Alex Hitchcock: making connections

    One of the tracks on saxophonist Hitchcock's new album is the Brexit-inspired Cakeism, written when he sought unity in a time of division

    Alex Hitchcock at Brilliant Corners festival, Belfast, 2023. Photo by Trish Keogh-Hodgett

    Alex Hitchcock’s triple CD Dream Band: Live In London is a hugely ambitious project. The music, all original and specially composed, was recorded over three nights at London’s Vortex Jazz Club, with a different band, convened by the saxophonist just for the occasion, playing on each of the nights. “I booked the musicians and then wrote the music so I knew exactly who I was writing for. I had ideas of how these musicians with these specific musical voices were going to play my music but it was great to hear the unexpected things people did as well,” he says. “Each band only had the day of the gig rehearsing so it was really satisfying to hear them bring [the music] to life.

    Hitchcock’s instructions to the musicians were minimal. “I always want people to feel they’re completely free to take things in the direction they want. You give up a bit of creative control and share it with the band [and] when people start to spontaneously compose as well as spontaneously improvise, that’s when you know you’ve done your job as a bandleader.”

    Hitchcock picked the players for each band meticulously. “There are combinations of musicians in the bands who have been playing together for a long time and combinations who’ve never played together. So in the first band [drummer] Jamie Murray and [bassist] Rio Kai go back five or 10 years but then you’ve [guitarist] Rob Luft, [trumpeter] Mark Kavuma and [vocalist] Liselotte Ostblom who play in quite different contexts and I wanted to hear what they would sound like together.”

    Rather than devoting a CD to each of the three Vortex gigs, there is music from each gig on each CD. “I wanted to get a flow because I think the compositions are linked by the soundworlds as much as by the personnel,” explains Hitchcock. “I wanted to find the moments where one tune flowed into the next even if it had been recorded on a different night so I was trying to get cohesion and balance rather than just presenting documentary evidence of each night.”

    Hitchcock’s own soloing on the album is exceptional. “All the practice I do is geared towards achieving fluency on the instrument so that when I’m soloing, if there’s something I hear, then I’ll have more chance of being able to execute it or if someone plays something I want to respond to in a certain way, I’ll be able to do it. So my practice is geared towards trying to achieve freedom on the bandstand.”

    During lockdown, indeed, Hitchcock practised eight hours a day. “Living in a flat I was doing it with a tea towel down the bell of the sax and playing directly into a wardrobe, to mitigate the effects on my neighbours. It’s the third period in my life where I’ve had a few months where I’ve practised that much and I’ve felt it’s been transformational for my playing each time. It felt incredible to get back to that and to that level of fluency.”

    Normal life having resumed, how much does he practise now? “An hour a day if I’m lucky,” he sighs. “But there’re different forms of practice. Playing hard music on a gig is a form of practice. Playing with different musicians is a form of practice. And sometimes I’m practising in my head, on a train or whatever, and imagining the instrument. And you don’t necessarily lose the level from when you’ve had those big spurts of practice as long as you’re still playing regularly and doing the maintenance.”

    One of the tracks on Dream Band: Live In London is entitled Cakeism. Cakeism is, of course, the political philosophy attributed to Boris Johnson. “I like to be a little bit oblique with these things but if you knew me you’d know my views on Brexit and all that,” says Hitchcock. “We’re living in a difficult time politically and I’ll look back and remember the period in which I wrote that, when we were trying to make music and have togetherness and connection in spite of what was going on politically.”

    Liselotte Ostblom wrote lyrics for Grace (Part 1). Since Hitchcock has a degree in English literature from Cambridge he’s obviously interested in language. Has he ever thought of writing lyrics himself? “I haven’t,” he admits. “I like that I play instrumental music and don’t have to commit to a verbal meaning of things but then it’s super-interesting to hear [another] person’s interpretation of [the music] nailed down into words. I get an insight into how they’re hearing it and it gives something for the audience to latch on to as well.”

    Why did Hitchcock study literature rather than music? ‘I wouldn’t say I had a passion for literature as much as I had for music but I really liked the close analysis of poetry’

    But why did Hitchcock study literature rather than music for his degree? “I wouldn’t say I had a passion for literature as much as I had for music but I really liked the close analysis of poetry. My favourite thing was reading Gerard Manley Hopkins – there’s this theory that there’s a non-lexical meaning that comes out of the word sounds that develops independently and in parallel to the verbal meaning of the words. And there are interesting parallels there to music so it opened up my thinking a little bit.”

    Hitchcock did study music after finishing his literature degree, at the Royal Academy of Music. “That was fantastic,” he enthuses. “I got to study with people like Gareth Lockrane and Iain Ballamy and amazing musicians like Ambrose Akinmusire came and did workshops and master classes so it was incredible being exposed to them. And you make friends. My first quintet that I recorded with was the band I did my final recital with for the Academy.”

    That Alexander Hitchcock Quintet recording was a 2018 EP, Live At The London And Cambridge Jazz Festivals. “The band was really sounding good and I just wanted to document a working band and what it sounded like,” he says.

    Hitchcock differentiates between that live EP and the new live album from the Vortex: “None of the bands in the Vortex had played together before so it was less wanting to capture a working band than just wanting to capture the thrill of a live recording and the musicians playing the music for the first time on the day led to some of that excitement and sense of risk.”

    Hitchcock believes his playing on Dream Band: Live In London has evolved from his playing on that first, 2018, EP: “I can hear a bit more control and spontaneity and relying less on muscle memory than back in the day. I think I’m really trying to play things I hear and really trying to go with the flow that we’re all co-creating during a solo. I’m thinking slightly differently about my role, as less of an out-front soloist and more as part of the band, shaping things along with the musicians I’m playing with.”

    The Dream Band concept first appeared on a studio album of that name in 2021 which, like Dream Band: Live In London, features three different, specially convened bands. “I wanted to undercut any suggestion of sentimentality [in the name] Dream Band by having three bands. There’s more than one possible iteration of a dream band! There are infinite combinations that you can imagine in your head.”

    One of Hitchcock’s key collaborators is guitarist Ant Law, who plays on Dream Band: Live In London and with whom Hitchcock, in 2022, released Same Moon In The Same World, which was recorded during lockdown. The title is taken from Haruki Murakami’s novel Sputnik Sweetheart. “We weren’t able to get in a room with people but were able to make music remotely with them. That was a totally new way of working. We were trying to find a little bit of connection and communication across various types of barrier so the idea that we were all looking at the same moon in the same world felt quite powerful.”

    Hitchcock believes the challenges of recording remotely were overcome. “There’s still reactivity and collaboration, just in different ways. When Ant and I are trading on Chrysalis we literally did that phrase by phrase. I recorded a phrase, sent it to him, he played the next phrase in reaction to that and sent the whole thing back and we built it up like that. A few minutes of trading took us about three hours to record but there was still that jazz ethos of reacting to what other people are doing.”

    Finally, Hitchcock considers his hopes for Dream Band: Live In London. “What does success look like? I don’t have a super-cohesive answer to that. I’ve no sales targets as such but you want as many people to hear the album as possible, and there are various ways of doing that, through streaming or through touring or through your website or you hope people will read interviews like this and go and check it out. 

    “But I think you have to think in a holistic way: if you can release albums that you believe are good over the course of your career then that’s an end in itself.”