COURTNEY PINE JAZZ’S URBAN NARRATOR

I like jazz, but I like popular music. So I like to hear a vocal song, for example, it a melody I can hum along to. I like those things, but I like to hear the sax being shattered into 6 million atoms

Over the last ten years Courtney Pine has been arguably the most important figure in British jazz. An importance which has grown with his two Talkin Loud releases, “Modern Day Jazz Stories” and “Underground”. AQ’s jazz reviewer, is certainly one such admirer, so we decided to get him to interview the great man himself at North London’s Jazz Cafe, as Pine prepared for a series of dates at the club and for the release of an album of remixes. 

Tell us about the remix album?

“The concept of the remix album is an extension of what I have been doing for the last three years. I’ve been working with jazz musicians who can play hip hop and hip musicians who can play jazz. What happened was that when I signed for the deal America I said wanted to do a drum ‘n’ bass albumn. They said, “what is drum ‘n’ bass”? I said okay, let’s go further back, hip hop, and they understood that, so we did the record. And I knew when we came back to England and signed to Talkin Loud with Giles Peterson at the helm, he would know about drum ‘n’ bass, and maybe, maybe, he would say why don’t we mix a few tracks. On my first meeting with him, his second line was “have you ever thought about the tracks?”. So he initiated the project.”

Courtney Pine – Underground 

So if we go into the local record shop will it be filed under dance or jazz? 

“I think it will be jazz. I think jazz tag on me will keep me in thar side, and I have no problem with supporting the jazz industry in this country, but yes, I would like to reach out to others and bring them towards jazz.”

Is this a signal that you’re closing this particular chapter of your career? That remixes are far as you want to take it?

“No. No, it’s just a staging post. It’s like another bridge to the next record. I’ve had such a good time doing this project and finding this sound and to this day there isn’t anybody else mixing jazz and hip hop and drum ‘n’ bass like we do. So this will, I suppose, reinforce the issue. I actually play the remixes live in the show so it makes sense now to actually put them out.”

That’s the present; can we go into the beginning? What came first: your interest in musicianship or in jazz?

Courtney Pine outside Islington rehearsal rooms, Brewery Road, London, UK 1986

“First came the instrument thing at school, finding something else to do which was individual. I wanted to rebel by playing an instrument. My parents didn’t play. Just by having a clarinet in the house, they couldn’t tell me what to do. This was my way of standing up and being individual, which was taken further the older I got. Then the saxophone came when I was 14. Then after that came the jazz.”

Was there a particular albumn which influenced you?

“The first one was “Pick up the Pieces” by the Average White Band, that tenor sax really grabbed me. I sat down and played that solo, learnt that solo inside and out, even the harmonics, everything. I’d only been playing for a year but I searched for that solo. But there wasn’t just one particular album. There’s a series of albums which  have an energy, a vitality, that made me think I want to catch all these essences and make them into something else.”

They said, “what’s drum ‘n’ bass”? I said okay, let’s go further back, hip hop, and they understood that, so we did the records.

So what do you listen to now for pleasure?

“Oh boy, what do I listen to? When I listen to music it’s work. For me to listen to something to relax to it’s hard. It’s very rare.”

Anything embarrassing? Black Sabbath?  Spice Girls?

“The Teletubbies! (Laughs). I think they’re brilliant. I think the Spice girls are brilliant.”

So we can quote you as saying that John Coltrane was crap and check out the Teletubbies? 

“I don’t think you can go that far. Listen to John Hartman and John Coltrane first…”

And then progress to the Teletubbies?

“(Laughing) Yes! …No. I’ve got kids, so it’s all research. I want to know what they are listening to.”

Okay, leaving the ‘Tubbies; with “Underground” you didn’t use straitforward samples. Tell us how the songs were formed?

what I’ve done is taken it a stage further. I’ve taken the whole record, scooped that recorded up, held it in my hands, pulled it into my sampler, have that section in rotation and play something on top, as if I was playing with Charlie Parker

“(The usual experience) for a jazz musician is to put on a Charlie Parker record and learn that solo inside out, what I’ve done is taken it a stage further. I’ve taken the whole record, scooped that recorded up, held it in my hands, pulled it into my sampler, have that section in rotation and play something on top, as if I was playing with Charlie Parker. Then I would take that into the studio, this soup that I’d have, and share it with the musicians , and we’d all be playing with Charlie Parker. Now the problem is that for that soup you have to get clearance, pay the Charlie Parker estate X amount. If you can do it, you do it, but if you can’t, you have to pay the musicians to replay it, get that new soup and put it in the sampler and start again.”

Pleased with the results?

“Very pleased. I would like to get the sample clearance thing because I think that really shows the jazz musician’s true experiences. But what’s happening now is the industry is lawyers, record companies, managers, artists, all these people are in the way. Cos’ if I asked Sonny Rollins, can I use the break from ‘Saxphone Colossus”? Nine times out of ten he’d say, “yeah go ahead and use it”. But all these other people haven’t to get paid.”

Your recent albums are appealing to a cross section of people.

“Most defintly. The Mercury nomination (for “Modern Day Jazz Stories”) did a lot for that as well. I’ve always wanted to get the jazz experience across to a wider audience, get other people to know the creativity.”

Courtney Pine – Modern Day Jazz Stories

There’s an excellent American drummer, Ted Sirito on Naim records, who says he wants to take jazz away from the pipe smokers and into the housing projects. You’ve always seemed to want to  do something similar. Do you think your work has succeeded in that?

“Yes, I’m very happy and very excited at the influence that it’s had.”

“Underground” sounds more of a jazz album that “Modern Day”.

“It’s difficult to say. On the second album, Sparky and DJ Pogo were more involved; I had my live engineer doing the sound engineering: there was a different cast of musicians; and the lessons we learnt from the live gigs. There was some material from “Modern Day” which didn’t work live. You get audiences, it was a stand up gig, and you’d play a strait solo ahead for half an hour and people would be going “okay, when’s the dance track coming in now?”, so “Underground” is a mixture, it has more beats, it still has solos, but it’s more geared to a stand up audience, which is where I’d like to go.”

Your work has always featured a mixture of the accessible and the improvised. Is this a deliberate policy?

“Yeah, for me, I’ve been brought up on popular music. I like jazz, but I like popular music. So I like to heat a vocal song for example, or a melody I can hum along to. I like those things, but I like to hear the sax being shattered into 6 million atoms, the drummer ripping up the cymbals. So how do I mix the two styles? I’ve been told that they don’t work, but I do them.”

Several of your more ‘acessble’ numbers feature social comment. Musicians like Max Roach thought jazz could help change, do you think it still can?

“I think it still is the case. It’s sill a banner. The reason why I play this music which doesn’t talk love is because everyone else is doing it. These types of tunes, “Childhood of the Ghetto”, “Tryin Times”, “Save the Children”, they mean a lot to me.”

Can music enlighten?

“Yes, to know something that you admire is about openness, it’s about creativity, it’s about positivity, will influence you. It’s done that to me know. When I was 14/15 bands like Hi Tension, Light of the World, the Brit soul jazz funk explosion, when I read about these guys and realised that these guys were local to me, it made me feel, yeah, I could be part of that.”

What’s next?

“More experimentation. I’m still a saxophone player, still experimenting. I might make it a bit more even. At the moment the jazz band is overpowering the hip hop band so I might cut down the jazz band a bit. We’ll see.”

Lastly: there’s been TV commercials featuring celebrities who they’d like to have a phone conversation with. Who would you choose?

“Charlie Parker! He was just phenomenal. What he did on that little saxophone! He changed the sound of jazz throughout the sole world. And I would just like to know how he did it (laughs), what’s your secret? He didn’t cope too well on the drugs and all that – I would just like to know his experiences”.

 

Courtney Pine