…My latest offering speaks of the complexities and contradictions of love. There are so many aspects to love.
Pianist Geoff Eales has over the last two decades established himself as one of the most adventuress of musicians. After deciding to quit the lucrative studio work that had provided a steady income to pursue his love of jazz, Eales has surprised and delighted is many followers with an array of diverse projects that have always had his own personal stamp on them even as he delves into new musical associations and territory.
From his early piano trio recordings, the pianist has explored solo concerts often freely improvised with no safety net, to jazz fusion and his classical work with flautist Andy Findon.
In what has been an eventful and emotionally tumultuous year for Eales, he has overcome health scares and personal issues relating to his partner’s deteriorating health, he has battled through adversity to see the completion of two projects close to his heart. Firstly his new album, Love Sacred & Profane, and secondly the premiere of his musical docudrama Spirit of the Mine.
Sadly, during the course of conducting this interview with Geoff, his life partner Shirley passed away.
Your latest album Love Sacred & Profane is quite different from you other releases and very broad in its scope and concept. Can you tell us about the album, and your thoughts behind creating such an ambitious project?
Yes, my latest album is quite different from my other projects in several respects, though it does have something in common with my previous ensemble album, Transience, in that vocalist Brigitte Beraha is heavily featured. All my other albums have been purely instrumental affairs.
Also, they do not deal with matters of the heart like Transience and Love Sacred and Profane. If Transience was all about the impermanence and fragility of life, my latest offering speaks of the complexities and contradictions of love. There are so many aspects to love. Funnily enough, between 1989 and 1992 I had a gig at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Aspects of Love, though the music on this disc is of course very different to Webber’s.
Vocalist Brigitte Beraha has been a regular participant in your recordings and concerts over the last few years. You seem to have a rather unique connection. How did you meet Brigitte, and what drew you to her music, and the idea of working together?
Two icons of the contemporary jazz scene, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor, left us within a year of each other (Kenny in September 2014, John in July 2015). Mum passed away in between, in March 2015. These sad events weighed very heavily on my mind, and I wanted to honour Mum, Kenny and John in words and music.
To do this I needed a very special vocalist. Bassist Chris Laurence suggested I check out Brigitte Beraha. I did so and was impressed. I immediately knew she was the perfect person for the project. She is a superb improviser both with and without words. Her voice is light and airy, and she has incredible vocal dexterity.
Like the great Norma Winstone her voice blends perfectly with both trumpet and flugel horn as evidenced on many of the tracks on the earlier album.
Brigitte is the featured vocalist on half of the tracks on the album. Had the music originally been planned with Brigitte in mind?
Originally, I had intended Brigitte to be the only vocalist. But, as I delved more and more into the project, I heard different voices in my head. Brigitte is fantastic in what she does. However, I felt that the subject matter would benefit from a different approach on several numbers. Enter Jacqui Hicks and Jenny Howe into the fray. Jacqui emotes beautifully on the two soul ballads, ‘Love Meant To Be’ and ‘Song For My Mother ‘while Jenny rocks her socks off on ‘The Final Twist’.
Another vocalist that you had a strong affinity was the late Tina May to whom you dedicate the album. I understand that Tina was to record one of the songs on the album, ‘The Saga of Salome’, but sadly was taken ill. It must have been difficult to think of recording the song without Tina, and also difficult to decide who would perform the song in her place?
I have worked with Tina many times in the past but never on record. ‘The Saga of Salome’ was meant to rectify this. Salome is a story of lust, jealousy, revenge and murder. Bearing in mind the dramatic nature of the tale it was imperative that I choose a singer with theatrical nous.
Tina fitted the bill perfectly. However, it wasn’t meant to be. I have known Brenda Ford for many years and was convinced that she could pull it off. Judging by the reviews, she seems to have passed the test with flying colours!
The album works wonderfully as completely conceived concept, and the musicians seem to gel forming individual ensembles for each composition. How did you conceive the music for Love Sacred & profane and did you write with specific musicians in mind?
Yes, I think it is a very focussed concept album. It is somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster with huge timbral, textural and stylistic contrasts. There’s a lot of stuff in there: Debussy, Mahavishnu, Medieval chant, Return to Forever, Eastern European folk, free improvisation, Steely Dan and so on. However, it’s not carbon copy time. The thing is to absorb one’s influences before transcending them.
Well, that’s the plan! I also think that surprise is an important element in music. For example, no one quite expects the chamber- music intimacy of ‘The Deal’ after the blood and guts ‘The Sword’, or the “in the pocket” groove of ‘The Final Twist’ after Hildegard Von Bingen’s spititual ‘O Virtus Sapientiae’.
I chose the musicians very carefully for this project. Sophie Alloway and Matt Ridley are great rhythm players, Jason Yarde, Mark Lockheart and Ben Waghorn bring their special saxophone skills to the table, Shirley Smart is a brilliant improvising cellist and Carl Orr is the funkiest of guitar players. Then there’s Andy Findon, one of the world’s greatest classical and ethnic flautists. I think it’s a pretty formidable cast but one doesn’t have to use them all at the same time!
In what was been an eventful year for you, you were remarkably productive in 2022 bringing to fruition another large scale project with Spirit of the Mine. How long had this project been in the making and what is the inspiration behind it?
I began work on my musical in 2017 after coming across a little book at my parental home in the Vale of Glamorgan. It was entitled Fleur-de-Lys – The Story of Our Village. There were photos of Dad, Uncle Albert and Uncle Gussie as young boys inside but what touched me the most were the extracts that documented the testimonies of little children as young as four working down the coal mines in the early 1800s.
It brought tears to my eyes and was the spark that ignited the fire that was to become Spirit of the Mine, a multi-media docudrama tracing the history of mining in Wales from the Industrial Revolution to modern times.
After a modest concert version of the project at London’s Crazy Coqs in the Autumn of 2019 a much grander production was staged at Cardiff’s United Reformed Church in October 2022 to mark the 56th anniversary of the horrific Aberfan disaster.
A remarkably productive year for you bringing these two projects to completion, but also on a personal level very challenging as you suffered some quite serious health issues during this time. What was the motivation that drove you to overcome the obstacles that appeared in your way?
Yes 2022 was a particularly good year for me musically. It’s true that I have suffered some serious health issues recently but hopefully I have turned the corner with these now. However, life has been very challenging in another respect. My partner was diagnosed with dementia just over two years ago and sadly passed away only a few days ago. My music has been an immense comfort during these dark days.
I began composing songs for the album about three years ago and the musical has been a “work in progress” for six years. Having started a couple of projects that are very close to my heart I was determined to see them through in spite of the many challenges that life was about to throw at me. I find that music is such a catharsis.
So now the album and Spirit of the Mine are now out there, do you plan to slow down and relax a little or there more plans on the horizon?
As long as I am in reasonable health, I have no plans to slow down. I know I am getting older, and I am aware of my own mortality.
For this reason, it is important not to waste any time. I love facing new challenges. I want to develop my musical further. I would love to tour it in Wales and maybe in other parts of the UK too, areas with a history of coalmining like Yorkshire, the North-East and Scotland. I also plan to release a standards trio album with Matt and Sophie.
I met Maggie Nicols recently and I invited her to participate in my recent 72nd Birthday Concert in London. I love her work and I can see a fruitful relationship developing in the free improvisation area. I suppose we will have to wait and see. But meanwhile I need a little time to grieve for Shirley.
For more information visit Geoff’s website.
Click here to read our review of Love Sacred & Profane.