Interviews / ARTICLES

Jazz Journal interview: Are people listening, or seeing?

By Barry Witherden

Reviewing a concert by Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra for the JJ website in April 2016 I singled out a young alto player from the hugely talented pan-generational personnel. The fire and adventurousness of Roz Harding’s playing seemed to channel the spirit of two of Westbrook’s most individual early band members, Mike Osborne and Bernie Living, without actually sounding much like them. I was therefore surprised by some of her acknowledged influences, like Bob Dylan and Manic Street Preachers, alongside the more-expected Jackie McLean.

She explained “These are from the beginning.  They’re imaginative musicians who leave no emotion unturned and keep me going. I was devoted to bands in my youth.  I still slightly dream of being in a rock band, belonging with people in a band bubble! Art Pepper was the first saxophonist to capture my imagination, he sounded very human."

“I asked my parents if I could learn saxophone after watching a county youth band. They bought me a second-hand La Fleur alto which I took to the school orchestra, aged about 10. I didn’t know I liked jazz as such, but liked making things up. I was given tapes of Stan Getz and Spyro Gyra in a Christmas stocking, recommended to my mum via my sax teacher. That’s probably the first moment I actively listened to jazz. The most memorable jazz experience was with Exeter College Big Band. I remember those gigs vividly: heart-thumping nerves walking out to the solo mic to play to a real audience. It was these college years that got me hooked!”

She had played with several bands previously but says “There is definitely a sense of life before and after Westbrook! The Westbrooks live jazz and are highly devoted to their projects. I love this intensity. I need to improvise and cannot imagine life without that outpour. Mike and Kate lead the way with this lifelong, living-it approach. I am grateful to play alongside them and their longstanding collaborators. Sitting-in is the best education you could dream of.  I can’t really explain all I have experienced, it’s still unfolding but will probably creep into my playing as and when it’s ready”.

In general, jazz has tended to ghettoise women as singers or pianists, but lately female brass and reed players have been more in evidence. I asked Harding whether she felt things were improving. 

“It never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be a jazz saxophonist. I didn’t notice that it was more unusual to be a female jazz musician until I went to university, where there were initially only two other female students in my year. This was a surprise. I was a very insecure musician and found university quite overwhelming anyway. It just seemed like another factor in this new environment. I have received odd comments in the past: being told I play like a man, where did I get all that puff from, how helpful I am for carrying in the musicians’ gear.[!!] Sometimes you wonder if you have been passed over for opportunities. What sort of playing does spring to mind if you mention the sax player is female? Are people really listening or have they just seen a female saxophonist and observed that fact only?”

Someone once commented that her Supermood trio wasn’t helping the gender imbalance as the other members, guitarist Mike Outram and drummer Jim Bashford, were male.  “I admired their playing and felt they could help realise my ideas. You just seek musicians you can connect with, who enable you to be you. Things must be improving but it’s still rare for my female students to follow jazz beyond university and embrace it as a profession. The overall image of jazz has some hang-ups which can make it inaccessible and limiting. I can’t stand the shaming attitude that still happens: being “roasted” at jams, only rated if you can play this tune, or at this tempo etc. I am not interested in that and maybe others are put off by it too”.

Harding is heavily involved in education at all levels. You can find out about her work in this field (including Jazz Toast which she launched for young musicians to showcase compositions, arrangements and collective improvisation) on her website.

Last summer three releases featured her impassioned, inspired playing: Supermood (Leo Records 761), Dave Holdsworth’s Wodji (Capton 01) and Kate Westbrook’s Granite (Westbrook WR003) as well as Mike Westbrook’s In Memory of Lou Gare (Westbrook WR002).

By Barry Witherden - January 14, 2019

Exeter Observer Article on JAZZ TOAST!

Jambassadors feature in pop-up Jazz Toast at Barnfield Theatre

Musical director Roz Harding invites us to join an Exeter College Music Academy student collective in a one-night-only experimental exploration of in-the-moment improvisation.

Jazz is a live music, to be spoken and given away on that day. As Max Roach said, “It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.” The Jambassadors, an Exeter College Music Academy student ensemble, channel this spirit to make music together that sounds like them and all the things they are.

On Thursday 6 June at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre The Jambassadors will be digging deep into improvisation to explore modern jazz-rooted music in varying experimental shapes and forms. They will be topping the fifth slice of Jazz Toast, which first popped-up in 2014 as a performance jam at an established Exeter College student gig and has since evolved into an independent celebration of youth music at its most creative and dynamic.

Playing live is vital for students of music to find their sounds and take their improvisation to a level which only happens with an audience in the room. At Jazz Toast we treat any sheets of music we have as pages of ideas: starting places to be treasured or ignored. Our setlist of textures and ideas includes music by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Melt Yourself Down alongside original student compositions and freely experimental pieces set to the theme of dreams.

We will discover how the music unfolds on the night. We have used our rehearsals to forge a group who can create music together no matter what happens (or doesn’t). Once it begins, we are off!

There will be surprises for the band as I announce previously unseen improvisation directives. There will be surprises from the band as student compositions are aired. And there will be surprises for the audience as everyone in the Clifford Room collectively creates our musical environment.

These student musicians are only together for a single academic year. Listening to them pour their personalities into improvised music is inspiring and life-affirming. And when one member of the band unexpectedly dresses up as a horse with a hat for the photo shoot, and lengthy discussions take place over whether cushions and tap shoes are needed for the gig, it becomes clear that this space for free self-expression is working its magic.

As Charlie Haden said, “I want them to come away discovering the music inside them. And not thinking about themselves as jazz musicians, but thinking about themselves as good human beings, striving to be a great person.” Jambassadors performances are an exciting celebration of creativity where music meets humanity and anything can happen.

JAZZ JOURNAL REVIEW: JAZZ TOAST! Feat. the JAMBASSADORS

By Barry Witherden

In my January 2019 profile of West Country musician Roz Harding I mentioned that she is heavily involved in education. Among other things she is saxophone tutor and musical director for the Jazz Project and the Jambassadors at the Exeter College Music Academy. This gig was a sort of end-of-term presentation by The Jambassadors.

The standard of playing (and singing) was very high, with no weak links and no need to make allowances for youth and relative lack of experience playing in public, but what added an extra level of interest were the different methods Harding set up to encourage and inspire improvisation.

The concert opened with some “warm-ups/tunings-in”, the first couple strictly timed to two minutes, and beginning with vocalist Sarah Woodison and alto saxohphonist Morgan Wallace bouncing ideas off each other. After some similar exercises the whole band was involved in interpreting “dream lyrics” supplied by Harding and previously unseen by the musicians.

Individual talents were beginning to stand out but the most important aspect of the performance was the way everybody was listening and responding to the rest of the band, an essential approach if collective improvisation is to be coherent rather than simply a free-for-all melée. (Not that I’ve anything against melées, which can be exciting and fun.)

Pianist Zac Ward was featured on his exquisite composition Mellow Winter, contributing a long unaccompanied solo on electric piano before being joined by violinist Maya Richards, then the whole band. Guitarist Luke Murray’s Figure Of Eight built to a rampaging free-bop workout. The band also improvised on pre-existing pieces, including Melt Yourself Down’s tune Fix My Life, when the ensemble really nailed the compelling North African-influenced riffs, and Lennon & McCartney’s A Day In The Life, where exciting all-in improvisations substituted handsomely for the famous orchestral glissandi on The Beatles’ recording. For a well-deserved encore the band chose McCartney’s Great Day.

As I said, I could discern no weak links; all the players not only seemed accomplished singers or instrumentalists, but also fine musicians (which is not quite the same thing and is more important in my book), so it may be invidious to pick anyone out, but Richards soloed well and contributed strongly and sensitively to the whole ensemble and smaller groupings drawn from it, Murray’s Figure Of Eight evinced ambitious ideas and he is a risk-taking improviser, Woodison has a strong and distinctive voice, and bassist Ollie Fonnereau has developed an admirable tone. Wallace has an intense sound, a good ear for what will work in the context of the ensembles, and she solos with impressive fluency and inventiveness. She is a player to watch and it will be interesting to see how she develops after studying jazz at Trinity College of Music. Murray and baritone saxist Ajay Furse are also off to study jazz, but at Leeds College of Music.

The Jambassadors at the Clifford Room, Barnfield Theatre, Exeter, 6 June 2019

Ben Keatt, Sabrina Fletcher, Monty Howell, Sarah Woodison (v); Maya Richards (vn); Morgan Wallace (as; v beatbox); Ajay Furse (bar); Zac Ward (p;kyb); Katrina Beer (kyb,syn); Luke Murray (g,syn); Ollie Fonnereau (b); Benjamin Joel Heathcote (d).

By Barry Witherden - June 12, 2019