Can you tell us about your new album?

Shirley Smart – “Stories” is a double CD consisting of 19 free improvisations made with my dear friends and regular collaborators Demi Garcia Sabat on drums and  James Arben on saxophone and flute. The idea originated out of a short free improvisation that Demi and I recorded for another friend, the composer, arranger and band leader Giles Thornton. We really enjoyed the cello and percussion combo, and I suggested asking James to join us for part of the session as we have also done quite a bit of free improvisation together (We released a duo album ‘Entanglement’ on FMR records in 2020). I think we all shared a common conception of free improvisation, and we have played together a lot in different projects so we know each other well. Our conception draws on the various influences in our musical backgrounds, but without any predetermined compositions in mind. I find this process both fascinating, and challenging, and for me having people to play with who share a similar approach to free improvisation is of central importance.

We recorded it just after one of the lockdowns during the Covid-19, and it was the first day that we had been able to play together for a long time, so as I’m sure you can imagine, there was a really powerful energy in the room that day!!! (The track ‘Catharsis’, pretty much sums that up!!!). The album was recorded and produced by Simone Fillali at Slipway Studios, which is a lovely intimate studio in South West London.

Demi Garcia Sabat – I was really excited when we had the idea to go to Simone’s studio and record the album – especially after the period of isolation during Covid.

It was amazing to work with James also –  I felt we had a great connection. We had worked a bit in other projects, including Shrley’s sextet, and it was amazing how we connected in this 4 hours of improvising.  I find myself listening back to this album a lot.

James Arben – I am very happy to have been asked to contribute to this project and paying again in a creative context after such a long time of musical isolation was a great moment, and I think the joy, frustration and release can really be heard in this album.

What other projects are you currently involved with?

SS – I have my trio, which has toured around the UK quite a bit in the last few years. This also includes Demi on drums, and John Crawford on piano, and I recently wrote a set of music for sextet, extending the core trio to include James on Tenor and flute, Tim Quicke on trumpet and Michele Montoli on double bass.

I have just formed a new project ‘Bezique’ – centred around the music of Django Reinhardt, Bireli Lagrene and Richard Galliano, so its sort of a gypsy swing  centred project – but with a slightly looser core of repertoire. This has grown out of a longstanding duo with another long-time collaborator, Peter Michaels on guitar, and I have invited two other excellent musicians in this scene to form the 4tet – the accordionist MIke Guy, and bassist Marcus Penrose.

I also did my first classical recital in several million years earlier this year with the pianist Ben Smith. I have been quite wary of doing this for a long time, as I felt the need to include an improvised component to any programme, and also wanted that to be integrated into the classical repertory,  rather than , for example playing a sonata and then some jazz.

Ben is also a fantastic improviser and really versatile stylistically, so he was perfect for this and so it can finally come to life!!! It was really a lot of fun to play some of the great classical repertoire again – we did Bach and Brahms, and then some improvised work on shorter encore pieces, so this project will also be developing over the next year or so. I have a couple of other cheeky projects brewing as well which will no doubt appear here in due course!!

DGS – I play in many projects, mostly specialising either in jazz with world influences, and flamenco projects. I played a lot with Shirley in other projects –  in her trio and now the sextet as well, and also in her previous band Melange.

I also play with the great guitarist Nicolas Meier, and in bassist Alec Dankworth’s band ‘Spanish Accents’. I play with several flamenco projects, including Jose Almarcha in his recent UK Tour and the Raices Flamenco Company.

JA – I am currently the Musical Director for the Ethiopian Musician and composer, Mulatu Astatke. I have been working with Mulatu for 12 years now and it’s been an incredible journey playing all over the world and assimilating the sounds and conventions of Ethio-Jazz, a genre Mulatu is credited with creating, he is actually called “ The Father of Ethio-Jazz”. It was here that I first started to play with Shirley and from a post show drink we decided to get together and create our first album “Entanglement”, as mentioned above.

I am also involved with several other projects, including Hackney Colliery Band, a duo called Malvus Malvus with drummer Ben Handysides and a quartet called “LEDJ” band composed of me on sax, Danny Keane on keys, Ed Asby on sousaphone/tuba and Luke Christie on drums. We are currently recording our first EP with this project.

What are you currently listening to and what was the last CD or download you bought?

SS – Actually I have been listening to an album of the Algerian singer Rachid Taha quite a lot, and this amazing old Algerian singer called Hicham el-Geurabi, who is one of the earliest singers in the popular  stylse known as chaabi, which has influenced me a lot. And also some of the Israeli bassist Omer Avitals albums again. He has a great way of fusing jazz with Nortj African musics that I really love – its a genuine fusion born of real knowledge and understanding of both musics, which I really like.

The last album I bought was more of a little buying spree of albums all in one go….

It included albums by Dorado Schmitt, Raphael Fays, and Frank Vignola, and a couple of Jean-Luc Ponty albums that I hadn’t heard before. Then I bought some albums by Luis Delgado, who is a Spanish scholar and musician engaged with historically informed performance practice in Andalusian music.

DGS – Like James and Shirley both said, so many to name!! I like a lot John Zorn, especially an album called ‘The Gift’ –  I also love Joey Barron, the drummer on this album, and also the percussionist from the album Cyro Baptista. I went to see a gig of this album at the Barbican and it was incredible!! For ‘Stories’, I took quite a lot of ideas from this album and from these musicians because they also play a lot of free jazz and free improvisation as well.

JA – I am revisiting some of my old albums by Joshua Redman and Joe Henderson at the moment. Also very much into George Russell and Sam Rivers.

What is your all time favourite album and why?

SS – Impossible to answer!! Whatever I say today will not be the same answer this time next year!

DGS – Seconded!

JA – Agreed with Shirley – too many to name!

Who has caught your attention recently that we should be listening out for?

SS – The young violinist and composer Tobie Medland, who released a brilliant album earlier this year called ‘The Aviary’. Tobie is a fantastic violinist, and the album was a really imaginative and original combination of gypsy jazz, modern jazz and contemporary classical writing for a 9 piece band with a string quartet embedded in the texture as well as a full rhythm section. It was a really refreshing and fun project – I think Django Reinhardt would have loved it, and as Tobie quite rightly put it “ Django was a modernist”….

The Aviary:

JA – Agreed with Shirley – Tobie is very impressive!

DGS – I would like to mention Marco Mezquida. I saw him with his trio near Barcelona in the summer, – it was great to see these guys playing, I  found it really inspiring! The band is the same  line up of Shirley’s trio, so that was also an inspiration!

Marco Mezquida: Letter to Milos

John Zorn: The Gift