Justin Thurgur is a musician, composer and arranger who you may not be familiar with but you would no doubt have heard his dulcet trombone tones on a multitude of artists recordings as well as witnessing him hanging tough as part of various horn sections in live arenas around the UK and further afield. The lion share of his career has been spent as an integral part of Dele Sosimi’s Afro beat Orchestra as well as a lengthy collaboration with Kishon Khan group’s The Bonobo Orchestra and LoKkhi TeRra; not to mention his high-profile tours with English folk group Bellowhead. Outside of these projects Justin has worked with heavyweight musicians such as Tony Allen, Damon Albarn, Tony Kofi and Bucky Leo among others. Michael J Edwards sat down with this known, yet unknown, trombonist to discuss his career thus far and his exciting first solo album release ‘No Confusion’.
MJE: Greetings Justin Thurgur, it’s great to link with you to discuss this very rare occasion i.e a solo album release from a trombone player, moreover a UK trombone player. I’m reminded of a book written by James Brown’s funky trombonist’s, Fred Wesley entitled ‘Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman’. My point being that the trombone player is more often than not regarded as a sideman and very rarely as a Frontman/band leader. How was it for you taking to the helm of your own solo project after so many years as a side man?
Justin Thurgur: Even as a sideman I have been heavily involved with the projects I have been working with. I have been working heavily with Kishon Khan, who is the pianist on my album, working with him now for 20 years, writing and arranging a lot of the projects with him; even on stage taking responsibility for MDing. And the same with Dele Sosimi, another guy I have been working with for a long time. Actually recorded two of his albums, engineering, co-producing, arranging… so I have always been involved heavily in that side of things. But the funny thing is, it is very different when you think ‘this is all my thing’, but that said, the album was written collaboratively with Kishon and a bass player called Max de Wardener.
MJE: Would you say the trombone is an instrument which hasn’t been given its full due even though it does have its high-profile exponents such as the aforementioned Fred Wesley, the effervescent Trombone Shorty and the U.K.’s very own Dennis Rollins and dearly departed reggae/Ska and jazz maestro Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez?
Justin Thurgur: It is interesting how you introduce it as an instrument that is usually a side instrument. I’ve noticed in a lot of bands where the trombone player is taking charge of the section, and that’s true of Fred Wesley for example – he was the Musical Director of James Brown’s band for a long time. So quite often trombone players do take an active roll as a sideman. There is book about the personalities of instruments, with all sort of theories on what type of characters play different types on instruments – I think there is a truth in that.
There was a review of my album a few days back I was reading, where the writer noted that I share a lot of air time on the record with the rest of the guys in the band. For me I like the trombone as an instrument that compliments other instruments, so I wouldn’t necessary think of doing an album with just trombone and no other horns. I like the fact that a trombone with a trumpet adds a bit of darkness, a bit of warmth to that sound, even with saxophones and such – I like that element of the instrument. So I suppose even though it is my band, and my name on the front of the record, I still kind of see myself as a sideman, or at least part of the team and hopefully not about my ego and certainly the way the album has been written it is not about that. I am happy with the album; it sounds like ‘me’ but it also sounds like all my ‘friends’, and the communications we have with each other.
MJE: Did you ever work with or play alongside Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez or any of the aforementioned trombonist?
Justin Thurgur: Sadly, I have never met Dennis, because I think he is a great trombone player. Funny enough I played opposite Rico. I was part of an English folk band called ‘Bellowhead’ during the earlier part of this year, and performed on Jools Holland’s show – Rico was playing in Jools’ band. So I got to sit opposite but didn’t get the chance to talk to him unfortunately. So sadly no – I’ve not met Trombone Shorty, but it is interesting with trombone players as quite often, as I have not done much of the big band work, or even loads of the session work, so often I am the only trombone player on a gig or offering it out to another player. So I know a lot of trombone players on the phone who I have given gigs to, although I haven’t necessarily met all of them! I suppose over time you get to meet each other… So I know a lot of the guys that I would use as a replacement for me, but sadly not met Dennis.
MJE: I understand that if it wasn’t for the guidance of fellow trombonist and teacher Trevor ap Simon when you were aged thirteen we may not be having this conversation?
Justin Thurgur: Yeah I mean it’s hard to know isn’t it. My parents were very musical and I was aware of jazz prior to meeting him pretty much from my parents. So I was already kind of on it, but I think for one thing he was a great trombone player.
I had a very good teacher prior to him who was a trumpeter, so he was a great teacher but wasn’t necessarily an inspiration as an instrumentalist. I mean I like the instrument already but this was like “Hey!” And I play the same trombone that he played, and I kind of almost model my sound a little bit on his sound you know, it’s a slightly more fat, a slightly more rounded sound, because he (Trevor) was just a great trombone player. But he did definitely introduce me very much to the idea of improvisation, but also actually different types of music as well, because he came for a year to work at the school. The school I was at had a policy that had this support program that they did where they kind of got postgraduates and did a year’s work experience basically. And so they really threw themselves into it for a year. And he started, like a sort of Trad jazz thing, he started a calypso band, he started a German stomp band. You know he did say he did a few different things you know and so. And as I say it got him got me into improvising. So I think the improvising thing I found exciting, playing jazz I found exciting, especially as a trombone player. Now I enjoy listening to classical music but actually the role of the trombone in classical music is a bit limited. I remember seeing a workshop from a great classical to Michael Christian Limburg who’s one of the few classical trombone player who’s making a full-time career just doing solo trombone work. And someone asked him, “Do you miss playing in an orchestra and he said, No I much prefer playing orchestral music now i’m not in it.” Because I remember doing a Liszt piano concerto once when I was at university, I think I had 21 notes in a 20 minute piece. And they weren’t great note, they were okay, but they weren’t the best notes. So he kind of got me into seeing the creative potential of my instrument and also actually seeing someone being a professional musician and doing that thing and actually making a living out of being a creative trombone player. So I suppose it was an inspiration from that point of view. Definitely yeah.
MJE: What intrigued you about the trombone at that time and how instrumental was Mr Simon in your progression with the instrument?
Justin Thurgur: I think the funny thing is I actually wanted to play trombone literally for as long as I can remember and I don’t and I don’t even remember why. Like from when I was three years old I wanted to play the front line. I didn’t actually start till I was 10 but that was to do with brass teachers who kind of had this thing about “you’re too small, your lips are the wrong shape”. All that kind of thing which I’ve never really agreed with and my brass teacher at the time was like “You’re too small to start the trombone”, and I was about 7 or 8 when I tried to start. I don’t think I was too small actually but that’s another story. But yeah, so I wanted to play it from a very very early age, but I dabbled in a few other instruments before I got to the trombone. But I always kind of had it in my sights like I want to play the trombone. So the minute I picked up a trombone it was like there was a connection there I think because I’ve been wanting to do it for so long. So I got on with a very quickly so it was already I was already very much on the path of enjoying being a trombone player. But but then Trevor just kind of the improvisation thing that he introduced me to that’s a big thing because you know there’s a whole creative element of improvising that it just brings in a whole new way of approaching your instrument, not only in terms of having more to do and having more of a role in music but also you can have your own character and your own personality in the music as well. So from that point of view he was a massive influence I think in opening my eyes to the potential of the trombone.
MJE: Did you listen to specific trombone players in your formative years in the Thurgur household or just jazz artists in general?
Justin Thurgur: Jazz artists in general but there were definitely trombone players that influenced me quite early on. I started off more in the Trad jazz listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, and I loved a particular trombone player who worked with Louis Armstrong called (James) “Trummy” Young. He was probably one of my first big influences. And it’s interesting because he was ‘clean’ – that’s the wrong word, I’m not sure how to describe it… there was a lot of the trombone players at that time that used the glissando a lot and you used the slide a lot, but “Trummy” Young was one of the first ones of that period who was much more of a precise player and a bit more direct, and I kind of liked that. So he was a big influence. And then I moved up to, and discovered some of the later period stuff and got massively into sort of the 50s/60s era. I suppose the biggest influence on me is probably Curtis Fuller. Although I do like J.J. Johnson I actually love Curtis Fuller, he’s more of an influence on me than J.J.. And then from there… Julian Priester I like a lot. Especially influenced by some of his more experimental stuff he did with Herbie with the Mwandishi project in the 70s. He had an influence on me there being a little bit more kind of off the wall. But then I later came across him playing some early 60s Freddie Hubbard albums and stuff and liked what he was doing on that. Julian Priester is definitely an influence.
Then I kind of got more and more Modern, so probably the other big influence was Fred Wesley, we already mentioned, he’s definitely a big influence on me. Also a guy called Josh Roseman who was the trombone player for group called Groove Collective. I think he’s actually an amazing trombone player. So yeah I suppose those are kind of the key trombone players. Then when I started getting more into the Latin thing, then people like Barry Rogers who was the trombone player for Eddie Palmieri’s Band. So a bit of both – I love my instrument but I love other instruments as well. I was always listening to music as a kid, I was massively into Wayne Shorter. Massively into Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan all those kind of guys – I wasn’t necessarily actively seeking out trombone players, but obviously a lot of those guys used trombone players – Curtis Fuller was very much a part of that Blue Note scene, so was on a lot of Art Blakey albums and all that kind of stuff.
MJE: Your debut solo album ‘No Confusion’ is out and ready to be consumed by the masses. Why the title ‘No Confusion’ and why the decision to release a solo album now?
Justin Thurgur: [Laughs] It’s quite funny, because actually I’ve been making it for 12 years. Maybe I shouldn’t admit too, maybe I could fit it into a story about some amazing journey I went on… But actually there’s a truth in that. I did start it 12 years ago but there’s been a progression of the album over the years and I think perhaps I feel more ready to actually front a band now than I did 12 years ago. Having said I took 12 years I hurried getting it out in the end, and getting it finished because of this band Bellowhead I had been very busy with was coming to an end, so I thought actually this is quite a good time as a lot of people where asking “What are you doing next?” kind of thing. It was quite nice to be able to say “Well I’m putting out my own album and doing my own thing” you know. But I think I think it’s interesting, when I first got into music I just assumed that everyone had the same approach to being a musician, but some people are happy being anonymous and sitting in on a session where no one would ever know their name but they know that they’ve played that track to the best of their ability and they’re happy when they listen to it. Like I have a trumpet player friend who’s big inspiration was the trumpet player on a James Bond movie soundtrack – he’s obviously gone on to find out who they are, but actually at the time you don’t know who that is. My earliest inspirations were those jazz guys who were making their own statements and so I suppose part of my process is I’ve always wanted to be creatively involved with things and be making an individual statement in the projects I’m involved with. I’ve done that on the sides with the bands like LoKkhi TeRra and Dele Sosimi that I’ve been working with for years. It just seemed like a natural progression, I suppose, to go on to do my own thing.
And why it’s called “No Confusion”?, I suppose the nature of the title is slightly a nod to Fela Kuti. It felt like a kind of Fela Kuti-ish title because he has got a track called “Confusion”. It also has a lot of African influences on it and more subtly there’s Latin influence on it. Obviously it’s got an element of funk and American influences on it. It’s interesting having spent 18 years playing very closely alongside Dele Sosimi in the Nigerian scene. I’ve played in the Cuban scene and not wanting to be negative but like Kishon Khan and I used to run a Cuban band and it was interesting to see how people responded to a Cuban band that wasn’t being fronted by Cubans. So you are having to persuade people more because we’re not Cuban. Sometimes people will ask how you ended up playing African music and almost as if that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing. Like somehow, “This is a different world how you are you in it?” I don’t view it like that because especially living in London, my friends are from all over the world, the musicians I’ve been playing with are from all over the world. So they are my community – a Cuban baby is not born with an innate ability to play Cuban music. The reason why they’re so amazing at Cuban music is because they grow up with it their whole lives. The same with African musicians; if you immerse yourself in Fela Kuti’s music from a young age, you’re going to have an aptitude for playing it, because your ears are hearing that.
So in a sense, the title of the album was aimed at that. That actually this is my community, there’s no there’s no confusion about the kind of music I’m playing, I’m not an English guy trying to be Cuban or an English guy trying to be an African. I’m an English guy who’s been hanging out with these communities all his life and I went to an international school as well. So literally all my life I’ve been hanging out with these communities and that is my community. So that’s kind of what the title is aimed at.
MJE: You’re releasing the album via the newly created Funkiwala Record Label which you have established in conjunction with your long-term friend and collaborator Kishon Khan. Please give us some background to the label’s formation?
Justin Thurgur: Well it slightly comes back to what I was just saying about the title of the album. I think all musics have their demons to face, in a sense. I just read the autobiography of Quest Love and I was talking with Akala, Ms. Dynamite’s brother – you will see him on Facebook quite a lot at the moment because he’s a highly educated historian on black history. He’s really read up a lot and so he’s been talking a lot with all this Brexit stuff that’s going on and there’s been a lot of him on Facebook just kind of putting certain points of view over and I find him a very fascinating guy and we were chatting and he was talking about how the commercial side of the hip-hip industry sometimes focuses very heavily on gangster rap in the same way that the jazz scene is maybe always compared to the Americans… playing Cuban music and you’re always compared to Cubans. There’s a lot of these pressures when you’re playing to be a certain thing – if you’re playing African music, be a certain way, of playing Cuban music must be a certain way. My album represents a community of musicians who are doing all sorts of stuff. Actually if you look, historically how did reggae come about? Reggae came about because a whole bunch of different communities landed on an island in the middle of the Atlantic and something came out of it – Cuban music the same. Most music has been influenced by other parts of the world in some way or other.
I find it interesting, the whole traditional debate. I’m very respectful of traditional music but traditional music is music that had its own forces working on it at the time that it was made you know. And okay maybe now with increasing technology that process has become a bit faster but actually globalization has been going on for thousands and thousands of thousands of years. And so actually whilst I totally respect the thing of like “We want to preserve this period in time” of music, the nature of music is that it moves on as well. So basically the Funkiwala label thing was an idea that Kishon and I have been chatting about for a long time. Basically to represent that community of musicians who are making music they want to without necessarily concerning themselves too much. You’ve been to London, you walk down the street and everyone’s there. It’s music that represents that rather than “We want the music of this community” or “We want the music of that community” you know, because actually there is a reality in that because obviously those communities are playing that music. It’s also reality that there are other people playing that music and doing other things with that music, and there always has been. Eddie Palmieri’s band I mentioned earlier Barry Rogers his trombone player. He was a Polish Jew, playing in one of the most formative sort of Latin jazz groups in the new yorican scene in the 70s – it was a mixture of cultures. It’s our attempt to allow that side of the music scene have more of a voice.
MJE: How did you and Kishon Khan first meet?
Justin Thurgur: When I left university and was trying to get on the scene, I moved to London, I went to University in Cardiff and then moved to London and was looking to get into the music. At that time I was still very much – although I had come across a bit of African music and a bit of Latin music – I was still very much on the jazz thing at that time albeit maybe more Herbie Hancock and funk. So I was just going around London trying to meet players and at that time particularly home studios didn’t exist in the same way – it was all a little bit more organic in a way, an the way to get help was to go out and meet players and play a lot. There were a lot of jam sessions going on, which I think have started to come back a bit again now, there was a period where there was less of them. And so I went around a lot to jam sessions and I went to some good jazz jams but somehow it wasn’t quite – as much as I love that music – I didn’t see myself in that scene, and then I went down to a jam session that Kishon was running in Soho, in a club called the St Moritz Club on Wardour St.
MJE: How long ago was this?
Justin Thurgur: This is twenty-one years ago. He was running it and it was an amazing little community of musicians down there, playing similar music to what we’re doing now, but maybe we were all a little bit greener. So I went down and I heard a track called “You’ve Got To” that Kishon wrote when he was 18, which is on my album and little homage in a way about that very influential time in my life, where I heard this track and said this is where I want to be. So I went to the jam for about a month, and I was lucky that they were just kind of in-between horn players, so I ended up being the trombone player for the house band.
And we did that jam for about a year before we stopped it and then kind of carried on from there really and both Kishon and I were very much playing around with a lot of world music influences. But as I say a bit green around the ears. We both stayed and went into playing a lot more with the straight-ahead Latin bands and African bands and stuff to sort of really learn our craft a bit more. Our collaborative projects have carried on mixing it all up and seeing what comes out.
MJE: Composition credits are shared between yourself, Kishon and double bass player Max de Wardener. Was it a free-flowing writing process?
Justin Thurgur: “You’ve Got To” I mentioned, was a tune written by Kishon, that’s the only one that was just written by one person, although there’s one track called “Meditations” which funnily enough the groove Kishon wrote a long time ago but we slightly reworked that one because we’d been jamming it a bit in with some of the Cuban guys that we play with, and I thought this is an interesting take on this tune. So I kind of wanted to capture that in a way, but actually the origins of the track was it was one of Kishon’s early explorations into mixing that African thing with more Indian/Bangladeshi elements. We’ve been doing that quite a lot recently with his group LoKkhi TeRra. So it kind of seemed like a good time to bring that track back and rework it as it didn’t have any horns on, so I added a new horn arrangement onto it and that kind of influence with us going backwards and forwards and Kishon changed the way he approached the piano playing on it a bit. So it ended up being a different thing from what it had originally been.
The other tracks, they worked in different ways, all the ones I did with Max, I gave him an idea; maybe sampled a drum pattern that I liked or put down a guitar part that I liked, of where I was going, and then just gave him free rein. My reason for choosing Max is because I love his writing. I think he’s a great writer and he’s also got a very quirky approach to writing. He’s one of those guys that wants to do something completely different and try unusual things, but he manages to do it in a way they still stay soulful. He did a whole album for example making noises with children’s toys. But actually he managed to make it sound like music and have a heart too. You know it’s not even though it is a cerebral process it doesn’t sound like a cerebral process, I’ve always loved his approach to writing and he kind of comes out with stuff that you just wouldn’t have expected and I didn’t want to dampen that; the whole point of using him was because he had that sort of creativity. So I wanted to make sure that he was free to do so.
So I would put an influence to say I’m kind of going in this direction, but do what you like, kind of thing, and then from there actually I would probably – in almost every case – then got rid of the thing that I put down to influence him and then wrote off of the top of the bass line. So yeah. So there was kind of a backward and forward process sometimes with the tracks where it was like Okay, “This was the original intension, but this is the way it’s gone, now let’s kind of move around a bit.” Particularly because I work so closely with Kishon on I’ve been lucky enough to have to go backwards and forwards and redo the piano parts…So I suppose it has been quite free-flowing yeah.
MJE: Where was the album recorded and over what period of time?
Justin Thurgur: All over the place. Three of the tracks were recorded live in Eastcote studios in West London. But even then I did do some overdubbing but a large part of the tracks were recorded live in Eastcote, although actually having said that I replaced the horns completely on one of them just because I decided I didn’t like the horn part I’d written. So I rewrote the whole thing and in this process I left the clarinet solo. But the rest of horn parts were all rerecorded later at another time. But basically yeah three of the tracks were mostly done live in Eastcote studios.
The others were I suppose predominately even my bedroom or Kishon’s bedroom. Then a few sessions like the drums maybe now I’m starting to develop my own space, but the drums I didn’t feel at the time I could record to the standard I wanted to in my house so the drums were recorded on the ones that I’ve recorded mostly in my house, the drums were done in Livingston studios, which is the home of World Circuit (Records) they do a lot of their stuff there.
MJE: The album has a consistent hypnotic swing/snappiness which runs throughout the core of the recording; was that intentional?
Justin Thurgur: That’s a nice description of it. Thank you. The thing with me, I suppose, I wanted to capture what is effectively a jazz album but I very much wanted it to be a jazz album driven by African musicians and Cuban musicians and I very much wanted that the groove element of those musics to be very much at the heart of it with this sort of jazz sensibility, rather than maybe the other way around where it’s a jazz sensibility with a bit of the world music influence on it. I wanted the world music element to be driving it for sure.
MJE: How much did your love of jazz luminaries such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter et al impact on your compositions?
Justin Thurgur: For me, I try to keep all of my influences in me at any one time because I have a massive admiration for musicians. I’ve got a very good friend, Andy Mellon, a trumpet player in Bellowhead, who has an amazing ability to write in the style of this and write in the style of that writer. So he’ll create in the way Burt Bacharach would do in arrangement. Whoever it may be, he will do an arrangement that sounds exactly like that. I’ve never been able to do that. Wish I could because it’s an amazing skill. But I do that and I think “oh no, it sounds too much like Burt Bacharach”. I want to put something else into it. I love the process – I used to do a band with Kishon called Motimba, which was kind of a Cuban funk thing. It’s quite funny because we were listening the other day to an early recording of one of the tracks we did, and the horns were completely different, which at that time I had been heavily immersing in the modern Cuban timbre music scene, and the arrangements were proper timbre arrangements. Much to Kishon’s annoyance at the time, about two weeks before we went into the studio, I rewrote the horns on half the tracks. I liked the fact that I had been able to reference that music, but I was like “but I’m not Cuban”, so I want to better reference that music, or bringing in all the things that have influenced me. So it’s been a challenge for me at any time. You know if I’m doing an Afrobeat track I see if I can bring a bit of those influences. The title track, “No Confusion” was originally called “Afro Dizzy Hustin”, as in Dizzy Gillespie. There was a joke – a friend of mine in Cuba used to call me Hustin, because she seemed to struggle with the ‘J’ when it came to my name. I thought it would be really interesting to take that Afrobeat language but maybe get a bit of ‘this’ into it. So I kind of almost want you not to be able to hear where it’s come from, or if you do hear where it’s come from, at least get to hear all the places it comes from! So yeah, definitely I keep all of those guys in mind when I’m writing for sure, because they were a massive part of why I became a musician. I like trying to reference all the things that have made me become the musician that I am.
MJE: The first time I saw you was at the Jazz Café as part of Dele Sosimi’s Afro beat Orchestra. How did you and Dele Sosimi initially cross paths?
Justin Thurgur: Well actually it was a lucky coincidence, funny enough, because he fairly recently moved to London and going back to the jam session thing again, he was running a jam session in a tiny little bar just on the roundabout at Elephant & Castle, and it was just luck really that a sax player – I was doing a funk band at the time – the sax player was walking with us to a studio just down the road from this venue and the sax player in the band and been walking home from school one evening and heard this music and went down. And so the next week we were rehearsing again, and he said “Man you’ve got to come down to this jam session”. So I went down and again it was a kind of I suppose a little bit of a like I had been with Kishon it with a little bit of a kind of… “this is really where I want to be”. And so I carried on going to that jam regularly, but not for that long before Dele was thinking about putting his own band together. This was 18 years ago I think maybe even 19 years now. So he was thinking about putting a band together and there were a bunch of Nigerians he already knew who he was considering, maybe already been discussion about doing a band, so with me and the sax player, it kind of completed the line up. Yes so that was here 18 or 19 years ago. As I say, just kind of luckily, the right place at the right time, because I kind of got down there just at the point where he was thinking of starting a band. So. Yeah and I’ve been there ever since.
MJE: Who else makes up the horn section?
Justin Thurgur: Dele’s band has been like that for a while, so we’ve got on baritone sax, Tamar Osborne, who is the inspiration behind a band called Collocuter who’s doing great stuff at the moment. The tenor player is actually a Swiss guy who lives in Paris called Eric Roner. We’ve just started using a bass sax player quite a lot at our gigs as well, a guy called Ben Plocki who was from a Bristol Afrobeat band called No Go Stop, and we had done a few double bills with them in the Bristol area so he’s been playing bass – we had a gig last week celebrating Fela’s birthday with baritone sax, bass sax, tenor sax, trombone and trumpet… like a proper ‘low end’ and heavy horn section. On the trumpet is a guy called Tom Allen, although he’s recently moved a bit further out of London so not always doing the gigs. We have an amazing Cuban trumpeter called Yelfris Valdés playing with us as well, but yes, Tom Allen has been the trumpet player for the last few years. And that’s kind of the main horn section but obviously the nature of things is sometimes people aren’t available so there are various people who are on the fringe of the band, but that’s kind of the core horn section yeah.
MJE: Aside from Kishon & Dele Sosimi you’ve worked with a broad spectrum of artists from Tony Allen to Damon Albarn and Osvaldo Chacón; how have those diverse associations shaped your approach to your own music?
Justin Thurgur: I think they kind of fill in the gaps in a way, because I was very much interested in…. when I met Kishon 20 odd years ago we were doing a band that was very much playing around with African music, playing around with Latin music, playing around with reggae and all of these things. Although I had heard elements of these musical styles, I was still very much immersed in the jazz thing. So it was important to me, and I think it’s important in terms of the projects that I kind of ended up doing, where there’s a lot of trying to cross things over to make sure that I really did understand those musics.
A lot of the other work that I’ve done outside of those two bands has been to further my knowledge of the music that I’m playing. So I’ve played with a lot of the different Afrobeat artists that are based in the U.K.. Obviously Tony who I work with in different ways, he sometimes sat in with Dele’s band as a guest, and I have done his own gig as well a couple of times. And so I’ve recorded with Bucky Leo. I was in the band with Mamadi Kamara for a while, all to further my understanding of the music that I was playing, obviously working with Dele Sosimi I was getting a specific training, in kind of Afrobeat. So it was nice to go into some other African bands and either have a different approach to Afrobeat, or other African musics because those other African music have formed the creation of Afrobeat – Afrobeat came out of older African music traditions meeting funk. And so it was quite important for me to understand those older African influences as well as funk. I’d done a lot of funk playing so I kind of got funk.
Filling in the gaps in a way and the same with the Cuban stuff; great for me to play in a proper timbre band – Osvaldo Chacón, who you mentioned there; he was in a band called Bamboleo, which was one of the big timbre bands. He’s a proper timbre singer, and his arrangements are completely from that style. So I learnt a lot about that music by playing with him.
MJE: You’ve been around, done a lot and seen a lot on the music scene, especially with regard to jazz and World music. What are your impressions of today’s jazz and world music scenes?
Justin Thurgur: I think today’s jazz music scene is very exciting. I think there was possibly a period, maybe in the 80s-early 90s, where it slightly lost its way. Maybe that’s not fair to say that but I think you know the legacy of Coltrane casts a big shadow you know.
When I said earlier, that I didn’t see myself in that scene, it wasn’t because I didn’t love jazz music, I love jazz music but the jams I were very much doing that swing thing. Well have I got anything to say here that’s different or better and preferably better or at least at the level of what Curtis Fuller said, what J.J. Johnson said, and that’s the thing, especially for him; I don’t know how you can be a jazz saxophonist living under the shadow of Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and Cannibal Adderley, and all those guys, I mean, it must be like a monumental task to sort of come out from underneath that shadow.
There was the big fusion movement of the 70s, but I think in the 80s the jazz scene was like “Okay, where are we going to go?”, “What’s the new direction for this now?” That’s just my perception, maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like in the last few years there’s been a whole crop of really interesting young musicians come through who’ve maybe almost gone past that shadow you know, and they’re still checking out a lot of music. But actually then maybe not feeling the weight of it in the same way. Certainly there seems to be some very talented young musicians coming through and the jazz scene seems to be quite experimental at the moment with people trying all sorts of exciting things. It’s been going on for the last 10-15 years now, with bands like Polar Bear and those guys; people like Shabaka Hutchings – he’s doing really interesting stuff. There’s a whole crop of younger musicians coming through who seem to be embracing playing around with the genre – I saw Shabaka at the Shambala Festival the other day doing a project with just him, drums and a keyboard player, doing almost a sort of dance music in a way, but with that jazz undertone rather than necessarily the whole kind of thing. He’s obviously been experimenting with the South African thing as well. So yeah, I think the jazz scene is in a very healthy place at the moment – there’s a lot of colleges now that are doing jazz courses and so perhaps that’s helped in some ways to sort of reinvigorate the scene, certainly there’s some high quality players coming through.
The world music scene is a more complicated one I think. Afrobeat is flourishing at the moment, partly because of the influence of the Fela show and the fact that a lot of big names got behind the Fela show. It was written by the Antibalas, the Afrobeat band based in New York. It was a very powerful show about black rights and that kind of thing, and a lot of big names, people like Beyoncé – she was a fan of it. Will Smith was a big fan, some big name people got behind that show and as a result gave it this momentum. I was involved with the show that they did in the National Theater here and we played three months, playing six-seven times a week, and it was packed every night. That’s pretty impressive really for a show about the life of a rebel musician who was very anti-system. It’s not a Westend show, but actually it was! I think that’s had an influence certainly on Afrobeat going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment, so it’s a good time to be an afrobeat musician! Luckily I’m playing with Dele, who is very much one of the senior figures in that scene. So yeah it’s good – we’re having a good time.
Other scenes are suffering a bit more. The Cuban scene… although saying that, there’s a good friend of mine called Oreste Noda [Conga player], who has just started a night called ‘Sabrosa’ regularly at The Forge in Camden, who’s made a little home for the Cuban scene and that’s really flourishing actually. So there are little pockets of the Latin scene, Cuban scene, stuff reinventing itself in a way and coming to life again. There was a period, sadly partly because of Buenavista Social Club, which even though the album did a massive amount to draw people’s attention to Cuban music, it draws attention to Cuban music from 50 years ago.
All bands that were doing more modern stuff like the timber stuff and beyond were up against people who wanted Buenavista Social Club, which is fine, but that’s kind of not what we’re doing you know. So there was a lot of pressure to play you that thing, and if you weren’t playing that then at least play the stuff that the salsa deejays were playing for dance classes in the clubs. The Cubans don’t even play that music anymore, the Cubans here joke about the fact that they never played “Guantanamera” so many times as when they came here. Also the problem with a lot of this Afrobeat music and Cuban music is the bands are big! If you want to play that music properly you need a four-piece horn section so you’re always fighting the battle of “How commercially is this” versus “How expensive is it with such a big band”. So the Latin scene in general suffered for a while having been quite big maybe sort of 20 years ago, it did have a bit of a slump, but I think there are little pockets of… particularly people like the ‘Sambrosa’ thing at The Forge, and there’s a younger crowd who are discovering this music for the first time who are like, “Woah, this is great!” There’s a new energy I think in that scene. I think there are other scenes – reggae doesn’t kind of get considered ‘World’ music, but it’s just as much World music as anything else. But I think reggae still ticks over – maybe also it could do with a bit of a renaissance.
MJE: What advice would you give to a young person picking up the trombone for the first time?
Justin Thurgur: Practice. I think with programmes like ‘X Factor’ and all this kind of thing, there’s a lot of attention and emphasis put on being ‘discovered’ you know, like “Oh you can have this magic moment” where Simon Cowell walks into your bedroom and you’ll go from singing in the shower to singing on a massive stage in front of thousands of people. The reality of the music scene is, for the most part, nothing like that. Actually most musicians including the quality pop musicians, have gone through hard graft for many years to get good at their craft. And I think that sometimes doesn’t get talked about enough. The fact that actually we put a lot of hours in to developing our music.
There was an interesting article by Will Young a few years ago where he said you almost had to reject the success he got from ‘Pop Idle’ because he didn’t feel like he was actually ready to be to be that high up, because he hadn’t done enough gigs. He sort of disappeared for a while, and he said he literally went back to doing pub gigs in South London for a few years because he felt that he had stuff to learn in terms of learning his craft, and then he came know obviously ‘Pop Idle’ helped him as well because he was able to step back into the limelight but he felt that he needed to sort of step back for a while and get the experience that he didn’t yet have. So I think that’s the thing I would say to any musician, on trombone or whatever, is don’t underestimate the fact that talent will get you so far, but hard work will get you further.
MJE: When can we expect to see you performing tracks from ‘No Confusion’ on the live circuit?
Justin Thurgur: The next gig we’ve got is Kishon and I, who started our record label Funkiwala, we’re doing a Funkiwala party on November 18th at The Forge as part of the London Jazz Festival. It’ll be showcasing a few of the projects that are on our label, or are about to be on our label. There will be a set of my stuff and I think a set from CubAfrobeat, which is a project that we’re mixing between Kishon’s band, LoKkhi TeRra and Dele Sosimi – so it’s a kind of a mixture of the Cuban and Afrobeat world, so CubAfrobeat, hopefully we’re going start recording that quite soon. There are then some gigs I’m trying to get together in the middle of March 2017. Watch this space.
MJE: Thank you for your time Justin, we look forward to 2017 and looking forward to the album doing the business on the circuit…