Appearances at SoundCellar -
The Ollie Howell Quintet - Thursday 21st November 2013
Question 1 - What made you want to become a musician?
I’m not sure that I really ever thought much about it to be honest. I’ve loved playing music for as long as I can remember – My Dad plays the piano, so we had one in the house growing up, and I started trying to teach myself that when I was about 6. Then I started the drums when I was at secondary school and spend all my time after school doing musical things. And then when I started getting paid to play music, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else for a job. I guess by the time I decided to go to music college, I’d pretty much decided that I was going to at least try to do this as my career for a bit, and see what happened…
Question 2 - What was your practice routine when you decided to get serious about playing jazz?
When I first started music college studying jazz I would get in at about 7:30am when college opened and start practicing, and then be in college until it closed (around 10pm) practicing all throughout the day when I didn’t have classes, but that was probably a little bit too much really, and not enough sleep… And it can’t have been all constructive practice back then too, thinking about it - As I learnt how to practice efficiently, I was able to cut down the time to maybe 3-4 hours a day and was able to get loads more out of each session.
Question 3 – What advice can you give to other musicians to get the most from their practice routine?
The best piece of advice I ever got for practicing is to keep setting goals and work out what you want to achieve before you start each session – It may sound really obvious, but it’s easy to just practice because you feel like you should do, and then not really get anything out of it. By setting yourself little specific goals of what you want to do or be able to do by the end of each session, you can really focus on areas you need to improve on, and you also get a sense of achievement when you’ve completed them.
I also try and keep my practice as musical as possible too – As a drummer, it can get quite monotonous just playing drums for 8 hours a day, so I make lots of backing tracks and use play-alongs every so often to keep it more musical. I really like warming up and practice rudiments using these backing tracks that I make, where it’s might be an 8-bar chord pattern, perhaps with syncopated pushes in it, or in an odd time, and I can play exercises over that, as well as soloing over it. Keeps me sane!
Question 4 - Can you recommend some books that helped you with your studies?
I think the John Riley jazz drumming books are fantastic – They cover so much and are laid out brilliantly. It revolutionised my playing when I started studying from those books. ‘The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary’ by Alan Dawson is amazing too. I still use a lot of stuff from that book in my practice or as warm-ups! For non-drumming books I’d say the Mark Levine ‘Jazz Piano Book’ was really helpful. I checked that out of the library a lot when I was at Music College.
Question 5 - Which recording, either as a leader or a sideman, do you think is the best example of your playing?
The recording I’m the most of proud of is definitely my debut album ‘Sutures and Stitches’, which comes out on the 23rd September on Whirlwind Recordings, and is the music I’ll be touring in Oct/Nov with my band. It’s my first album as a bandleader/composer and features all my own compositions (except one original arrangement of a standard), and I really enjoyed playing on it too. All of the music on it was composed over the last few years when I’ve had to have several neurosurgeries (after being diagnosed with a brain malformation in 2009), so all the music is really personal to me (some of which were written in my hospital bed) and chronicles that defining time of my life. I’d like to think that all the tunes are quite varied too, so I get to play a lot of different feels and grooves on it, which I really enjoyed.
Question 6 - Do you have a standard procedure for your compositional process?
Not really - I have a little manuscript moleskin that I write down lots of notes in, and then start to get an idea of what I want the tune to be… But most of the time, after having nothing for ages, I then seem to just suddenly have a whole, complete tune pop up into my head! It’s almost like I can see the outline of the finished product (form and all), and then I just have to fill in all the details. I write all my tunes from the piano, so a lot of the time I may have the chords first, or at least an idea for a feel or groove to base the tune on. I quite often write down ideas on my phone too, for maybe a chord sequence or part of a melody or something, although quite often I’ll leave it for a while and then can’t work out what I’ve written down! My inspiration for composition definitely comes in waves… I tried writing a tune a day (like I’ve heard Wayne Shorter still does) for a while when I was at college, but I just kept writing things I wasn’t happy with, so I just write music when I want to now, or when I feel inspired.
Question 7 - What qualities do you look for in your collaborators?
I always try and find musicians that play really truthfully and with real personality - I don’t want somebody who is always trying to sound like someone else. I love having the dynamic in the band where you’ll follow each other anywhere, no matter where the music goes, and not being afraid to really “go for it” when necessary. I always try to stay in the moment when I’m playing and go with whatever happens around me, so I think it’s important to have the rest of the band thinking in the same way. That way you’re creating something really truthful and unique every time you play each tune. But it’s also really important to me that I’m playing with musicians that I like as people too! Sharing your compositions with other musicians can be quite personal sometimes, and you’re going to be spending a lot of time with each other, so it’s always nice to be surrounded by friends! I feel extremely lucky because my own band is full of some of the best musicians I know and that I love the playing of, but who all also happen to be some of my best friends.
Question 8 - Name some of your favourite standards and tell me why you like them.
I really like Dear Old Stockholm, which I’ve done a re-harmonised arrangement of on my album. It was a Nordic folk song originally and I really love the melody. I love ‘Blue In Green’ as well; I think it’s probably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. The version of Kind Of Blue is just incredible. There’s also a Jazz Messengers tune called ‘Time Will Tell’ which I really like but that isn’t so well known.
Question 9 – What are some of your desert island discs?
Definitely ‘Kind Of Blue’, without a doubt, ‘When The Heart Emerges Glistening’ by Ambrose Akinmusire, ‘Choices’ by Terence Blanchard… It’s hard just choosing a few! There aren’t very many albums that I finish listening to and then want to immediately put on again straight away, but those three are definitely some of them. Miles Davis’ ‘Four & More’ as well… I bet I’ll think of loads more as soon as I stop writing! Sonny Rollins ‘The Bridge’…
Question 10 - What music are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve been listening to the new Terence Blanchard a lot, ‘Magnetic’, which is Awesome. I also love Phillip Dizack’s second album ‘End Of An Era’ and the SF Jazz Collective Stevie Wonder album. I really love the compositions and arrangements on both of those albums. I also really like the new Kendrick Scott Oracle album ‘Conviction’. He’s one of my favourite drummers and it’s such a varied album in terms of compositions. He gave me some advice on composition a couple of years ago, which I still think about to this day, when I’m writing a piece.
Question 11 - What motivates you to focus on creative music?
That’s a tough one… I love playing music where I can have so much freedom and create something different every time that I play. Jazz or any improvisation-based music are some of the few art forms where the audience is actually experiencing the art as it’s being created, and at the same time as the artists too, and I love being part of that.
Question 12 – Tell me about some of the most memorable gigs you’ve played?
Doing Ronnie Scott’s recently as the special guest support for Jimmy Cobb for 2 nights was amazing! Both nights were completely sold out and it was so great to play my original music there and to share the stage with Jimmy too. He’s been so supportive to me over the past few years, so it was so nice to get to share my new music with him in person, after having spoken so much about it together over recent years.
I went on tour to China with a quartet in 2009 too, which was a pretty amazing experience. I think we did about 11 shows over the 6 days, including radio and tv interviews and performances, and we’d each write new tunes in-between each performance to play at the next one. It was a totally new experience for me, getting to play brand new material each day and to know it’ll be on tv or on radio straight away.
Question 13 - Tell me about some of the most memorable gigs you’ve been to?
It was actually really recently at Montreux Jazz Festival 2013. It was Quincy’s 80th birthday concert and a celebration of Claude Nobs’ life (founder of Montreux Jazz, who died this year, and a close friend of Quincy’s), and he invited me over to watch. It was an unbelievable show. A star-studded collection of loads of special guest musicians that have worked with Quincy over the years and lots that he’s just started working with recently too, with Quincy conducting a big band for some of it too, playing some of his arrangements, and it was just absolutely amazing! Easily the best thing I’ve ever seen live, without a doubt. I felt so honoured that he invited over there for it too. Once in a lifetime concert.
Question 14 – Tell me about your current equipment set up?
I currently use mostly Istanbul cymbals, which I love. I really like the fact that each cymbal is so personal, and there is such a wide range of sounds to each one. There are quite a few hand-hammered Turkish cymbal companies around that all make excellent cymbals, but I’ve been using Istanbul for some time, and I’m really happy with them. I use Mapex drums for the moment and Evans heads. My favourite piece of gear though is my Reunion Blues cymbal bag. I bought it in New York a couple of years ago, and I really love it.
Question 15 – Tell me about some musicians you think people should check out?
A friend of mine, and another musician that Quincy has been working with for the past 5 years or so, is a Cuban pianist called Alfredo Rodriguez. He’s an absolutely phenomenal musician, and if you haven’t heard of him, you should definitely check him out - His 2nd album will be coming out soon. And if you get the chance to see him live, you’ll definitely see what I’m talking about.
Some other musicians that people should definitely check out are Ambrose Akinmusire, Walter Smith III, Gerald Clayton, Justin Brown, Henry Cole and Francisco Mela. There’s a blind pianist that Quincy’s been working with called Justin Kauflin, who is absolutely incredible too. There’s an amazing arrangement of his on YouTube of The Beatles ‘A Day In The Life’, which is a great introduction to him I’d say.
Question 16 - What's your favourite cultural pursuit other than music?
I love watching films – Going to the cinema is one of my favourite past-times.
Question 17 - What do you think of the state of jazz in the UK?
I’m really excited to be signed to Whirlwind Recordings because there are loads of exciting young musicians on it (a lot of them British) playing original material, which seem to be gaining popularity, and rightfully so! At King’s Place (London) in October, there will be the first Whirlwind Festival, which will feature 86 incredible musicians over 3 days (my band will be opening the festival on the 10th). There are a lot of other younger British musicians playing original music at the moment too, which I think is a great sign of things to come for UK jazz. Original music is, and has always been, the way forward for jazz, no matter where it’s played.
Question 18 - Have you got any tips for jazz promoters?
I know that in the recession it must be difficult to keep venues going, especially with lack of funding available at the moment, but it’s been really reassuring to see that there are a lot of venues that are still willing to take the risk of booking reasonably unknown bands, giving them a chance. I think that if all jazz venues and promoters in the UK become like this, it will really help emerging artists to get to the next level of notoriety, and get their music out there.
Question 19 - What was the last thing you heard that got you excited?
I was really excited by the Next Collective album, ‘Cover Art’ – It’s got an incredible line-up of young musicians on it, all of whom I love listening to in other projects too, and it also has some amazing arrangements and reharmonisations of “pop” songs on it. I think it was a great idea for a project and it’s an amazing album. Especially if you know the original songs too.
Question 20 – Have you got anything you'd like to promote?
This tour I’m on throughout Oct/Nov will be promoting my debut album, ‘Sutures and Stitches’, out on Whirlwind Recordings from September 23rd. I’m really proud to be releasing my debut album and really looking forward to playing the music live to so many people too. The video EPK for the album is here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftcJv7mltng&feature=c4-overview-vl&list=PLXt4gtKbFZ7FF3ACxIUrwBim0mHnj4wEU). I hope you all enjoy it, and to see you at one of the dates! More info is available on my website (http://www.olliehowell.com).