Interview: John Pope | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Photo by Euan Preston

Composer and bandleader John Pope releases Citrinitas, the highly- anticipated second album from his award-winning Quintet. The album, captured during a live performance in his hometown of Newcastle, sees Pope leading his band through a collection of brand-new pieces and in turn, demonstrating composition and improvisation at its most exciting and joyous best.

Conceived as a project to explore the potential of recording in performance, the album was supported by a Peter Whittingham Jazz development award from Help Musicians and comes complete with an accompanying documentary, filmed during rehearsal and performance for the album sessions.

Here, we catch up with John to find out more…

How long have you been performing and what are some of the most important things you have learned in that time?
I’ve been performing in front of people since my mid-teens, so just over 20 years of making music for people in a room has gone by. I’ve learned so much; I didn’t really do the “jazz school” route into being an improvising musician, I figured a lot of it out by doing it and making mistakes! I think of myself as basically self-taught when it comes to the instrument and the language of music, although in another sense I’ve had SO MANY great teachers because I’ve always tried to stay open to learning from my bandmates as I’m playing, asking questions and keeping my ears and mind open. I think that’s also taught me a lot about hot to relate to people, beyond music, just being a communicator and trying to maintain an attitude of listening, of interest in people; you need to be excited by the people around you to be the best improviser you can be, so getting interested in what’s happening outside of ‘Your Stuff’ is a really important and healthy habit to work on.

How did the John Pope Quintet get together?
 In 2016 I was asked by Jazz North East to put together a band for their 50th anniversary celebration, paying tribute to the late Ornette Coleman, an absolute titan of creative music. I love his music and really wanted to play it in the spirit it’s meant to be, so instead of doing an exact replica of his most famous line-up I instead put together a band of musicians I was really excited to play with, who I knew would rise to the challenge of that music. That gig was great, we really got into it and I’d learned so much by studying Ornette’s music that I started to think “Maybe this band is finally a good place for me to start exploring how to compose my own music for players like this..”. Now, 7 years later, we’re finally putting out a second album!

You are seen by many as a champion of the North-East music scene. What do you love about it and who should we be checking out?
I always tell people that the North East has an incredible scene because it’s quite small, self-determined and experimental; nobody is just doing The Usual Thing here, all the most interesting artists have something a little unique to what their sound or their approach is. Because it’s such a small scene you get amazing folk musicians playing with pop artists, or jazz musicians playing with singer-songwriters, or experimental sound artists working with spoken-word folks; the cross-fertilisation you get makes for some really singular music, plus it feels like everybody knows each other which can make going out to see people play feel like a real community experience. In terms of checking out new music? I would definitely recommend Peony, a new heavy guitar/drums duo with a great gnarly vibe. My Archipelago/Quintet bandmate Faye MacCalman is always working on cool stuff, her new solo music is really amazing. And Late Girl is always doing surprising and exciting things with electronics and improvisation woven through them…

Tell us about the name Citrinitas. Where did the name come from?
I actually got the name after the amazing Graeme Hopper artwork came back to me. I’d given him the slimmest of briefs because I know he’s such a magician, anything he came up with would be really potent; I’m always looking to give the people I collaborate with as much space to flex their intuition as possible. When he sent back this vibrant, yellow cover I was really excited, and I suddenly started thinking about gold and magic and alchemy, about how creativity is like changing base materials such as songs and ideas into ‘gold’. ‘Citrinitas’ is the third stage of the alchemical ‘Magnum Opus’, called ‘yellowing’, where something is brought from its immaterial state into physical reality, before the final ‘reddening’ state where it gets ‘activated’. I thought that summed up a lot of things I’d been thinking about how communities of people make this music, from the composer dreaming it up to the musicians playing it in the moment and the audience observing it; everybody is involved in creating the ‘music’, which is sort of happening in the middle of all those processes and people.

Stylistically, how would you sum up this latest album? Do any of your influences come through in the recordings?
Gosh, this is always such a hard question! I think it’s definitely a step forward for us; the last album felt like a band learning to play together, whereas this album sounds like a group of improvisers learning what else they can do with their shared language. My influences when it comes to writing and bandleading are pretty varied, but I’m always trying to find a way to marry an avant-garde, free improvising, anything-goes approach with my love of singable melody and groove. My version of that is definitely influenced by 50s/60s jazz, like Mingus, Ornette Coleman and others, but also as much by alt-rock music, folk, indigenous music from around the world, Middle Eastern psych records, Indian music…There’s a piece on the album which is a dual tribute to 60s free jazz icon Albert Ayler AND Ryuichi Sakamoto, who passed away whilst I was writing it. That’s the kind of fusion I’m always trying to pull off, knowing it’ll change again when I put it in front of the musicians and they bring themselves into it…

The recordings were captured during a live performance in Newcastle. How much pressure does that put on you, knowing you have one attempt to get it right? Does that, along with playing in front of a crowd, add an extra edge or element to the album?
It’s for sure a high-pressure situation, but I really think that’s the best way of capturing what a band like this does best. Graham Collier, the great British jazz composer (and Tyneside native) used to say “Jazz happens in real-time, once”. I always think about that when it comes to performing, and I knew I wanted that sound on the record: not a polished performance, but a charged moment where all of us in the room are listening and engaging together (audience included). Jazz players are used to having one or two takes of something and moving on in the studio, so I knew they would rise to the challenge of the situation. But honestly, ‘Getting it right’ is only one way of gauging how well something’s gone; the takes I picked for the album are definitely not free of mistakes, least of all from my own playing, but they FEEL so right and fizzing and LIVE that they represent the BEST of what this band can achieve. Having something charged, real and honest to share is so much more important to me than having something free of mistakes…

Name some of your favourite albums recorded in front of a live audience.
Mingus at Antibes was the first Mingus album I really dug into, and he’s using the same lineup as my quintet: bass, drums, two saxophones and a trumpet. No piano or guitar, all the horns have to play with is the groove (and WHAT a groove). That’s recorded in front of an audience at a French jazz festival in 1960, the band are really going outside of the music and the crowd is pretty mixed on how they take it; you can hear some people booing during Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet solo, but also many people freaking out and loving it. That kind of thing makes live recording so fascinating to me. Also, I have to mention Donny Hathaway’s Live, which was recorded in two very small venues in LA and NYC back in 1972. A tiny audience hanging on every word, every musical gesture and totally being there with the performers. Donny’s in his element and the band are absolutely amazing at every turn (check out Willie Weeks on bass on…well, EVERY tune, but especially his epic solo on Everything is Everything).

What can you tell us about the documentary that accompanies it?
I was really fortunate to get funding from Help Musicians to make this record, in the form of a Peter Whittingham Jazz Development Award. I really wanted to show the North East DIY scene in a good light, as well as invite people into the process of preparing to record the album live. So I collaborated with a brilliant filmmaker, Euan Preston, on documenting the rehearsal and the two gigs. Again, I gave him basically no brief and he really rose to the challenge, engaged his intuitive artistic voice and created this incredible 40-minute documentary. It’s called Stepping Into The Stream and it’ll be available really soon on my YouTube channel and through my website (

What’s next for John Pope and The John Pope Quintet?
I’m going to Belfast soon to rehearse with an incredible band, Adjunct Ensemble, for a short tour in the autumn. Then I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and booking shows for next year with the Quintet. One of the joyful things about making music like this: the album is just the beginning, there’s so much more life and possibility in these tunes that I absolutely cannot wait to get out there and play them more. We’re only just starting to scratch the surface of what else lives inside them!

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