the freedom to interpret his compositions. “I’ve got quite particular ideas about what I want but it’s a fine balance because then I want them to do their own thing, to make my ideas better. Elliot, Tom, Dave … they’re crucial to the sound. It wouldn’t sound the same with other people.”

    Lockheart first made his name in the mid-80s with Loose Tubes but didn’t compose for that band. “With Loose Tubes the writing was at such a high level and I was a bit intimidated because I didn’t have much writing experience. I’ve got quite a lot of experience now but when I bring a piece in to the band I still worry if it’s going to be any good or not!”

    Lockheart believes he has developed massively since his time with Loose Tubes. ‘I can’t listen to my playing in those days. I was just developing’

    Musically too, Lockheart believes he has developed massively since his time with Loose Tubes. “I can’t listen to my playing in those days,” he chuckles. “I was just developing.”

    His subsequent band Perfect Houseplants represented a huge personal leap forward, he believes. “That was a band I wrote for, along with [pianist] Huw Warren and [bassist] Dudley [Phillips], so that was the time when I really developed my own voice. We were writing music for the way we played so it felt comfortable doing a Houseplants gig: I wasn’t trying to play American jazz; I wasn’t trying to play European jazz; I was just trying to play our jazz. It’s interesting because pretty much all the music I heard growing up was American jazz but I’ve never really wanted to copy it. I think: ‘What’s the point? I’m never going to do a version of something as good as John Coltrane or Zoot Sims so I might as well get on with making my own music.’ But, still, I use all the stuff I learnt, in my own way.”

    Central to Lockheart’s playing style is his sense of melody. “It’s massively important, as important as rhythm to me,” he asserts. “I still love Stan Getz, Paul Desmond and Burt Bacharach, I still love melody – it’s part of my DNA. But melody’s got to have good rhythm in it so the two things are inseparable.”

    Lockheart regards his stint in the 90s with English folk singer June Tabor, with whom he gigged and recorded four albums, as being beneficial. “It was always about supporting the lyrics and not detracting from them. She didn’t want you playing very much so it was quite challenging, quite tough, at times but I loved it and I learned a lot about working with singers. To this day I love working with singers, weaving behind them and making the song sound good.”

    The argument that folk is an inferior genre of music to jazz is briskly dismissed by Lockheart. “I think that’s missing the point of great music. The problem is that people look at the technical aspects of jazz, which are huge – you need to learn a lot of technical stuff to play jazz – but at the end of the day that doesn’t make great music-making. What makes great music-making is the ability to move people and connect to them. So June Tabor is as great as any jazz singer, really – it’s just a slightly different language.”

    Lockheart intends the band on Dreamers to be ongoing. “I want it to be a working band and I’ve started to write the second album. And I’d like to take [the music] to more people because I think it would appeal to lots of different audiences. That’s not going to be easy. Because of the current situation people are still nervous about booking things and I’m not flavour of the month or young so it’s convincing people to take this project, that it would appeal to younger people. But that’s what I’d like to do.”