Tenor and soprano saxophonist Julian Costello is not just one of the most distinctive voices on the UK scene but is also a fine small group composer. In a flurry of activity of late, Julian has not just one, but two albums due for release.

The first of these, And All The Birds Were Set Free is due to be released on 33jazz this month with his quartet featuring special guest Georgia Mancio, while in July sees the release of Vertigo, a new group featuring the intriguing instrumentation of cello/vocals, guitar/oud and drums.

With a busy time ahead promoting two new projects, I managed to catch up with the saxophonist to learn more.

I know that you have a couple of exciting projects on the go at the moment, the first of which is the release of a new album on 33jazz. Released on 26th April is your third quartet album, And All The Birds Were Set Free, and I’ intrigued by the title. Perhaps you could tell us the meaning behind this, and about the new recording?

The birds are the musicians. I want them to feel free to express themselves and fly. Which they certainly do. When I choose musicians and ask them to play my compositions, I am asking themselves to be just that and feel that they can bring their own personality to the tunes. It’s a metaphor about being let loose, unrestricted and aiming high for the stars. The title track starts with the double bass singing like a bird with Andy playing harmonics. He then sets up an ostinato for an ever-ascending theme in a minor key. Then there is a modal and open piano solo where John Turville is set free. This builds and builds until we all play a riff into an excellent drum solo from Tom.

The new release is a bit of a departure for you and the quartet. Firstly, you have brought in special guest Georgia Mancio to sing on a couple of your original compositions. What inspired you to write lyrics to the tunes, and introduce a vocalist to the group sound?

Georgia is amazing. She sang both the songs beautifully. She was so very well prepared. She came to the studio; we had a run through and then a take and that was it. I knew all along I wanted her to sing the songs. She is a true professional and it was also great fun and relaxed in the recording session. The first song is a tune of mine called ‘Why. I asked my wife Anna Stearman to write some lyrics. It was actually when rehearsing this tune with my group Vertigo and she was listening upstairs that she was inspired to write the words. They are beautiful “If you were the land I would be the sky”. It’s a jazz waltz and is also an instrumental on my Vertigo album. The second song ‘Sunflowers’ was recorded on my previous album Connections and one day one of my students, Rebecca Morse, approached me and said I hope you don’t mind but I have written lyrics to your tune ‘Sunflowers’. They are also fantastic and fit so well with the story that inspired the tune. “You turn your face into the sun”. I would like to think that the songs give a sense of balance to the album. The saxophone is of course a voice, and it is interesting to have two voices.

Also, it interesting to note that where your two previous albums, Transitions (2017) and Connections: Without Borders (2021) featured guitar, the new quartet uses piano. This obviously changes greatly the sound of the group, and I wondered what was behind the change in instrumentation?

They are different. I have enjoyed writing and recording so much with guitar, and I love Maciek Pysz’s playing. You get such space with a guitar. I think I wanted a more standard jazz quartet sound of the piano and double bass. I have long admired John Turville’s playing. Playing with John is an education. He really brings his own sound and style. When we play concerts, I regularly shout out during his solos I can’t stop myself they can be so soaring. The piano gives such a different texture and we deliberately went to a studio with an amazing Steinway Grand which sounds absolutely gorgeous. Steinway Recording in Lincolnshire and the engineer was Spencer Cozens. Also having Andy Hamill on the album is amazing. He is an incredible character and a fantastic bass player. His playing on the album is just so inspiring. He concentrates all the time and is a real positive energetic force both on stage and in the studio. He’s a one off. Tom Hooper on the drums is also incredible. A real listening drummer who is feeling every stroke of the cymbal and the different sound and texture of each drum. He knows I am a frustrated drummer and puts up with my constant suggestions and is such a perfectionist that we even discussed tuning the drums and cymbals. Much more interesting than reeds!

The compositions have a very different presence about them from the music you wrote for the previous albums. Is this down to the fact that you were writing for piano, or the musicians you are working with?

Yes, and the personalities. I had in my mind these exact musicians as a group for the tunes. I got offered a gig at the Rose Theatre in Kingston and I booked John, Andy and Tom, and I deliberately didn’t organise a rehearsal. I wanted to see what it would be like to put these amazing musicians together and set them loose on my compositions fresh. It was incredible. I had played with them all in different situations but never as a group and it was great. There are a lot of compositions on the album that I am really pleased with when I tend to inhabit a world of self-criticism. I was particularly pleased when recently I was playing a gig with my quartet and a great British saxophonist I know came and said beautiful compositions I feel inspired to compose more tunes. That was a great compliment.

And talking of different instrumentations you also play in a trio with guitarist Patrick Naylor and Natalie Rozario on cello and vocals under the name of the Perhaps Trio. I was recently watching a concert performance of the band on YouTube and was captivated by this standards trio with a difference. Can you tell us more about this project and how you came up with the concept for the trio?

Yes, this is a very nice trio. It’s a bit of an unusual combination but goes down really well when we do play concerts. Natalie has an awesome sound on the cello with extremely good intonation. She also sings beautifully. Low rich and sonorous yummy.

Patrick is a great guitarist and very old friend too, it’s a lot of fun to play in this group. Would be nice if we were playing more gigs.

Speaking of instrumentation and Natalie’ wonderful cello playing, you also have another new album due out shortly with a new quartet called Vertigo featuring cello, oud and drums. Can you tell us more about this exciting new band and when we might be able to expect the album to be available?

This is a really exciting and very different project. I am very pleased that the album will be released on Elsden Music (thanks for the introduction, Nick) in May. Elsden Music is run by Greg Dowling who is an excellent person and great sound engineer. It’s such an unusual line up. Me on tenor and soprano saxophones, Natalie Rozario on cello, Stefanos Tsourelis oud and guitar and Sophie Alloway on drums. What a band! There are also two superb guests Iqbal Pathan who plays the tabla and David Beebee on double bass. We actually recorded at David Beebee’s Studios down in Seaford and he gets a superb sound. When I asked Stefanos to play guitar I said to him I want you to play Stratocaster. This is unusual for jazz. I wanted a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Jeff beck. Stefanos was delighted as he is a massive fan of both and wow he really delivered. There are some truly epic guitar solos just what I wanted. Stefanos is exceptional and he also plays oud. This is fantastic for me for as well as loving Hendrix I love music which has its roots in different parts of the world and am a great fan of Anouar Brahem. So, we get to play some tunes I wrote with different modes and time signatures which was great fun. Then there is Sophie. What an incredible drummer and consummate musician. She is fantastic on the album. She was also such a positive force in the studio when we were recording. I am very lucky to play with such great drummers.

It is unusual to release two albums by such contrasting bands in quick such succession (not that I’ complaining!). Was this a conscious decision, or more a case of grabbing opportunities as they presented themselves?

Yes, and a lot of work. A musician friend of mine said to me if it wasn’t enough to write, organise, score, rehearse, plan, record and release one album you go and do two in succession! I was feeling quite stubborn as a lot of people said to me don’t worry about the quality people only listen on their phones. Don’t write anything too long people have short attention spans and don’t worry about the artwork. In the end a lot of effort has gone into making both albums sound really good and some of the tunes are quite extended. I think they also look great with some fantastic artwork and photos. Thank you, John Kye, William Parker, Sue Foll, Paul Jolly and Amanda Chapman-Bruce.

Your music encompasses many different styles, and you have a very distinctive sound on both tenor and soprano saxophones. This is now making it difficult to pin down influences on your playing. Who were the musicians that you most admired and inspired you in your saxophone playing and composing?

I liked music as a teenager. I grew up in Chelsea walking down the Kings Road listening to The Sex Pistols and The Clash on my way to Stamford Bridge. One day my foster brother played me Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix. I was hooked. Hendrix is about colours, expression, giving everything, passion sound and innovation. This led me to John Coltrane. There is no better saxophonist. I listened to JC, Wayne Shorter, Dexter, Iain Ballamy, John Surman and then discovered Jan Garbarek. I still love his playing on the great ECM albums of the 80s and 90s. Now I listen to a lot of Norwegian and French saxophonists like Tore Brunborg, Trygve Seim, Bendik Hofseth, Musina Ebobissé, Emile Parisien, Christophe Panzini, Oded Tzur. I really love the music of Mathias Eick so incredibly moving.

On tenor saxophone you have a wonderfully full and rich sound. I also note that you play a vintage Conn saxophone and wondered if the older saxophone has a different core sound to more modern instruments? Can you tell us how you came to play the Conn and the set up you use?

A: Thank you. I played a Selmer MKVI for many years. A few years ago, I thought I should get a spare. After a bit of a journey, I ended up buying my 1932 Conn Transitional. I got home intending to go back to my beloved Selmer… but 8 years later I can’t put the Conn down it is just gorgeous. It’s kind of harder work to play but I have had a few adjustments made. I use a slant Sig Otto Link mouthpiece and D’addario Jazz Select reeds 3M filed. There you go.

Lastly, what plans have you for the future? With two new quartets to take out on the road is the gig diary filling up?

Yes and No. The quartet has a few gigs in the diary including our album release at The 606 Club in Chelsea on Thursday 23rd May. It is getting harder and harder as there seem to be more and more musicians and sadly less and less venues. The scene in the UK is in many ways vibrant and also extremely competitive. As you know my tunes are often humorous and I wrote a tune on this very subject. It’s called ‘Sorry But No’. It’s a statement about most of the time venues don’t reply and then sometimes when they do it’s Sorry But No! It has made the band laugh quite a lot as you begin to realise how many times we say this during the course of a day. Vertigo has its album launch at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho London on Tuesday 23rd July which I am looking forward to very much. I think one of the most important skills a modern jazz musician has to have, is resilience. To keep on keeping on. I go long periods of not doing anything and feeling like a rabbit in the headlights and then have a spurt of enthusiasm and go for it. I would really like to take bands to festivals in Europe and beyond. I think they are both good enough and hopefully this will begin to happen.

All The Birds Were Free – Album Launch Gig 23rd May: Click Here For Details

Vertigo – Album Launch Gig on 23rd July: Click Here For Details

For more information visit Julian’s website.