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Sam Leak


Appearances at SoundCellar -

SAM LEAK’S AQUARIUM - 12th September 2013


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

Sadly I think initially I wanted to play rock guitar and impress all the girls at school - in retrospect my decision to play 70s rock and wear flares when we were in the first decade of the 2000s probably wasn't a particularly sensible idea!  Anyway, I quickly forgot my original reasons and got geekily obsessed with the music (and turned to the arguably even less 'cool' instrument - Jazz Piano) and never really looked back.


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

I decided I wanted to get serious at playing Jazz when I was about 18. I had gone through school thinking I was pretty OK at playing Jazz, and then when I went to college I started having lessons with Simon Purcell and composition classes with Pete Churchill. Very suddenly I was surrounded by musicians like Calum, Josh and Freddie Gavita, and the other pianists around me where guys like Kit Downes and John Escreet - I realised very fast that I had a hell of a lot to learn! Simon and Pete are both very very good teachers - they're systematic, clear and deliver things to you in an inspiring way. That year in particular was a really important one. For the next three years or so I tried to work in a set 4-5 hour a day schedule, that was split into mostly 10-20 minute chunks that concentrated on different things. In retrospect I spent far too long working on technique (I used to religiously play through the Hanon exercises every day). I think it's easy when you're around lots of technically gifted conservatoire students to get very self conscious about your own abilities. I started having classical lessons at one point, and I ended up giving myself some minor RSI-type issues as a result of trying to make myself play in an unnatural way (basically coming from the point of assuming that everything that I was already doing must be wrong). There was an important point for me when one of my classical teachers, Colin Stone, told me 'you make a nice sound already' - he followed this up of course with some constructive criticism - but still this gave me a lot more confidence. These days I let the sound I make guide the way that I play, and try to make sure I'm as physically relaxed as possible whilst I do this. If I get a hint of pain then I stop what I'm doing. I think my technique is actually pretty decent these days, but either way I don't let it faze me like I used to. As time went on I developed a system of my own, built from a series of 4 note cells, to help me to construct linear material. Looking back it was fairly similar to some of the methods that Jerry Bergonzi teaches. The main difference is that I envisaged 4 note cells displaced by one. By this I mean a lot of people who've worked with cells envisage them, at least to begin with, starting on the beat, but I envisaged the beginning of each beat as the destination point for the previous three notes. I was very geeky with all of this - I worked out and practiced every permutation possible. Even later I came up with an even more thorough method than this where I managed to distill the thought process behind every permutation to a few short rules on a single page - I never really got this together though - by this point my playing was a lot more intuitive and ear-reliant and I never really had the patience to follow through with it (I wasn't convinced it would help me to achieve what I was after by that point).


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

Plan and be realistic. Also remember why you're playing music in the first place - don't lose sight of the goals. Things take much longer to sink in than you would like them too, so it's easy to get frustrated. Usually the point at which you think you're improving in leaps and bounds is the result of the long period before where you were working really hard but couldn't see any result. Also, enjoy yourself and live a bit too. Charlie Parker reportedly said: ‎"Music is your experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." I think that's really important.


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

Like so many musicians I've bought countless books, most of which I've almost never read! Most of your progress has to be your own and at your own rate. You're never going to get really deep into anything if you don't really love it and believe in it first. Teachers and books can only give you guidance, it's your choice whether you take it or not. My favourite jazz books are:


Bergonzi : "Vol 3: Jazz Line" "Vol 5: Thesaurus of Intervallic Melodies" (I'm not sure how this book is supposed to constitute a 'thesaurus' but it's a good set of tricky sight-singing exercises!)


Nachmanovitch: Free Play


Hal Crook: How to Improvise


Steinel: Building a Jazz Vocabulary


Klopotowski: A Jazz Life


One quick point that I'd make about Jazz literature is that most of it is woefully inadequate when it comes to ear training, which arguably is the most important part of playing. Playing by ear should be encouraged from the outset. And learning to label the sounds that you hear is important. Personally I'd recommend singing solos over Aebersold backing tracks, and transcribing away from your instrument. When learning new tunes, try to learn them, without charts, from recordings or from other musicians by ear. Learn everything so that you could play it any key (first of all it helps to learn the basic formulae that make up the harmonic construction of most standards, and to learn to sing the melodies to tunes and work on your ears so that you can play what you can sing instinctively). You want to learn how to hear in relation to tonal centres, and also intervallically (singing or hearing long strings of intervals will help with this, practicing individual intervals isn't really all that helpful). Also a lot of people can get a more general feel for where the notes they are hearing lie on their own instrument.


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

I'm happiest with my playing on 'The Treasure Chest' from my first album.


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

No, but I used to so I imagine on some level that I still do subconsciously. Pete Churchill taught me a hell of a lot about composition and I got a lot from that - for a while I used to follow his techniques religiously - they're so clear and effective. However I think a lot of guys come out of college sounding like they've had 4 years with Pete. It's a testament to the quality of his teaching and writing that this happens, but it does mean that a lot of people sound quite same-y. Personally I think people should invest time in working out what's going on in music that they like and then use these things in their own work.  You take the things you like in various pieces of music that you like and make them into your own. You are yourself so the whole process is shaded and guided by your own musical personality and the end result will sound like you whether you want it to or not. I don't think there's much value in trying to make something self-consciously new, just try to make something that says something about yourself and that means something to you - the end result could be groundbreakingly original or completely unoriginal, but either way you'll have created something meaningful. Usually these days I need the seed of an idea to start a composition and then, in a way, the composition writes itself from there. Sometimes if you're low on ideas you can come up with something arbitrary to set you off - pick some notes out of a hat, flick through a music book and pick 3 random chords etc - then you've got something to set the creative process off. You might even end up abandoning your original idea, but it's got you composing. The vast majority of my music is about things that have happened or a reflection of how I'm feeling at the time - so that's a bit more abstract.. but it's still something that sets the process off.


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

I like open minded musicians who are dedicated to music-making. I'm not particularly interested in trends or what is fashionable, I like musicians who are constantly looking to discover new things, and who are well versed in the history and context that they are part of. I don't like the idea of being self-consciously contemporary and also by those who are self-consciously traditional. I like people instead to be really deeply involved with what they're doing, whatever that is. For example if someone lives and breathes John Coltrane then it is only natural that they sound like him - that's a good thing. Similarly if someone is making very groundbreaking music but through a process of love and obsession then that's also a good thing. I like musicians to go wherever music takes them too - if it's honest then it's meaningful.


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


'I Got it Bad (and that ain't good)' mostly because of this recording:


To anyone interested I actually transcribed that recording: tIt has one of two minor errors in it that I mean to fix, but it's basically pretty accurate.


All My Tomorrows is a current favourite - I like a Frank Sinatra recording of it a lot! http://m


I like loads of them to be honest - it's quite hard to pick!


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

Fort Yawuh, Life Between The Exit Signs, The Melody At Night With You - Keith Jarrett


Motion, Live at Birdland - Lee Konitz


A Ballad Album - Warne Marsh


The Sorcerer, Relaxin' - Miles Davis


How My Heart Sings - Bill Evans


Songs And Variations - John Taylor


Ascension, Coltrane's Sound - John Coltrane


Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago - Cannonball Adderley


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

I've been listening to loads of singers' recordings of standards recently - so lots of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker in particular. I've listened to Sinatra's recording of 'Goodbye' on 'Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely' a lot recently.


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

I'm not sure what you mean by 'creative music' ? If you mean 'original music' then I guess the answer is that I don't really just focus on it. I play a lot of gigs (probably most of my gigs) that are standards gigs. I hope that the music I play is creative whatever the setting is - hopefully the goal is to make as good music as is possible. Both of my albums are original music - music I've written is obviously very personal to me and its nice to have it out there, recorded by such great musicians, for people to hear.


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

I remember doing a function once in the natural history museum. We were in the Earth Gallery at the base of the big escalator that goes up into the model of planet earth. There was a smoke machine there to make everything look more dramatic - unfortunately the machine was angled so it submerged me and only me - the rest of the band were fine! Just a weird smoke cloud to the side of the stage with keyboard sounds coming out of it... On a more serious note Aquarium had a really fun gig at The Geldart in Cambridge as a part of this current tour. Josh and I were both separately going through some pretty heavy personal stuff at the time - and that manifested itself in a really great dark hookup - the whole band felt really happening that night. I felt like we were working through a lot of stuff with the music.


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

I was at the Jarrett solo piano gig at the festival hall that became part of his album Testament. He was going through a divorce with his now ex-wife and I think he was quite emotionally wounded. We didn't know that at the time but all I can say is it was one of the most exciting musical experiences of my life.


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

I'm a bit useless when it comes to gear. When I get to play an acoustic piano I usually use it. Keyboard-wise I currently use a Roland RD-700 through a Fender Twin Guitar Amp (sometimes I'll use a Roland Keyboard Amp or an AER depending on how much I want to save myself from doing my back in). I'm currently considering getting a portable keyboard for gigs where it would be easier not to drive. I've tried out a Roland RD-64 and that seems great. I'm thinking of getting stereo studio speakers for better sound. The on board sounds are great though limited on that keyboard - I've been thinking of using it as a midi controller for a synth as well (it doubles up) - I may stick it through a computer (MacBook Pro) with Mainstage 2 on it. If I go for this route there's also a nice sounding piano sample pack called 'Galaxy Pianos' that I may like to use. That'll probably cost me a fortune so I doubt I can get it all in one go - something to work towards though. Keyboards, no matter how good, always sound like keyboards - there's nothing like playing a gig on an actual piano! Still for Jazz musicians that's something to get used to - we have to be ready to rock up and play a bust up piano or a keyboard if that's the only option for the gig - we just make the best of it that we can. In terms of pianos I tend to like Steinways, Fazioli and Yamaha Grands. For uprights I often like Bechsteins.


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

Alex Merritt and Mike Chillingworth are both very high on my list - both are really dedicated musicians with a really deep thing going on and they deserve a lot more attention. Guys like Alex Garnett, Gareth Lockrane, Steve Fishwick and Ross Stanley are all stunning - but I'm pretty sure you'll all know about them already! I saw a saxophonist called Simon Picard playing with Paul Dunmall at the vortex who was pretty awe-inspiring (as of course was Paul Dunmall). Neil Metcalfe and Mark Sanders are amazing, but again I'm sure you know them already. There are a lot of ridiculous musicians around! I could name so many more...


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

Technically this is still basically music... but as of next year I'm starting a part time PhD in Music Cognition at Cambridge University - so science will be pretty high on the list soon!


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

As ever there are tonnes of great musicians and too few gigs. Musically it continues to be really strong. I get a bit frustrated by some of the pop marketing techniques that seem to have found their way into the Jazz world - in an ideal world musicians would work really hard at music and get deep into it, and then those would be the guys that get the most attention. I wonder how far off we are at the moment from everyone needing an agent and a personal stylist! People in general get a lot of credit for how well they promote themselves, and this side of things, whilst obviously essential, has very little to do with music..


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

I used to promote a night myself, alongside Alex Merritt and Mark Lewandowski, at Charlie Wrights, so I know from first hand experience how difficult it is! For any jazz promoter the balance between putting on music that will be sure to attract their regular audience and music that might put a few people off but is of inherent artist value, is a difficult one. I think a lot of musicians are often tempted to feel that promoters should really be pushing the latter, but often that is impractical - if people don't come to your night then the gig will dry up. A difficult one - I don't have any decent answers to it I'm afraid, all I know is that a lot of the best music I have ever heard has been from musicians that most of the wider public have never heard of in the back rooms of pubs, and this music deserves and needs support. My only ever real gripe with promoters is that some (luckily not most!) seem to think it is the musician's sole responsibility to bring people to their gig. In reality this is a dual responsibility with the promoter. I've had promoter's calling me a few days before gigs saying - 'I need you to make sure there are at least .... people there' - that's not on. It is never just the responsibility of the musician to provide an audience - they should promote it as much as they can of course, but that goes both ways. In addition bands/musicians that are just starting out do not have a (for want of a better phrase) fan base - they have supportive friends. Usually most of these friends are musicians so a) they'll often have clashing gigs of their own b) they might fancy going out to do something non-music related on an evening off from time to time and c) they probably don't have the money to spend on expensive door entrance if that is the case. These same bands/musicians, a few years down the line, could turn out to be some of the best around so it is important to support them as much as possible in spite of this. Anyway - being a promoter is incredibly difficult and a lot of promoters are jazz musicians or fans who are doing their bit for the music, regularly at a personal financial loss - so I've got nothing but time and respect for anyone that decides to do it!


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

I played in a band alongside Gareth Lockrane the other night - hearing that guy play always blows my mind! Also the other day I listened to the Lovano Quartets at the Vanguard and Jarrett's 'The Mourning of a Star' again for the first time in ages the other day, and they're both pretty special albums!


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

Other than the gig at SoundCellar on September 12th:

Firstly our new CD Places:

Secondly, I’ve been trying to get my head around this whole twitter thing. I'm told it's a good way to get the word around about the band to a wider group of people so if anyone ever fancies 'tweeting' about us then it's always appreciated. My twitter name is @AquariumSamLeak if you'd like to add me. Also we've been entered by our label 'Jellymould Jazz' for the Mercury prize and it would be amazing to get a nomination for that so any online support we can get in the build up to that is greatly appreciated (nominations are announced on September 11th).