Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Mark Lockheart has been at the forefront of jazz in the UK. Often as member of a band such the influential 80s big band Loose Tubes, as co-founder of the genre crossing Perfect Houseplants, and a member of Seb Rochford’s award-winning Polar Bear, Lockheart has also stepped out as a leader in his own right writing and performing with the NDR ensemble, his own take on the music of Ellington and the trio Malija.

However, it is with his recent releases on Edition Records that Lockheart has continued to grow as a composer and arranger of note, revealing a delight for confounding expectations and his unique way on combining instrumental colours and textures.

Nick Lea caught up with Mark to talk about his new album Smiling which has just been released.

Let’ start with your new album Smiling, an enjoyably intense recording with some wonderful melodies and rhythmic grooves on which to hang them. Can you tell us a bit about the concept of the album, and your approach to composing music for the band?

I guess I wanted to make a direct and ‘up’ sort of album that was led by the rhythm section playing grooves. I also wanted to be able to orchestrate and add colour to the grooves so in my mind I needed an interesting line-up to do this. As I started writing I realised that it was going to be harmonically and melodically simpler than some of my records so followed this approach, as you can hear much of the music stays on one or two harmonic centres for a while – in fact the first three tracks on the album (Morning Smiles ,Back and Forth and Western Shores) are all pretty simple harmonically so the sonic interest had to come from the orchestration of the wind players.

One of the most interesting things about the music is the arrangements and how the solos emerge organically out of the written parts. How do you look to balance out this equation of written score to improvisation?

The balance between writing and improvised solos has always been really important to me and is crucial to the overall form and structure of any jazz composition. Gil Evans, Kenny Wheeler, Ellington were all acutely aware by featuring strong unique soloists for example Gil Evans featuring Johnny Coles, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler featuring Stan Sulzmann or Evan Parker, and Ellington featuring the sounds of Hodges, Carney or Cat Anderson.

Another aspect of the music that I found particularly fascinating is the doubling up on some of the instruments such as the clarinets, trumpets and the use of two French horns. What led you down this path and the use of unusual grouping of instruments within the band?

I love the sound of two clarinets together, maybe it goes back to when I did clarinet duets with my eldest daughter when she was learning. The clarinets and the flute on this record take care of the top end of the sound and at times I wanted a classical type of sound, there’s a bit on ‘Back and Forth’ that (to me anyway) sounds a bit like Stravinsky – you can’t get that kind of sound on sax really. Gil Evans of course is a massive inspiration to any arranger and does very unorthodox things with combinations of instruments. I’ve also listened a bit to contemporary classical composers like Mark Anthony Turnage who’s a great orchestrator.

And Rowland Sutherland on a flute! The way you’ written his parts into the ensemble really lifts the music. What prompted you to add what is essentially a quiet instrument into a band that uses rock rhythms, electric guitar and a horn section that generates o much power?

I’ve always loved Rowlands playing he has a unique way of improvising too that I’ve always liked. Rowland has been on quite a few of my records and as well as being a great improviser he’s incredible accurate with all the parts yo write for him. The flute can blend really well with any instrument so at times he’s scored in with some brass bit most of the time he works in a unit with the two clarinets.

Some of the musicians in the band have been musical associates of yours for many years, I’ thinking especially of guitarist John Parricelli with who played in the iconic 80s band Loose Tubes. Would I therefore be right in assuming that the new compositions were written with specific musicians in mind?

Yes, I nearly always write with specific musicians in mind unless it’s a commission for an ensemble I’ve never written for. before. John Parricelli is a close friend as well as a long-term collaborator and we have a special musical bond when we play together- often we can just intuitively phrase exactly together which is an amazing thing. Our shared history together from Loose Tubes, John’s first solo album (Alba) to some of my recordings such as Through Rose-Coloured Glasses, Moving Air and more recently Days on Earth are all important parts of the bond that you can hear when we play.

Your recent recordings for Edition Recordings reveal a constant growth, from the Days On Earth album for jazz sextet and orchestra, and the Dreamers set from 2022. How do you view your development as both a composer and improviser, and do you view these as different disciplines or does one feed the other?

I don’t really think about my development or what sort of thing I should do next really, its more a case of whats exciting me at a particular time. The musical thoughts and ideas are the things that get me writing and then often I conceive the line0up etc after that.

Days On Earth was different in that I planned for a long time to write a large ensemble album with strings. I had to do a lot of prep work for that album such as studying scores, understanding how the harp works and working out how best to use the strings to good effect. I sometimes think I do too many different projects for my own good, but the alternative doesn’t feel right either.

The fascinating aspect of your music as a listener is that each of the above albums, and of course the new recording sound so complete in themselves as a suite of music, and also so satisfyingly realised. What or who influences as a composer, and how do you drawer these diverse musical interests together?

Well thanks Nick I’m glad that comes across. I think I’ve always been influenced by a massive range of music not just jazz. My father played lots of music in the house when Iwas growing up and I remember being drawn to so many of his records that still sound great to me today – records that had a big effect that I can I remember: Burt Bacharach ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ , Sinatra ‘A Man Alone’ , Dave Brubeck ‘Digs Disney’ Mel Torrme ‘Sings Shurbert Alley’ Cannonball meets Coltrane, Bill Evans/Herbie Mann ‘Nirvana’ etc, etc.

As I got older, I got into lots of other things like Gil Evans, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ellington The Beatles, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny, Egberto Gismonti and all these artists are great composers!

My first encounter with you playing was with the big band Loose Tubes. The band was hugely influential in the resurgence of jazz in the UK at that time. Looking back, do you feel that your time with Loose Tubes helped shape you as musician, and how do you think that the legacy of the band has influenced the direction of jazz in Britain in the intervening years?

Loose Tubes was my launching point in a way, and I was lucky to be in it from the start. Django Bates and Steve Berry were such fantastic composers and players and to be around and able to play their amazing music as they wrote them was incredible really. I never really had the confidence as a writer to bring in anything I had composed, and I regret that now. I would have learnt a lot, I’m sure. Django’s music has been a huge influence throughout my life, and I consider him one of very few composers who have their own unique sound world where you can tell within seconds who’s written the piece. I learnt so much from Django, Loose Tubes but also the 12 years I was with Polar Bear was equally rewarding.

In addition to the launch of Smiling can you tell us about any other projects that you are currently involved in?

A: I want to do another Dreamers album and have some of the music written. I’d like to record a big band album too and have much of that music ready to go.

It’s more a case of the economics of releasing records which will depend on when the next Lockheart album is. It doesn’t make much sense to be honest especially now when people buy such small amounts of the physical product and streaming is so poorly rewarded. Its unbelievably challenging to earn money from creative music at the moment in my opinion, and I unfortunately see it only getting harder.

And finally, plans for the future? Are you looking to take the music from the new album out on the road?

I’m not sure in the current climate if we can tour this as it’s a 13 piece band I’d love to obviously, but it would be really difficult. We are doing an album launch gig though onApril 6th at the Vortex in London two shows so playing the album twice. Tickets are available for both here.

Just to end on a positive note: I feel very lucky to make music and I take as much care with it as I can. It’s a wonderful thing to compose and play music and I’m genuinely humbled when I listen to these amazing musicians play my music. In fact ,that was what I thought when I listened back to the rough mixes and it made me smile, there was only really ever one title for this record!

For more information, visit Mark’s website