In the wake of his highly acclaimed CD Europa, featuring prominently in the year-end album polls, journalist Jane Cornwell talks to Courtney Pine about his love of jazz and takes a look back at his career in our December 2011 In-Depth feature.
Courtney Pine’s earliest memory is – what else? – of music. “I remember being about three years old and holding on to the side of a gram,” says the British jazz musician of the 1960s gramophones that played stacks of 45s, dropping them one after another, up to ten at a time. “I’d cling there, looking down, listening to the sounds of ska.”
As he got older he began flipping these singles over, marvelling at B-side instrumentals featuring horns by Jamaican jazz greats such as Skatalites founders Don Drummond and Tommy McCook, along with the Cuban-born Roland Alphonso. Those first jazz stirrings would become a life-long obsession; a career choice; a lifestyle.
“The sax always seemed like an act of rebellion to me. In the ‘70s I was blown away when I caught Roy Wood of Wizzard playing it outside a shop window on Portobello Road. But it was the solos on those B-sides that got me started. They were just so different and unique. I wanted to do that thing as well.”
Many of these records belonged to members of Pine’s extended family, who would regularly call by the one-bedroom flat – complete with paraffin heater and black-and-white TV – that he shared with his parents and two sisters in Paddington, west London. This multicultural manor was one of the few areas where black families emigrating to Britain could find accommodation. Blitzkrieged and resettled, it was an area that buzzed with soundtracks: ska, reggae, hi-life; soca, calypso, dancehall. But the sound that resonated most with Pine was jazz.
Now, at the ripe old age of 47, Courtney Fitzgerald Pine has almost single-handedly transformed the face of British jazz. His CV teems with albums experimental and accessible, ground-breaking and innovative; his current twelfth solo studio release Europa – which sees the erstwhile saxophonist on bass clarinet, exploring the historical origins of Europe with a powerful, multicultural cast – has been variously called aesthetically rounded, fiercely elemental and (though he dismisses this with a grin) a masterpiece.
Pine has given platforms to a host of new British black musicians from pianist Julian Joseph to singer Cleveland Watkiss. He has kept his oeuvre fresh by integrating elements of garage and hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, scratching and other urban grooves. If all this lands him in trouble with the jazz police – which it does on a regular basis – then so be it. The history of jazz is sprinkled with overcomings: there was resistance to bebop – 1940s traditionalists were dismayed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As for Coltrane… Want to take something entrenched in a new direction? Expect a fight.
“When I go to concerts I see things that inspire me, things that communicate with an audience, which I then try to incorporate into my work,” he says. “When I was doing the St Kitts Jazz festival I caught Busta Rhymes… The [jazz] critics never go to those concerts. But when you come to mine you’ll see something akin to what you see in popular music.”
Over the course of a 30-year career, the multi-instrumentalist and his award-winning band have played everywhere from the main stage at Glastonbury to the Blue Note club in Tokyo; he’s topped charts and dominated playlists, composed film soundtracks and presented the long-running programme Jazz Crusade (which is currently in a holding pattern) for BBC Radio 2.
There’s been South Bank Show specials and honorary doctorates, flagship concerts and educational workshops in Africa, Asia, Russia, South America. His musical knowledge is encyclopedic; his research thought out and thorough. He has his own label, Destin-E; writes his own liner notes; does his own artwork. Little wonder, really, that Pine is much garlanded: he is Courtney Pine OBE and CBE. A knighthood for his services to jazz seems only a matter of time.
“I don’t even think about that sort of thing.” Pine is quick to swat the notion away. Awards, for him, are simply recognition of hard work, a chance for him and his wife [June, a psychologist] to get dressed up and enjoy a nice night out. For Pine, jazz is the thing. All he ever wanted to do was play.
“More than any other kind of music, jazz helps you get closer to that invisible thing, that feeling inside, that energy,” says Pine. “Jazz gives you freedom. It lets you speak in your own language. So even though you want to walk in the path of Charlie Parker or, I don’t know, any jazz musician you admire, something will happen to change that. You get inspired by other styles; you keep moving, going forward.”
Pine has, at any rate. “When I was gigging in reggae bands [as a teenager] they would always tell me to play in the style of great Jamaican reggae artists like, say, Dean Fraser. They would insist that I didn’t play anything too individual,” he says, his gaze sweeping the London skyline as he sits, elbows on a high table, in his favourite interview venue: The Heights, a 15th-storey bar off Oxford St, near BBC Broadcasting House.
Back in 2000 the Guardian’s jazz critic John Fordham hailed Pine as “a phenomenal technician, drawing together styles from early jazz to experimental and avant-garde”. Pine’s playing, Fordham said, “can be amazingly abstract, atonal, dissonant, but with such a strong underlying groove that it makes sense to a non-specialist audience. He’s made the most advanced jazz of the last 30 years work with musical forms that are popular and accessible.”
It hasn’t been easy. Indeed, as Pine revealed in BBC 4’s landmark 2008 series Jazz Britannia, “I would add different notes in the scale the way that Sonny Rollins did and people would say, ‘No man, we don’t want that’. They were saying to me, ‘If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, then you’d better go and live somewhere else’.”
He sighs and shakes his head, shifting his trademark dreadlocks around on his suit jacket. “Then one day I caught [US trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis on the television and I was like, ‘Okay, here it is’.” His shoulders relax. “I mean, here was someone two years older than me who was doing his thing and bringing jazz to a wide audience.”
Never mind the fact that Marsalis, the son of pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., was to the manor born (Pine’s father was a carpenter; his mother still works as a hospital manager): “I started practising seriously. I was always practising.” He still plays for eight hours each day. “I was turning down a lot of shows because I wanted to be as good as I could be. I practised until one day I got a gig doing a residency at the Atlantic on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton.”
“Back then it was run by a Jamaican guy named Sonny,” he says. “He had this idea that jazz might help rid the place of drugs. It was a beautiful thought.” A smile. “We started playing to about ten people: older guys from London Transport mainly, who’d stand there in their uniforms holding their pints. Drug deals were going on while we were playing; everything you can imagine was happening there.”
Incidents were legion: Pine recalls seeing one horn player get his lip “chopped off” while playing a tune. This was Brixton, post the 1981 riots: the atmosphere was tense. In some venues you could [nearly] cut the testosterone with a knife.
“Once after a gig I was threatened by this angry dread, who was like ‘How dare you come to Brixton and play jazz music’. Luckily as he was coming for me I was quickly bundled into the car by [bass player] Gary Crosby, our driver at the time, and we escaped.”
The Brixton Riots had attracted thrill seekers to the area in droves: “It was like, ‘Look, a jazz gig! Let’s go there!’ Suddenly we were playing to packed houses of over a hundred people. The next thing I had about six offers on the table from different record companies.” (He went with Island Records, more of which later.)
Pine was no wide-eyed innocent: at the age of 15 he was hanging out in jazz funk clubs in Southend and Basingstoke. His older sister’s boyfriend was into reggae sound systems; young Courtney would climb into the back of a Ford Cortina and head off to hang out with whatever sound system and backing band was vibing the most. Then he’d get on the sax and join in.
“Back then you had bands backing the reggae stars,” he says. “Bands like [lover’s rock outfit] Black Harmony, who backed everyone from Barrington Levy to Rankin Dread and Michael Prophet. I linked up with them but then eventually started doing reggae and jazz funk gigs in places like Bradford on Friday and Saturday nights; I’d have a great time drinking and partying. It was an amazing scene; black and white kids dancing to the same music.”
It was, he says, a time of great unity. And great tension: around this time his parents had moved out to the conservative suburb of Kingsbury in north-west London. Pine has previously recalled working in the local Sainsbury’s while watching the National Front handing out flyers through the window; of having racist abuse hurled at him by gangs of yobs in cars.
All this, and he’d still stand up and do school assembly on Monday morning. As one of the few black kids at his staid secondary school, Pine stood out because of his background and various academic, athletic and musical abilities.
“I was a viable character,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was a monitor. I was into school sports. I was doing A-Level music. I had some very good teachers and some very bad ones; I was in a classroom with a teacher who admitted he had no expertise in the field of improvised music so he’d always try and palm me off on someone else to teach me some jazz. But there was no one around in those days.
“The education system was different then. You couldn’t study saxophone as the main instrument, so I did clarinet first and saxophone second. The sax felt as rebellious to me as it did when I first heard it on those B-sides.”
But despite all this – and partly because of an incident involving a “well-developed” female A-level music student, details of which he skims over (basically they were caught doing what they shouldn’t have been doing) – Pine’s school informed his mother they could do no more for him; that although he wasn’t a “bad boy”, he should set his sights somewhere other than university. Oh, and he was no longer welcome at the school. “My mother did her nut,” he says.
Pine was of a generation of black pupils failed by British state schools. The experience, you feel, still rankles: “I was sold a bum steer in terms of ‘You don’t need to be educated’. I decided to educate myself anyway because of my parents and the way they strived and their influence.”
Nonetheless, he’d been enormously affected by both Marsalis’s performance on the TV and – after eventually convincing the bouncers to let him in the door – by that of the legendary American jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who he saw live at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. Back then jazz was outlawed as respected popular music – but that gig changed Pine’s life forever.
“We were two black 15-year-olds and determined to get in, even though they assumed that we wanted the disco upstairs,” he has said. “We handed over £20 each for a ticket but they still gave us the worst seats. But from then on I wanted to play jazz even more.”
Though he formed his own small outfits early on – including hard-boppers Dwarf Step, and the World’s First Saxophone Posse – Pine really began his musical apprenticeship in the reggae scene. Young and personable, talented and committed, he was a popular member of such 1980s reggae bands as Clint Eastwood & General Saint – an outfit who regularly supported Madness and the Stranglers and were fixtures at many a CND rally.
(Old Grey Whistle Test, April 1982)
But his Hubbard epiphany had made him seek out jazz icons – he fell in love with the music of Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins (“Sonny straddles the whole history of jazz and he’s still playing and improvising more music than anyone else on the planet”) – and desperate to hunt down jazz gigs and like-minded musicians.
“I found out who the local jazzers were,” he told journalist Martin Smith in 2006. “I asked them all the same question: where can I play jazz? They all came up with the same reply: ‘Don’t bother’. They urged me to stick with reggae music – some of them even suggested I try the disco scene.”
Pissed off but undeterred, Pine sniffed out jam sessions, bringing along similarly jazz-crazy mates including young saxophonist Steve Williamson. But the old guard weren’t happy with their new directions; with their creative zeal and unbridled energy: “When we started to play they would turn the lights on and the session would end,” he told Smith. “So I decided if that’s what they were going to do to me, then I would do my own thing.”
He did. Eventually came slots with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, which featured the stellar likes of tenor sax player Alan Skidmore and lauded pianist Stan Tracey. It was jazz, jazz and more jazz… An African-American art form that so fascinated the likes of the young Rod Stewart that – as Pine tells it, as it was told to him – he’d carry the trumpet case of Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton just so he could get into black jazz clubs in the early ‘60s.
“I was the unknown,” says Pine, eyes twinkling. “People were like, ‘Who is that guy?’ At times it felt like me versus the whole of the British jazz industry. But I kept practising, while they were over there” – he nods at the middle distance – “doing their recreational stuff. Some of them were upset when they found out I’d been signed to Island Records, but then that’s life. You’ll always get some of that.”
Anyway, inspiration was all around him. For starters there was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with their visionary saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. The Art Ensemble’s exploration of everything from the boundaries of free jazz to the intricate demands of African folk forms in improvisation gave Pine ideas. After frequently bumping into black musicians who wanted to play jazz but couldn’t find a stage to play it on, he duly founded feted collective The Jazz Warriors, an experimental hothouse that toured the UK, launching the solo careers of several of their members.
“I thought, ‘We have enough names, we can do this’,” says Pine of a troupe that included his old muckers Gary Crosby and Steve Williamson along with vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and flautist Phillip Bent. “My wife said she could arrange funding. We’d spent four years searching for the right musicians; then in 1986 we got our first gig.”
The couple – who have four children ranging in age from 14 to 18 – had formed the Abibi Arts Group to encourage young black British talent at a time when white players were dominating jazz.
“For that first performance we were offered the sort of money I’d never seen before. Then I saw that they’d called us the Courtney Pine Big Band. That was too deep for me. I mean, what if we didn’t pull it off? Luckily my wife suggested the name The Jazz Warriors, so we went with that.”
But Pine was already on his way. Island Records had snapped him up in the guise of their jazz arm, Antilles; his ensuing 1986 solo debut Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK – a remarkable feat for a jazz album – and set the tone for a huge resurgence of interest in jazz in the mid to late 1980s. Its success established Pine as a leading figure on the British jazz scene. As inspired as he’d been by Blakey, Coltrane, Rollins et al, he was now an inspiration himself.
“That same year, Island signed three artists: Julian Cope, The Christians and me. I was signed for £100 for four albums – but was guaranteed some major play and they basically said to me, ‘Do what you want’. It meant I could hire whoever I wanted, play whatever I wanted, use whatever studio…” He shrugs. “I could utilise the marketing,” he says. “My background was in reggae and popular music. I wanted to put jazz in the same league.”
Pine finally had the sort of creative freedom he craved. The sort of freedom encapsulated, of course, by the music itself. “I think music should reflect life and life should reflect music,” he says. “It’s one of those constants, it should just keep going around. If you keep your ear to the ground you hear what’s going on. Once you’d learned jazz you could speak in your language.”
But given the music’s boundaries-down aesthetic and penchant for improvisation, how does one learn jazz? How does one teach it? “It’s hard to teach the unteachable,” acknowledges Pine, who early on in his career answered an advertisement in The Voice newspaper to teach jazz at Community Music in Clerkenwell, a charity working with children and schizophrenic patients. “Most of the time it’s not about a classroom. It’s about going up to Stan Tracey or Harry Beckett and asking, ‘What was that chord? How long do you practise?’ It’s about listening to Sydney Bechet! To Pierre Boulez! To their sound and feel. It’s not, ‘Finish page 23 by Friday’.”
“The thing is, there are all these templates… Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong… You work from those and then find out they are all connected in some way or another. They are reflecting on previous generational styles and approaches.”
He pauses and smiles. “It wasn’t until I started working with Art Blakey and Elvin Jones [Pine was a session muso for touring US stars] that I saw how close-knit their situation is,” he says. “It just made me fall more in love with jazz, and want to be a part of it even more.”
Produced by Delfeayo Marsalis, the youngest of the Marsalis clan (who would produce several of Pine’s albums), Pine’s 1988 second effort Destiny’s Song not only went straight into the UK Top 40, it broke into the American jazz charts – kick-starting Pine’s international reputation. His status as a stellar live act grew; critics and crowds alike marvelled at his soloing abilities, at his stunning technique and big brain-blowing sound. Pine didn’t only sound great, he looked it, prowling the stage with his sax as he duelled with percussionists and singers, or took his own space for solos.
Pine chats at length about the origins of the saxophone: of how the instrument was invented by a Belgian [Antoine-Joseph ‘Adolphe’ Sax] for the Napoleonic wars because the wooden clarinet wasn’t deemed sturdy enough for the battlefield; of how, as a consequence of Napoleon’s defeat, the saxophone was derided. And indeed, of how the turn of the 20th century saw the sax appropriated by middle class black American families who had their children learning violin and piano – and seized on the cheaper sax as their own.
“So the sax was a rebellious thing for them, just as it was for me,” he says animatedly. “That instrument did more than any other to transform modern music. No wonder: the closer an instrument is to your brain the more expression you can get from it.” He pauses, smiles. “Think about doing a solo with your foot,” he continues. “Then think about the voice, then think about the saxophone – which is not like the trumpet, which has a buzzing sound. The sax is a part of you. Your chamber affects the tonality, the sound and shape of the notes. That’s why it sounds so human.”
Pine’s final release for Island – via the Mango label – was 1990’s Closer To Home, a reggae-flecked, back-to-the-roots album that was recorded in Jamaica with reggae producer Gussie Clarke; its first single, I’m Still Waiting, featured vocalist Carroll Thompson, marking a penchant for female guests with big soulful voices (while there are none on Europa, he is keen to work with acclaimed nuevo flamenco diva Concha Buika at some point in the future).
Pine has collaborated with everyone from Jhelisa Anderson, Angelique Kidjo and Beverley Knight to Mica Paris and Cassandra Wilson, whose voice famously graces I’ve Known Rivers – the spine-tingling single from his left-field seventh album, 1995’s MOBO-winning, Mercury-nominated Modern Day Jazz Stories (released on American label, Verve). Based on the 1920s poem by Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks Of Rivers, the track is still regarded as one of Pine’s finest compositions.
“I write maybe 40 songs before one works,” he says, “and this one did. You edit and peel this huge mass and leave a nice shape. The same is true of life. Both the pieces [poem and song] are about bringing people together. Music has the power to do that. When I play music I’m thinking of the whole world in a positive light.”
After seven years with Verve, Pine suddenly found himself without a label – or at least, without a release date. The new owners of Polygram/Universal informed him he would have to wait two years before putting out another record – the kiss of death in the jazz world. New records are the keys that open doors to international festivals. Very often no new release means sorry, no gig.
Having spoken of his ambition to set up his own label, in 2000 he took the publishing money he’d earned, set up a studio (he works mostly from home in Harrow, north-west London) and did precisely that. His 2004 album Devotion, featuring contributions from David McAlmont and Carleen Anderson, was released on his very own Destin-E Records; 2007’s eclectic Resistance was billed by Jazzwise as “his best album in the story so far”.
“Today’s younger generation of trumpeters or guitarists or whoever, have just accepted that they will have their own labels,” he says. “Recording costs are low. You can just use the internet or concerts to get your music to people. It’s a different environment now. But it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got two million quid behind you – at the end of the day it’s how you play.”
Having issued albums on Destin-E by the Jazz Warriors, Cuban violinist Omar Puente and Cameron Pierre, the Dominican-born jazz guitarist and mandolinist who features on Europa, Pine has plans for releases by a wealth of talented young British-based artists.
Just don’t call him an elder statesman: “I was playing on my Playstation last night!” he says by way of protest. “I don’t see myself as nurturing, wise, or even that old. I’m still searching. I’m still on a quest.”
And then there are those he considers “real” elder statesmen. Among his many plans, Pine intends to compile an album featuring the music of salient “old dudes” such as Monty Alexander and Andy Hamilton. An album (working title: In The House Of Legends) that respects the styles that have influenced him: “I’ve been thinking about this record for a while: the title, the compositions… That’s how I compose. I have the whole structure built and then I fill in the gaps.”
It’s what he did with Europa, a work that draws on his more classical leanings, featuring new themes within a general concept – the historical origins of Europe – and making new connections between a host of styles. The title track is plaintive, beautiful, melancholic; buoyed by musicians including Alec Dankworth on bowed bass and Zoe Rahman on piano, Pine’s bass clarinet solos are particularly transporting.
Europa taken from the album Europa (Destin-E Records)
“There is a long way for me to go as a saxophone player,” says Pine. “But one day I remembered the bass clarinet in the cellar, and thought ‘If I had the right project and technology in terms of miking techniques…’ I’m not the type of artist who stands still when he performs,” he adds. “I like to walk around and change the tone of what is going on on-stage simply by taking ten paces to the right.”
Europa embraces related reed instruments including Turkey’s ney flute and the ancient Balkan folk flute, the kaval: “I couldn’t find anyone to teach me how to play it so I ordered one online and looked on YouTube a couple of times and shedded and shedded until I got something.”
“Then my research took me further back,” he adds. “I discovered that this essential European instrument actually came with the European travellers. It was the instrument they used to play in the field. So the things I learned on kaval helped me understand how to play the bass clarinet in a more expressive way…”
That’s Courtney Pine, then: a man for whom the past should be explored to facilitate the future; a musician who has transcended his instrument and become more than just a saxophonist, or flautist, or bass clarinet player.
To see Pine play is to see the entire history of British jazz: to see where it has come from, where it is now, and the glorious possibilities that stretch ahead.
Words: Jane Cornwell
Photos: © Gary Wallis, courtesy of www.courtney-pine.com
Courtney Pine will be touring Europa from Spring 2012, kicking off with a two-night stint at London’s Ronnie Scott’s (23rd & 24th Feb). Click HERE for full tour dates.