Byron Wallen

Byron Wallen on ‘Portrait: Reflections on Belonging’ Twilight Jaguar Records

“…people need a creative outlet, they need to have a creative way of expressing themselves, they need a way of feeling like they belong. That’s why this album was called “…Reflections on Belonging.”
-Byron Wallen

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

After a seemingly very long hiatus, Byron Wallen is back with a fresh album release ‘Portrait: Reflections on Belonging’ and UK tour to support it. In his reality, however, he’s never been away. Mr Wallen proceeds to set the record straight regarding his perceived elongated absence to UK Vibe’s Michael J Edwards, as well as give a brief overview of the aforementioned album.

Michael J Edwards: Greetings Byron, it’s great to catch up as always.

Byron Wallen: Greetings Michael, likewise.

Michael J Edwards: Many jazz heads/aficionados are perplexed as to why has it taken Byron Wallen 13 years to bring out a new album offering, with 2007’s ‘Meeting Room’ being your last real full album release.

Byron Wallen: People say this, it’s an interesting thing, but I have not been away anywhere. To be straight with you I’m always working on material. I write music almost every day, so it’s not the fact that I don’t have fresh material, I always have fresh material. All these kind of things have become easier to release and all that, and in some ways by the time I’ve gone through the process of mixing, mastering and then packaging; my head is already somewhere else (Laughs). Does that make sense? And because I’m doing it on my own label; Twilight Jaguar Productions is my own label, so it’s that thing of making it ‘all’ happen with the production.

So what I’m saying is I’m realising the importance of releasing what you do in terms of being able to move forward with your ideas, but also being able to share your perspectives with the community…that’s an important thing as well. So I’m expecting to release quite a few albums coming up now. Because this is the thing, I’ve been recording all the time and I’ve been working on ideas all the time. I just haven’t been releasing. Also, everything is very different within the scene.

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

With regards to this album, ‘Portrait’, I’ve been travelling around and being quite nomadic, playing different gigs, different tours and I just realised that music has a place in the society that you live; and it’s important to be able to make a difference in your community with the music that you make. So that’s what this album was really about. A lot of the album came about through various workshops I was doing with children and young adults. We were working on socio-political principles and also about the area we were living in which is South East London – Woolwich, Abbey Wood, Plumstead – that area. I’ve been living here since 1998, so I’ve seen the changes.

So it’s that thing of seeing the changes and talking about ancestors and the importance of ancestry in Diaspora; how what your parents and grandparents did affects now and how it affects the way communities are built. So we paint a picture of that on ‘Spirit of The Ancestors’ and then there’s one talking about street markets and stuff like that. Then also we are talking about relationships between the communities, so one was ‘No Stars No Moon’; because the area has a reputation of being quite notorious in terms of racial conflicts. Not too far down the road is Eltham where Stephen Lawrence died and then there was Corporal Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And of course all the riots – and coming from Tottenham I’ve been through all that. I was a kid in school during the 80s when all those riots were happening in Broadwater Farm. There was the whole thing with Cynthia Jarrett and then later on when it happened again with Mark Duggan.

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

There are lots of tensions, but people need a creative outlet, they need to have a creative way of expressing themselves, they need a way of feeling like they belong. That’s why this album was called “…Reflections on Belonging. Because it’s about music, but it’s also about how you belong to the place where you are. So if we’re talking about the track ‘Each For All and All For Each’, which is one of the motto’s of The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society – a Woolwich institution established in 1868 – It was a political expression representing the working class.

So I’ve been working on that and then in terms of the album I was working with the Four Corners, which is the name of the band which features Rob Luft on guitar, Paul Michael on bass and Rod Youngs on drums. I really enjoy playing with a band and making a sound which develops over time. So I’ve been playing with these guys on a lot of different projects. Last year (2019) I did a project at the Brighton Dome, which was called ‘Eye to Eye ‘which was part of the Brighton Festival. Richard ‘Olatunde’ Baker (congas, talking drum) was a guest on this album. I’ve been playing a lot with him over the years; he’s an amazing musician.

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
L-R: Paul Michael (bass), Rod Youngs (drums); Byron Wallen (trumpet/percussion/conch shells), Rob Luft (guitar)

Originally my idea for the album was to play the musicians who were from the area, but I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t gonna get the result I desired than if I played with my band. I still work with musicians from the area, but when I recorded and when we were playing and performing we kinda worked it with the band. So the band was involved in the community as well, so we did these gigs in Woolwich, Kidbrooke and various places around South East London. But also the idea was to give access to live music to the community and bring people in there, and I think the schools are a very good way of doing that; because when you get the children involved then the parents come. So that was part of our tour of Greenwich.

We did a pre-launch last year in 2019 at a new school called Plumcroft Primary School. They’ve got a new building which was great; it was a great venue for the pre-launch. Tyrone Isaac-Stuart is a dancer and sax player who choreographed two tunes for the children. Regarding getting the children to sing on ‘Spirit of the Ancestors’ and ‘Voice of the Ancestors’, I do a workshop in Plumstead School…So after working with them, I went back in afterwards, once I had the track, and I got them to sing over the top. The tracks that they were dancing to were ‘Holler’ and ‘No Stars No Moons’.

Michael J Edwards: You mentioned that you wanted to get local musicians but it didn’t work out, but you did manage to find a local artist from Woolwich to do the cover art.

Cover Art by Marc Drostle – check out the original here

Byron Wallen: Yes, Yes, Marc Drostle, he’s great! He’s a local artist who does a lot of cartoon work; he’s developing a cartoon book right now. I really liked his work and I asked him to do something for this cover. Do you like the cover art?

Michael J Edwards: Yes, it’s very Van Gogh.

Byron Wallen: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I can see what you mean. I think in this day of download, it is important to have something that people can enjoy and hold.

Michael J Edwards: The album not only conveys the essence of the community it’s about, but it also harnesses some of the spirit from your diverse travels over various continents. Do you concur?

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Byron Wallen: This is the thing also. For me I was going in with the idea of music that celebrated harvest time, rejoicing and bringing a collection of those calypso rhythms into the mix. It was really an exploration of calypso rhythms really from the whole Diaspora and how those rhythms work and putting a different twist on them. In this day and age, I wanted to produce something that had that positive energy; with all these worldly things happening…It’s that thing of trying to present that positive force and that energy, putting that energy in there.

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Are you happy with the finished product?

Byron Wallen: Yes I am. This material is not new material; this material is at least three years old! That’s what I’m trying to say, I’m recording all the time. It’s just that it’s being released now because of what’s needed and what I’ve been really working on in terms of documenting that period of my life i.e working in schools a lot and doing projects on a local level. I’ve always been travelling around, studying stuff and doing gigs and projects here and there. So for me, it was important to focus on my immediate surroundings here. I also realised I was going to various places and teaching here and teaching there, but I didn’t even know the people in the school across the road (laughs guiltily).

Michael J Edwards: Come back to the source.

Byron Wallen: Exactly! Come back to source a bit.

Michael J Edwards

Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Tour Dates:

March 14 ‘One Fest’ at EartH (Hall), Dalston

March 21 Vortex Jazz Club, London

March 24 East Side Jazz Club, Leytonstone

March 25 Chapel Arts, Cheltenham

March 26 Cambridge Modern Jazz, CUC Wine Bar, Cambridge

April 4 Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton

April 5 Maltings Arts Theatre, St Albans

May 1 Calstock Arts, Calstock

May 2 Ashburton Arts Centre, Newton Abbot

May 17 1000 Trades, Birmingham

June 10 The National Centre for Early Music, York

June 11 Bonington Theatre, Nottingham

September 12 The Hive, Shrewsbury