Rob Luft: ‘I’m a jazzer’

    Guitarist Luft lists a wide range of influence outside jazz, including George Harrison and King Crimson but probably not contemporary pop

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    Rob Luft

    Many critics have identified the influence on Londoner Rob Luft’s guitar playing of John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Others have variously suggested that Al Di Meola, Paco De Lucia and King Crimson have influenced him. Still others have asserted that Luft has been influenced by the likes of West African highlife, Joe Satriani, Ali Farka Touré, Radiohead, Eno, English and Celtic folk, indie pop and, indeed, countless other genres and musicians.

    “When people review your album they obviously have to compare it to what they know,” says Luft good-humouredly about these sometimes perceptive, sometimes floundering, attempts to convey what his music actually sounds like. “But some people have made the most bizarre comparisons. Some artists I’ve been compared to I’ve never even heard of! But when people say my influences are John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell or John Scofield, they’re accurate. And even Radiohead and Robert Fripp and King Crimson – I love a lot of what those artists do, even if they’re not pure jazz artists.

    ‘As a nine-year-old with a guitar and a stepdad who loved Delta blues it made a big impression on me. The style that Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker had is so raw and powerful’

    “But my original love of jazz comes out of listening to Charlie Parker and Django Reinhardt and John Coltrane. Those influences are not necessarily clear in my recordings [because] that’s a different language from a different time and my music on the outside sounds more like King Crimson than Charlie Parker – but I’m influenced by Charlie Parker much more than by Robert Fripp.”

    Luft acknowledges the African elements in his music and has taken lessons from London-based Congolese soukous musicians. “Soukous is a very beautiful guitar style. There are often only two or three chords but there are endless inventions on melody within those chords. I had at least 10 four- or five-hour one-on-one sessions and I feel I really dug into something special.”

    In fact, Luft’s first musical passion was for blues. “As a nine-year-old with a guitar and a stepdad who loved Delta blues it made a big impression on me,” he recalls. “The style that Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker had is so raw and powerful that it hit me like an upper cut when I first heard it. Maybe listening to John Lee Hooker now might not appeal but I certainly put Robert Johnson’s music on sometimes and the power of his voice and his guitar playing is something to behold.”

    Later Luft listened to fashionable rock bands. “In my teenage years that music touched me, whether Nirvana or Britpop like Oasis and Damon Albarn. I still think there was something good there – and compared to the pop of today Oasis sound like Mozart!”

    A more substantial rock influence on Luft has been George Harrison. He cites Tanpura, from his most recent album, 2020’s Life Is The Dancer, as an example. “The primary influences for that were Within You Without You, which is a George Harrison composition, and [Lennon/McCartney’s] Tomorrow Never Knows which is another classic Beatles exploration in Indian sounds. The way Harrison was inspired by Ravi Shankar and took that music and made pop music out of it was very inspiring. I’m a massive Beatles fan and George Harrison’s style and sound are unique. Listening to Sgt. Pepper or The White Album or Revolver as a kid and learning those songs on guitar is such a part of my musical upbringing. It’s not something I’ve studied as much as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Django Reinhardt but those albums really touch me.”

    Of Allan Holdsworth: ‘That 80s jazz-fusion sound is a bit dated but I don’t think anyone has come close to what he did with the instrument. He was able to make it sing and sound like a violin or a saxophone or a piano’

    At one of the first jazz gigs he attended Luft had the transformative experience of seeing Allan Holdsworth. “He was the Paganini of the electric guitar,” he enthuses. “Aesthetically it’s maybe not to my taste now. That 80s jazz-fusion sound is a bit dated but I don’t think anyone has come close to what he did with the instrument. He was able to make it sing and sound like a violin or a saxophone or a piano so seeing him at a young age left a lasting impression. It’s so sad he’s not here anymore and I never had the chance to actually meet him.”

    Luft has met, however, another of his great heroes, John McLaughlin. In fact McLaughlin was the judge when Luft placed second in the 2016 Montreux Jazz Festival Guitar Competition, behind Olli Hirvonen. The competition ended unforgettably for Luft. “We all got up on stage and played together. To stand next to John McLaughlin and play a 12-bar blues was great fun. And slightly surreal!”

    Luft’s talents have often been recognised since and he has won Jazz FM awards, a Parliamentary Jazz award, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists award and so on. “Thanks to these prizes I’ve met people who I wouldn’t otherwise have met, whether it’s McLaughlin, or Pat Metheny at the Jazz FM awards, and had the chance to perform in festivals around the UK and further afield. They’ve meant a great deal in that regard and I’m very grateful. But on a personal level I don’t really care. I’m a jazzer and I just love listening to music and being around musicians and making good jazz music. The awarding of prizes is not something I’m hung up about. It’s just something that’s kind of happened.”

    On Life Is The Dancer Luft fronts a quintet which includes bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick. “We’re friends first and that camaraderie comes across in the music,” he says. “It’s joyful and full of optimistic melodies and harmonies and vital rhythms.”

    One of Luft’s compositions on the album, One Day In Romentino, was named for a small Italian town. “That’s a tale of the woes of being a jazz musician,” he explains. “I flew to Italy in 2019 for an outdoor festival gig. I did a soundcheck – and then it started pouring with rain and the gig was pulled. So I had a double espresso and a margherita pizza and got the next plane home. I felt like the samurai who draws the sword and needs to draw blood so I composed that piece as a response to that feeling of having a gig cancelled. Like a lot of my music it’s quite eclectic. It has Mediterranean influences but also influences from drum ’n’ bass and British electronic music and Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell.”

    Luft believes that Life Is The Dancer is significantly different from his previous CD Riser, his 2017 debut. “Riser was more a jazz-fusion guitar album. It features my guitar playing really prominently but Life Is The Dancer is more of an overall work of art, less a pure jazz album and more an album which contains nice themes that repeat themselves and will bring positive melodic energy when you stick it on.”

    Luft allows his musicians considerable freedom to interpret his compositions. “I pen very simple parts on one or two pages and give very little direction,” he says. “I love the fact that each musician can have their own artistic voice featured on my music so I don’t prescribe very much at all.”

    One of Luft’s key musical relationships has been with Albanian singer Elina Duni, with whom he released Lost Ships in 2020. The duo’s repertoire comprises originals and folk songs from Albania, Italy and elsewhere. Does Luft ask Duni to translate the lyrics of such songs for him? “I actually speak Italian but if it’s an Albanian or Arabic folk song, I will say ‘What is this about?’ and she’ll usually tell me it’s some tale of love and loss or exile or something sad and I’ll play in a way that reflects that. If you’re playing to an audience of Albanians in Albania like we often do you have to play those songs with respect, so that the audience will feel the sincerity in your playing.”

    Many jazz instrumentalists find it unsatisfying accompanying singers but Luft relishes it. He explains the appeal: “The gentle side of my playing with all the effects and loops and delays and ambient stuff works really well with singers, especially female singers. The soundworld I create is a nice bed for the voice to sit on top of and I really love it. For me vocals add a lot – a good lyric can be very powerful.”

    Another important musical relationship for Luft has been with saxophonist Dave O’Higgins, with whom he released Play Monk And Trane in 2019. “I’ve rarely heard a saxophone player play a ballad as well as Dave. He’s really got that Dexter Gordon/early Coltrane influence in his sound and the way he plays is so honest. I love playing with him. And he’s been an inspiration since I was a kid when I used to go and watch his quartet and then when I joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra some weeks Dave would direct the band so it was a natural progression to start playing with him.”

    ‘Stuck’ in Cairo: ‘After my gig the organiser said “Why are you going back to the UK? You haven’t any gigs, everything’s cancelled. Stay here where the sun’s always shining until it’s back to normal.” So of course I obliged and “accidentally” missed my flight home’

    Luft’s experience of the pandemic was different from that of most British jazzers. “I went out to play the Cairo Jazz Festival in November 2020. There was lockdown in the UK and I was amazed the concert was going to happen. But I showed up at Heathrow with my guitar and swimming shorts and sunglasses and jumped on the plane. And everything in Cairo was completely normal. It was barely noticeable there was a pandemic. And after my gig the organiser said ‘Why are you going back to the UK? You haven’t any gigs, everything’s cancelled. Stay here [where] the sun’s always shining until it’s back to normal.’ So of course I obliged and ‘accidentally’ missed my flight home. Everything opened in the UK again in May 2021 and I realised I’d better start being a musician again but it was a wonderful chapter in my life hanging out with Bedouins in the desert and just existing. Of course I had my guitar so I composed a lot of themes there that have now been recorded for my next [yet untitled] quintet album, which will come out next year. And I’m hoping it will be accompanied by a UK tour – and won’t be scuppered by another pandemic!”