Filomena Campus

“When Paolo starts playing, you feel it in your veins! Those notes and sounds are so familiar, but always so surprising. And the way he is so attentive to what he’s listening to, really respectful.” – Filomena Campus

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Sardinian native Filomena Campus is an internationally recognised and renowned and award-winning Jazz vocal improviser, lyricist, producer and theatre director. She has worked and performed alongside a vast array of her peers and mentors within the Jazz and Classical worlds from both the UK and Italy such as Paolo Fresu, Antonio Forcione, Evan Parker, Orphy Robinson, Antonello Salis, Cleveland Watkiss, Rowland Sutherland and the late Kenny Wheeler. Still on a natural high following ‘My Jazz Islands’ a series of three performances at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London, where she performed with her own Filomena Campus Quartet, good friend Antonello Salis and on the third night, alongside co-writer and award-winning guitarist/composer, Giorgio Serci and special guest trumpeter Paolo Fresu, treated a sell-out audience to the official launch of the stunning new album ‘Scaramouche.’

Michael J Edwards met up with Ms Campus, fittingly prior to her participation in ‘Freedom’ – The Art of Improvisation sessions at the home of Improvisation, Vortex Jazz Club to discuss all of the above, the art of improvisation in general and her plans for 2015 and beyond.

Michael J Edwards: Greetings Filomena, at last we meet up to get the lowdown on your career thus far. What was it like growing up in Sardinia where you were born and raised?

Filomena Campus: Growing up in Sardinia was beautiful, because it is a gorgeous island. I don’t know if you have seen any pictures, but it is a wonderful, beautiful place with fantastic beaches, and the sea is amazing! And there is a very ancient tradition of vocal music. So growing up in Sardinia was very nice actually, for nature and the environment in general.

Michael J Edwards: Are there any other musical members in your family, and was it a big family?

Filomena Campus: I’m not from a big family, and none of them were musicians at all. Actually, my younger brother does play a bit of drums, but not professionally, he just plays because he likes music. But apart from that there’s nobody else. Actually, they thought I was a bit crazy because I took a degree in Foreign Languages and Literature; my academic background is completely outside of music. I’m a self-taught singer. I studied with some teachers, but in private. I’ve never studied anything academically in terms of music, but have done so in terms of theatre and literature.

Michael J Edwards: When did voice improvisation first appeal to you?

Filomena Campus: Today is a good day for this question Michael, because I started improvising properly with Orphy Robinson in the UK. I didn’t improvise very much when I was in Sardinia, I was still too afraid; I didn’t feel secure and confident that I could do it. There were so many pre-concepts in Italy about Jazz singing; Jazz singers, Jazz Standards and so on, and I never felt that was my world. Then when I started performing with Orphy and his band I thought, “My God! This is happiness!” I discovered sounds in my voice that I had no idea I could make, so I started exploring my sounds and improvising with other people, and for me it was the biggest happiness ever!

Michael J Edwards: It was like being born again musically?

Filomena Campus: Absolutely! And this is thanks to Orphy and beautiful guys such as Cleveland (Watkiss) and other fantastic people. And one day Orphy took me to play with the London Improvises Orchestra and that as well has been like an epiphany for me. There were people there like Evan Parker, and Lol Coxhill. I didn’t even know them, and I was playing with these amazing people and having so much fun, and I thought, “This is my house! I’m home!”

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Michael J Edwards: When and why did you decide to relocate to London?

Filomena Campus: I came to London in 2001 and the excuse was to study for my Masters in Theatre Directing at Goldsmiths University College in London, which was a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed it, I got a distinction. It was really good! At the same time I met Orphy and Cleveland again, as well as many other musicians such as Dudley Phillips (bass) who I still work with in my Quartet, alongside Rowland Sutherland (flute). They became my family really. The reason to come was to get my Masters, but then after a few months I was already playing music. Then after a year Orphy invited me to play with the ‘Nubian Vibes Project,’ and we toured all around the UK.

And that provided me with a huge learning curve. It was unbelievable! And the quality of the music and the musicians was phenomenal. They made me feel at home immediately, which was something – this little Sardinian with Big Brother Orphy guiding me. And that’s when I started playing with these fantastic people, such as Pat Thomas (piano), Cleveland (Watkiss), Orphy Robinson, Rowland (Sutherland) – my family really!

Michael J Edwards: When did Jazz music first influence your vocal improvisation style?

Filomena Campus: I come from a relatively small town in Sardinia; we didn’t even have music shops. It’s called Macomer. There were no Jazz clubs; in fact there was no Jazz at all! Basically I didn’t know much Jazz until I received some tapes from a friend in Milan with various artists on it; Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, some Pat Matheny. I was between fourteen and sixteen, so I discovered Jazz quite late; I had no idea before that. And then when I was eighteen, I went to see a concert by Paolo Fresu (trumpet) and Antonello Salis (Accordian) in Macomer, and then I thought to myself, “Okay! What is this?” (Laughs) My heart was like pounding. It was a really an amazing experience! And since then I’ve been exploring the music. I moved to Cagliari, the biggest city in Sardinia to study English literature. I studied in the day and in the evening I was performing in clubs, because I really wanted to sing.

Michael J Edwards: So this was your groundwork?

Filomena Campus: Yes, this was the groundwork. I had a vocal trio with two guys, they were absolutely amazing – Salvo Filomena e Giomi. They played guitar and sang – so it was vocal harmonies and guitars, and we played a bit of percussion. We played together for a long time, about ten years. Then I started with a Brazilian band, we played a lot of Jobim, Bossa nova, Salsa and Samba and all that lovely stuff from Brazil which I love. And then, between 1996 and 1998 I met Maria Pia De Vito at Paolo Fresu’s Jazz seminar in Sardinia, and she became my Jazz singing teacher, I started studying privately with her. I could have had a career as a teacher of English Language and Literature in Sardinia, and then I thought, “No way! I’m not going to that!” And I left completely to become a full-time artist.

Michael J Edwards: Where your family comfortable with your decision?

Filomena Campus: Not at all! They were like, “You’re crazy!” And then when I decided to come to London, even more so. I didn’t know anyone in London, I left all my friends, my family, my entire life, and I came here.

Michael J Edwards: How did you cope with mastering the language?

Filomena Campus: The language was okay because I studied English literature and language. So it was okay but not excellent. (Laughs)

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Michael J Edwards: You’ve been keeping busy, forming the Filomena Campus Quartet in 2010 with two exceptional UK musicians Steve Lodder (piano) and Dudley Phillips (double bass) and Winston Clifford (and more recently Martin France, Rod Youngs and occasionally Adriano Adewale filling the drummer seat) The collaboration spawned a CD ‘Jester of Jazz’ with guests Jean Toussaint and Rowland Sutherland on subsequent live performances. What plans do you have that project in 2015?

Filomena Campus: The quartet is really my beloved creature, and I love working with Steve and Dudley. We’re really on the same wavelength in terms of the way we feel about music. And we are very straight-forward and straight talking with one another in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. And I feel so at home with their music, so sometimes they come up and they give me the harmony and melody, and I write lyrics for that. But it just feels so natural; it’s like, “Yeah that’s perfect!” And with the arrangements that they do, I completely trust them. And they are such great musicians, so I’ve learned so much from them during all these years that we’ve worked together. I always choose people who are much better than me, I like to raise the bar and challenge myself. Otherwise, what’s the point, I would get bored! (Laughs)

And we have decided to do a new album soon, so a new project is on the horizon. We have lots of new songs coming out, some of them with the arrangements of Italian tunes. Dudley in particular is incredible at arranging tunes; he’s done one particular tune that is finished already. It’s a beautiful song by Fabrizio De Andre’. And he arranged it as he did for ‘No Potho Reposare’ on the album ‘Jester of Jazz,’ which is a Sardinian traditional tune in Sardinian language. I remember one day Dudley called me and I sang for him on his voice machine, I sang the tune. Then soon afterwards he came to the rehearsal with an incredible arrangement. He manages to respect the heart of the song without distorting it too much, whilst also adding something more interesting to it.

Michael J Edwards: It’s like he adds musical seasoning to enhance it?

Filomena Campus: Yes. It’s like, “Wow! It’s even better!” Because this is a popular and famous song – in Sardinia everybody knows that tune – but what Dudley did was amazing! And he did the same thing with the tune by De Andre’ that we have for the new album.

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Michael J Edwards: 2014 was an exhilarating year for you, most notably for your phenomenal ‘My Jazz Islands’ three-day residency at Pizza Express Jazz Bar, London. The aforementioned Filomena Campus Quartet was showcased on the first day, Antonello Salis on the second and culminating with the Scaramouche CD launch in tandem with co-collaborator, guitarist Giorgio Serci as well as Orphy Robinson, Adriano Adewale, Enzo Zirilli and special guest and mentor Paolo Fresu. It must have seemed like all your Christmases and birthdays rolled into one?

Filomena Campus: Absolutely! It’s hard to keep the emotions under control actually, playing with people like Paolo, Antonello and then Orphy, Cleveland, Giorgio (Serci), Adriano Adewale, Enzo (Zirilli) etc. I’ve chosen these musicians because I really love each one of them, and it’s great having them as my guests, especially Paolo and Antonello, because they’ve been such an inspiration for me when I was very young. They actually guided my choices in life somehow, and having them on stage has been a strong and beautiful emotion. And ‘My Jazz Islands’ is a creature that I adore. I hope that I can take it back to Sardinia as well as in London. It’s been incredibly difficult recently because of the financial crisis we have in Italy.

Michael J Edwards: Persistence Overcomes Resistance… That’s my motto.

Filomena Campus: I hope so Michael because it really breaks my heart. Being that I am from Sardinia, and not being able to represent in Sardinia alongside the British musicians, as well as bringing a lot of British press and media there, so that they can talk about Sardinia. So it could be a beautiful bridge. But the good news is I’ve already got three nights booked next year at the Pizza Express Jazz Bar in London. So that’s very beautiful, and I’m going to arrange something very special for next year in ‘My London’. And I have to say that I’m so thankful to London because this is the Island where I managed to realise my dreams. The fact that it’s still difficult for me to perform in Sardinia with my festival hurts a lot.

Michael J Edwards: You seemed to be having the time of your life on stage during the album launch evening, especially performing in front of your long-time friend and mentor Paolo Fresu?

Filomena Campus: When Paolo starts playing, you feel it in your veins! Those notes and sounds are so familiar, but always so surprising. And the way he is so attentive to what he’s listening to, really respectful. And then he brings this beautiful jewel to my music. I have my piece of music; I give it to him, and what he brings to that is magnificent! When I’m playing sometimes I’m like, “Wow!” Just looking at him and saying thank you, because what he brought to every tune we played was absolutely incredible! He’s so generous and such a professional person. He’s been playing all over the world; he then arrives in London, fresh as a rose. He then comes on stage to perform so well… Unbelievable!

Michael J Edwards: The album ‘Scaramouche’ itself is a mini masterpiece from the cover artwork by Giuseppe Carta to the quality musicianship on show on the CD itself. Please give us the background behind the album concept and the various guest musicians who made it come to fruition, such as the Keld Ensemble, Rowland Sutherland, Adriano Adewale and the late Kenny Wheeler?

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Filomena Campus: It’s been hard work in terms of timing, because we recorded it about two years ago, and then last year (2014) we added the special guests. And when Giorgio (Serci) had the idea of asking Kenny Wheeler I was like “Oh my God! Are you serious! You’re joking! That would be fantastic!” And when he said yes, it was the best gift we could have ever had. And he was such a humble person and a beautiful musician.

Michael J Edwards: His spirit and inner essence comes across even though one has never met him in person?

Filomena Campus: Absolutely! He was just such a great person. And then to have him soloing on the track ‘Momentum’ from our album ‘Scaramouche, I am just speechless.

Michael J Edwards: And the artwork by Giuseppe Carta?

Filomena Campus: The artwork was a complete serendipity moment, because we went to play in Sardinia on 31 August 2014 where the artist, Giuseppe Carta invited us to play in his beautiful tiny village in Sardinia, Banari, where he has a museum; he’s a fantastic painter and sculptor. After the gig, and after a few glasses of Sardinian wine, I told him, “Giuseppe, you should do our cover art.” I was joking! He took me so seriously, and he said, “Yes I’m going to do it.” And I was like, “Oh my God! Are you serious! He said, “Absolutely! Not only will I do the cover, but you should come back to my place and we could do a photo shoot there for your album.” So I said, “Definitely! Because in his house he has a museum with his beautiful sculptures; so we came back from London just to do the photo shoot. And there you are, we have a work of art as our album cover, which extends into the music side of the album, and I’m so proud. It is difficult because today most people just buy music digitally, or they just download it from the Internet. So it’s quite a big risk, and of course an expensive risk as well because of the graphics and everything; but we thought it was worth it.

Michael J Edwards: The first time I witnessed you perform was for Nexus One World music at St Georges Church, London, presented by the Jazz Warriors international i.e. Orphy Robinson and Cleveland Watkiss. You performed alongside Max Di Carlo and Ayanna Witter-Johnson. How was the experience, and what do you think of the concept that Orphy and Cleveland have put together?

Filomena Campus: I think absolutely amazing and brave, because free improv is really hard, and I’m so glad they are promoting it, like tonight at Vortex Jazz Club. I really support them with all my heart and energy, because I know what free improvisation is. Many people are scared, and I have to say I have seen for myself some very boring performances of free improvisation, especially in Berlin some years ago. But the way they (Jazz Warriors International) do it, so groovy and full of energy that it’s absolutely spot-on. So I’m going to help and support this event as much as I possibly can.

Michael J Edwards: And it’s great that we have excellent photographers on hand to document it?

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Filomena Campus: With visual artists like Nadjib (LeFleurier) and the integration of art in general is something I love!

Michael J Edwards: Leading on from that, saxophonist Steve Williamson who was also present in the audience that evening, told me that on the strength that performance he immediately knew he wanted you to be part of his Steve Williamson Band for his comeback gig in September 2014 at Pizza Express Jazz Bar. You obviously made a big impression. What was it like being part of that band?

The long-awaited and much-anticipated come back performance by the UK’s very saxophone colossus, Steve Williamson.

Here leading his personally hand-picked Steve Williamson Band featuring a stella group of musicians, soloists and band leaders in their own right.

Filomena Campus: You know I’ve been performing for a long time now, and I’m hardly ever nervous before going on stage; maybe just a little bit. Usually the happiness is stronger than the stress. But in that situation, I was nervous, because Steve’s music is absolutely gorgeous and quite difficult as well. I felt like a student again, it was like, “Oh my God, what am I doing here!” And I felt so proud to be with those musicians on stage. That was such a joy! I can’t wait to do more. It was a great lineup – Seb Roachford (drums), Robert Mitchell (piano), Michael Mondesir (bass), Steve and myself. Improvising with Steve Williamson has been a rollercoaster as well as a joy!

Michael J Edwards: Multi – faceted flautist Rowland Sutherland who has worked with you on all of your projects including the new album ‘Scaramouche’, the ‘In Kimbe’ project and fresh performances you produced, paying tribute to Thelonious Monk portrayed by pianist Pat Thomas – A quick word about Rowland Sutherland and Pat Thomas?

Filomena Campus: They are two of my favourite musicians and brothers! With Rowland we met when we were doing ‘Nubian Vibes’ with Orphy Robinson in 2002, and we’ve been working together since then. He’s really been like a brother to me. When we played together, the sound of his flute with my voice really feels like they were made for each other. The way we improvise together is just so naturaI. I adore his sound, that’s why he’s on all of my albums; It’s like he has to be there. I actually wish we could do ‘In Kimbe’ again, or a new project, because together we have this passion for Latin music. Artists like Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal – Strong Brazilian music, not the clichéd type. I wish to develop something like that in the future again.

Pat Thomas, my God! I think he is the reincarnation of Monk (Laughs). I couldn’t ask for anybody else to be Thelonious Monk in my ‘Mysterioso’ production, he’s been absolutely amazing! He is a complete genius. He didn’t copy Thelonious Monk; he wasn’t acting as Thelonious Monk. It was Pat Thomas playing Monk’s music in his own inimitable way, with the elbows and everything; It was just amazing!

Michael J Edwards: Who are some of your influences whether in the realms of improvisation, lyrical styling and music in general? I know the work of Hermeto Pascoal and Jack Hirschman has impacted greatly upon you?

Filomena Campus: Lyrically wise, literature – that’s why I worked with Jack Hirschman, he’s a great poet from the ‘Beat Generation’, who is still alive. I have been inspired by all sorts of poets and writers; sometimes I work with them. I really like the interaction with multi-media work. Plus lyrically from my academic background, TS Eliot, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were the main inspirations at the beginning of my work, but are still there. I like that sort of surreal quality.

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

I don’t like love songs; I get really bored with songs talking about “I love you, I love you!” That’s why I’m not a huge fan of standards to be honest. But I like something that can challenge me, or maybe a description that’s coming from my Island to give me some ideas. Music wise, gosh! There are so many, Monk, Maria Joao, a Portuguese singer. She is an amazing improviser and singer. Cleveland (Watkiss) has been a great inspiration, and many others such as Iva Bittova and Lauren Newton.

Michael J Edwards: You yourself seem to be an influence on the next generation of Jazz improv vocalists, such as Noemi Nuti, who spoke very highly of you in a recent interview?

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

Filomena Campus: That’s lovely! I’m so proud because beautiful singers like Noemi and Marta Capponi are raising the profile of Italian singers in London; that’s what we want. There are so many beautiful singers – Diana Torto, she’s coming to Vortex Jazz Club soon, and she is fantastic as well.

Michael J Edwards: Are you looking forward to performing tonight at the Jazz Warriors international’s ‘Freedom’ – The Art of Improvisation this evening?

Filomena Campus: I can’t wait! First of all I always have a lot of fun on stage when playing alongside Orphy and co. Also tonight the seeds are being sown for some new projects. I met up with Tori Handsley (harp) last week to discuss creating a female Jazz Band. We said that we should get together and do a jam or something. So when Orphy said, “Would you like to perform the opening set, Tori’s going to be there as well.” I was like “Of course! Yeah! The project also involves Laura Cole, who is another fabulous improviser; she’s a piano player…So that’s a female band with Laura Cole, Tori Handsley and other musicians involved. Another project is my free improv vocal duo with Cleveland (Watkiss), and Cleveland is going to be here tonight also. Some of the projects that are forth-coming in 2015 you can see the seeds of at this ‘Freedom’ performance tonight.

Michael J Edwards: When was the duo project with Cleveland spawned?

Filomena Campus: In 2009 I did a concert improvisation at Riverside Studios and I invited Cleveland, and we had twenty minutes, maybe half an hour just by ourselves. And when you think it’s just two voices, there’s no harmony as such, you wonder what’s going to happen. It was unbelievable! We had so much fun and we thought we have to do something… We had some shows at Pizza Express Jazz Club of approximately twenty-minute duration. But we want to develop a proper project, which is also a mixture of vocal improvisation, Jazz and theatre/performance because Cleveland is also a theatre person and actor. So I thought maybe we should have a research and development period and go to Sardinia to study the vocal tradition there, or maybe to Brazil or wherever to draw on those influences; and then exploring the theatre aspect, maybe getting together with some actors and practitioners who can help us create a proper duo project just with the voices.

Michael J Edwards: Do you think it’s an exciting time for the UK Jazz and improvisation scene at the moment?

Filomena Campus: It is absolutely! And it’s the most fervent and vital improvisation scene I’ve seen. We need to be careful sometimes with free improvisation, because it can lead to self-gratification, because you can do whatever you want and have fun, but we also need to engage the audience. It’s really going somewhere I think in the UK. There is an incredible energy I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Michael J Edwards: I believe you’re performing in February with the Keld Ensemble. Do you have some additional details regarding that performance?

Filomena Campus: Yes, it is our duo, Giorgio Serci and me performing with this beautiful string orchestra, The Keld Ensemble. In rehearsals I was floating, because Giorgio has beautifully arranged some of the ‘Scaramouche’ album tunes for strings and they sound so new and fresh! It’s on 6th February at Lauderdale House in Highate.

Michael J Edwards: Thank for your time Filomena. We are filled with anticipation for tonight’s performance.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Gig: Filomena Campus, Giorgio Serci & Keld Ensemble Feb 6th Lauderdale House, Highgate http://www.lauderdalehouse.co.uk/

Essential Album: Filomena Campus & Giorgio Serci – Scaramouche (CD 2014 Egea Incipit)

Essential Album Review: ukvibe

Essential Gig Review: ukvibe

Essential Website: www.filomenacampus.com

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Photo: Courtesy of Nadjib LeFleurier

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