INTERVIEW: New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: John Pope by Victoria Wai

For all the immense strife and hardship that the last year has caused across the arts, 2020 has also found a great spirit of resilience and creativity emerge. A case in point: Wesley Stephenson, the promoter behind the wide ranging Jazz North East concert series and the Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music found himself facing a blank slate, he quickly launched into plans for a new venture that’s now bearing fruit with his new label New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings.

When Covid-19 started shutting everything down, it became apparent the festival couldn’t happen this year but that allowed time to start getting the systems and team in place to support this project and make something happen,” Stephenson tells me. “I wanted to generate work for us as creatives throughout lockdown. I’ve got a head full of ideas, but they all require financial investment: I’m independent, so it’s not like I can ring up the fundraising team offices and tell them what we need. I’m usually conceptualising several projects simultaneously, so when the opportunity arises to develop one further, I’m hopefully already roughly in the region.”

Stephenson is happy to discuss influences on his new label and those who have helped him – special praise is reserved for he advice given by Martin Archer at Discus Music, while when discussing the impact of seminal indie label 4AD he notes, “Vaughan Oliver was the pinnacle of graphic design with v23, he was from Sedgefield and a graduate of Northumbria University. It’s a shame they don’t celebrate that fact more: if I ran the place I’d have his work exhibited all over the buildings, a huge blow up of Surfer Rosa when you walk through the door to your first lecture…”

For all this though, he’s clear minded about his intentions for the label to be a “bespoke, ethically-driven” enterprise that still encompasses a broad musical aesthetic, with the label’s first six releases encompassing artists hailing from Gateshead (a duo album from Andy Champion and Graeme Wilson) through to Copenhagen (a new release from acclaimed saxophonist and composer Laura Toxværd). “People can approach me, I could approach them, the project isn’t really founded on any traditional idea of a record label, I’m working for something more holistic and engaging than that.”

the project isn’t really founded on any traditional idea of a record label, I’m working for something more holistic and engaging than that

Central to the new label’s successful crowdfunding campaign earlier in the year was the then yet-to-be-recorded debut album from The John Pope Quintet. Usually found playing in a variety of acts from the beloved garage-jazz trio Archipelago to the electro funk revivalism of Twin Beam (via a plethora of solo work, commissioned performances and other activity), The John Pope Quintet finds Pope in the bandleader role, drawing from the pioneering work of Ornette Coleman whilst pursuing a distinct sonic identity. With Faye MacCalman (bandleader/composer for Archipelago) on clarinet alongside Johnny Hunter on drums, Jamie Stockton on alto saxophone and Graham Hardy on trumpet, the Quintet’s chord-free line-up grants them a vast range of harmonic possibility to make the most of.

When I started composing for the Quintet,” Pope tells me, “I wanted to lean in to that simplicity of melody and leave a lot of space to learn about the individual players’ voices. I also wanted to investigate the tradition of arranging other artists’ music as improvisation vehicles, so I worked out some songs by Tom Waits, Pixies and a few other acts I loved and put that in the set, along with the Ornette Coleman material and my original pieces. It’s less a challenge of ‘can you play this?’ and more a challenge of ‘what will you do with this?’ This kind of music, when there’s no chords to lean on, is all about the collective mind of the band, and over the last few years we’ve really discovered and expanded that identity.”

With several mooted recording sessions for the Quintet variously falling by the wayside due to scheduling conflicts, fatherhood and the pandemic, Stephenson’s approach to have the Quintet record for his new label proved pivotal. “It was looking hopeless, but then Wesley came to me and said ‘I can’t do the festival this year, but I’ve been thinking about starting a label; how would you like to put the Quintet out?’. At first I wasn’t sure, because I’d had so many attempts at building a DIY plan I couldn’t see around that idea, but we sat down and hashed out how it might work and then it all fell into place.”

Following a weekend of intense recording at Blank Studios in October (which climaxed with a live-streamed performance), the Quintet’s debut album Mixed With Glass came together in a highly pressured but also highly rewarding atmosphere that showcases the Quintet’s interplay in sparkling form. “The Blank crew are incredible and they really know their space, so John Martindale got us set up and sounding great really quickly. We took our time, just because our stamina wasn’t what it might be without our usual gigging routines keeping us fit, but I think you can really hear us digging into the music and egging each other on: we got the bulk of it down on the first day. Then we got to play a gig, knowing we had an audience, even if we couldn’t see them. It was overwhelming to play so much music in one go after a long break, but towards the end of the set I felt all of my bandleader concerns and fatigue melt away and I was filled with gratitude to be making music with my colleagues and friends again. Beat the shit out of my hands though, my blisters had blisters!”

Mixed With Glass by The John Pope Quintet is released Friday 29th January on New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings

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