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Jay Riley Quartet debut album launch

Exploring the light and dark experiences of the past 10 years, Jay Riley released his debut album, Light from Dawn (https://jayriley.bandcamp.com/album/light-from-dawn) on 26.5.17, Tenor Saxophonist Jay (who also runs Stratford Jazz http://www.stratfordjazz.org.uk) combines the improvisational freedom of jazz with groove-based rhythmic structures of contemporary rock and pop. The instrumental songs drift through emotive melodies and lush chord progressions to climatic and powerful peaks. Hot Music Live's Stein sits down to discuss the album as well as Jay's gig with his quartet this Monday at Kenilworth Jazz Club. 

Tells us a bit about your musical background... how did you get here?

There was only one real outlet for me as a teenager and that was to play music. I had a Technics KN920 in my bedroom and use to play songs with the built-in features (drums, voice patches, sample triggers etc.). It was all very cheesy and would sound very dated now but I loved it! I was trained more formally on saxophone but I was a pain in the arse to teach. I didn't like being taught and I wouldn't practice unless it was on my own terms. In short, I was a terrible student until I realised that learning new stuff was actually fun and worthwhile. Ironically, this was when I'd actually left music college!  I bought a few books and started studying great players on my own. I've always felt like I've been playing catch-up as most sensible people get proper technique and musicianship skills at school!

Where did the love of and connection to or "talent" for Jazz as it were come in?

I joined a big band when I was about 15. I really wanted to play in MYJO (Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra) but travelling to Birmingham was too much of a financial challenge. The band was fun and we did a few UK tours. I really caught the bug though when an older friend took me to a jazz gig at a local social club. I was still about 15 years old. He was awesome enough to buy me a pint of Stella Artois (on a school night!). It was enough to give me the courage to ask to join them on stage and they were really encouraging. I played a solo once through the form (full verse and chorus) expecting to stop but they got me to play on and on. It cemented my dislike of school and from that point on, I just wanted to hang out, drink beer and play music!

I was asked to play in lots of bands but although some were switched on to improvisation, I think I pissed a lot of people off because I never played the parts true to the original. I couldn't see the point. It already sounded good and it didn't seem right to copy it. Plus, I was too lazy to work it out and play it properly. 

I loved the freedom to hold on a musical idea and explore the finer details. I later realised that Modal jazz was doing this in the late '50's, so I connected to that. 

I loved staying on a groove and feeling the security of a repetitive rhythm. This was done with Soul Jazz in the 60's and funk and fusion in the 70's so I connected to that also. 

I was also introduced to Minimalism, Contemporary Classical music and, dare I say it, Prog Rock. I loved the arty approach and the musical intelligence that goes into this music. I guess it's my nerdy side coming through but in the Information Age where geeks are not ridiculed as much as they used to be, I think it's OK!  

For you, why is jazz music still relevant today and, especially, why new jazz compositions like yours?

I tried to talk about this on the radio once and it all went to hell! I blanked and all the words fell out of my head! Ha-ha.

Jazz is such a broad term and in some cases, it can instantly put people off. I run a jazz club and I still shudder sometimes when someone asks me to listen to their jazz band! It all depends on the association. I tend to think of trad jazz (which doesn't really do it for me) or insane bebop (which is of more personal interest but can be a bit intense). 

When you use huge umbrella terms like pop, rock or jazz, it conjures all sorts of images and preconceptions to a listener. I much prefer defining music in a way which is attached to emotions rather than labelled genres: This music makes me feel happy. Or this music makes me feel intellectually challenged. Or this music makes me reflect on life. Or this music has such raw energy (I like all these sorts of music by the way). I've noticed that, although I don't support the financial ethics software like Spotify uses playlists in this way. They group the music in events and emotions (having dinner, working out, summer barbecue vibes, etc!) - this makes the listening experience more fun in my opinion and can lead to some new discoveries. 

The trouble is that people like to stay in their genre bubbles. I prefer to tell people about cool features of the band and/or music rather than labelling it as a bit of jazz, a bit of rock, a bit of pop etc. I don't see the point, but that's probably because I'm not so good at it! 

What has been the impetus behind this album?  What made you "take the leap" as it were.

Being brought up with a classic British stiff upper lip, I realised that I'm actually very sensitive to emotions and I wanted to explore them. It was a cathartic project and it was easier to describe in sounds than words! 

How did you come about assembling the band for the album and live shows? What drew you to those players?

They are really, really good and I get on with them! My two criteria for choosing most things in life! 

Matt is sensational on the piano and can instantly pick up all the ideas I throw at him. 

Jason doesn't have a jazz background so he brings a totally different angle to the band. I wanted to have a bass player who could hold down a groove whilst everyone else goes off on one!

Tom plays drums like a jazzer and he is a great composer so I feel like I can bounce ideas off him. Ironically, this hasn't happened so much but whenever I suggest something new, he gives me an approving nod which is hugely reassuring!

This is your debut solo album, but what's your previous experience with recording, writing and publishing? 

I've written music for bands before. I always thought I worked better in groups and I loved the communication between players (another reason I fell into the 'jazz' camp) and allowing others to help form the music. For this project, I just had a bag full of ideas and I had a very clear idea about what I wanted. There is definitely input from the other musicians but I've decided where most of that should be. I've enjoyed being quite authoritarian about it all! Ha-ha.

Who would you say are your influences in general and, more specifically, for this album.

I've had some online tuition from Bob Reynolds in LA and he's been a massive influence. I've found that distance learning suits me SO well. As I said earlier, I'm not a very good student but I work hard when I feel it's on my terms. I need a balance of encouragement and arse-kicking (carrot and stick I guess). I've also been listening to a lot of people - Snarky Puppy, Bob Reynolds, Chris Potter, The Bad Plus, Go Go Penguin, Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer and all the players that come through the door at Stratford Jazz. I think I'm hearing things in a different way and I'm more inspired than intimidated! I think this has inspired my playing and my own teacher. I like to think that because I wasn't a very good student, I can teach others because I know all the ways I didn't enjoy learning! 

Also, having a brief (my experiences and thoughts of the last 10 years) in my mind was useful for writing the album. I also used a motivation trick - I actually booked a gig for myself at Stratford Jazz when I had no band, no music and 6 months to get it all together! That was the catalyst. 

You talk about Light from Dawn as a very personal work. Does that make it harder or easier to play and perform?  How about when you listen back to it?

I love performing and I try to connect to the feelings behind the tunes. Sometimes this is hard but I feel I'm cheating myself and the audience if I don't. Listening back is always tough. I try to limit that! 

I wanted to write a good old-fashioned album. Not necessarily a concept album, but a collection which travelled musically, thematically and chronologically through the last 10 years of my life. The inevitable highs and lows of life are one of the most popular forms of story-telling and this album is my way of conveying my experiences. It's not an original idea but it was a cathartic process which was important to me. After years of being a sideman, stepping to the front made a nice change. The whole process has been a welcome challenge/distraction! I'm very proud of the results.

Tell us about your evolution as a band leader/front-man ... I'm assuming that hasn't always been the plan? 

Being a sideman is fun and much easier but I'm trying to do more things that scare me! 

What made you decide to take up the reins for Stratford Jazz?  Has that changed the way you approach your music and music in general?

The club was about to fold as they couldn't find a replacement organiser. I went for it and it turned out to be a great match, for both my predecessor and me. I went to the club in my late teens and was always stunned by the quality of the artists. It was always my ambition to play there - to run the club was a strange twist in the tale but I guess it made it much easier to get my band a gig!  

What's been your favourite show with Stratford Jazz thus far?

Tricky, for sheer awe-inspiring sax playing and quality I'd have to say Jean Toussaint. But I have enjoyed the third eye opening skills of bands like Mammal Hands and Dinosaur. Partisans are always good. I don't think there has been a gig I haven't enjoyed and taken something away from. 

Tell us about some of your best/favourite gigs as a player:

For pure unadulterated fun, it has to be some of the Dr. Teeth gigs. A jump-jive band acting like an ego-fuelled, party-all-night rock band - jumping into swimming pools, drinking way too much Miller High Life on tour in The States, playing sax whilst jumping on bars and tables, the list goes on. I'm going to finish writing a book about it one of these days! 

For you, what's the standout track in the album?

My wife and kids love "Smiles" (already a featured track of the day on All About Jazz website). This was written one afternoon on a beaten up old piano at a school where I was teaching. I drove home with it stuck in my head and I made a demo on Logic. The whole process probably took an hour or two. My family and I then started dancing around the kitchen to it. I think that's the sign of a good tune, when the kitchen dancing starts! Ha-ha! It's probably the least challenging and most accessible tune but I love the joy it brings to me when I play it and my family when they listen.

Light From Dawn is available on iTunes, Spotify, Google, Amazon or Bandcamp

The Jay Riley Quartet play Kenilworth Jazz Club, Monday, 5th June 2017:

  • Kenilworth Jazz Club
  • Glasshouse Lane, CV8 Kenilworth, Warwickshire
  • Doors open 7pm
  • Music from 7.45pm
  • Tickets £7.50 on the door
  • More info at www.kenilworthjazzclub.co.uk

THE JAY RILEY QUARTET are:

  • Jay Riley - Tenor Sax
  • Matt Ball - Keys
  • Tom Haines - Drums
  • Jason Page - Bass

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The Handsome Family at The Assembly

The Handsome Family
The Assembly (aka A great venue to worship Satan)
Sunday, 19 Feb 2017 at 7:30 PM
(support: William the Conqueror)

If Gomez had settled on one primary vocalist, cut some of the 90's indie distortion and went out as trio, I imagine they might have sounded a bit like tonight's support act, Newquay's William the Conqueror. Ruarri Joseph (Vocals, Guitars) proved himself a strong singer and more-than-able frontman. Their set was buoyed by the dead-on backing vocals and harmonies of Harry Harding (Drums) and Naomi Holmes (Bass). The young-uns got a good response from the seated Assembly crowd and were at their best with Joseph playing lead on his acoustic guitar (even joking that the goal was someday to be able to afford to hire a roadie to bring it to him "pre-tuned"). Stand-out track for this reviewer was "I Missed a Trick", but this was a solid, roots and rhythm (and, at times flirting with indie and anthemic) set, so keep an eye out for these guys on http://www.williamtheconqueror.net/

Now, everyone who made up the small but committed crowd at the Assembly knew why they were there ... and what they were waiting for ... and not just the Frogs and Moons! Personally, I have always aligned the Handsome Family (in my mind) as much with the likes of They Might be Giants and/or Mark Eitzel and The American Music Club as with any Americana or Alt-Country mavens. However, the four-piece band, fronted by Rennie Sparks (Bass Ukele, Harpsichord), led by Brett Sparks (Guitar, Lead Vocals) and featuring Jason Toth (drums, percussion and some keyboard parts) and the superb Alex McMahon (pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards) proved themselves one hell of a proper country band. Much has been said and written about their Gothic Americana style, indie cred and dark, quirky sensibility, but not nearly enough has been put to paper about their ability to truly kick some shit as a live proposition. Can I say that in a review? Well, I just did... Funny, at time fierce and fully loaded, The Handsome Family owned the room for word go.

Ostensibly sharing stage right with Bunny (her invisible friend) whilst battling a mid-Atlantic chest cough, Rennie's introductions and between-song commentary provided a wicked and witty counterpoint to the darkness of her lyrics. Dedicating the set to, among other-things, the memory of the great, late Robert Fisher (of Willard Grant Conspiracy) as well as there their adopted hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico (home of Clamato and world leader in Drinking Game-related deaths), Mrs. Sparks set to on the bass ukulele with a sound and tone like the Lord himself drumming his fingers whilst also laying down shining backing vocals throughout. The erstwhile Mr. Sparks, handling the majority of lead vocals, brought forth a voice even deeper and even twangier (is that even a word?) than most thought possible, and that voice really soared at times, especially against the pedal steel on "Back in My Day" (my personal favourite). The weilder of said pedal steel, Alex McMahon, also showcased the kind of lead playing on "The Loneliness of Magnets" that would stack up against any slinger in the business.

Other set highlights included the Zevonesque "The Bottomless Hole" and, of course, "Far From Any Road". Hearing it live makes you realise why this tune has become The Handsome Family's calling card and ticket (and not simply the True Detective theme). The harmonies, the soloing, the elegant construction ... it was the moment we were all waiting for and, despite severe Trumpitis, that song, this band and the night delivered us our redemption. Capping the night with an encore of the obligatory "Frogs", the band left their purple stage and left us (all too soon) to return to the chill of mid-February, Middle English night.

So, here's to frogs, and to bags ... and the octopus ... and here's to The Handsome Family!

SETLIST:

  • Gold
  • So Much Wine
  • The Loneliness Of Magnets
  • Against Anybody
  • Back In My Day
  • My Sisters Tiny Hands
  • No One Fell Asleep
  • Alone
  • The Bottomless Hole
  • Your Great Journey
  • Far From Any Road
  • Tiny Tina
  • Weightless Again
  • Octopus
  • King Of Dust

ENCORE:

  • Giant of Illinois
  • Frogs

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From the back catalogue