Photograph courtesy of GoatNoise Photograhy

Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Julian Nicholas us one of the most individual tenor players of his generation. Bobby Wellins said of him that “His beautiful and creative playing makes Julian one of my favourite saxophonists”, but sadly such accolades do not always garner the attention they deserve and Nicholas has remained a well kept secret.

Hopefully though that might be about to change. Julian has an ongoing working relationship with vocalist Imogen Ryall and her recently released album, Sings The Charles Mingus/Joni Mitchell Songbook on which the saxophonist can be heard on tenor and soprano is picking up well deserved plaudits.

In addition, Cordial Recordings have issued a series of three LPs title collectively Rising/Cost Of/Lovefeaturing music that Nicholas was working on during the 1990s that never really saw the light of day. Sounding remarkably fresh and exciting thirty years on from the earliest of the recordings, Julian has further plans to develop and present the music to a new audience.

An interesting and exciting time ahead beckons for Julian, and so I was keen to ask about the music and his future plans.

Let’s begin with the vinyl albums that have been released on Cordial Recordings, three! – no less, that each capture a particular moment in time in throughout the 1990s. How did the idea come about to release these recordings, and why three in quite quick succession?

Thanks, Nick, for asking, and for interviewing me and devoting space to my story.

My oldest friend, Oscar, artist, dancer and DJ, was aghast at my reporting back to him the dead ends I’ve met, approaching the UK jazz labels for some help over the last three decades. He contacted Roual Galloway, who’s label ‘Cordial Recordings’ is gently positioned between rare dance and groove mobo, classic period reissues of indie punk, and the sort of jazz that has groove and experimentation at heart.

I don’t know what Oscar can have said to him, but I gave Roual three self-made CD albums as they were originally presented (one copied from the original cassette!) and he filtered from them a vision of a selection – not strictly ‘in order’ – that would fill six sides of vinyl.

The triangle motifs unintentionally featured on all three of the original covers inspired Roual’s artist, Kavel Rafferty, to create a triangle that sits within the three 12” covers – creating a triptych of albums. Serendipitously, also, a supportive friend of mine who contributed two of the three covers in the 90s was Paul Misso, who’s iconic photographs of the original Glastonbury Pyramid stage being developed and built have been published this year for the first time!! Triangles abound!

‘Rising’ went out in 2022, and ‘Cost Of’ and ‘Love’ came out later this year, completing the picture for avid collectors and newer fans who’ve heard samples of the albums on independent jazz vinyl shows, such as Al McKinnon’s ‘Duvet Rustling Jazz’.

The music is quite diverse, yet there does seem to be a common thread that binds them all together.  Listening to the music again, this is perhaps down to the continuity in playing with the same musicians and letting the music develop organically. Looking back how do you feel about the music?

During this project I trawled through surviving live concert recordings of the Heavy Plant Crossing (1997) project – the studio recordings appear on Cost Of , largely – and it does strike me that all material, however diverse, is unified by the group’s players in performance. It was a total joy, hearing John Parricelli’s choppy comping on a sumptuous Zawinul-esque synth bed from Simon Robinson, Chris Batchelor entirely off the leash, up in the stratosphere!

Most of my tunes seem to have the common features: polyrhythm and rhythmic displacement – usually triplets placed against even quavers or semiquavers, or groups of three sliced down the middle; a long melody followed by a contrasting  episode with a different type of melodic shaping; the improvisations I often frame within a discrete new episode, as opposed to a repetition of the main theme …which I also do do.

I hope for these episodic ‘chapters’ across several harmonic areas give the impression of journeying ….Stuart Nicholson quoted Pat Metheny in his recent review of ‘Rising’:

“trip factor’ feel”, as Pat Metheny calls it: a rhythmic forward momentum that takes you on a journey with melodic and harmonic twists and turns, analogous to scenes en route.”

As a body of work, I hope I can be objective with distance, and say it has a propulsion and intention about it, underpinned by accessible melodies, rhythmic and harmonic richness, and as you say, deeply-formed musical relationships to knit it together.

I feel proud of those long-standing partnerships, as much as the music itself, because they made real what could easily not have been nurtured – with me not living in London – and display ambitious and generous collaboration from my colleagues, the lifeblood of any creative musician’s survival, wherever they are.

Mark Edwards, David Wickins, John Bedford, Thad Kelly, Mike Pickering, Terry Seabrook, Simon Robinson from the studio recordings, and Chris Batchelor, John Parricelli, Dawne Adams, extending the touring bands at the time, are all close to my heart, if not still regular collaborators and close friends.

The addition on Cost Of of a track from 2006, Give Way, which also has Dave Whitford and Dave Trigwell on it, reminds me to salute both Dave Trigwell and David Wickins as great inspirations, both entirely original drummers, and who are sadly no longer with us.

The process in recording the music is unusual for the time in that the music was recorded live and then taken through a rigorous post-production process? What was your methodology in following this process, and was the music conceived with the post-production in mind?

Colin Walker engineered ‘Mountain People’ (1993) – both at Rainbow Studios AND with a full analogue desk at two outboard locations. He also devoted all his resources to our community charity event ‘Rockinghorse Appeal’ (for the Royal Alex Children’s Hospital, Brighton and Great Ormond Street) in 1995, ‘97, and ’98, giving rise to the album Square Groove (1995) – even paying for its production.

He then installed his kit at my flat in early 1997 to help me put together a cross-threaded digital-audio/midi set of compositions under the title ‘Heavy Plant Crossing’ (1997). From the outset in 1992, he suggested technological solutions to the multi-layered and rhythmically dense ideas we sought, to achieve a sound more akin to contemporary recordings of Pat Metheny or Wayne Shorter, Weather Report or Jaco’s ‘Word Of Mouth’. Mark Edwards, too, had a shared passion for the sound world, which he pursues as a producer and musician today.

We recorded drums and bass for ‘Heavy Plant Crossing’, selecting and stitching together the sections to build upon. Everyone else’s contributions came after. I had a full chart for everything – basslines and rhythmic comping patterns, middle parts and melodies – but the structure of repetitions or solos, we left to emerge as naturally as possible.

Live, too, I was encouraging my band to leave breathing spaces between solos and, say, the return of the theme, in which things could shift to a polyrhythm or empty out completely, right down to an mbira and darbuka and a penny whistle through an effects pedal!!

The compositions on the albums still sound remarkably fresh, and I believe that you are looking to develop them further in a new project?

I take no mean degree of comfort in hearing you say that, Nick – so thanks for the massive compliment!

In his recent review for the first release, Rising, Stuart Nicholson accredited some of this effect to the nature of the recordings, I think …perhaps the freshness of the live recordings, and the one-take immediacy of the studio tracks for Mountain People (1993)

“Exemplary recordings [ed.]     …..this music, although 30 years old, stands up well to contemporary scrutiny. Quite simply, it has not dated. [Ed.] Here is something different, well-conceived and rhythmically vibrant – composition and conception make for a totally compelling performance. This may be Brit-jazz from three decades ago, but it vibrates with compelling relevance in the present.”

I don’t see compositions as ‘dating’ – or the necessarily the ‘sound’ of them, if the original sounds are authentic in intention – and I know what you mean by ‘dated’, and it is often the excessive use of contemporary technologies that can ‘date’ recordings….

I do agree that they sound fresh – and I hope the vinyl triptych will be heard as ‘fresh’ rather than ‘archive’ – I’m not ready for the archivist’s black cape and scythe, just yet!

And YES! I do have a plan!… already in motion ….to re-work the best of the material in a new recording project (with new work, too) under the over-arching name of Skyhorse, a multi-faceted ‘production tag’ for the work I do with my band and a range of guest artists.

As with so much home-spun-type jazz material reaching such a tiny audience, I’ve been no exception, so I’m not afraid to make these tracks again, developing the production side of things , rather than recreating the sound of a band, as such. Tracks will be offered out on streaming platforms in order to gain profile and live engagements for ‘the band’, Skyhorse.

Even auditioning the live ‘takes’ from the 90s and 2000s, I was reminded of material that was never studio-recorded, ideas that were in development, or textures that made for unusual delivery of a theme, which I’ll joyfully plunder for Skyhorse.

Two of the albums, Rising and Cost of, feature what could be considered a conventional quartet/quintet line up, but the third is different again and chronologically sits in the middle of the other two recordings. Can you tell us a bit about the music and what had influenced you to follow this musical direction?

This question goes to the heart of ‘who you are’ as a musician, Nick, and how problematic any kind of large ensemble is to stage.

I was totally immersed in Rollins, Parker, Shorter and Coltrane when I was 16 …and there’s a lifetime’s work, right there, that you never finish …. But I was 16 in 1981, when jazz elements and instruments and black music, generally, suffused the whole music scene in my life in South London.

I loved playing and following all music from Reggae and Ska, Soul, Funk, Fusion to Garage (excluding what I’d call ‘rock’). I was already playing classical music at a high level on clarinet and knew that music needed study. I was doing music A-level in a vibrant music department at school in Greenwich. I recall chancing by the Commonwealth Institute, Kensington on one occasion –  there was a concert in progress with two Senegalese balafon /marimba masters playing together, and it confirmed in me an abiding sense that I would work across genres – mixing combinations of instruments and musical forms, composition and improvisation overlapping.

Working with Eddie Parker after Loose Tubes’ demise in 1991, he showed me in his work how genre can be recontextualised – and partnered me in educational situations with African percussionist, Nana Appeyu, the great Brasilian percussionist, Bosco D’Oliviera, and Indian sitar and tabla maestro, Baluji Shrivastav. This informed me further to the intricacies of polyrhythm and the bassline/drums relationships in this thing we call ‘jazz’. My times sitting in with Dudu Pukwana in Greenwich, with drummer Brian Abrahams and bassist Ernest Mothle, gave me an insight into the sheer swinging drive of South African music.

Huge inspiration, Wayne Shorter, and his album Native Dancer (1975), which is really a re-setting and expansion of Milton Nascimento’s Minas album from the same year, is a good example of a jazz-informed mind seeking meaning in folk idioms, collective co-creation and a community-inclusive aesthetic, akin to Stevie’s use of a child chorus on Songs In The Key Of Life at the same time…. The focus may well be the sound of the saxophone, but as with Miles, the context shifts around it with the demands and inspirational sources of the vision.

In the early 1990s I was listening to The Master Musicians of Tanzania – trying to figure out whether the mbira collective sound had accents on the second triplet quaver of a nine pattern. South Africans, ‘Amonpondo’ had a residency at the Brighton festival and played all day in the Pavilion Gardens on several occasions.

Rising has the track Mountain People on it, and even though it’s a quartet, it is extended with keyboard, marimba-type patterns to create that poly-rhythmic content which helps the melody float.

On Cost Of you can find There’s Nowt So Queer As Folk – which is brim-full of triplet vs. 16s energy – 3s and 6s fizzing up against 4s and 8s.

On Love, which is a live, 45-minute continuous improvisation, the ensemble is extended by Nigerians T.J and Adé on Bátà drums, as well as Dawne Adams on darbuka, and Gareth McGahan on berimbau, Kora and mbira.

The music has previously been available having been released at the time on CD and even cassette. Were they commercial releases or just for sale at gigs?

They were self-produced, with Colin Walker’s ‘help’, and professionally mastered, printed and for sale.

At the time the music was made, the UK was experiencing something of a jazz resurgence. It is fair to say that you were in the heart of the action through your involvement with the big band ‘Loose Tubes’, and the projects that splintered off from the band. You must have felt that there might have been an interest from labels in promoting your albums at the time, but sadly that was not the case. Do you think that the scene at that particular time was too London-centric and music from other parts of the UK were overlooked?

Yes, that is a factor to an extent, and it still is. I was single-parenting, so I wasn’t present for the post-gig ‘hang’ in the early days …an essential feature of early career advancement! It’s only ‘natural’ for a capital to be more viable to a diverse arts /entertainment economy. The capacity and connectivity in ‘town’ was and is so much greater in every way to Brighton’s to the UK media /gigging /broadcast /festival scenes  …you just can’t compete with that if you’re absent to a spectrum of activities and associations in the capital – aside from special connections, you’re not uppermost in people’s minds when opportunities arise to include you or your material.

It certainly doesn’t appear to hinder the inspirational and unique wonder that is Claire Martin, Brighton resident and someone who is constantly working at their next ‘offering,’ and making it up to town regularly, to plan and thread together the pieces of a project with her team. She is a single parent, too – although established in her profile and career before she came to Brighton.

I didn’t attend a music college and grow through those establishing years in a cohort of any sort… and I didn’t do the ‘regular gig’ thing (West End show /BBC /NYJO), so I can really understand why my creative projects have always been a bit of a Rock Of Sisyphus, and within a capital there is more of a conversation of original work across arts disciplines, and better stages to display it upon. We don’t, for instance, have a community arts centre in Brighton – a Cockpit Theatre or King’s Place – whereas Bristol has three 100-million-pound venues of this kind.

On the upside, I have to say there are some advantages to being outside the capital … The Brighton Jazz Club gave me many fabulous playing opportunities between 1988 and its demise in the noughties, including a support slot (twice!) with Nina Simone at the Brighton Dome, as well as spots for my bands at the club, or placing me and my band with Dick Pierce, Arnie Laurence, Jimmy Witherspoon and many others.

Bob Wellins was composer-in-residence at York Uni whilst I was there, so I was at Maida Vale, recording with his band of the moment in 1988, and then doing the regional gigs with maestros Mick Hutton, Chris Laurence, Andy Cleyndert, Peter Saberton and Peter Jacobsen, Dave Wickins (resident in Brighton at the time), and even Gordon Beck on one ad hoc situation.

Loose Tubes was like an umbilical cord for me at the time it came to me (on Iain’s Ballamy’s recommendation). I had just told Arnie Lawrence (director at New School in NYC) that I couldn’t accept his invitation to come to the college. So yes, the confidence ‘Tubes’ also gave me to create my own music propelled me for the next 10 years or more – probably still is!

Eddie Parker’s Mr Vertigo was a ‘school’ in itself, following on the close associations of Tubes – and again, was a flue of great musicians who’ve become life-long friends and collaborators: Winston Clifford, Jon Gee, Phil Robson, Mike Outram, Roy Dodds, Steve Watts, John Parricelli, Pete Saberton, Dudley Philips, Martin France – and even a visit from Bheki Mseleku, on whom’s album ‘Celebration’ Eddie was pretty much the M.D. – we gigged places like the old and new Vortexes, The Bass Clef and the South Bank Centre Foyer, as did my own bands, and others I was in or guested with…

I first played at Ronnie Scott’s in 1990 with Loose Tubes and maybe thirty-three times in the ensuing thirty-three years, so maybe my umbilical cord is still intact with Soho, my dad’s social and professional stomping ground, and where I could be found doing my homework in a corner of The French (French House / York Minster), Norman’s (Coach & Horses), Patisserie Valerie, Patisserie Bertaud, Muriel’s (Colony Room), Edouard’s, Mario & Franco’s or Kettners  between the ages of 7 and 16, as my dad was my single parent. In the period Ronnie went, so did many Soho-ites of the same vintage, and I miss him and the formerly less frenetic and commercialised Square Mile ……Ray’s, Dobell’s, Ray Man, and Lewington’s. Jackie Docherty’s still there!

I have endeavoured to overcome the geographical deficit by running a 150-gig programme at a dedicated jazz club I helped devise, The Junction, in 1990 – 1991. This kind of Muhamad-and-the-mountains scenario does pay some dividends! I was invited to join the band for the whole evening on a number of occasions – one time Dave Defries (always very encouraging) booked me with Chris McGregor, Ernest Mothle and Richard Bailey, which cemented an association with South African music and Brotherhood Of Breath that started with my very youthful sit-ins with Dudu and still continues.

Claire Martin & I staged a brilliant jazz festival down here (2015-18 incl.), staging local artists and education projects in a theatre and community arts centre in Shoreham alongside ‘national profile’ artists.

Ultimately, we have all nurtured our scene, down here, precisely because of the ‘out-of-towners’ deficit, and creatively I think we do still manage to progress. Our output is receiving recognition. Regional venues aren’t as quick to consider us, perhaps.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a hotbed of creative activity for British jazz, but I understand that you had to put you own career on a backburner to bring up your daughter. How did you manage to juggle bringing up an infant, as a single parent along with your work as a professional musician?

Ah! Well, this question answers why I came to Brighton in the first place, rather than return to London after York: there was a baby on the way! Rosebud’s mum wasn’t well, and did at times engage in being a great mum, but the basic picture was so insecure that by the time Bud was 6 – 9 months, I was moving  out with her to another address and arranged brief times with her mum when she was well enough to have her. I would sleep when Bud slept – in the day etc – and early to bed, to keep up the energy needed for her. And then once she was old enough to be ok with a babysitter at night, I’d take some gigs.

She was totally present and exposed to all my studio and home studio recordings being made, as well as the Square Groove night, right outside our front door, and all the musical activity and community around me, including sleeping in a Moses basket under my chair in a Loose Tubes rehearsal when she was two, and when she was five, ‘telling’ Errol Brown (Hot Chocolate) that he could really sing!

We had plenty of support from many quarters – my musical and local communities, other families, my family and friends – in our time as a little family!

I’ve just spent Christmas with my daughter and her brilliant family (three children of 3, 5 and 7) in Munich. I only hope she will ultimately feel two things: that she had no part in any ‘holding back’ of anyone, and that she hasn’t suffered too badly the deficits often levelled at single-parenthood outcomes.

The jazz scene in Brighton is once again burgeoning, and again you are at the heart of it. You have a strong musical relationship with vocalist and lyricist Imogen Ryall, working in your quintet together, Cloggz and Anöna Trio. You have also worked with Imogen on her excellent new album Sings The Charles Mingus/Joni Mitchell Songbook. How did the two of you meet and how has this remarkable relationship developed?

Again, music is about the connection – Imo and I instantly connected on a jazz standards gig and pursued this connection by choosing a more fusion-y set in a following gig, which required thinking about unison melodic passages without lyrics, and this began to morph into a featured ‘sound’, embedded in my work and in context of other bands in which we work.

She has a remarkable capacity to recall and phrase the most intricate of melodic shapes and intervals, whilst adding exceptional lyrics to my themes. She is very much my Norma Winstone! ….and is assimilated into much of my musical output these last ten years, one way and another, and I in hers.

Anöna Trio is Imogen, my and the profoundly musical Mark Edwards – and we’re soon playing a private performance for Peter Ind’s widow, Sue Jones , at their house on the seafront, just nearby, and again this triangle of long artistic association is such a joy to behold! Our 2018 album, ‘One January Morning’ was our bid to add an album to the ECM catalogue by osmosis …and includes some radical ideas about production, too!

Imogen Ryall Sings The Charles Mingus/Joni Mitchell Songbook (2023 Rubicon ‘Jazz’) was such a feat of endurance and capacity from Imogen on the recording days. Everything she did was bang-on: phrasing, dynamics, narrative, generic references and nods to all the usual  ‘tropes’, without ever sounding contrived or forced. Yes, of course she emulates Joni sometimes – which songstress of her generation singing Joni’s songs wouldn’t? – but I can clearly hear Imogen’s unique personality foremost in her delivery …and there is no slavish desire to re-create or clone the sound of the original recording by her or us.

We have been mutually supportive of each other’s work – she encourages me in my writing and we partner in realising projects together. We’ve recently had 2 of our albums in several end-of-year, top-ten critics choices!

The musical life absolutely survives on  collaboration and partnership, and she is a very strong example of this for me, as is Mark Edwards – I’m so grateful for both of them.

You also work with the wonderfully eclectic band The Cloggz and played, wrote, and arranged on the debut album Sawdust & Spangles (2016). You still perform with the band and I understand a second album is in the pipeline?

Mark Edwards’ The Cloggz is a dreamboat for performance of 8 musicians (and friends) in about eighty instrument combinations! It came about when Mark realised he was spending days rehearsing pop music tours, and barely a couple hours preparing for a jazz concert…. why couldn’t this imbalance be redressed? We became jazz musicians drilling deeply into the textures, dynamics, and pacing of arrangements designed to entertain, move and beguile!

We were rehearsing at a friend’s (Chris Philips) exceptional studio (Retreat, Rottingdean) when he fixed on the idea of recording the band exceptionally well, which is exactly what we and he did!

On gigs with a proper piano, we often work with only amplified vocals (backline amps aside), so that the audience’s ears attenuate down to silence, much as they have to in unamplified classical concerts. We regularly use film to saturate the whole experience for the audience, too.

As of late, there was a project this year in which we got about a bit, and took in the process of recording and performing live with Atmos, a platform that will become the next industry standard for globally broadcast concerts. These recordings do sound wonderful. But it is in the studio that the fascination with pairing-back or lushing-up can happen without hindrance, and to that effect, the most recent track from ‘Cloggz’ is a high-production, 11-minute journey from French café chanson, Beat poetry, Rave four-on-the-floor, to Zawinul/Wayne-esque outro soprano solo!! It was methodically stitched together and seasoned by Mark, and is called ‘No Snow On 60th’ on online platforms.

The bar being set so high, a second album is quite an undertaking. Time vs. earning-a-living will dictate its progress!!!

Personnel: Imogen Ryall, Mark Edwards, Richard Jones – violin, James Ostler – guitar, Terry Pack – bass, Neil Corin – keyboards, xylophone and accordion, Darren Beckett – drums.

With such a vibrant scene in the South East, what other projects are you involved in?

Aside from a busy start with the ‘Cloggz’ tour, my own band at Ronnie Scott’s (Imogen Ryall, Mark Edwards, Dave Whitford, Darren A Beckett), and recording two albums, I’ve been a bit quieter since the autumn, but I’m ever grateful to join forces regularly with Simon Robinson, George Trebar and the ever-extraordinary Spike Wells in a semi-regular quartet at the  Worthing jazz club. I’ve played the 606 with the Mingus/Mitchell band (David Beebee, Nigel Thomas and Eric Ford), with Emil Viklicky (CZ), and since then as a member of Peter Chuchill’s fabulous quartet with Steve Watts and Steve Brown.

I see the members of Imogen’s ‘Mingus/Mitchell Songbook’ in other contexts, too. Nigel is a long-time friend and collaborator and his lovely recent album has gained much airplay on JazzFM.

The autumn before last, I ran a 12-week (Arts Council supported) workshop-to-performance project in Peckham, with Brotherhood Of Breath (in its ever-fluid incarnation without the great Chris McGregor), that included among others, Kei McGregor (Chris’s son, on trumpet), Claude Deppa, Dave Defries (ex-Loose Tubes and one of my formative mentors), Annie Whitehead, Dennis Rollins, Frank Williams, Chris Batchelor and Oren Marshall.

I always enjoy playing alongside many great voices down here, who include Geoff Simkins, Terry Seabrook, Joss Peach, Paul Whitten, Peter Adam Hill, Eddie Myer, Robert Heasman, Joe Edwards, Angus Bishop, Robin Jones, Jack Kendon, Robbie Robson, Chris Coull, Josephine Davies,  Arabella Sprot, Tim Wells – to name a selection.

The Mingus/Mitchell album (made in February at the wonderful Echo Zoo studio in Eastbourne, with Mark Edwards mixing /producing) will be followed at some point by an album we made in April around the melodies of Emil Viklicky, the Czech pianist /composer, and long-time associate of mine on several albums over three decades, including those with our dear absent friend, David Wickins.

Imogen put lyrics to this fabulous range of material, and with the amazing sound and set-up at Dave Beebee’s studio in Seaford, I think we’ve come up with something very special – again, with well-founded, long-term musical and personal rapports in place. Emil Viklicky – piano, Petr Dvorsky – bass, Eric Ford – drums.

Places for the ‘Original UK Jazz Summer School’ are already 98% sold for August 2024 at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Since Dave Wickins passing, I assist Buster Birch in this wondrous annual event as I used to support Dave from 1989 – 2000ish.

With Skyhorse getting off the ground in 2024, and a publishing contract yet to be finalised for Improvise First!, I have enough to stop me leaving the house for a while; though earning a living still isn’t a given, even allowing pick-up gigs, one-to-one lessons and sessions. What’s a jobbing saxman to do, Nick? What’s he to do??

Imogen Ryall Sings the Mingus/Mitchell Songbook will be performing live at Café POSK on January 12; The Jailhouse, Arundel on February 22; the Watford Junction Jazz Festival, May 12, 2024

https://www.juliannicholas.co.uk/