I love the compositional challenges of shaping a melody, creating mood, and shaping a musical form.
Occupying a sound world that offers up constant surprises, percussionist, composer, improviser and jazz musician Martin Pyne proves himself to be one of the most versatile performers on the current UK scene.
His work multi genre work encompasses straight ahead jazz, free improvisation, and a song writing partnership that has yielded some exceptional songs with vocalist Laura Zakian. In addition, he can also be heard accompanying silent films and working with contemporary dance.
It was therefore most enlightening to have the opportunity to chat with Martin, and to talk to him about his latest duo album, Ripples, with pianist David Beebee.
Perhaps we can begin by talking about your new album Ripples recorded with David Beebee. What inspired you to record a duet album for vibraphone and electric piano?
Well David and I have played together in a number of informal contexts over recent years, and David has recorded both of my quartet albums. When I raised the possibility of a duo project David immediately suggested the Vibraphone/Rhodes idea.
The music has a crystalline sense of beauty about it. The individual sound of the two instruments is sometimes very distinct and at others more difficult to distinguish, but everything is clear and uncluttered despite the possibilities of the vibraphone and Fender Rhodes occupying similar sonorities. How did this work in practice to enable each individual voice to speak without distracting from the other?
This is interesting. I was a little worried myself before recording g that the timbres of the instruments might be too similar, but as it turned out I think this is one of the strengths of this music – that it’s not always clear who is playing what, and I think maybe that encourages listeners to hear the music as a whole rather than as two separate elements. I still think there was plenty of scope for our individual personalities within that context.
The album is a mixture of compositions and freely improvised pieces. Such is the empathy between you, it is difficult to determine which pieces are written and which are improvisations. Was the intention to play freely, or were you originally looking to record an album of yours and David’s compositions?
We planned the sessions to feature a lot of free improvisation, but we also agreed to each bring a couple of compositions along. During the sessions we used the compositions almost as palette cleansers, a refreshment before another bout of free playing.
What is striking about Ripples is the amount of space the two of you leave. Again, was this a conscious decision or something that developed naturally over the course of the recording sessions?
There was no decision there. We were both just listening to each other and trying to give the music what it needed and no more.
The album reveals a wonderful soundscape that is available with vibes and electric piano that has previously been untapped. Are you planning to continue the exploration of the possibilities of the duo going forward?
We will definitely be doing more together, and we’ve also discussed the possibility of a trio. Meanwhile we’ve already recorded a session of very earthy sounding stuff for double bass and drums – David is a great bass player as well as pianist – and I think that will be developed as well.
2022 has been a busy year for you, and a second album from your Quartet was released. Can you tell us about the group and the latest release A New Pavan?
The quartet came about when Marianne Windham, one of my most treasured friends and colleagues, called us all for a background music gig. We had a lot of fun. I was wanting to document a load of my tunes that hadn’t been recorded, and it turned out really well, and the band became an ongoing project. It’s very much an outlet for my writing – I spend loads of time at the piano writing tunes , it’s kind of my therapy!
Marianne on bass, Russell Jarrett on guitar, and saxophonist Philippe Guyard are lovely sensitive and creative players, a real joy to make music with.
The title track of the latest album is a nod to A Sad Pavan For These Distracted Times, written during the English Civil War by Thomas Tomkins. My tune felt like a sad dance, and these times are pretty distracted, hence the title, A New Pavan For These Distracted Times.
I’m an insatiable reader, and many of my tunes for the band are inspired by books that I’ve read, acting as a kind of soundtrack to the images in my imagination.
The quartet allows you to focus on your role as a drummer, but another side of your music is in the writing partnership with vocalist Laura Zakian. With the release earlier in the year of Dreaming Life, you both continued to build work that was heard on the 2019 EP, Minor Moments. How did you come to work with Laura and begin your song writing partnership?
My wife signed up for a singing course Laura was teaching at Morley College, and they got on like a house on fire. So, we started seeing Laura and her saxophonist husband Paul Bartholomew socially. I got to know Laura’s work and loved it. Her album Songs For Modern Lovers is a gem. I’ve always wanted to write songs but felt I needed a lyricist, and when I suggested the idea to Laura she was already looking for a collaborator, so everything fell into place.
You continue to work in wide variety of musical settings with different groups, yet also enjoy working in solo projects. Do you find that working solo allows more freedom to create your own music, or do you find that it then filters into your work with others?
Well solo work is very pure I guess. You have total control, but one challenge is to not rely too much on tried and trusted formulas. I try to be quite proactive in consciously developing my own instrumental vocabulary. That then provides a richer sonic range to draw on.
When improvising with others. I do love collaborations though, and as an improviser , for example, the group I work in with Charlotte Keeffe and Martin Archer, Hi Res Heart, is really stimulating as it is absolutely a three way creative process.
As a solo composer, I’ve always written large quantities of piano music, much of which has been recorded by my wife, the pianist and Radio 3 presenter Sarah Walker. We brought out an album during lockdown, Haunted Carbonek. You can spot influences ranging from Copland to Messiaen to Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures in there!
Your role with the quartet and also with Laura require a different discipline as a percussionist and composer. How do you manage the different disciplines of composition and improviser?
I love the compositional challenges of shaping a melody, creating mood, and shaping a musical form. Improvisation requires you to be in the moment and make decisions instantly. That said, I suspect i am in some ways quite a “compositional” improviser. I think both things feed each other in a beneficial way.
From you solo percussion work you have also forged a strong relationship to the world of dance. How did this collaboration come about, and how do you find working as an improviser with choreographed movement?
I stumbled into the world of dance when I attended The Gulbenkian International Course For Professional Choreographers and Composers (more commonly spoken of as “The Dance Course”) many years ago, directed by the great Robert Cohan, and it was a revelation. It was as if I’d discovered where I was meant to be.
Within a relatively short space of time most of my professional work was working with dancers and that continues today. Right now I work regularly with the company Yorke Dance Project, artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell.
They supported my solo album Spirits Of Absent Dancers, made in lockdown, and made beautiful films to accompany four pieces from the record. They have a strong association with the work of Robert Cohan, so things have come full circle there.
If I’m honest dance always made sense to me right from the outset, so I’m really in a very intuitive place when I’m playing with dancers. For me dance invariably makes music sound better!
As an extremely versatile musician and composer, how did you become interested in playing, and in jazz and improvised music especially?
Way back I wrote some little tunes for recorder at junior school, and the music teacher suggested to my parents that I got piano lessons. Luckily for me they found a brilliant teacher, Ruth Townsend, who communicated a deep love for all music.
I then took up percussion after seeing an orchestral concert. Overall, I had a very classical music education, playing in youth orchestras, and doing a very traditional music degree. I loved playing tuned percussion, and that’s what led me to jazz, through the vibraphone when I discovered Milt Jackson and Gary Burton pretty much at the same time.
The first jazz band I heard regularly live was The Frank Ricotti Sextet, at The Bell near Hitchin. I started listening to as much jazz as I could. The sax player was Stan Sulzmann, and I was blessed to get to play with Stan in the improvising trio Dangerous Kitchen years later. He’s a truly extraordinary artist – I learned so much playing music with him.
I also got to have lessons with Bill Le Sage, and he really focused on writing tunes, so really helped develop my melodic sensibility.
Who would you say have been particular influences on you as a musician?
There are so many! I love classical composers from Bartok , Debussy, Vaughan Williams, but also great melodists like Morricone and Jimmy Webb. In Jazz I became obsessed by Ellington very early, and Don Cherry is huge for me, opening the door to free improvisation.
Carla Bley and Steve Swallow loom large as well. As a vibraphone player Walt Dickerson is a favourite, and I have to credit Corey Mwamba for restoring my enthusiasm for the instrument when I had become bored by what I was hearing and setting an example encouraging me to continue to develop my own voice.
As a drummer, Iove Paul Motian (and as a composer!) – for me he is the Debussy of the drum kit. Billy Martin is a long standing inspiration. New Orleans drumming is an ongoing fascination. The young drummers around in the UK are wonderful – Andrew Lisle, Johnny Hunter, Will Glaser and more.
I also love country music and Americana, and it was Ry Cooder who opened that door.
And I draw huge inspiration from musicians I get to hear and sometimes work with right now – those inspirational figures would include musicians like Dee Byrne, Cath Roberts, Chris Dowding, Rachel Musson, Brigitte Beraha and many more.
And then there’s Joni, there is always Joni!
And what about plans for the future?
Just more music – it’s a compulsion. I have to get stuff out of my head and vibrating the air, whether anyone listens or not.