Equally at home improvising as in more set musical structures, he’s adept at flitting between solo compositions and performing with an ensemble, as well as being incredibly prolific releasing numerous albums in both guises.
Alex has also collaborated with a range of key players over the years – his list of musical scalps includes trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Taylor Ho Bynum, saxophonists Evan Parker, Marshall Allen and Sonny Simmons, drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo.
We caught up with Alex ahead of his performance at the Manchester Jazz Festival to find out more about him and his music…
Can you remember the songs which first got you into music?
My earliest musical memory is hearing Saturday Night Function, a beautiful tune played by the 1920s Ellington band. I also have early memories of Gone With the Wind from the wonderful Art Tatum/Ben Webster quartet album. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where there was music on all the time. This kindled my obsession.
How did you start making your own music?
Children of a certain age delight in making noises of all descriptions – both for the sake of it and to emulate sounds they constantly hear around them. In my case, this delight included making a din on my parents’ upright piano.
I began getting paid for gigs at the age of around 15-16 and continued playing little local jobs here and there to help pay my way through university.
Did you receive formal training?
I did have piano lessons when I was at school. But I didn’t go down the conservatoire route. I am extremely uncertain about the institutionalization of music education, especially in the context of vernacular, improvised musics. Although I have various principle-based issues with music education, I was considering tertiary education. I also thought that as none of my true musical heroes had received a formal ‘jazz’ education, I couldn’t do it either.
Do you have a musical ‘map’ when you improvise?
This is a tricky question to answer as it can feel difficult to talk generically about the process. Just some of the variables: am I dealing with compositional considerations? What are these? Who are the other players?
The bigger issue here is one of needing to be more or less conscious to devise and/or read a map. For me, the aim of the hours of practice and experience is to facilitate reaching the unconscious part of making music that much faster. The spontaneous stuff is where the magic and the fun begins to happen.
You’re released Step Wide, Step Deep with your ensemble and Song Singular as a solo artist this year – how do you approach these different mediums?
Writing for a medium-sized ensemble is a lot of fun and affords many interesting compositional possibilities. My current ensemble has six musicians. So you’re dealing with six human beings, bringing their own creativity, inspirations and ’mistakes’ to the table. These options are of course not really available when playing solo (although, as many great solo pianists have shown us – Ellington, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, – wonderful things can happen when you conceive of the instrument as an ensemble in some way). However, as a soloist, you can really put across a very personal vision.
Collaboration is very much at the heart of your live work – how do you approach each one?
I have a simple philosophy here: the biggest bit of thinking I do is whether to say ‘yes’ to a given situation. Once onstage, I really feel that the only approach is to do one’s own thing (whatever that might be) to its fullest extent. The other option involves second guessing another person’s creative moves, which is just too fraught with problems. The crucial thing in any setting is to play with complete sincerity. As long as I’m doing that, I’m happy.
Who or what is your biggest musical inspiration?
This is an almost impossibly broad question for me. Huge inspiration comes from many of the masters with whom I’ve been lucky enough to ‘learn on the job’ with. The like of Evan Parker, Wadada Leo Smith, Joe McPhee and Marshall Allen have all had a huge impact on me. I’d also like to mention Harris Eisenstadt and Taylor Ho Bynum here. Their own aesthetic and technical accomplishments really galvanized me into action at an important, formative stage.
Louis Moholo-Moholo has also been completely central to helping me to develop as a musician.
How did you get involved with the Manchester Jazz Festival?
I met the artistic director, Steve Mead some time ago while my first trip up to Manchester for the Jazz Festival itself was as part of Nick Malcolm’s quartet (with whom I’m looking forward to playing again on this year’s programme). This is my first opportunity to play as a soloist, so I’m really flattered to have been invited.
Is there a good infrastructure for new jazz musicians to come through?
The question is complex: the situation with the creative infrastructure is not necessarily the same as that with the financial infrastructure, or the institutional infrastructure, though these are all linked. There are all sorts of challenges raised by the growth of the education complex, the general increase in managerialism in society and political trends against arts funding. Moving to a smaller scale, I could pick out other, more specific challenges, such as the future of my own instrument, the piano: look at how few regular venues nationwide house an instrument!
There are fantastic structures in many places which help musicians through. Ease of travel means that national barriers are possibly of decreasing importance, and so access to opportunities is changing.
Festival programming strands are responding to an interesting time in the history of our music and there are ideas such as ‘BBC Introducing’, and a number of local or national professional development schemes. Of course, these exist in the larger political surround, and sadly not everyone can benefit from them at the current time as a result; what is important is that these things always show that people will always find ways to make the music happen.
What are the main challenges facing the jazz genre at the moment?
I’ve already mentioned two: the interesting state of historical flux we’re in and the challenges presented by the education complex.
In terms of innovating within the genre, it’s extremely difficult to say. Doubtless musicians reflecting on these issues at many stages of the music’s development would have struggled to see the way forward for the languages we speak. Yes, I do sometimes hear conservative tendencies in certain sectors of the music, but I don’t think this would have been any different at any most other stages in the past: hearing these tendencies is probably all bundled up with searching for ways forward.
And even though discussions about music, challenges, genre, and so forth often feel unproductive/circular/value-laden or whatever, I do believe that it is important to be having the discussions in the first place: at least this affords the opportunity to reflect on progress and change.