A lifelong obsession: Jazz pianist and educator, Huw Warren, on being ‘a little different’

Huw Warren

When I was asked to contribute this article, I set out to present an overview of myself and my career over the last thirty years – however, I quickly realised that an overview of just the last week or so was pretty exhausting! I guess that potentially flippant comment belies a deeper truth, which has always been a search for constant variety. I don’t know if it’s a low boredom threshold or an improviser’s instinct to stay fresh but I’ve had a lifelong obsession with trying to be a little different.

As a self-taught jazz player, my early years were filled with the pure enjoyment of playing for its own sake. Of course, I was involved as a cellist and pianist in all kinds of classical music as well – and this has deeply influenced and informed my music ever since – but it was the sheer exuberant sense of freedom that was (and still is) so attractive. After completing a music degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, I decided to apply for the new postgraduate course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1984. At the time, it was the first of the Conservatoires to offer a jazz course and it was certainly the first time I had formally studied jazz. Besides filling in many of the gaps I had in my jazz playing, it made me question for the first time what we play and, more importantly, why we play. It seemed to me that rather than becoming a very good imitator, the more creative option might be (for better or worse!) to try to forge my own path. A particularly humbling masterclass with the great McCoy Tyner was a salient point – I only realised years later that it instantly ‘cured’ me of wanting to sound like him! McCoy was, of course, a total gentleman and left me later that night (after his gig at Ronnie Scott’s) with a ‘Keep tinkling!’ as a farewell.

I think my compositional style began as a personal reaction to some of the more predictable aspects of jazz. Whether that was in the range of stylistic influences, flexible meters or just avoiding the conventional melody/solos/melody formula. My view of the jazz tradition has always combined a deep love and respect of historically influential artists and recordings with the absolute need to celebrate jazz as a living art form in the here and now.

Of course, with a combination of good luck and hard work, I was also helped along the way by meeting some like-minded souls…

A handful of the most significant collaborations were probably Perfect Houseplants, June Tabor, Peter Herbert and Maria Pia de Vito. Perfect Houseplants was a co-led group formed in 1990 with saxophonist, Mark Lockheart, bassist, Dudley Phillips, and drummer, Martin France. Co-led groups were quite unusual then, especially groups with a strong emphasis on composition. We were very lucky to release several albums and to collaborate with classical musicians such as The Orlando Consort, Andrew Manse and Pamela Thorby. June Tabor and I began playing together in 1987 and we are still making music together. Our most recent project, Quercus (with saxophonist, Iain Ballamy), has a new CD, Nightfall, released on ECM at the end of the month. It’s hard not to underestimate the influence that working with June has had on my music. Not only the exploration of folk song and simple beauty in music but also the complete and utter intensity and commitment to performance/storytelling.

Austrian bassist, Peter Herbert, is a complete master of improvised and contemporary styles. We worked together on a series of my projects, including my albums, 100’s of Things a Boy can Make (Babel) and Everything We Love and More (Babel). Our first collaborations were a series of totally improvised concerts, which connected completely to the sense of freedom that had first attracted me to jazz. Through Peter, I also was invited to the JIMS (Jazz and Improvised Music Salzburg) seminar in Salzburg, where I was fortunate to form close working relationships with New York musicians such as drummer, Jim Black, vocalist, Theo Bleckmann, and violinist, Mark Feldman.

I first collaborated with Neapolitan singer, Maria Pia de Vito, in 2007 and have since recorded three albums. Dialektos features several of my compositions (with lyrics by Maria in her native Neapolitan) while O Pata Pata was recorded with the great American guitarist, Ralph Towner. One of the obvious aspects of our playing together is the sense of fun and adventure that seems to happen every time. We also have a shared love of Brazilian music and our most recent recording is new arrangements and translations of songs by Chico Buarque, Guinga and Egberto Gismonti. Core/Coração is released in May 2017 with Chico Buarque as a special guest.

My teaching career has developed alongside my performing roles and I’m committed to encouraging individuality in each and every musician. The late John Taylor would often say to me that he wished he had a teaching method (he never did of course!) and I’ve taken inspiration in my own teaching from this. Central to this is treating each student as an individual and taking their needs as central to a positive teaching approach. Of course, there are certain universals that need to be addressed in any art (the jazz toolbox) but creatively speaking, all jazz tuition is fundamentally self-tuition and the teaching aspect is just a kind of informed encouragement. Maybe this relates directly to my own realisations as a postgrad student but I feel that everyone has the potential to be an improviser; it’s usually just finding the right outlet/medium for it. In fact, my teaching work is often trying to remove walls and self-imposed barriers that are seemingly getting in the way of creativity. An obvious example would be the complete over-reliance on notation in classical music teaching, eventually leading to a loss of aural skills. At the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), we are teaching basic jazz skills as well as encouraging an original and individualistic approach to improvising. It’s also important to spread as wide a stylistic net as possible as this helps keep the music very much in the present tense, hopefully avoiding any sense of jazz being a museum culture.

After some teaching in Changchun, China, recently, I published a couple of Jazz Harmony guides, Exploring Jazz Harmony and Advanced Jazz Harmony, which are available online at https://sellfy.com/p/diIf and will eventually be part of a set of books aimed at jazz beginners or classically trained musicians who are curious about improvising.

Forthcoming releases include Quercus Nightfall (ECM) and Maria Pia de Vito Core/Coração (Jando Music) as well as a new solo piano record to be released in Autumn 2017 (with a preview unreleased track available at https://soundcloud.com/huwmusic/ee-solo-album-preview).


About the author

Huw Warren is an award-winning pianist, composer and educator with an eclectic career that includes performing worldwide, recording and collaborating with major British and international artists and composing music that freely crosses genres.

His own projects have included reworking John Dowland, Hermeto Pascoal, Welsh hymns and much more. He has recently branched out to work with dance, spoken word, photography and film. A Senior Tutor in the Jazz Department of RWCMD Cardiff, Huw is head of Jazz Ensembles at Cardiff University and currently records for ECM.

Website: www.huwwarren.co.uk
Twitter: @huwwarren
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Huw-Warren-172916832305

Header photo: Huw Warren © Paolo Galetta

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