Hi, Chalkie, you are a musician and tutor from York.
Tell us why jazz is so close to your heart
I believe jazz is one of the more interesting musical forms because of the way you prepare to perform it and the execution of the performance. Despite the majority of a jazz performance being improvised, a large amount of preparation is required. The preparation takes lots of forms; it’s important to be technically proficient on your instrument so you can execute what you choose to improvise, you need to understand the harmonic structure of the music you are playing so you can choose the notes that sound nice (if that’s what you want!) or the sounds that create tension within the music if that’s the feeling you want to convey.
Then there’s the immediacy of the performance! Jazz is a very conversational musical form. The conversation is between the musicians as they play, listen and react but also with the audience as they respond to what’s being played and the musicians react that the audience response. It’s a very virtuous creative circle and one that ensures that no two performances are ever the same. Classical musicians often seek a consistency in their work that is the opposite of what a jazz musician hopes to achieve. We want to surprise and subvert…make the audience listen closely and get caught up in the groove being created.
So, to summarise all of that, jazz let’s me show off and play lots of very cool music!
You play in different bands; can you talk more specifically about the Firebird Quartet?
The band in its current form was created about 6 months ago. Previously I had a quartet for 4 years (Ian Chalk Quartet) which, although fun to play in and they guys were great, wasn’t really going in the direction I wanted to go. So the decision was made to create a quartet to perform contemporary jazz and grooves with the best musicians I could find to force me to up my game and they’ve certainly done that! The name of the band was changed to reflect the new start ….’Firebird Quartet’ (and to remind people of our Sunday night residency at The Phoenix in York).
The line up is Bass – John Marley, Drums – Tim Carter, Piano – Martin Longhawn and myself on trumpet. Musically, I suspect we’re influenced by everything we’ve ever heard as jazz musicians tend to soak up whatever music is around them but currently we’re listening to (and performing the music of) people like Terence Blanchard, Kendrick Scott, Christian Scott, Roy Hargrove, Dean Taba and Wynton Marsalis. In addition, we perform a number of original compositions. We play music in a range of styles from driving swing to grooves with a hint of hip hop.
Fundamentally, we believe that our music should be enjoyable to listen to. I know that sounds like it should be an obvious thing to say but it isn’t necessarily a view shared by the whole jazz community where, sometimes, the ‘art’ of the music can leave some of the audience behind. We’re firm believers in creating music with sufficient complexity to appeal to a contemporary jazz audience but will also make you want to tap your foot!
I have enjoyed “Down Time” a lot – what is inspiration behind this album?
The ‘inspiration’ behind ‘Down Time’ (an album I’ve created on my own rather than with the quartet) is essentially laziness. Despite constantly berating my own students for not committing to a daily practice regime I have to admit I’m not the best at sitting down and wading through technical exercises. So what I do instead is to create recording projects that force me to play a lot. I write new compositions and create the tracks using cutting edge technology (or create arrangements of other compositions that I like). I then sit in my home studio for hour after hour recording the trumpet parts. I tend to get very focused (i.e. obsessive) about getting the perfect take (which is impossible) so I end up spending 4 hours recording a trumpet part that lasts 2 minutes.<
The music on ‘Down Time’ (*cough* available at www.ianchalk.bandcamp.com) is designed to be relaxed and relaxing. No sharp edges, no small parts, suitable for all ages but isn’t a ‘jazz’ album in a conventional sense. I don’t head off on lengthy improvisations (often) but more concerned with creating a mood (think ‘river bank, warm day, watching boats go by, glass of wine in hand).
How do you & the rest of the Quartet work together? Do you ever follow a routine when composing music?
The way we create new material varies depending on which of us initially writes it. If I write something I send demo recordings to the rest of the band and then we try it out at The Phoenix. They then tell me it’s rubbish (I’m paraphrasing) but they may be able to salvage something worthwhile the train-wreck of my composition. One of them then works on it producing music of splendour and beauty and it stays in the set. If they bring something along it’s already amazing so no tampering required (or allowed!). In reality, a new composition will settle over time and will naturally change as we get use to it. Tempos, the groove, little hooks will slowly emerge become part of the whole.
So talking about inspiration, who is your idol in jazz and why?
Wynton Marsalis, legendary trumpet player. He was the reason I started listening to jazz and the inspiration for performing it. The first jazz album I ever bought was ‘Hot House Flowers’ and I was seduced by the very cool album sleeve of Wynton stood in the middle distance, cool suit, lit in a spotlight, trumpet in hand. The album is quite melancholic with sweeping orchestral arrangements but with joyous versions of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ and ‘I’m Confessin’. It also includes a stunningly gorgeous version of ‘Stardust’ which is the music I want playing at my funeral (just so you know!).
Wynton has a ferocious technique (won Grammies for his classical work as well as jazz) and an unmatched depth of sound (in my humble opinion) along with a commitment to jazz as an important art form in its own right. And he can really swing! I listen to Wynton every day and constantly strive to create the same quality of sound.
As a musician, tell us about a typical day out gigging
Of course the way a gig works varies depending on the type of gig but assuming it’s a jazz club (that’s what we’ve talked about so far) it would normally go like this…
Arrive about 2 hours before the gig starts and then wonder why you’re there so early. Next is to wait around for the rest of the band who tend to arrive at a much more sensible time. In the meantime you’ve chatted with the bar staff and those lovely people who run the club and you’re constantly amazed by the people who do this work day in/day out, all year round for little reward other than a love for the music. You then start to warm up as chairs and tables are being set up, PA equipment being plugged in, candles being lit etc. You are now ready to sound check….. except you’ve noticed the drummer is late (it’s always the drummer) and then you text.. no response… you text again….nothing. Finally, you leave a voicemail still unsure if he’s even remembered you’ve got a gig. It’s funny how it’s often the drummer who rocks up after the rest of the band given that they’ve got the most gear to set up. Finally, he walks through the door, full of apologies, mentions of ‘just got back from a function gig in Aberdeen’ as the rest of band bring his kit in.
All this means that your 30 minute sound check is reduced to 5 minutes or none at all as the paying customers start coming through the door. Next thing to happen is the very important ’30 minutes sat around a table talking nonsense having a drink’ stage which allows everyone just to chill and be sure of which tunes we’re doing. Then the club official pops their head round the door to gently request that we begin making the magic happen (“Come on, you can’t sit in here all night, they’re getting a bit restless”). We take our places, have a look around, wonder why we never seem to be able to fill a place like this despite all the hours promoting it on Facebook, twitter etc. then we start our first hour long set. A bit of chat to the audience between tunes to gauge whether they love us/hate us/are ignoring us. The first hour long set finishes about 10 minutes after you started or so it seems.
Then the 10 minute break between sets which, as this is a jazz gig, is around 30 minutes. You try and take the opportunity to talk to people, thank them for coming, encourage them to buy a CD, listen to how the band last week was a ‘proper band’ (the inference being that tonight’s isn’t). The 2nd set begins, everyone’s relaxed now, feeling good, more applause, more audience engagement. We finish, pack away our gear, thanking people for coming as they walk past us. A local trumpet player will stop to chat, demanding information on instrument and mouthpiece design (which I actually enjoy cos I’m a trumpet geek).
Next step is to find the promoter and ask for our money which he hands over happily and asks us to get back in touch for another gig…in a couple of years. I then return to the band to hand out the cash with the usual apologies for it not being enough. And home we go….
Do you find gigging strenuous on your personal life?
Not enormously strenuous to be honest. When you’re based in York there are not many places that are so far away that you have to have an overnight stay so I usually end up back in my own bed. The greater challenge is fitting in teaching around gigs. If I need to be in Bristol for an evening gig then I need to reschedule my afternoon teaching (and probably some if the sessions the following morning) so it’s safe to say I don’t spend as much time at home as I would want to but that’s the life of a working musician.
Any dates planned for London?
Nothing in the diary at the moment but with Firebird Quartet were planning getting into the studio as soon as possible to record an album and that will need touring and we hope to get down to London. Of course, It also depends on the commercial viability of the trip down. How do get a million playing Jazz? Start with 2 million.
Thank you, Chalkie, pleasure talking with you!
Interview by Erminia, Editor at large
Photos © Ian Chalk