Aaron Liddard describes his debut album Nylon Man as having been “roughly 12 years in the making”. It’s a summation of his 22-year career so far and a view of his music that’s as complex as his understanding of what jazz means to him today.
UK saxophonist-composer-arranger Liddard enjoys storybook status as a musician who’s contributed mightily as a sideman to the careers of Amy Winehouse, Bob Geldof, Prince and Sting. For sure, Nylon Man is not an end but a point of departure. Nylon stands for the three cities which have influenced him most: New York, London, and Manchester.
The music on the album, with guest contributions from Omar Puente, Carleen Anderson and Miss Baby Sol, is maybe not what an older generation might understand as jazz. His band is called the Argonauts – Aaron and the Argonauts. Liddard sees its music as 21st century but influenced by many sub-genres of jazz, funk, electronica and non-Caucasian music traditions. All its charts are Liddard compositions except Frisco, a joint effort with Anderson.
“I believe my responsibility is to make new music that reflects today,” he says. “Music is most useful to society when it is of its time. By reflecting current events, music encourages us to ponder original opinions, and helps craft our future.
“My understanding is that newly written jazz has always drawn on everything available – be it the Great American Songbook, bebop and its socio-political landscape or fusion and its relation to new technology. And we are currently on the cusp of an upheaval possibly larger than any before: Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“AI is already used in translation, image creation, essay writing, coding, website design and presentations. Will it be allowed permanent access to the internet, banking, electricity, health care, infrastructure, global logistics, travel, prisons, politics? How long before it becomes self-aware? How long after that will it become disillusioned with its human masters? What should the fate of those whose careers become defunct? How might we work together with AI to make a better world for ourselves and all life on earth?”
Listening to London-based Liddard in this mode, one is reminded of other British musical polymaths such as saxophonist Peter King and drummer Phil Seamen: jazzers who think and speculate about life, death, the universe, jet flight and quantum mechanics. But deep thought is also internalised and directed at what he does as a musician. Performing with “master entertainers” Winehouse and Prince et al has informed his attitude towards playing jazz.
“My experiences absolutely inform my artistry but my improvising is more informed by my surroundings and intuition,” he says. “As a performer, I’ve always wanted to connect with an audience and explore the music together. I try to break the barrier between the band and audience, to get us all into a similar mind of cooperation.
“When playing, I aim to reach some kind of emotional or spiritual connection. I believe live jazz is inherently riskier than any other type of musical performance. The musicians constantly change their approach, reaching, evolving, and living the experiences of the day on the stage. Artists in other genres most often strive for predictable emotional reactions. When performing the music of Nylon Man, we combine a bit of both, as this best serves the music.”
Prodded for a definition of jazz, Liddard is interestingly reluctant to come up with a pat, one-fits-all answer. “I think of it as an elastic band being pulled by the soloist,” he says. “The supporting musicians will stretch from their predetermined mechanics to straddle the void and support the new dimension of the soloist. Some jazz sub-genres minimise this element – big band especially. But I feel this best describes the role of the jazz musician: to bring another emotional dimension that’s real, risky, changeable and unpredictable.”
Liddard’s current sextet consists of two drummers, bass, keys, a singer and himself on sax and keys. He’s also led a trio, quartet, octet, 12-piece and a big band. Each presents its own opportunities and challenges. “I’ve tended to write for unusual formations of musicians, including a big-band piece featuring three baritone saxes,” he says. “Nylon Man features all-original music, most of which involves vocals. My live band has two aims: communicate the character of the songs and instrumentals, and reach away from them in the jazz tradition. This current sextet is the smallest that I feel can achieve both.”
At live gigs the Argonauts are likely to encourage their audience to get up and dance. The extroverts need no encouragement. Liddard says each country is different. Americans encourage musicians to have fun and feel welcomed; Spaniards goad performers into stretching; Germans sit in silence until the last song is finished and then give a standing ovation – and buy all the merchandise.
Typically, the Liddardian take on this is detailed. One Nylon Man chart, Mañana, often inspires audiences to dance. Liddard wrote it within hours of reaching Cuba for the first time. He says: “That country seems to emit an energy that affects humans. All the Americans, from Canada to Brazil, know how to party, even during hard times. South American music often has a sway, a push and pull, leaning forward then backward. Often this is called “clave”. The gentle push and pull encourages our hips to sway back and forth.
‘Kenny Garrett’s shows combine deeply cerebral music reaching into the spiritual with dancing in the aisles. If Garrett isn’t a serious jazz artist I don’t know who is’
“I’ve seen more people dance at jazz gigs than blues or rock gigs or at shows by pop idols. But Miles Davis made a very important point when he turned his back to the audience in Germany, declaring that he was an artist not the audience’s entertainment. He was the first black performer to make this distinction and not lose his career. However, I struggle to see the relevance for middle-class white musicians like myself. Kenny Garrett’s shows combine deeply cerebral music reaching into the spiritual with dancing in the aisles. If Garrett isn’t a serious jazz artist I don’t know who is.
“If jazz is to continue to flourish then it must be allowed to evolve without constraint. Seated audiences listen very well, but standing audiences more easily communicate with performers. I hope that jazz musicians can find opportunities to perform for both.”
Liddard adduces Davis to make another point about a jazz musician’s development, especially as he sees his band as being ready to face new challenges: “Davis once said that until one has contributed something new to jazz, one is but a student of jazz. Only those who have contributed to progress of the aural tradition can call themselves jazz musicians. I hope to be a jazz musician by Miles’s standard, and I hope that by exploring uncharted waters I contribute some worth to the aural tradition.”
And influences? As a boy he listened to Charlie Parker, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Miles Davis, Dave Valentin, Trilok Gurtu, Chick Corea, Zakir Hussain, Frank Zappa, Gong, Ozric Tentacles, Incognito, Brand New Heavies, Pink Floyd, Aphex Twin, Incredible String Band, Rolling Stones, John Mayall – in fact, whatever he could get his hands on.
“Jazz gives me the techniques to explore dexterous interventions, but blues reminds me that without soul it means nothing,” he says. “Funk reminds me of the joy of groove and space; classical Indian ragas remind me of the power of understatement; Latin American music informs me how to help people sway; reggae shows me how simplicity can connect the best; and gospel reminds me to play only the most compelling notes. I’m a hybrid of myriad sources.”