Nat Birchall

In the wake of his recent involvement with BBC Radio 4, discussing the impact of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, combined with our elated presence at yet another rather beautiful performance by Nat Birchall and his band, this time at Jazz In The Round during November 2014, and not forgetting our ukvibe BEST JAZZ ALBUM OF 2014 winner, we thought it high time for an interview with saxophonist Nat Birchall in the build up to an anticipated new album.

2011 launched Nat’s own private press record label Sound Soul And Spirit and a splendid backdrop with the first release ‘Sacred Dimension’ brought about two more further exciting releases, ‘World Without Form’ and ‘Live In Larissa’, proving to the music world that Mr. Birchall was on a clear musical and spiritual path, and one that we feel sets him apart from many of his contemporaries.

With now over thirty years experience, enjoying and collecting not only deep and spiritual jazz but also classic reggae, what did our northern gent have to offer our readers, and was there indeed a message in the modal jazz compositions we have been enjoying in recent years?

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Photo: Courtesy of Janice Wong

SW: Nat Birchall, greetings. First tell us why the Tenor saxophone is your chosen vehicle, and where do you feel it gives you the freedom over the alto or any other wind/reed instrument for the musical route you have chosen?

Nat Birchall: Well, the reason musicians play a particular instrument is usually because they feel some affinity with it. I played guitar a little before I got the saxophone, but I didn’t really “connect” with it. It wasn’t until I got my first alto sax and I played my first notes on it that I felt this connection with the sound. After a year I traded the alto for a Tenor because all my favourite players, Tommy McCook, Cedric Brooks, John Coltrane, all played the Tenor and that sound spoke to me more than the alto did.

SW: There are many pros and cons to each saxophone manufacturer with much evidence on brands like King, Conn, Buescher, and Selmer being raised by some of the true giants in jazz music. What stages have you been through in your career to find the right instrument, mouthpiece and even reed, and is there the ultimate, which you aspire too?

Nat Birchall: Instrument-wise I’ve pretty much always played Selmer saxophones. The alto I had first was a Conn but since then I’ve only played/owned four vintage Selmer tenors. I’ve had a few Soprano saxophones over the years, (I’ve usually had to sell them at some point to pay the bills…) including a Yamaha and an East German one that I can’t recall the make of, but again they’ve mostly been Selmers. But, strangely in light of your question, I have just bought a new tenor which is a new Japanese model, a Woodstone by Ishimori. It’s a great saxophone with a really great sound and feel to it and I’m really enjoying playing it.

Originally I wanted a Selmer because it was what Trane played, and if it was good enough for him… I don’t think there’s an ultimate instrument for you but some instruments feel awkward to me sometimes, the key positions can vary, and they don’t always have a sound that I can relate to. The instrument itself doesn’t actually contribute a huge amount to the actual sound we get but it’s certainly a factor that has to be taken into account.

Mouthpieces can be a real problem though. I tend to be happy(ish) with a particular mouthpiece for a few years and then I begin to get a little disillusioned with the sound I’m getting. It can then be a long painful, and expensive, process to find another one to keep me happy for a few years. Again, I don’t think there’s an ultimate one out there but we have to try to find something that works for us, and our sound concept can change over time too which makes things even more complicated. Reeds can be incredibly frustrating as they can vary so much even within one box of ten. But for the past eight or nine years I’ve been playing Rigotti Gold reeds which work for me incredibly well, they are really very consistent and really help me to get the sound I like.

SW: Sidney Bechet is recognized for being the godfather of the soprano saxophone, with only Steve Lacy really bridging the gap before John Coltrane turned it into almost his own. What with so many soprano playing musicians following the ‘smooth’ path, where do you find its direction in Nat Birchall’s future and why, in your opinion, is it that the Manzello hasn’t been utilized more in jazz?

Nat Birchall: The “Manzello” is just what Rahsaan Roland Kirk called his saxello I think? Although he may have adapted it in some way possibly. The Saxello is actually just a soprano with a slightly curved neck and bell; it’s not really a different instrument. Some people prefer the sound of a curved soprano, they tend to sound a little warmer or less “Eastern” if you like. Personally I like the Eastern sound and I use the Soprano as a contrasting voice to the Tenor really, some songs lend themselves to the Soprano, some to the Tenor. The songs I use the Soprano on tend to be the more “Eastern” sounding ones these days. I really need to work on it more and try to write more songs for it but time is difficult to find.

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Photo: Courtesy of Peter Fay

SW: On the subject of lineage, it is well documented that much of your inspiration comes from John Coltrane, but do you feel there is any musical succession between the likes of Chas Burchall, Don Rendell, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes and yourself in 2015?

Nat Birchall: I’ve never really listened a great to deal to those players to be honest. I’ve listened to most players to some degree or another but if their sound or style doesn’t speak to me then I don’t really connect with the music. Most of the UK players from that era, with some exceptions of course, tend to come from a different place than myself in terms of influence. And they mostly came up playing in school bands and then big bands etc., which is something I’ve never done. My first exposure to the sound of the saxophone was via recordings of the Jamaican players, Tommy McCook and Cedric Brooks. Also Roland Alphonso, but even his sound was a little “lighter” for my tastes, more like Hank Mobley you know? And I’ve always preferred the sounds of Tommy McCook and Cedric Brooks who were coming from more of a Coltrane type of sound concept. So my influences have mostly been Black players, either American or Jamaican. There’s no logical reason why the colour of your skin should affect the sound you get or the way you play, but I believe it’s a “nurture” thing rather than a “nature” thing, if you get my meaning. But I do really love Bobby Wellins’ sound and playing. He seems to have a more “Spiritual” concept to my ears, even though he doesn’t sound particularly like the influences I mention he’s an incredibly soulful and deep player, and has a very original concept, he’s very underrated in my opinion.

SW: Arnette Cobb and Illinois Jacquet are noted to have influenced John Coltrane – the latter being a big inspiration to Curtis Amy too. Have these musicians laid the floor plan to Nat Birchall’s ‘sound’?

Nat Birchall: These are two musicians who I haven’t really listened to very much either I’m afraid! I think their “influence” on Trane is more of an implied one really, because they were noted for playing above the normal register of the tenor, Trane did the same thing but in a very different way to the way that they did it. Even though Trane played in R&B type bands his influences were mostly Johnny Hodges and then Charlie Parker on alto then Lester YoungDexter GordonSonny Stitt etc. on the Tenor. I don’t really hear an influence in Trane’s playing that I could attribute to Cobb and Jacquet myself, but I could be wrong of course!

SW: You cite Albert Ayler and Elvin Jones amongst your favourite musicians, what makes what they did resonate with you when both listening and composing?

Nat Birchall: That’s a tough question to answer. It’s not really something that I could explain in a few sentences. But here goes anyway. Albert Ayler had such a sound, it’s a sound that has so much presence that you couldn’t ignore it, but it had its subtleties too, especially on his last recordings. His concept was also such an original one, sound-wise and playing style-wise it didn’t really come from anyone else that I could name. It came from out of nowhere really, or direct from the gods or the angels! His music to me is really connected to the “Universal Spirit” or whatever you want to name it, the life force, the eternal consciousness. In the film “My Name Is Albert Ayler” Sunny Murray says it very well when he says that there are “so many tenor players who play it so hard, but Albert played it with love.”

Elvin was also a musician of such strong spirit and such a strong personal concept that he could play things that may sound out of time or like they clash with whatever else is going on. But that’s not what’s happening, it’s very complex and his playing swings so much and has such a centred beat or pulse that it tends to make everyone else (drummers that is) sound as if they’re just keeping time. Everything he ever played sounded so good and life-affirming it’s constantly inspiring.

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Photo: Courtesy of Janice Wong

SW: Explain to us your practice schedule for the average week. Are you concentrating on the next song, or do you need to have a much broader practice repertoire?

Nat Birchall: Well I could hardly call it a schedule to be honest! These days I just try to spend as much time as I can get on the instrument. There is so much of the actual practice time that is just keeping in shape on the horn, long tones, scales, chords etc. You have to practice quite a lot on the saxophone to just get a sound, or to keep your sound together. Certain aspects of playing the instrument are very physical so you have to keep that physical part in good shape. Then we need to try and develop of course, to make things better and to learn new things. This takes even more time. Composing is another thing. I tend to compose at the piano, which takes me away from the horns. Back in the day, when I had the time, I would practice up to eight or nine hours a day. But now I might average about two hours a day, it’s not nearly enough to be honest.

SW: You have made a point in the past of saying “you don’t actually rehearse”. Please explain your methods of conveying your concept to each musician through to performance and how they themselves mold into your band?

Nat Birchall: When we have a new song, usually at a recording session, I explain the different parts to the players and how they fit together. We then have a brief run through the beginning of the piece; maybe once or maybe twice, and then we go for a take. Each player has to really find his own space in the music using, to some degree or another, the simple part or guidelines that I may give them. The musicians are free to deviate from the written part after it has been played for a few bars or for the duration of the melody statement, but even this is not strict, it depends on the song.

I believe the best music is made when the musicians are free to play as they wish within the character of the song, and you have to be a certain type of player to be able to do this. You need discipline and freedom in equal amounts I think. So the cohesion of the group sound does not come from rehearsing but from the approach to the group concept that all the musicians have and how those individual approaches work together in any particular group of individuals. So each musician has to fit into the band sound, but each part also changes the band sound because of the individual’s contribution being integral to that sound. If you change a member of a group then it changes the sound of that group – that is unavoidable but also absolutely essential for the group concept to work properly.

Of course, this is how it works in my band; it works differently in other bands. Some have more written material or more harmonic movement, more of an arrangement or stricter form, or a stronger desire to keep to the written parts. We all do what works best for our personal concept or preferences. But I like spontaneity, within a particular melodic/modal concept or song. Some people just like pure spontaneity, no melody, no bass line, no tempo etc. Some people like more organization, or pre-conceived forms. I’m somewhere in the middle.

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Photo: Courtesy of Peter Fay

SW: Please explain to us the progress and specific experiences that relate to your development and influences through each of your album releases and if there is slight or vast maturation on each new transition.

Nat Birchall: That’s kind of a difficult question again. I can only say that each time we record and release an album it seems to me that we have reached a slightly higher stage in our development. Both the group concept, and my own personal musical concept. I think when I record an album and I listen back to it there’s a sense that it’s a small progression from the last one, personally and group-wise, and that then becomes the “norm”, in my mind at least! And so there’s a steady progression in these things that helps with the confidence and motivation to keep moving forward. It’s very slow progress, but it’s always been like that for me I think. The albums themselves are basically a product of the combination of the songs and the personnel involved. My songs are very organic things, it’s as if I discover them rather than consciously compose them. So they have their own life as it were, and as such they are beyond my control to some degree.

The musicians play as they feel with only simple directions from myself, so that part too is beyond my control. So I can’t really claim to be consciously developing my music in any particular way, other than just trying to make it “better” or more “complete”. The only thing is that I may want things to be a little more intense sometimes, or have more of a particular sound going on. So I might make changes to the personnel in order to achieve this sometimes. On the latest recording I wanted some of that hand drum sound that I love so much, especially on the Count Ossie records that I listened to so much through the 70s, so I asked Christian Weaver to come along and play with us. But for the most part it’s a very organic process that happens by itself.

SW: You have recently been part of the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, discussing the impact of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’, now 50 years on. Where do you feel the true importance of this album sits in the history of music and what impression of his seminal release do you take from the other musicians whom you have worked with during the documentary?

Nat Birchall: I think that albums are what they are, meaning they are mostly a record of what the group played at that particular time on that particular day, or days. It’s difficult for them to be anything more than that in real terms I think. But, having said that, they can sometimes turn out to have a lasting impact for various reasons. In the case of A Love Supreme I think it was an explicitly Spiritual statement from John Coltrane. In fact I should really say that it was an explicitly devotional statement. His music was always spiritual, even when he played standards, and it continued to be even more so until the end. But it was usually implicitly Spiritual rather than explicit. By making it explicit it made people react to it a certain way I think. It’s also a “concept” album of course, so its unity of purpose makes it stand out a little too. I think it’s also one of those occasions when the playing was of a consistently high standard throughout the session. It always was to some degree or another with the “classic quartet” of course.

As for its importance, I think things can only be important to us as individuals, I don’t think we can say that this or that is an important album to the world at large, or even the Jazz world. Things that have great importance to us may not even register with someone else, it’s up to the individual as to whether something is important or not.

Nat Birchall with The Matt Halsall Band at Rush Hour Blues. 28th May 2010.

Nat Birchall at Rush Hour Blues, Birmingham 28th May 2010. Photo: Courtesy Russ Escritt

SW: Do you make demands on the listener? Is there more to the musician/listener experience than a simple ‘performance’?

Nat Birchall: I think the only demand I make is for them to listen! Although “demand” is the wrong term, I would only “ask” that they listen would be a better way of putting it. The musician/listener experience, as you put it, is certainly more than a “performance” in my belief. But again “performance” is not an accurate term for what happens when we play. I believe the type of music that we play is more of a communal thing, involving the audience more than even they might realise maybe. It’s a difficult thing to explain completely but there is definitely a two-way communication going on between the musicians and the listeners, as well as the communication that goes on between the various musicians themselves. I believe music has a definite positive social function. It can be seen as entertainment but it is often much more than that if we allow it to be, both as players and listeners. If we as musicians play in an honest way, for the right reasons or motivations, then this transmits to the listener and can have a positive effect on their well-being.

SW: Only in recent years have I been exposed to some true giants in jazz and wondered how such an oversight happened. Are there musicians who you have picked up on late and which have given you the most enjoyment, and how much new music do you find time to listen too?

Nat Birchall: It’s easy to miss great music and musicians; they are not represented in our day-to-day society or media, regrettably. But that’s probably true of other things like great film or literature. The things that tend to be promoted are the things that are most likely to achieve the biggest audience or the fastest buck for the one doing the promoting or disseminating. With no thought, or doubtless care, for the long-term effects of such a strategy. I’m speaking about the general media at large of course, not the Jazz media.

Personally I only discovered Horace Tapscott a few years ago, despite my having supposedly investigated the Jazz of Black America for the past 35+ years. Some people are even under the Jazz radar, even when they are of the calibre of a giant like him.

I don’t get much time to listen to a lot of new music these days. I used to try and follow as much new Jazz as I could but I kind of got to the point where it wasn’t really doing it for me, not like the music of the sixties would do at least. There are still some people who I listen to who are making music now, JD Allen is one, Tisziji Munoz is another. But I have recently discovered the current Jazz scene in South Africa, musicians like drummer Tumi Mogorosi, bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, pianist Ndudozo Makhathini and saxophone player Nhlanhla Mahlangu among many others. There is a real vibrant scene going on down there and all these musicians are exceptional. The music is really happening and of a contemporary nature, it is informed by African/American Jazz but also has a definite African element going on, very soulful music. It should be more widely available for sure.

SW: And live performances – what was the last concert you went to see and what motivates you enough to have you sitting in the audience?

Nat Birchall: I don’t get to see many live concerts nowadays unfortunately. Over the past two or three years I’ve managed to catch Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Garrett and JD Allen (playing in Jaimeo Brown‘s band) I was really enjoying the Kenny Garrett gig, they were playing some really great music. But when he started to get the audience to sing along with him I had to leave! Over the years I’ve been very lucky to see some really great musicians, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Gil Evans, Dewey Redman, Charles Lloyd, Ahmad Jamal, Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis… It’s a long list, and it kind of spoiled me in a way because a lot of the music being produced today can’t get near it in terms of depth or spiritual power.

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Photo: Courtesy of Peter Fay

SW: You are currently preparing for the release of your new album, with anticipation amongst collectors for another glorious vinyl release. At what stage are you at with sound, visuals, mastering and pressing, and is it a subtle or huge leap in technique from your last live recording – what indeed can we expect?

Nat Birchall: Audio-wise the album is mastered now. The artwork is the next stage. I’ll be involved with that to some degree but then that will probably be the end of my involvement really.

The band is slightly different than on the last album, mostly because of some members being unavailable at the time of recording. In fact the only people who are on the new album that were on the live one are myself and Adam Fairhall. The change in personnel makes the music change to some degree of course. Although the music itself is probably not hugely different to what has gone before, maybe a little more intense or distilled, but we will see what people make of it when it is released!

SW: When can the buying public expect to find the new release on the shelves and will this be another Sound Soul And Spirit release?

Nat Birchall: The album is probably going to be released in late Spring, possibly around May. And I’m very happy to say that this album will be released by Jazzman Records, both on vinyl and CD.

SW: Finally Nat, you are asked to put one of your own compositions into a time capsule to be buried for 50 years. What song would it be and why?

Nat Birchall: Another tough question! Maybe “World Without Form”? It’s hard choosing your own songs, by the time they are released I’ve listened to them so many times during the recording, mixing and mastering process, let alone the composing stage. Plus it’s kind of difficult to be objective about your own thing, you know? When we know it’s ourselves playing when we listen it colours our perception of the music. I always like my music better when I hear it by chance and it doesn’t sink in for a few bars that it’s actually me playing. It usually sounds pretty good, but as soon as I realise that it’s me it suddenly sounds not-so-good. It’s probably psychological. I hope so anyway…

From his first release back in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, there has been clear progression with Nat’s sound, no matter how humble Mr. Birchall portrays it. Whatever 2015 is set to give us, there will be certain qualities to the sound that will claim its rightful place in the progress of both Nat Birchall and British jazz. Nat is a passionate soul and focused on his own musical direction with each album opening a door to the next adventure for each listener and a journey we have truly enjoyed being part of. We therefore recommend you all jump aboard. I for one am excited to know there will be new music by Nat very soon and it looks very much like the wind in his sails is blowing strong and many more future projects are inevitable. Next week Nat and his band can be found at The Queen’s Head, Monmouth on 11th March followed by St. George’s, Bristol on 12th – keep an eye on all his future tour dates here.

Steve Williams

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