“for me… Collocutor is an opportunity to explore musically all the cultural connections which are part of being a human being, particularly in the 21st century, in somewhere like London, where you do meet everyone from everywhere. If you’re open-minded you’ll have the opportunity to engage with them and find out which bits of each other’s cultures connect and make sense.” – Tamar Osborn
2014 saw Collocutor shake up the Jazz and Modal music scene with their refreshing debut album, ‘Instead’. With the release of Collocutor’s sophomore album forthcoming in the latter part of 2016, Michael J Edwards sat down with the driving force behind the collective, Tamar Osborn at London’s New River Studios prior to their set, to get the insight on both albums; who ‘Collocutor’ are, and the lowdown on Tamar Osborn the person and the musician.
Photo: Courtesy of Gavin Mills
Michael J Edwards: Greetings Tamar. Please give us a snapshot on how your imaginative debut album ‘Instead’ came to fruition?
Tamar Osborn: I’d been inspired by various different musicians and bands I’d been working with across jazz and world music, and felt the need to write and record some music that was just about allowing the compositions to be whatever they wanted to be, and drawing on the strengths of the musicians involved. ‘Instead’ was the result, and found a home with On The Corner Records almost by accident!
I’d been working with Nick Woodmansey (aka Emanative) for a while on various recordings and live gigs. We recorded a track called ‘Over’ and I was involved in several of the Emanative ‘Light Years Of The Darkness’ recording sessions, and around the same time I asked Nick if he’d be interested in mixing Collocutor’s album. Luckily he said yes! Sometime early on in the mixing sessions he loaded up one of the tracks (actually the title track ‘Instead’) at the wrong speed – it was too fast. But it inspired him to do a dance-floor oriented remix. All of which led me to meet Pete Buckenham from On The Corner Records.
Nick had introduced me to Pete when he’d been documenting some of the ‘Light Years Of The Darkness’ sessions. They’d already been talking about releasing ‘Over’ as a 12inch, and Nick had played him Collocutor’s material. Pete really liked both the album and the ‘Instead’ remix, so that became the B side to ‘Over’, and the Collocutor album release followed from there. Probably the whole thing wouldn’t have happened had Nick not accidentally loaded up a track at the wrong speed!
Michael J Edwards: Why the name Collocutor; where did that stem from the first instance?
Tamar Osborn: That stemmed from me spending so long trying to find a band name that nobody had used yet. I tried anagram generators and all sorts of things but kept coming up with words or phrases that were either rubbish or had already been used! Then I was reading an English translation of a novel and it had this word “collocutor” in it. The context made it interesting, but I thought, “I can guess what it means but I’m not 100% sure, so I’ll go and look it up.” And it meant, ‘Someone taking part in a conversation.’ So sitting and talking now we are ‘collocutors’. I thought “that’s what musicians do, that’s what our job is: to have conversations – musicians with each other; the composer with musicians; the musicians with the audience” – it’s all a giant conversation, so the word seemed appropriate. Moreover, nobody was using it as a band name! Bingo!!
Michael J Edwards: The album artwork is distinctive. What was the inspiration behind it?
Tamar Osborn: It really came about through musical connections. A friend of mine Todd Simon (Ethio-Cali band) – a trumpeter from L.A very much in the Ethiopian music scene there – introduced me to Yohanna Alem, a UK-Ethiopian artist/textile designer/singer. And when I was looking for someone to do the artwork I had a look at her website and thought her work was ideal. It’s based on line drawing and is very music influenced as well as having cultural references from all sorts of places. She’s very interested in her Ethiopian roots but is also inspired by hip-hop culture and by travel… So I knew I could say to her, “Look at all these different records, this is what I’ve been listening to, and these are the visual ideas I’ve been thinking about. What can you come up with?” She liked the album and tried out some ideas, and then this piece of artwork turned up and I was like, “Oh! Well that’s kind of perfect!”
Photo: Courtesy of Gavin Mills
Michael J Edwards: When did the artwork actually come to fruition?
Tamar Osborn: The artwork was one of the last things to happen for the album, which was good in a way because Yohanna needed to be able to hear the finished music to interpret it. And she did a brilliant job!
Michael J Edwards: How and where did you get ideas for the compositions, and over what period of time was the album written?
Tamar Osborn: It was actually recorded at the end of 2012, but the writing process had gone on way before that. Some of it stemmed from ideas that I’d started for another project that didn’t quite work, and then dug up again. I used to have an afro-latin-funk band which was great fun, but it wasn’t quite the right thing as my writing style was changing. Then I got side-tracked from composing by joining other brilliant projects like the Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra and The Fontanelles (formed from the house band of the FELA! musical in London) which were amazing, like a musical coming home! So then I started composing for The Fontanelles and that kick-started the writing process again.
Then I realised that some of the material I was coming up with wasn’t quite right for that band. I felt the need to compose something that was just about the writing; it’s not about needing to make people dance, it’s not about trying to get a Jazz audience, it’s not about trying to write Afrobeat – it’s whatever comes out. So I’ve drawn on my life as a musician, starting off playing a lot of classical music. And I’ve been lucky enough to work with musicians from different traditions all over the world: Indian, Bangladeshi, Cuban, Nigerian, Algerian, klezmer… Then taking part in the Africa Express project for the first time in 2012 was a real ear-opening experience! It was great to work groups like with The Krar Collective, a London based Ethiopian group, and to try to improvise something as a 3-piece horn section that would fit with the modes they were using. So all these things are going on, and many are connected by an idea of modality, rather than chordal harmony. And also thinking back to the Jazz that actually always interested me – the modal side. You take the chords out and get a little bit freer.
I also love music that hypnotises you, that sends you into some kind of trance; so I wanted to explore those kind of ideas. It’s meant to be repetitive, it’s meant to be hypnotising and for me Modal music lends itself to that more than chord changes do. When I was writing it I wasn’t thinking of it as Jazz; it’s ended up being classified as Jazz because it’s led by horns and includes improvisation. It draws as much on composition techniques I learned from classical music and ideas that I absorbed from playing with all these musicians from different backgrounds.
Michael J Edwards: Who are some of your influences whether they be Classical composers, Jazz composers or African composers?
Tamar Osborn: From the classical genre I’ve always loved Debussy; he’s someone who pushed the boundaries of western tonality at the time, using modes such as whole-tone scales and taking an attitude of “Let’s try to move away from accepted structured harmony and explore a new sound world.” He wasn’t necessarily the first to do it, but he’s regarded as one of the fathers of Impressionism. He didn’t like the word and thought of it as a derogatory term, but I can’t think of a better word for it. For me it means creating a new world through experimenting with sound colours and textures… So he was a big influence. Growing up clarinet was my first instrument, closely followed by the saxophone, and I studied and performed classical music all the way through to my early twenties. And my brother is a flautist and composer, so the pieces I heard him practising also worked their way into my consciousness! We were lucky to grow up in an area (Bedfordshire) where at that time youth music was of a very high standard. The county youth music service ran several orchestras as well as concert bands, opera, big band, chamber orchestra…and our parents encouraged us to take part in as many as we could! We performed some very challenging repertoire in the main Youth Orchestra, including Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite Of Spring’. Believe me, playing ‘The Rite Of Spring’ when you’re a teenager stays with you! It’s an incredibly powerful piece.
Classical Indian music also inspires me; tabla is one of my favourite instruments to listen to! So many different tone colours in one instrument. I was lucky enough to work in India back in 2005 with some amazing musicians…. All very encouraging and open; I learnt a lot from rehearsing and performing with them… It was another approach to music – you learn by listening, not by reading.
It’s very structured in its own way, but it’s a different way of understanding the music from the tradition I grew up with. I got to sit in on a few classical Indian flute lessons, where everything is initially learned by copying your guru, listening and playing back and then developing yourself. So it’s all by hearing and the physical act of playing, rather than interpreting something that’s written on the page. And the basis of the music is rhythm and ragas [scales] – which both have their own set of rules – as opposed to the harmonic sequences or chord progressions of much of western music. It’s just a totally different way of looking at music, which is something I find interesting. Friends there also introduced me to the recordings of Hariprasad Chaurasia. He mastered the bansuri [bamboo flute] and made it an acceptable classical instrument, and the sounds he produces on it are astonishingly beautiful.
On the African side, playing in Dele Sosimi’s band has been a huge influence – experiencing how the bass, guitar, percussion and drum patterns all interlock in afrobeat is something I definitely draw on. And then hearing artists like Mulatu Astake, music that makes you go, “Woah! This is amazing!” His music had a big impact. It’s the meeting of folk tradition from one country with a kind of popular tradition from another. He studied in the UK and America, and when he was in America, the closest he could get to people who could understand where he was coming from musically were the Latin musicians. So Latin percussion made its way into what he was doing, as well as Jazz, as well as his Ethiopian roots. What he did was come up with something that was new and fresh whilst encompassing all of the above. And he did it really successfully, it didn’t sound like bits of different musics that had been shoe- horned together…It was filtered through his life as a musician and it came out as an expression of what he experienced as a musician. Really inspiring.
Michael J Edwards: Who are your influences on the saxophone?
Tamar Osborn: Joe Henderson always pops into my mind first, he’s been consistently there in my listening, on his own albums and as a side man on other peoples recordings… I’ve never really tried to sound like him but there’s something about what he does as a player that’s always drawn me back. Whatever style he’s playing, whether it’s straight ahead, bossa nova or a 70s effects-laden groove, he always has his own immediately identifiable sound.
Wayne Shorter is also up there, as much for his compositions as his playing. ‘Juju’ was one of the first jazz tunes I really remember working on, and I think that album had more of an influence on my tastes than I realised at the time!
Michael J Edwards: Which is your preferred saxophone/instrument?
Tamar Osborn: Baritone is my favourite; however I appreciate Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter are tenor players! I also love the alto flute, ever since I first got to play it in college. It has such a gorgeous sound, and immediately makes me think of 60s and 70s film soundtracks!
Michael J Edwards: You found your voice with the baritone saxophone?
Tamar Osborn: Yes, when I found my way to it and got comfortable with it, it turned out to be the right voice for me. It can be aggressive and funky but also sweetly melancholic, almost cello-like when it’s played lyrically.
Michael J Edwards: Do you compose on a particular instrument?
Tamar Osborn: It depends on whatever I have in my hand at the time. If I’m going to improvise something and draw a composition from that, then it’s whatever instrument is closest to hand.
Michael J Edwards: Collocutor don’t perform live very often, mainly because of band member commitments?
Tamar Osborn: It’s partly that, it’s also partly the fact that we’re still a relatively new ensemble – the first record was the beginning. We weren’t a live working ensemble before its release, the record was the start. We’ve been working out the live the direction since then!
Photo: Courtesy of Gavin Mills
Michael J Edwards: What is the thinking behind bringing in remixers such as Nick Woodmansey to give a different twist to some of your records?
Tamar Osborn: The idea is to open the music to people who might connect with it but who wouldn’t necessarily go into a record shop and look under Jazz. So the way to enable them to find it is to get an interesting remix which is closer to what they normally listen to, which might then lead them to check out the original. Also it’s fascinating to hear which parts of the music remixers pick up on and where they take it!
Michael J Edwards: How heavily has your own cultural heritage impacted upon your music?
Tamar Osborn: Very heavily! But probably more in the sense of encouraging me to explore music from places other than the country I’ve grown up in, rather than an audible stylistic influence. I’m half English and half mixed race South African, so I was born and brought up in the UK but grew up hearing stories about South Africa and about the diversity of that side of my family’s roots… There’s indigenous South-West African, various European, a bit from India via Mauritius and possibly some South East Asian. I think that’s one of the reasons that for me something like Collocutor is an opportunity to explore musically all the cultural connections which are part of being a human being, particularly in the 21st century, in somewhere like London, where you do meet everyone from everywhere. If you’re open-minded you’ll have the opportunity to engage with them and find out which bits of each other’s cultures connect and make sense.
Michael J Edwards: Please tell us about your forthcoming album entitled ‘The Search’?
Tamar Osborn: We’ve recorded the new album, but it’s not going to be out until much later in the year, partly due to vinyl manufacture times and partly because we’ll soon be running a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money to be able to get it pressed up!
It’s an accidental concept album, the story of a journey. I didn’t start off with the intention of writing an album with a narrative theme, but as the music progressed the compositions naturally fitted together and there seemed to be a continuum between the pieces that developed into this story of a journey with a dark beginning and a hopeful end. The title refers to searching for a better way to exist in the world, but that could be emotional, spiritual or more simply a move to a geographically different place. The last track is called ‘Arrival’ and hopefully suggests something positive for us to aim for in these unsettled times.
Michael J Edwards: How many tracks are there on this sophomore album?
Tamar Osborn: There are seven, four of them are composed and three are improvised conversations, giving a bit more freedom to slightly smaller configurations of the band. One of the conversations features the two saxophones and the bass, another is between percussion and guitar, and the final one is percussion and trumpet. We’ve done some gigs with quartet and trio versions of the band, and come up with really enjoyable improvisations in those contexts, so the idea is to bring those different flavours and people’s other influences into the group a little bit more and add some extra textures to the album.
Photo: Courtesy of Gavin Mills
Michael J Edwards: The album tracks really come to life when performed within the live arena. Would you concur?
Tamar Osborn: Absolutely! Live performance is when the music can breathe – an improvisation can go off in an unexpected direction, or a section can open out just because it feels right and all the musicians are really listening and feeding off each other’s ideas. But a good performance can rely on what the audience gives back to you; I’ve done gigs where the audience seems dead and you’ve absolutely no idea whether the music is reaching them or not, and it feels like hard work. And then afterwards you found out they loved it, but when you’re absorbed in the performance you don’t know for sure. It’s a very different experience to an audience that is obviously involved and feeding energy back to you – then you can really start to let go!
Michael J Edwards: Where do you draw your creative influence and inspiration from?
Tamar Osborn: I’m always influenced by who I’ve been working with and what I’ve been listening to, and classical composition techniques often creep in as well. I used to write a lot for saxophone quartets when I was younger, and the textures I tried out then have definitely fed into writing for the horns in Collocutor – the second album draws on that side a little more heavily whilst keeping the improvised element in there as well. I was also listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix while writing the second album, so a bit of that sound may have found it’s way into the music!
In terms of the inspiration for the compositions it comes from all sorts of different places – something I’ve heard, somewhere I’ve visited, an interesting scale encountered in a book (Yusef Lateef’s scale compendium has a wealth of information!), my abiding interest in ancient history and the idea that humans have exchanged and blended cultural ideas, whether by trade or conquest, for pretty much as long as we’ve been able to communicate! Sometimes bits and pieces of composition ideas that have been knocking around unused for years suddenly click together and form into something new, and eventually it becomes a track on the album. Other pieces suggest themselves almost fully formed, whilst others would start from an improvisation that I’ve recorded and extracted the bits that worked best or were the most melodic from, and then developed. So it’s very different for each piece.
Michael J Edwards: When you write a track how do you determine it’s duration?
Tamar Osborn: I don’t! It’s whatever length it ends up being. It seems to average between six and eight minutes, but there are always one or two that are a bit longer or shorter. Each piece finds it’s natural length eventually. So in working for the new album we’ve done a lot of rehearsal, a lot of trying things out, taking sections out, making sections longer, finding what feels natural for that piece.
Michael J Edwards: Do you plan to perform more gigs London wide and Europe wide prior to the album’s release and subsequently once it’s in the public domain?
Tamar Osborn: The idea is that the album will come out in the autumn, so we’re planning to organise a tour around then, and we have some gigs booked in over the summer which we’ll be announcing soon.
Michael J Edwards: Wonderful Tamar. Thank you for your time.
Tamar Osborn: It’s a pleasure
Michael J Edwards
Essential Album: ‘Instead’ (On The Corner Records)
Tamar Osborn – baritone sax, soprano sax, alto flute
Simon Finch – trumpet
Mike Lesirge – tenor sax (live)
Marco Piccioni – guitar
Suman Joshi – bass
Maurizio Ravalico – various percussion
Magnus Mehta – various percussion (live)
Afla Sackey – djembe and Ghanaian shakers (album)