Following the recent release of Julian Joseph‘s first jazz album in fifteen years – Live At The Vortex – and with various collaborative projects on the horizon, freelance writer Orlando Bird catches up with pianist Julian Joseph to chat about his music.
It’s another full year for Julian Joseph. His schedule straddles the worlds of jazz, classical music and much else besides, with stop-offs at clubs and concert halls alike. But that’s hardly out of character.
His latest album, Live At The Vortex In London, hit the shelves in January. Drawing on a solo gig from 2005, it’s a further testament to the vast range, powerful imagination and formidable technique of the man widely touted as one of Britain’s finest jazz musicians.
Joseph’s no one-man band, though. He’s equally admired as a composer and collaborator. Last month, he was playing with drummer Mark Mondesir and bassist Adam King (filling in for regular Mark Hodgson) in a trio marked as much by its deeply refined intuition as its driving, ebullient swing. There’s been a recent re-run of his 2010 jazz opera Shadowball at the Hackney Empire, and June sees the premiere of his commission for the Cultural Olympiad, a dance suite called The Brown Bomber, at Sadler’s Wells. Then there’s the European tour for The Peasant Girl, Joseph’s latest cross-genre project with cellist Matthew Barley and violinist Viktoria Mullova. Not to mention that date at the Proms…
When Joseph’s not at the piano, he’s passing the wisdom onto others as a broadcaster and educator. Since 2007 he’s been presenting BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up, playing the latest releases, interviewing the professionals and throwing in a bit of jazz history too, making the genre more approachable to newcomers. When the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music decided to introduce a jazz syllabus in 1999, he stepped in as a consultant and, indeed, a composer. Having been a patron of the Jazz Development Trust for many years, he’s now preparing to set up his own jazz academy.
His work, then, is far from done. “There’s a harmony of learning,” Joseph says, “and it continues.” The phrase is apt, for in Joseph you see a meeting between traits rarely found together – towering individual talent and a passion for collaboration, a gift for teaching and a willingness to be taught, a capacity for innovation and a reverence for the past. This meeting of opposites is, as we’ll see, something that happens in jazz – perhaps the most distinctive and the most adaptable musical innovation of the twentieth century. With Joseph there’s always something on the go – a new project, a new experiment. But (thankfully for me) he’s also got plenty of time for reflecting on what’s gone before, too.
Julian plays Blueprovisation – Live At the Vortex In London (Asc Records)
We meet in Wandsworth, where Joseph was raised and where he now lives. He was born in 1966; both of his parents came from the West Indies to study in Britain. It was a musical household, though jazz wasn’t the natural starting-point. Joseph’s father had a soul and R&B band, for which he was the lead singer and principal songwriter, often commandeering the basement for rehearsals. His mother preferred classical music. She was a midwife and nurse; Joseph has described her as a “tower of strength” with a passion for the arts, which she was eager to pass on to her children. (She was successful, incidentally. Joseph’s brothers are both involved in the music business – James is his manager and John’s a professional trumpeter.) Her influence on Joseph’s attitude to life, as much as his music, is clear: “The importance she placed on education”, he says, “and the importance she placed on the arts – that’s what I’ve really picked up, and it guides everything I do.”
“When I was about five, she just decided that we were going to learn piano,” he continues. “I guess I took to it.” That’s something of an understatement. Soon enough he was getting to grips with the greats – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. After moving on to twentieth-century repertoire, though, he started hearing connections between the music he was practising and the music he’d got on his record player – Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea. He found himself drawn to Debussy’s Preludes and Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, he says, because their “harmonic qualities and rhythmic angularities” reminded him of jazz – and jazz, he’d decided by now, was the music for him.
Not, of course, that it has to be one thing or the other. Until the late-nineteenth century, Joseph reminds me, composition and improvisation were thought of as complementary disciplines. The music that greeted worshippers at Bach’s church was, whether they knew it or not, being made up on the spot. When Mozart and Clementi went head-to-head in a piano battle, one of their tie-breaking tasks was to improvise over a sonata theme (it was, apparently, at this point that Mozart took a decisive lead over his rival).
It’s fitting that Joseph’s earliest idol was Herbie Hancock, who first caused a stir playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11. Likewise, Oscar Peterson cut his teeth on Liszt, Schubert and Chopin. It was a classical training that gave Joseph the means to approach jazz, and he’s since returned to it as a solo performer in orchestral pieces by Bartok, Prokofiev and Gershwin.
Making the transition came naturally enough. “I was around nine or ten when I first attempted to improvise,” Joseph recalls. “I’d discovered what I later realised were seventh chords, and managed to find my way around Summertime. I remember running into the dining room afterwards and saying, ‘Mum, I can play jazz!’ I wish I could say that so confidently now,” he chuckles. “It’s not like I was forced into it or anything, but I just loved it – and, actually, to most people that was weird! It wasn’t thought of as music that young people listened to.”
The perception of jazz as a peculiar geriatric indulgence may never go away, but that’s never deterred Joseph. Unable to find a jazz teacher, he made his own way into the music. The gift for leadership soon became apparent when, at just 13, he started to put his own ensembles together at Spencer Park School.
Nothing if not precocious; but Joseph acknowledges that he was also in the right place at the right time. His education at Spencer Park was not what most South London kids could have expected back in the late-1970s and early 80s. Many of the school’s peripatetic teachers (and a few members of staff, too) were working musicians. Some played jazz, some played classical music; others came from the worlds of rock, pop and fusion. Joseph revelled in the variety, which may explain his wide-ranging musical tastes today.
Nor were his interests confined to the piano. Perhaps he already knew that, sooner or later, he’d be writing for other instruments (though he might not have envisaged the veritable library of big band charts and arrangements he now has to his name). He played with Phil Bates, who taught bass, and his drum teacher was Trevor Tomkins, still fresh from recent work with the jazz-fusion band Gilgamesh. The saxophonist Olaf Vas, another early influence, held his big band’s weekly practices at Spencer Park. But it was in fact his English teacher Jackie Peterson who, along with Tomkins, would encourage him to go to Weekend Arts College, based in Kentish Town.
Here, aged 16, Joseph played in London’s first Jazz Fusion Orchestra and attended workshops led by veteran jazz trumpeter and educator Ian Carr. Joseph cut a distinctive figure, as one of the directors at the time has recalled: “He always performed in dark glasses; I think he thought he was Stevie Wonder… He was very cool.” His ambition was palpable – soon enough he’d introduced himself to Art Blakey and his band, and persuaded them to hear him play. But perhaps more importantly, Joseph was now getting a chance to mix with other young musicians hoping, like him, to make jazz their vocation. Among them was the gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine, who later recruited Joseph for his debut album, The Urge Within.
When it came down to it, though, there wasn’t a piano teacher who could take him beyond the level he’d already reached. Equally, as Pine points out in Jane Cornwell’s recent in-depth feature for Propermusic.com, negotiating the British jazz scene in the early 1980s was no easy thing for a young musician – and especially a young black musician.“It seemed hard at the time to get access,” Joseph agrees. “There was the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, but I can’t remember too many black people playing in that.” And the music in this rather middle-class milieu was hardly cutting-edge. “We were all listening to Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett – and that wasn’t the sort of thing they were doing.”
But if the history of jazz teaches anything, it’s that a bit of initiative can go a long way. “Eventually,” Joseph continues, “there was a little group of people who were really trying to play.” Many of those people have since become the standard-bearers of British jazz. Along with Pine, Joseph’s rehearsal group included Mark Mondesir, the flautist Philip Bent and the bassist Paul Hunt. He’d also met the innovative, enigmatic saxophonist Steve Williamson and the versatile vocalist Cleveland Watkiss.
Joseph’s big break came in 1985, however, when he was awarded a rare scholarship by the Inner London Education Authority to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Berklee’s widely known as a catapult to jazz stardom – with Keith Jarrett, Brad Melhdau, Quincy Jones and Pat Metheny among its cavalcade of eminent alumni – and Joseph initially had doubts about applying there. In the end, though, he sent off his application, complete with a letter of recommendation signed by Blakey (clearly impressed by his chutzpah) along with Jazz Messengers Donald Harrison, Mulgrew Miller and Jean Toussaint. He was promptly accepted onto the composition course.
Among Joseph’s greatest influences at Berklee were his piano teacher Donald Brown, guitar teacher Anthony Peterson and vocalist Roberta Davis. Meanwhile, friend and fellow student Delfeayo Marsalis had introduced Joseph to his older brother Branford, whose musical thinking made a lasting impression on him. The star of Weekend Arts College suddenly felt like a small fish in a big pond.
“The Marsalises were superstars to me,” Joseph confided to Mark Small in a 2003 interview. “When I played with Branford, I felt completely inadequate. But he was really encouraging and positive.” It was with Branford, too, that Joseph got his first real taste of life as a working musician. After Kenny Kirkland failed to make a string of gigs with Branford’s band, Joseph was hired instead, touring the country, at weekends mostly, for a year.
Branford Marsalis and Julian perform Miss Simmons on TV show Birdland (1994)
It wasn’t all work and no play in the States. On one occasion, the story goes, Joseph left an inter-collegiate competition in San Diego with the Berklee band, hired a van and went in search of the most popular chicken restaurant in Los Angeles. He was expelled, along with a fellow band member, though after some persuasion from his mother the college agreed to take him back.
Having survived this minor outrage, Joseph graduated in 1990 and went back to the UK, where his friends from Weekend Arts College were now part of a thriving jazz scene. He immediately hired Jean Toussaint to join his band and recorded on Toussaint’s album What Goes Around. In 1991, he signed a contract with East West Records and by the end of the year had released The Language Of Truth. It was a fine debut, showcasing the gift for composition Joseph had been honing at Berklee (most of the tunes on the album are his). The sound draws on influences old and new – Herbie Hancock’s funky flair meets the firm, grounding force of MyCoy Tyner, but there are cool hints of R&B and warm waves of soul too. One track on the album was released as a single – a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s The Other Side Of Town, featuring the slinky vocals of Sharon Musgrave.
Julian Joseph & Sharon Musgrave – The Other Side Of Town (1991)
Reality and Universal Traveller followed in 1994 and 1996. But the lure of the recording studio gradually dwindled (Live At The Vortex is Joseph’s first jazz album for fifteen years). By the mid-90s, he was channelling most of his energy into live performance. He’d got a trio, quartet and quintet on the go, as well as an eight-piece ensemble, a Big Band and Electric Project, and had already toured America and Australia.
Now an international name in jazz, Joseph was starting to venture beyond the conventional parameters of his trade. In 1993, he gave a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto In Fwith the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the first in a long line of cross-genre excursions.
The choice of Gershwin was apt. For just as he smuggled the vocabulary of jazz into the language of classical music, so Joseph embarked on a campaign to bring live jazz to classical audiences. In 1994 he organised an unprecedented series of concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall, aiming to bring together “artists international and local of varying backgrounds”. It was a tremendous success, and the venue has since played host to an assortment of top performers. It opened other doors for Joseph, too: the following year, he made the first of many subsequent appearances at the Proms with his trio and big band, a breakthrough event for black British jazz musicians.
One of the Wigmore gigs was later turned into an album, In Concert At The Wigmore Hall (1995). “It’s quite intimidating,” Joseph says in the album’s liner notes, “to be at the centre of a concert, let alone a series, but I calmed myself with the idea that this was a perfect opportunity for me to collaborate creatively.”
The phrase is characteristic, capturing a deeply independent artistic vision as well as a knack for nurturing and learning from others (you’ll notice how quick Joseph is to praise the people he’s worked with). On the one hand, Joseph is at the centre of this album, displaying a formidable set of chops and proving that he’s got what it takes to hold the stage alone. His Solo Medley, brims with verve and variety – a 10-minute tour of the history of jazz, moving seamlessly from passages of rock-solid swing and jaunty snatches of stride to graceful balladic breathers, sudden bursts of bebop and pulsating Latin rhythms. As on Live At The Vortex, Joseph’s powerful, expansive sound and sturdy left hand sometimes leave you wondering where another musician could possibly fit into the equation.
But they do. On In Concert At The Wigmore Hall, he enters into dialogue – there’s only one other soloist at any given time – with a host of other talents. Along with the big hitters of American jazz, saxophonist Johnny Griffin and clarinettist Eddie Daniels, Joseph provides a platform for a young Jason Rebello in a mesmerising two-piano version of Maiden Voyage. (Andy Sheppard also performed in the series, but doesn’t feature on this recording.) Meanwhile, Alec Dankworth’s bass lines weave their way through the album, giving each voice an elegant gloss.
Joseph’s been “meeting in the middle”, as he describes it, with musicians from non-jazz backgrounds for many years, too. In his collaboration with the Brazilian classical pianist Marcelo Bratke – album due out soon – difference was part of the point: “Marcelo had to hold my hand through the Poulenc and Milhaud, and I did the same when we played Chick Corea and Bill Evans.”
It really is ‘a harmony of learning’. “Julian always has clear ideas, but he’s very much a collaborative creature,” says Matthew Barley. The eclectic, imaginative cellist – whose work has embraced Beethoven, improvised cello concertos and beat-boxing alike – is a long-time friend and fellow traveller (“Brother Matthew”, Joseph corrects me with a broad smile when I mention Barley, “I love that guy!”).
They first joined forces fourteen years ago, when Barley and his wife, the violinist Viktoria Mullova, were looking for a pianist who could help them develop a project aiming to fuse classical repertoire with rock, African music and jazz. Part of the recruitment process, Barley recalls, involved a trial improvisation: “I think we did a long one in G Phrygian, and Julian was just so easy to play with.”
It was love at first sight. The project became an album, Through The Looking Glass (2001), and a follow-up, The Peasant Girl, was released last year. But Dance Of The Three-Legged Elephants (2009) is the crowning glory of Joseph and Barley’s partnership. Here, a strutting, insouciantly bluesy version of Miles Beyond sits comfortably alongside delicate waltzes and Eastern European folk melodies.
“I’m not too bothered what the music’s called, or where it’s come from,” Barley says, “and I think Julian’s the same. Improvising is a great leveller. Over the last few decades, I’ve worked with musicians with whom I don’t share a common spoken language, but we’ve been able to improvise – and that’s a wonderfully liberating, humanising feeling.”
The international scope of the album widens with a strong Latin American undercurrent (Joseph and Barley plan to develop this in their next project – a selection of Brazilian music with a focus on the work of Tom Jobim). The explosive rendition of Jaco Pastorius’s (Used To Be A) Cha-Cha is a highlight, with Barley’s bracing bow gliding across a driving staccato from Joseph. Meanwhile, their take on Ravel’s Piece En Forme De Habanera seems to encapsulate the whole project. On the one hand, it reminds you that jazz didn’t appear out of nowhere in the 1920s, that composers like Ravel played a part in its development – that, in short, music exists in a continuum. At the same time, while its shimmering, improvised opening gives the piece a contemporary twist, it doesn’t turn Ravel’s music into jazz. Perhaps the album’s greatest achievement, then, is the way it eludes generic classification while still honouring different musical traditions.
And while Joseph’s an innovator, moving freely across the borders between jazz and other forms, he remains deeply loyal to jazz in its more traditional incarnations. “I listen to classical music; I love it; I’ve learnt it,” he agrees, “but that doesn’t mean I’ve ‘done’ classical music. In the end I can only say I’ve played a few pieces, because I’ve really spent most of my life expressing myself as a jazz musician – and that in itself is a task and a half…”
His big band is the major case in point here, but the ancestral voices of Ellington, Basie and Armstrong pervade everything Joseph does, from his solo work to the jazz operas. The early influence of the Marsalis brothers is clear: “With them,” Joseph says, “the message is ‘there’s a tradition, there’s a level’. However new something sounds, it has a lineage. They got us into reconnecting with the whole tradition. Things will always move forward, but with the advent of a certain form of fusion, the level of playing really went down. I’m not talking about the work of the great ‘fusionistas’, but a kind of ‘fuzak’ that became popular in the 80s.”
Jazz has spread across the globe and been widely appropriated, sometimes to the point where it’s barely recognisable. Today you hear it everywhere without really noticing – in restaurants, in elevators, on TV, in the endless outpourings of ‘easy listening’. It’s a triumph of sorts – and clearly one of the things Joseph finds attractive about this music is its pluralism, its ability to absorb other forms. But it’s for precisely this reason that jazz runs the risk of losing touch with its own distinct, hard-won identity. For Joseph, an optimist and an idealist through-and-through, jazz means more than a collection of notes arranged in a certain way:
“I believe in its power to connect us with our own humanity,” he says unequivocally. “Jazz,” he continues, “is like a human being because it exists through time but also on the moment.” Martin Luther King, offering his explanation for the popularity of the music outside America, made a similar point in a speech at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival: “In a particular struggle of the Negro…there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man.”
When it comes to playing standards, these tunes, many of them written almost a century ago, form a body of music that all jazz musicians share. The challenge is to take a piece that’s already been touched by thousands of others – a piece like God Bless The Child or Autumn Leaves – and, as Joseph puts it, to “honour the music, the tradition, but also find yourself in it too, because that tradition is for everyone.”
Julian, Mark Hodgson (bass), James Joseph (drums), Lucerne, Switzerland
These days, the idea that the artist should work to uphold any kind of tradition can feel a little old-fashioned. But it’s an idea that Joseph, rightly and refreshingly, still holds dear. “There were people born before me, people born before you. Are we something new? Well, yes and no – but you can’t move forward if you don’t look back,” he reminds me, reiterating the bond he sees between music and life. Nowhere is this more apparent than his jazz operas, which explore neglected areas of the past, using ‘particular’ struggles to bring home ‘universal’ messages.
The first, Bridgetower (2007), tells the story of George Bridgetower, a violin prodigy who was largely overlooked in the early-nineteenth century because of his mixed roots (he was born in Poland to a former Barbadian slave). His gifts were recognised, however, by none other than Beethoven, who wrote the Kreutzer Sonata for him (though it was later re-dedicated). Music, by this token, becomes a means of transcending social division – and Joseph, with musical roots both in and outside the European tradition, manages to bring two previously antagonistic cultures together. One moment he’s conducting his band, in full Ellingtonian swing, next he’s soloing in Kreutzer mode in his walk-on role as Beethoven.
Shadowball (2010) marked the beginning of Joseph’s partnership with Hackney Music Development Trust, a remarkable organisation run by Adam Eisenberg and Tertia Sefton-Green, which uses music as a gateway to other forms of education, mainly in primary schools. The opera was recently performed as a fundraiser for HMDT at Hackney Empire, featuring a cast of around 200 local schoolchildren, all under the age of 12.
This unusual venture began, Sefton-Green remembers, with a cold call. Eisenberg had come up with an idea for a piece about America’s Negro Baseball Leagues. They had admired Bridgetower’s fusion of music and narrative history, so Joseph seemed like the man to go to. “When Adam and Tertia first suggested Shadowball, my immediate feeling was yes,” Joseph recalls, “and particularly because it was about segregation.” The opera follows players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson in their battle against prejudice, culminating in Robinson’s triumph over the Major League’s “colour line” in 1947. “As I looked into this story,” Joseph continues, “I saw there was even more to it…”
During the 1930s and 40s, jazz and baseball were intimately connected – two aspects of national culture that African Americans were making their own. Louis Armstrong owned a baseball team, and bandleader Cab Calloway played on one. Meanwhile many black players, banned from white bars and diners, would head to jazz clubs after their matches. “Shadowball became a project about combining the disciplines,” Joseph adds. “It deals with history, numeracy, literacy and sport. Adam and Tertia bring this incredible holistic approach. I think they’re visionaries in education.”
Their latest collaboration is a dance suite about the boxer Joe Louis’ victory over Max Schmeling (who represented Nazi Germany) at the 1938 Olympics. The Brown Bomber takes its title from the pundits’ nickname for Louis, whose skill, dedication and professionalism made him an unlikely national hero. As it happened, he shared the epithet with another black celebrity whose gifts eclipsed those of his white counterparts: Oscar Peterson. Not a coincidence, surely? “It’s the same thing with both of them,” Joseph suggests, “that gargantuan desire for excellence, for representing yourself to the highest possible level. You could take every superlative, every boxing plaudit, and give it to Oscar Peterson.”
Much of this work, then, is to do with raising aspirations. Alongside the performance of The Brown Bomber, there’ll be school classes in singing, composition and even boxing. These projects deal with Europe and America’s murky past of prejudice and discrimination, but their approach is ultimately constructive and forward-looking. “The kids have a wonderful time performing and learning about music, and they’re getting these great educational benefits too,” Joseph says. “Frankly, it’s been one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve ever done.”
And there’s plenty more on the horizon – in May, Shadowball’s going on tour, with a different group of children taking part in each performance. Meanwhile, the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy opens its doors in October. The aim here, Sefton-Green says, “is to teach improvisation skills, but to teach them through jazz repertoire and history”.
Here we have proof, if any were needed, that the arts serve a vital social purpose. The association between jazz and politics goes back a long way – but Joseph’s one of the few musicians today with a foot in both camps. He’ll no doubt prove a valuable spokesperson for the arts in the tough years to come. When, last year, plans were revealed to slash the funding for Weekend Arts College, he was quick to condemn the move, pointing out in The Guardian that “People are realising more and more that engaging with the arts is a doorway to engaging with everything that is key to getting on in life, to self-motivation, to giving people a sense of wellbeing and a sense of value.”
“Julian approaches everything in the way that he approaches his music,” Eisenberg observes. “He’s an improviser, so he wants ideas from you, and he gives you ideas in return. He’s a leader, but he’s not interested in leadership for its own sake. It’s all part of a bigger process.” And that’s the thing. Whatever there may be to say about Joseph’s career so far, you still always sense that, for him, it’s just the beginning.
Words: Orlando Bird
Photos: courtesy of www.julianjoseph.com
Julian’s latest album Live At The Vortex In London is out now. Catch him performing live at the following events:
Evening of Jazz Piano (solo) at King’s School, Macclesfield (28th April 2012)
Julian Joseph Trio at the Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury (13th May)
Julian Joseph & Viktoria Mullova at the Bury St Edmunds Festival (22nd May)
Shadowball at the Drum, Aston, Birmingham (24th & 25th May)
The Brown Bomber at Sadler’s Wells, London (20th & 21st June)
The Brown Bomber at York Hall, London (22nd & 23rd June)
Julian Joseph Quintet @ Proms at St Jude’s, London NW11 (26th June)
The Shadowball at The Crucible, Sheffield (12th July)
The Brown Bomber, QEH, London (15th July)
For further info and European dates, check Julian’s Gigs page