For me, the most important thing is the narrative I’m creating through my composition or improvisation.
Interview by Isabel Marquez
When I was asked to interview Sultan Stevenson about his debut album ‘Faithful One’, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask. Having grown up in the same jazz bands and music classes, Sultan Stevenson has always been an incredible inspiration to me and any musician who had the honour of playing with him.
It has been a pleasure to watch him develop and grow as a musician, taking the jazz scene by storm, and I can’t wait to follow what he does next.
Sultan Stevenson is a thrilling force in the young jazz world and is an advocate for translating both heritage and faith through one’s compositional output. I was keen to hear about how ‘Faithful One’ came about and how it feels to be a young composer breaking through into the industry…
What story does the album tell? What would you like to communicate through your music?
‘Faithful One’ should be listened to as a journey, it should be conceptualised as a movie or piece of literature. Each track and its placement have a unique purpose.
The first track is a foretelling of the events to come. The following 3 tracks can be viewed as 3 different glimpses of the same message, each conveying a sense of build/growth in their own unique way. What follows are 3 tracks written to convey a sense of stability, their musical narrative contrasting the tracks before them.
The title track is the climax of this entire narrative. The last track is best thought of as the judgement, the completion of this journey. My relationship with the Lord, the human condition, and my cultural identity as a young man of black Caribbean heritage are the contributing factors to the story of ‘Faithful One’.
Who would you say were your main influences when writing the album?
Different ideas both relate to music directly and are more philosophical/conceptual.
I guess the mechanics of the compositions lay in the classic jazz composition techniques – quartal harmony, vamps, pedal points, functional harmony, modality etc.
Often people say I sound a lot like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Kirkland etc. These are all people who have contributed to my sound and style a great deal.
Though I started working on this album with a concept in mind I wanted to create an album which would take the listener on a journey, I also wanted to create something that was accessible for jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike. Inclusivity was very important to me.
How would you define your personal music style?
Heavily influenced by McCoy Tyner and Kenny Kirkland, though for my approach to the composition I take a lot of inspiration from Geri Allen, she is very important to me. The way she can inject a sense of freedom into her pieces. It allows the players to come to their own conclusions.
I recognise I’m still very young. My style and sound are constantly developing. I have a lot of work to do still. I hope to be a more rounded player, to absorb more of the vast canon of jazz piano.
I’d like to think there’s humility to my playing. I don’t like to be flashy; I rely a lot on instigating drama within my trio whereas another pianist may use complex academic musical concepts. For me, the most important thing is the narrative I’m creating through my composition or improvisation.
How did you go about choosing the musicians to play with you on the album?
I knew for sure I wanted Jacob Gryn, Josh Short and Joel Waters to be on the record. We had been playing these compositions for almost 2 years in a trio setting, which meant both the tunes and the way we play them could refine. The compositions are very personal to each of us.
Denys was one of my teachers at Tomorrow’s Warriors. He was one of Tomorrow’s Warriors’ first students.
Having him on the record is a privilege as he is a well-known and experienced tenor player within the London Jazz Scene. He is also my way of honouring the legacy of Tomorrow’s Warriors.
How do you go about composing a new piece?
Most times everything starts from a vamp or central chordal-based motif. This is the case with tunes like ‘Guilty by Association’ ‘To Be Seen’ ‘Safe Passage’ and ‘Faithful One’ from the record.
After I’ve established the vamp, I usually work with a contrasting melodic point and try and develop the idea so it will eventually connect to the vamp then I might work out a bridge or an additional contrasting section that could aid in the development of the piece.
What I struggle with most is the development of ideas. I find this very challenging. I feel I’m getting better at it though. Other times I deal directly with the melody as the first idea for the tune.
This is more the case in tunes like ‘Prayer’ ‘Thank You, Thank You God’ and ‘Afterword’ When working on a set for a live gig or planning an album I’m always looking for contrast. Employing both approaches to composition kind of facilitates that.
Is there a track on the album that stands out for you, which one and why?
Each track is deeply personal to me, like all my compositions. People often ask me this question and similar. Each tune is like a child of mine. They each have distinct musical characteristics to them, but each reflects different parts of my musical and human being.
I really like the feeling of soul we evoked in the tune ‘Prayer’ I love the sense of build in ‘To Be Seen’ I love the sense of majesty in ‘Thank You, Thank You God’ and the sense of finality to ‘Afterword’.
This is such an exciting debut! What can we expect to hear from you in the future?
Actually, we recorded the 2nd album back in Feb 2023! I won’t say too much about it now, but I can say I really love it! I think of albums a bit like TV shows, they all have different seasons to them.
The 2nd album is a bit like season 2 of the same show. It has elements of ‘Faithful One’ but in my opinion is deeper, more implicit, and more condensed. You can expect it in 2024!
Aside from this, we have a UK-wide tour in May/June with dates in London (The Vortex and Pizza Express) the trio is also in Birmingham, Cardiff, Cambridge, Brighton and more.
We’ll also be playing at Love Supreme in the summer. I hope also we’ll be playing at The London Jazz Festival in November. Loads of exciting things ahead.
For more information visit sultanstevenson.co.uk
Click here to read our review of Faithfull One.