After having released his debut EP five years ago, saxophonist Nye Banfield took time out to concentrate on his musical studies and after graduating in 2019 the pandemic put a stop to all live performances.
Not allowing himself the luxury of standing still and waiting for things to happen, Banfield used the time for further study and practice, as well as composing some new music.
The fruits of his labour have now been released on his excellent new recording Traces and Trails, and I was fortunate enough to catch up with Nye immediately after the launch gig for the album.
Firstly, perhaps you could tell us about your debut album, Trails and Traces?
So.. the tunes are a collection of compositions of mine from the end of my studies at Trinity Laban, through the year or so after graduating. I had a sound in my head, mostly inspired by listening to a lot of Ambrose Akinmusire and 60s ‘avant-garde’ Blue Note records (Andrew Hill, Grachan Moncur, Jackie Mclean etc). I wanted to replicate elements of their music in my own recordings, and looking at it with retrospect, I think I managed to achieve what I envisioned… I am absolutely in no way comparing my playing to their’s mind…!! But as far as a replication of the ‘vibe’ of those records goes, I think I got there!
Concept-wise, the titles of the tracks all refer to either a place, person, object or moment which has some significance to me. I feel like they have left a trace on me and contribute towards the trails I head down… Come down to a gig of mine to hear some of the stories behind them!
The group I chose to write for provided a fantastic spectrum of colours for me to exploit. I love the contrast between the retro, hard-bob style that Mark Kavuma brings to every recording, and the heavily textured, expressive drumming that Ewan Moore serves up. And the combination of Rupert Cox’s beautifully balanced, detailed piano playing with Hamish Nockles-Moore’s relentlessly ‘edge-of the seat’ double-bass musings. The sixth member and trombonist of the group, Wilf Diamond brought a subtle warmth to the group, sitting perfectly in the texture, and providing a properly soulful and understated solo on ‘Pocket Tissue Blues’, which is a favourite of mine on the album.
I’m personally absolutely buzzing about the final product. I put a lot of time into the decisions along the way, and I’m absolutely in love with my copy of the vinyl. The cover features a piece of art by Sonia Stanyard, which I think perfectly completes it.
The album has been a long time coming after releasing an EP in 2018. Was this a conscious decision to wait before releasing your debut album?
Well, probably partly conscious and partly financial… When I started that final year of college in 2018 I had quite a lot of external, ‘life lesson’ moments going on.. My head was probably not in the best place to be recording anything, and then my attention turned to putting together my final performance, which was great for me. Graduating in September 2019, I then had a few months of trying to get a career together in teaching and gigging, stressing about affording to live in London… before plummeting into covid! Through that period, I went about a year without playing music with anyone else. I shifted my focus to improving my playing, without the stress of performing etc. So then we get to 2021 and I’d put together a bunch of new music, I felt good about my playing and I thought it felt the right time to record. We laid the album down that Summer, and it’s taken me over 3 years to stick the thing out!!
The music on Trails and Traces has a very structured and organised feeling about it, as opposed to a set comprised of individual tunes. There is a sense that they sit together as a suite. Again, was this a deliberate approach when writing music for the album?
It definitely feels that way, which is what I hoped. My favourite albums, not exclusively jazz, have that feeling of being an event from start to finish- Kind of Blue, To Pimp a Butterfly, Plastic Beach, Grace for example. Whilst writing the music, I would often complete a piece, stick it in an imaginary position on an album in my mind, and then think about what I would need either side of it to make it flow.
I very much enjoyed this compositional aspect of the music. There is not the feeling that everyone is queueing up to solo, but more of a group sound with your compositions being the glue that binds it all together? How did you approach composing the music for sextet, and was it with these musicians in mind?
Well with quite a lot of the tunes, I’d write a basic skeleton composition with my saxophone and maybe a piano or bass part, and then I’d arrange some other horn parts around it. And soloing wise, I look at the jazz records that really mean something to me, they’re rarely those kind of blowing sessions. More considered, birds-eye view structured pieces. I also played a lot of orchestral music through my youth (on the viola), and I’ve always been attracted to well composed music, be it Classical, Jazz or popular music.
The two of the compositions that really captured my interest were the shortest, ‘Song For Grandad’ and the longest, ‘Characters’. Can you tell us about these pieces, and what influences or inspiration was behind them?
Unfortunately, I lost my Grandad during 2021, so that piece is a little nod to him and what he meant to me. Musically, I guess it has a feeling of Monk’s ‘Abide with Me’. I love orchestral music, and the sound of us playing quartet, moving between the chords together in a choral style just sounded so lush.
‘Characters’ is one of the oldest compositions on the record, although one that I had constantly been editing and adding new bits to over 2/3 years. The last section, the climax with the brass coming together was written right before the recording session really… I can’t remember how I finished it before….. I guess the main influences for this tune would have been Donald Byrd’s track ‘Free Form’, Ambrose Akinmusire’s ‘A Song To Exhale’, and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’. I wanted to write a piece which gave almost a blank canvas for each member of my main quartet to express themselves, within a more detailed composition. This is my favourite piece of music I’ve recorded; the playing of the rhythm section throughout absolutely tears me apart. Oh, and when Hamish comes back in with the bass line at double speed… that was a total mistake on his part. It was hilarious, I looked over and he looked terrified but being such unbelievable musicians, they turned it into absolute magic, and I wouldn’t change it for anything else.
As well as jazz you also have an interest in orchestral music. Can you tell us about this, and do you think that an orchestral influence permeates the way you write for the horns?
Yes! I grew up playing in orchestras on the viola, which really showed me those interesting, crunchy inner parts of the texture in orchestral writing. Favourite composers of mine would be Vaughan Williams, Dvorak, Beethoven, Bach. It definitely has an effect on my horn writing, I’m thinking way more about the colours and timbres of us as a section, which Duke Ellington was a genius at.
There seems to be a growing trend at the moment to release albums digitally and vinyl and bypassing CDs. What draw to releasing Trails and Traces in this way?
Well, I actually still love buying CDs, but I know I’m very old school. I don’t think any of my mates still buy CDs. On gigs prior to this album, I’d try selling my old CDs, and people would be asking me if I had vinyl to sell, because they don’t have anything to play CDs on..! It came down to an expense thing I think, I knew I wanted to make vinyl, and if I wanted CDs as well, I’d be living on beans on toast even longer.
For those who may not be familiar with your music, how did you begin playing saxophone and jazz in particular?
A: Saxophone came after violin (which I picked up before the viola). I wanted a second instrument, and Dad played me a load of John Coltrane, Pink Floyd and Madness! I loved the sound of the instrument. Jazz playing came at my secondary school, where we had an amazing teacher who introduced all of us to Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis etc.
Who would you say have been particular influences on you as a saxophonist and composer?
Wayne Shorter, always been massive for me. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard growing up with the music. Then an obsession with Ambrose Akinmusire through college, and an ongoing love for Bird’s playing.
And what about future plans. Do you hope to keep the sextet together as a unit, or do you have other projects in the pipeline?
I’ve loved playing with this sextet, but I’m excited to write for completely different instruments. Although I’ve not put pen to paper yet, I’ve got a sound in my head for the next record, and it won’t be anything like this one for sure!!
Click here to read our review of Traces and Trails by Nye Banfield