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Phil Donkin (Oct 14)


Appearances at SoundCellar -

THE PHIL DONKIN QUARTET - Thurs 3rd March 2015


Question 1 - What made you want to become a musician?

When I was 12 I first saw the Blues Brothers movie and saw/ heard Duck Dunn playing bass.


Question 2 - What was your practice routine when you decided to get serious about playing jazz?

I didn't have a practice routine.  I didn't have a teacher and I didn't know anyone else who played, so I bought a book called 'Improvising Jazz Bass' by Rick Laird.  This covered a lot of basics like how to construct a walking bass line, and how chord sequences worked.  I then very crudely recorded some of these chord sequences on a keyboard into a four track cassette recorder and tried to improvise solos over it.  I did this for years until I moved to London and actually met someone to play with. Then I was told about important records to listen to, so I would play along with them to learn the songs but also check out what was happening and try to imitate.  This was how I learned most things for the first few years of playing, but a routine never came into it.


Question 3 – What advice can you give to other musicians to get the most from their practice routine?

Make a distinction between craft and artistry.  You can only practice craft, you can't practice artistry.  You can only get that from experience playing with others. Record everything you do so you can find out what you need to improve on.  Don't only record situations where you will sound decent because it's with other good players.  You will learn more about yourself from the recordings with weak or average players, because then it's up to you to make the thing happen, and if it's not happening, then you're not happening.  If your time is weak then practice with records that display challenging tempos/feels/grooves that are being executed well.  Playing along with records is very good because you're also practicing listening, which is something you need to focus on 100% when playing with others.  Otherwise the application of the craft skills you are acquiring won't happen as effectively. Also record yourself practicing, ask important questions like - do you like your sound, touch,time feel,instinctive musical choices/impulses?  If the answer is no then you've plenty to be getting on with.  Clarity is also very important - record yourself playing on a tune with a form - listen back, leave the room while it's playing and then re-enter.  If you can't find where you are in the form, then perhaps you're playing doesn't have the clarity and instructiveness that it should have.  Acquiring these qualities will make you easy to play with, which should be a goal.  To find things to practice means you having to be constantly looking for areas in your playing that need attention.  This is not for the deluded or faint hearted, and it's a lifetime journey.  People serious about playing this music will find the humility to do this.  


Question 4 - Can you recommend some books that helped you with your studies?

This is hard to answer because it's different for each instrument.  There is no better way than transcribing.  But make sure it's something that has something you're interested in as opposed to just doing it arbitrarily.  I wanted to get some detailed harmonic language into my playing so I transcribed some Bill Evans right hand solos from 'Everybody digs Bill Evans.'  I spent a year at least studying them and trying to absorb the information.   For bass stuff I transcribed some Paul Chambers and Ron Carter.  But mostly I've learned a lot from listening intensely to  music.  Whatever it is you choose to study, make it an assignment that you will give at least a year of your life to.  There's no point in checking out the Charlie Parker Omnibook once a year.  But if you look at it every day for a year focusing on one piece at a time, then that information will find it's way into your playing, and it will be real, not affected ( as long as your checking out the recordings as well! ).  It's also important that whatever you practice, has practical application, in other words - is relevant.  There's a lot of books out there with fancy concepts that actually have no or little applicable qualities.  As the saying goes 'the proof is in the pudding' - what I understand by that is the real way to get the information is from the source i.e. RECORDINGS.


Question 5 - Which recording, either as a leader or a sideman, do you think is the best example of your playing?

All the recordings I've played on are the best example of my playing in that they feature me dealing with the situation in the most appropriate way I can.  Some things might be more understated than others, but I always try to be myself rather than providing a service.  In terms of featuring myself, my upcoming album "The Gate" probably does that the most.  I think my playing now is different from say, 5 years ago, but in some ways it's still representative of what I do.


Question 6 - Do you have a standard procedure for your compositional process?

I don't have a process for composing.  Some things start out as an idea which I develop over a period of time, either on an instrument or just conceptually.  Other things like harmony and melody I need a piano or a guitar so I can hear how the chords sound.  I very rarely write on the bass.


Question 7 - What qualities do you look for in your collaborators?

I look for the complete package.  Total mastery of their instrument, with an innate musical intuitiveness which usually comes from years of experience and hard work. Someone who listens as much as they play, has total awareness at all times, and generally hear and feel the direction of the music with everyone else as it progresses.  Things like being able to read, having good time, sound etc should go without saying.  I'm looking for the finer, more nuanced qualities that make someone exceptional.


Question 8 - Name some of your favourite standards and tell me why you like them.

There's too many!  I probably know over 200.  I wouldn't want to leave anyone out by mentioning a only few.  The beauty often lies in interpretation for me anyway.  But Henry Mancini, Cole Porter, Billy Strayhorn, George Gershwin have written some incredibly beautiful music


Question 9 – What are some of your desert island discs?

Also too many, but if I had 4 would probably be Kind of Blue, Everybody digs Bills Evans, Miles Smiles & A Love Supreme.


Question 10 - What music are you listening to at the moment?

A mixture of new and old stuff.  Lucky Thompson, Bob Brookmeyer, Owl Trio, MarkTurner's new album, Tomasz Stanko with Bobo Stenson & Tony Oxley, Sonny Rollins,  Steve Lehman trio,  Shostakovich piano concerto in F, Russ Losing and John Hebert Duo, some records with Paul Bley and Evan Parker, and much more…too much to mention actually.



Question 11 - What motivates you to focus on creative music?

I get inspired by things that move me in any way emotionally.  So I'm just trying to communicate that through my own music.  There's certain rhythmic and harmonic things that interest me very much, so I try to find ways of putting those things in my own music in a way that sounds natural and still communicates to any listener.  Creative for creative's sake is annoying to me - it still has to sound good.


Question 12 – Tell me about some of the most memorable gigs you’ve played?

Playing in other cultures is often very memorable.  Over the last year I've played all over North Africa, Senegal, Lebanon, Turkey, Eastern Europe.  In these places I'm amazed and moved by how much people value the music, and they tell you how much it changes their lives.  They let you know how much they value you, not just in words but by fully embracing you into their culture.  I wish it could be like that everywhere.  


Question 13 - Tell me about some of the most memorable gigs you’ve been to?

When I lived in NYC I saw Louis Hayes do a gig around the corner from where I lived in someone's back garden.  That was pretty memorable!  I went to so many incredible gigs there. Standing 5 metres away from people like Jeff Tain Watts, Ralph Peterson, Mulgrew Miller is pretty powerful stuff.


Question 14 – Tell me about your current equipment set up?

On my own bass I just use plain Thomastik strings with a Realist pickup, whatever the house amp is.  I often use a DPA 4099 mic in the PA too.  I think your hands should produce the sound that's in your head.  I've encountered many 'gear heads' that don't actually produce a good sound.  Gear is not the answer!


Question 15 – Tell me about some musicians you think people should check out?

Some people you might not have heard of in Europe which I think definitely deserve wider recognition are : Nils Wogram, Pablo Held, Wanja Slavin, Christian Lillinger, Samuel Blaser.  Some names to watch out for in the States for me are : Lucas Pino, Alex Lore, David Wong, Nir Felder, Ben Wendel, Glenn Zaleski, Russ Losing, Jeff Davis, John Hebert, Michael Attias, Kyle Wilson, Peter Schlamb.


Question 16 - What's your favourite cultural pursuit other than music?

I guess reading, watching Movies/TV Shows, cycling, walking, museums…sorry - not that interesting!


Question 17 - What do you think of the state of jazz in the UK?

I think the UK has a unique cultural identity and personality, and this definitely can come out in the music.  There's some amazing examples of that from the likes of Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, Evan Parker, John Taylor & Django Bates etc. It's an interesting place because it's part of Europe but it is culturally closer to the USA when it comes to music, and the arts generally.  In some ways however, it is closer to Europe because it doesn't have the 'sink or swim' mentality of the States, it's more sympathetic.   I think this position between the USA and European cultures, can sometimes make it hard for the UK to find an identity in general, especially among the younger generations.  However I really admire what certain people are doing, such as Tom Challenger, Kit Downes, Julian Siegel & Julian Arguelles.  


Question 18 - Have you got any tips for jazz promoters?

Promoters have different priorities to musicians, and I think musicians need to understand that promoters are mostly just trying to keep these venues going with virtually no support or subsidy. That can sometimes explain some of the choices of bands that are playing.  When a promoter has his/her own agenda about the music then they can be difficult to deal with.  An open mind would help.  Promoters also get inundated with emails, calls and CD's, so it must be hard for them to get through that.  I therefore understand why it's easier and less time consuming to go for the more established and obvious choices.  I think promoters should always try to look out for new talent, and try to recognize real quality when they see/hear it.  They should always try to be part of the solution and not the problem.  A labour of love for sure.


Question 19 - What was the last thing you heard that got you excited?

In terms of a live gig - it's been a really long time, I can't actually think of anything.  CD wise - some of the stuff I mentioned earlier that I was listening to.


Question 20 – Have you got anything you'd like to promote?

Yes my album 'The Gate' coming out March 2015 on Whirlwind Recordings!