After the release of her album Inside Out the plaudits starting rolling in for saxophonist Hannah Horton, and so they should.

Horton has worked hard on her music over the years, releasing her debut album more than a decade ago, and developing a voice on both tenor and baritone saxophones that is at once full toned yet can also drop to an intimate whisper.

One of Hannah’s great strengths is her love of melody, and in addition to being able to sniff out a great tune to play at gigs she is also a fine composer in her own right.

It is this combination of melodic tunes, compelling rhythms and grooves and solos that communicate and connect with her audience that is ensuring that wherever she performs live that a good time is guaranteed.

If you have not had the opportunity to catch one of Hannah’s gigs, then do not worry as she brings the live experience to you with the release of her new album, Live In Soho.

Nick Lea chats to Hannah about her music and recent endorsement as an Official Selmer Artist.

Let’ start with the new album, Live In Soho, which is an exhilarating listen from start to finish. What made you take the decision to record a live album?

Thank you so much Nick, it really means a lot you say that. I am really pleased you found it exhilarating!

In all honesty I wasn’t planning on making a live album. This show at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho was one of the final dates of my ‘Inside Out’ tour. But, as soon as I heard the recording of the show back, the way the band played and the energy that filled the room from the full house audience, I just wanted to share that night with the world. Then I went through a stage of questioning myself whether I should make a noise about releasing the album, or simply add it to my merchandise. However, having shared the tracks with others I respected they really pushed me to make a proper release out of it. Hence me getting in touch with you!

There are several compositions that are carried over from the Inside Out album from 2021, but the live tracks seem to have evolved to have a life of their own. How do you feel your music differs when playing live as opposed to the confines of the recording studio?

I love the way tracks develop and evolve on their own individual journeys. A lot of the tracks on ‘Inside Out’ were very early in their life with the quartet. Some I’d even written during lockdown and had never been played live so they got rehearsed a month before and then recorded during our two days in the studio. Since the release in Sept 21, I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to play lots of gigs at amazing venues which has taken the tracks along their development journey. That amount of playing has also freed them up a certain amount in terms of structure, space for the music to breathe and also the freedom we take with them.

I am an artist who’s all about playing live. That to me is what it’s all about. Connecting with the audience, sharing my emotion, melodies and stories with the audience really means a huge amount to me. I love being in the studio too but it’s a different vibe to playing live and being in the moment. That moment will never be experienced again (well unless it’s recorded!) which makes a live performance a very special and intimate moment between the audience and artists on stage.

The choice of material is interesting, and funnily enough this is the second time in the last couple of months that I’ heard ‘Feed The Birds’ on new recording. Not an obvious choice, but one you play beautifully on tenor. What is it about this composition that inspired you to play it?

Well, I love the film Mary Poppins, but ‘Feed The Birds’ always makes me feel sad and I end up fast forwarding it. During lockdown I decided to try and cheer the piece up, a kind of Hannah experiment.

I don’t know about others, but our house at the start of lockdown was quite a cocktail bar! After making a few margaritas I decided to have a noodle with this tune, and I came up with this vibe. So, I made a quick recording of me playing it and messaged it to my best friend Sian who lives in the West Country. She loved it, so did the band when I took it to them, so that’s how it has stayed.

Another great composition on the album is ‘Sea Journey’ by  Chick Corea, and again one that features some fine tenor playing. There is a lyrical way that Corea writes that seems to fit the quartet perfectly, and I’ perhaps guessing that is why you’ chosen to play this piece live?

‘Sea Journey’ is one of my all-time favourite Chick Corea pieces and Corea is one of my favourite artists/composers. I feel so lucky to have seen him live at Love Supreme just before he left us. I love the way he writes and the feel of his pieces, they are wonderful to listen to and to play. This is one of the jazz standards that I feel just ‘sits in my soul’. I have played it for so many years with my quartet and after gigs people would always ask me where they could buy a recording of it, but until this album I’d never recorded it!

As already mentioned, you also perform a number of pieces that were featured on Inside Out that sound very different live. It has been fascinating as a listener to hear different versions of ‘Thermal’ for example. What made you choose to record these pieces again?

If I were to have planned this album perhaps, I wouldn’t have chosen to re-record these pieces. But as this album wasn’t planned and at the end of the ‘Inside Out’ tour and the tracks sounded great, I thought why not include them?!

There is a superb sense of balance to the set, and it is not until the final number, a rousing reading of ‘Horn Dance you really let your go in an exuberant baritone solo. Was it one of the last numbers of the live concert when it was time to through caution to the wind in a solo that literally drags the listener along in its wake?

Thank you. The order of live sets and of an album really matter to me. I take quite a long time coming up with an order that I feel ebbs and flows in the right way for me. ‘Horn Dance’ was the last number of a set, as was ‘Forget Me Not’. I like to have a tune with a strong groove and vibe as a final number, it feels like a fun way to round off a set. It’s also great to see the audience really getting into the groove.

 

In a conversation we had recently you were saying that it has been difficult to promote a live album, and difficulty in getting radio play. Can you elaborate on this, as I’m assuming that the listener is more interested in hearing good music rather than whether it was recorded in a studio or concert environment, but it appears radio stations have a different view?

It wasn’t until I started the promotion for ‘Live In Soho’ that this really became apparent to me. I have definitely noticed that modern live recordings are played way less on radio then studio recorded tracks. Yet when I chat to my fans and others who listen a lot to music the general consensus has been they prefer live recordings. I wonder if part of the reason is because the tracks are longer when live as we play longer solos and develop the piece more or whether it’s thought the actual quality of the recording of a live album isn’t great. I am really proud of the quality of the recording and sound on ‘Live In Soho’. I hope if the DJ’s take a moment to check out a track, they will hear that and then add it to their show!

CDs or vinyl seems to be another topic of conversation at the moment. Vinyl seems to be enjoying a resurgence right now, but I imagine is rather cumbersome to carry around on gigs, but they do make a great memento!

As yet I haven’t delved into the vinyl world, but it is coming with ‘Live In Soho’ watch this space! At gigs I do sell a lot of CDs so there certainly still seems a demand for them. Early on during the ‘Inside Out’ tour I added mugs into my merch with the album cover art which people have loved to buy as a memento. I’ve done the same for ‘Live In Soho’ so music lovers can have a matching pair.

You have recently become Selmer endorsed saxophonist, how did this come about; and for the gearheads out there I’ like to ask about your saxophones, mouthpieces and reeds that you use?

Cor I could talk for hours about saxophones!

In 2023 Henri Selmer reached out to me and I ended up going to Paris to meet the Selmer family. I took my vintage Selmer Mark VI 1965 tenor with me and I had a super fun day playing all their baritone saxes. I went back again a few months later and came home with my beautiful Super Action Series II baritone sax (who I named Belle) and was asked to be an Official Selmer Artist. This is a total dream come true, I never ever thought that would happen, and to be their first female jazz UK artist was an extra excitement.

I have recently moved to a Corry Bros Mesa Tenor mouthpiece which I’m loving playing on. I use a Vandoren ZZ reed on that.

On my bari I play with a Berg Lasen mouthpiece and a plastic Legere signature reed.

Your tenor playing has a relaxed feel when you play, and the solos are always deeply melodic. Somehow you manage to bring this to bear on the baritone saxophone too, an instrument that John Surman once described as like “blowing through your central heating system”. What attracted you to playing tenor and baritone specifically?

I’m so pleased that comes across! I am drawn to the lower register instruments; I love their tone and quality. In a warped way I also like the challenge of making them sound melodic and smooth rather than low and (on the baritone) honky. For me it’s all about timbre, melody and playing with technique to express exactly what I want rather than being limited. I incorporate more ‘classical’ technique studies in my practice to work on being nimble over the whole range of the instruments. I feel for my neighbours when I’m doing that alongside harmonics and scales at the start of my practice sessions!

How did your musical journey begin, and what got you interested in playing jazz?

It all started at primary school for me. I’m quite a shy person and at school I wasn’t the best at making friends. Playing in recorder club at break and lunch got me out of playtime and also gave me focus on something I felt I could do ok. Whilst at primary school a woodwind teacher visited and offered clarinet and flute lessons. She looked at my mouth and said I should try the clarinet. A year later I was 10 and playing alto sax too. So, from then on, my sax has been my best friend – corny I know! I dipped my toe in and out of jazz as a teenager, but due to some negative experiences I didn’t really get into jazz until my early 20s. It’s the sense of expression, communication and emotions I feel when playing jazz that made me want to keep playing it and to keep pushing myself with it. I always say it is a never-ending jazz journey.

As you have mentioned on your website, “’ tough being a female instrumentalist in the jazz world. It’ a struggle to get your voice heard and historically it’ been a male dominated environment.” As a male jazz fan and writer, this is something that I continue to be uncomfortable with as there should be no such barriers. I remember as a teenager being bowled over by the playing of Barbara Thompson and Kathy Stobert when hearing them live some forty years ago, and just thought that they were amazing musicians with scant regard whether they were male or female. I know that you have also had your struggles as a female jazz musician, and wanted to ask if you could share your story and if you thought that things might be improving?

I wish that everyone was seen without any race/sex/religion etc, and I hope that one day that may happen. I have a feeling that day is quite a while away unfortunately. Things are certainly moving in the right direction and people are starting to become more aware of the issue. I think that historically jazz instrumentalists have been considered to be mainly men and it’s going to take time for that to change. It’s still unequal in opportunities, pay, support but thanks to focussed organisations including

Women In Jazz Media, Women In Jazz and the F List awareness is changing and being highlighted. I still have incidents and even fairly recently I turned up to a gig with a fellow male musician that was billed as “Hannah Horton” and been told by the tech team to go and make a cup of tea and wait for my boyfriend to set up! Similarly, I’m assumed to be a singer. There are more stories, but I think you get the gist.

While there is quite rightly wide critical acclaim for your album Inside Out, you did release an album some years ago titled Forget Me Not that many may not know about. Can you tell us about the album and why you waited nearly a decade before recording again?

I wish I had done more with that album at the time. After releasing ‘Forget Me Not’ in 2012 I went through a set of difficult personal circumstances. Toxic relationships, my father got cancer and then lost his battle, I kind of hid under my rock, coming out for some performances but not feeling very confident. Then my brain switched up and I got into writing and recorded ‘Inside Out’. Receiving some amazing feedback from jazz lovers and wonderful reviews helped build my confidence and since then I’m looking ahead to the jazz journey and what’s to come.

Finally, with the new album about to be released, what plans for the future?

Great question Nick! Well I actually have my next totally original album basically written thanks to the Arts Council Develop Your Creative Practice Grant that I was extremely lucky to be awarded last autumn. So definitely watch this space with regards to that.

I am also really looking forward to progressing J Steps further, a group of amazing under 18 female and non-binary jazz players I direct. I’m passionate about helping and developing their confidence and love of jazz. To see how far each of them has come is really inspiring and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. I’m also loving the masterclasses and workshops I’ve been invited to take and am looking forward to more. Seeing what players can achieve with a bit of guidance, encouragement or with something being described in a different way is really wonderful, music should be for everyone.

I’m also looking forward to programming the next year of jazz artists at ‘The Swinging Cat’ Jazz Club I run at Haverhill Arts Centre and to interviewing more wonderful women on my podcast ’In Conversation With’ for Women In Jazz Media.

I am one of those people who likes to be busy!

For more information and to purchase Hannah’s albums (and mugs!) visit hannahhorton.com