Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery
One of the fastest-rising stars of the UK jazz scene, pianist Alexander Hawkins is remarkable in that he shines equally in both the further reaches of free improvisation and the creation of ingeniously crafted charts. Indeed, Hawkins' particular talent might be in bringing the two so close that it's hard to distinguish between them. At times on his two acclaimed Ensemble releases, No Now is So (FMR, 2009) and All There, Ever Out (Babel Label, 2012), there seems to be simultaneous expression of both the written and the unfettered. While uncompromisingly modern, he has a deep appreciation of the jazz tradition, a trait apparent in compositions such as "Tatum Totem," which references the likes pianist Art Tatum while invoking reed multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. In concert, a single solo might move from stride piano to all-out Cecil Taylor-inspired mayhem.
But he's a thrilling improviser on not just piano but also the Hammond organ, even when in completely spontaneous territory, as amply demonstrated on the wonderful collaboration between the organ trio Decoy and trumpeter Joe McPhee Oto (Bo'Weavil Recording, 2010). While his discography is still growing, even now his performance credits read like a who's who of contemporary jazz: trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Taylor Ho Bynum, saxophonists Evan Parker, Marshall Allen and Sonny Simmons, drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo and Harris Eisenstadt, and Ethiopian vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke.
Of late, there's a sense that his career has stepped up a gear in terms of activity and output. Given that his encyclopedic knowledge of the whole spectrum of jazz and creative music is allied to formidable articulateness, it's no surprise to find the pianist enjoying an increasing profile as a broadcaster on BBC Radio while, together with vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, he presented an idiosyncratic history of jazz recordings as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival. On top of that, there are four new discs scheduled for release over the coming months: a duet with MoholoKeep Your Heart Straight (Ogun, 2012), his first solo recording, the third outing from the transatlantic Convergence Quartet, and a second offering from Decoy with Joe McPhee. Hawkins is clearly someone to watch.
All About Jazz: So, a bit of background first. When and where were you born?
Alexander Hawkins: Oxford, in 1981. Apart from six years, three years of undergraduate study and three years of Ph.D., I've always lived in Oxford. During that six years I was in Cambridge, in fact, hence the Cambridge connection. [Hawkins often plays in Cambridge when on tour.]
AAJ: Do you come from a musical family?
AH: Yes, in the sense that it is very much a music- loving household. My Dad did play decent piano and clarinet, and also has a C-melody saxophone, which is a bit of a rarity. He's a real music lover. Right back from when he was a student, he would go and see Ellington whenever they were in the country. So I've got some good photos of him backstage with Duke. He's been listening forever. So I grew up listening to music at home, and actually one of my Dad's great loves is Ellington. And because he actually likes the very early Ellington, I sort of did jazz chronologically in the sense that the first music I was exposed to was the 1924 Ellington band, and I worked my way forward from there.
AAJ: At what point did you start playing jazz?
AH: That's a slightly tougher one to pinpoint. I initially started playing classical piano, and in fact as a classical musician I was a much better organist than I was pianist. I had no particular technique to speak of, in the classical sense, on the piano. So in terms of studying, I was playing classical music. I probably didn't start playing jazz, or trying to, until I was maybe 14, 15, 16. I really wasn't very good. I'm trying to think when I would have done my first gigs. It was probably at about 16, going out with friends doing standards gigs in local pubs, but they were very much fumbling efforts. I took it up in a much more concerted fashion later. I really liked playing the organ, but I loved the piano, and I wanted to play music in this idealistic way: I wanted to make music my living. And so I thought for that to be the case, I needed to put a lot more time into the piano. So one day when I was 18, I never played the organ again. I was doing a lot of practice each day on the organ. I was playing it quite seriously, and then one day I just didn't play the organ again.
AAJ: Was that church organ?
AH: Yeah. And one of the problems I had with it was that some of the repertoire is fantastic. I loved BachI still doand Messiaen and lots of the French composers I loved, but there was an awful lot that I really wasn't that into. But what that did expose me to was different schools of improvisation. The French organ tradition is mind boggling when it comes to improvisation.
AAJ: Who are you thinking of there?
AH: Well, recordings of musicians like [organist] Daniel Roth, who's at Saint-Sulpice [church in Paris], which is the organ where [organist/composer Marcel] Dupré was. Charles Tournémire. There's this whole tradition of training the organists in the French conservatoires to become, ideally, extremely disciplined improvisers in a variety of forms. [Guitarist] Derek Bailey goes into it in the Improvisation (Da Capo, 1993) book. It's really interesting and an incredibly rigorous, disciplined thing, and actually a lot of the published French repertoire originated as improvisations which were then transcribed. So it exposed me to that, and then later when I came to play more Hammond, the actual literal skills of registering things became useful then. Organs have a relatively simple but quite idiosyncratic way of creating sounds, so it gave me that background.
AAJ: You did a law degree and a Ph.D. in criminology, so you seemed set on one career path, but at the same time you were thinking that you would love to make a living as a musician. Was that a difficult decision?
AH: No, not at all, actually. Law degrees are often just a means to an end, but perversely I did it and the Ph.D. because I was interested in it. I never toyed with the idea of doing law as a career. And I think I was also fairly bloody-minded in that I didn't want to study jazz. Part of that was a slightly naive line of reasoning. I thought, "None of my heroes have [studied jazz institutionally], so I'm going to figure it out for myself the same." That's kind of crazy, but that schooled sound was not something I was interested in. I know there are a few more far-sighted courses, and if you were able to study with [saxophonist/composer] Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan [University in Connecticut] or [saxophonist/composer] Roscoe Mitchell at Mills [College in Oakland, CA] or [trumpeter/composer] Wadada Leo Smith at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], that would be fantastic. But I don't think that over here we have that opportunity. It is much more didactic, and it's to do with what you should play over certain things, and for me, as soon as education turns prescriptive rather than descriptive, it ceases to be an interesting thing.
AAJ: That's interesting because many of the most distinctive sounds are from people who haven't been through that educated route. You talk about bloody-mindedness. Is it actually more difficult to find your own way?
AH: I was lucky because I had studied the piano and the organ conventionally. So from the point of view of having a technique, I had a facility on the instrument whereby I could play my ideas. So that wasn't something I that I needed to develop quite so muchbecause of course there are technical things that you need to be able to do on your instrument just to be able to realize your ideas. Of course, every so often there are people who come along who do find a totally idiosyncratic way around the instrument. But in terms of actually learning to improvise, the most useful thing is understanding the tradition, the past voices, in order that you don't sound like them.
There's a really fascinating [saxophonist/composer] Henry Threadgill interview somewhere where he's talking about people transcribing solos, Coltrane solos, and saying why on earth would you want to do that. And that's kind of how I feel. I'm not interested in transcribing a [pianist] Bud Powell solo, because I don't want to play it less well than Bud Powell. He's so awesome, why would I listen to anyone else play it? And similarly with Monk and Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard and other pianists that I love, why on earth would I want to transcribe it, because I'd never be able to play it as well as them. And nor is it interesting to play in their language because they own that language and do it better than everyone else.
So what not studying probably means is that there are certain technical skills I'm probably deficient in. I'm not a massive walking library of standard tunes. I have a working knowledge of a number, I guess, but I couldn't sit and play those in any key just off the top of my head, for example. But learning or developing a musical voice is developing the facility to play the music you want to play. And given that playing the standard repertoire night after night is not what I'm interested in doing, though I love it very much, it doesn't strike me that that was something that I needed to do.
So the education is an interesting thing, but I really have problems with the very didactic way of: if you have this chord then you play this scale. It just doesn't make sense. No, you don't play that scale, you play the sound you want to play. I can also see that if you are a session musician, you want to be able to reproduce a certain sound. No problem, but that's not improvising. That's the product of repertory music. So, in a very real sense, I think that a lot of music from that tradition is not improvised; it's different permutations of learnt rules.