Drummer, composer and band leader Jonathan Silk is a most familiar figure for jazz listeners in Birmingham. He crops up all over the place, as a sideman, as a leader, in groups small and large. And when he’s not playing he’s leading a band of pint-sized djembe drummers at a school in Ladywood, or waving a beer tankard of modest notes and loose change under our noses at The Spotted Dog, encouraging support for whatever band he’s booked there on a Tuesday evening. He arrived from Scotland a few years ago to study at Birmingham Conservatoire, and since then he has made as positive an impact on jazz in Birmingham as it is possible to make. A Yamaha scholarship recipient, winner of the Tony Levin Drum Prize in 2011, and a recipient of a BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellowship with Jazzlines to support his composing and big band work, Jonathan is looking forward to leading both his Quintet and Big Band in the next few weeks. He managed to squeeze a few spare moments to tell thejazzbreakfast all about it.
Q What first sparked your interest in jazz, and how did you first get involved?
A I first got involved in jazz courtesy of my first drum teacher, Sandy Harley, depping me some of his local big band work. I was a 14-year-old drummer playing Count Basie and Glenn Miller charts in amateur big bands. From there I got hooked on this music and was accepted into the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland (NYJOS). I met Andrew Bain and Malcolm Edmonstone alongside a host of great tutors on the course who inspired me to continue with music and jazz as a career.
Q What made you choose Birmingham as a place to study? And, once you had graduated, what made you stay in Birmingham?
A Birmingham Conservatoire open day gave me such a good feel of the place that it was the only option for me. I didn’t like the look of London particularly, so Birmingham was an obvious choice. There were also already many other Scottish musicians that I knew studying here which helped make the decision. Having graduated from the course, I have made strong musical connections that work for my music and have also picked up reliable teaching work to help pay my way as a graduate. Birmingham as a city has a great music scene, and the jazz scene in particular has a great vibe that I have not experienced in other places.
Q On the surface, although we are accustomed to drummers as bandleaders, drummers as jazz composers would seem more of a rarity. What drew you to composition?
A I am always baffled by this question, as I know so many drummers who write amazing music. For me, I like the freedom to write whatever I want to, knowing that the musicians in mind will always tear it apart and take it somewhere completely different. It is all about where the tune can be taken and how it can develop.
Q How do you compose? eg, on what instrument, do you start with the rhythm?, etc. What’s the usual process, or does it vary?
A I tend to compose from the piano, playing around with ideas, melodies or bass lines until something starts to stick. A lot of my music tends to have a groove or riff that perhaps I have based around something I could play on the kit, but I would hope there isn’t a definitive process. Part of creating in this music is (hopefully) trying to find new ways to compose and keep it different.
Q What do you hope to convey in your music – what do you hope the listener will go away with?
A At the risk of sounding really pretentious, all I want from a listener is a reaction. I don’t really mind if they go away, hating what they just heard because they have at least tried it. If they happen to enjoy it, then that is of course a bonus!
Q You recently went over to New York to study with Maria Schneider – what was that like and what did you learn? (And did you meet [Schneider’s regular drummer] Clarence Penn?!)
A New York as a city was incredible. It was my first experience of the States and it was great to see the music scene and all the incredible musicians working and living there. I managed to see a lot of different musicians whilst out there including (to name very few!) Ethan Iverson, Jason Moran and his trio, Ole Mathisen and a very exciting groove trio, and of course Maria and her band.
Watching Maria’s big band from such close proximity (front row for five separate sets) was unbelievable. To see her music so close up was a luxury, and hearing the band bring music that I know so well from recordings in such a different way live was very interesting. In particular, I got a lot from watching Maria leave the band to it, not feeling she had to lead them 100% of the time. There was a clear trust in her band to perform her music the way she would intend without her conducting all the time.
Clarence is one of the most tasteful drummers I have ever watched and certainly sitting so close to him supporting the big band was an eye-opener for me as a drummer. It was particularly interesting to note he never over-powered the band but always knew when to give it a kick and when to hold back. Speaking to him afterwards he was, as you would expect incredibly friendly and open.
Working with Maria on a one-to-one basis was incredibly intense but hugely rewarding at the same time. She was able to criticise my music in a very effective manner, showing examples from her own work or the work of Brookmeyer and Gil Evans to help explain points she was making. I took away a huge variety of different things to be addressing in my composition and I am now trying to implement them within new pieces.
Q Tell us a bit about your current projects, and what we can expect to hear at your CBSO Centre Big Band concert in March.
A My time is currently spent running my big band and quintet projects. The quintet has developed recently into a much more groove-based group, exploring the use of electronics with Chris Mapp on electric bass and the capabilities of the Nord/Synth combination with Andy Bunting. The dual tenor saxophone frontline is still one of my favourite sounds and Nick Rundle and John Fleming differ vastly in improvising styles providing the perfect contrast. We are looking forward to a few gigs; Symphony Hall Foyer on 7 February and the Yardbird on 20 March in particular.
The CBSO Centre showcase is the next big gig for the big band project. As tends to be the way with big bands, it is always hard to get them together but we are managing to rehearse regularly for this with some new material for the band. This will feature some arrangements of quintet compositions for the big band, again exploring more groove-based writing. I am also trying to contrast this with the delicate side of a big band, taking advantage of the doubling capabilities of my saxophone section and exploring the “jazz orchestra” side of this versatile line up. The result at the showcase gig will be two sets of brand new music written specifically for this performance and featuring many of Birmingham’s talented young musicians alongside some equally amazing London musicians.
Q And your future plans beyond that?
A Beyond that, I don’t really have a plan as such, other than to try and push this new music and the big band. The opportunity to perform this music would be great and I hope to take all the talented musicians that give up their time to play my music around the country performing.
- The Jonathan Silk Quintet play the Symphony Hall Cafe Bar at 5pm on Friday 7 February (more here) and the Jonathan Silk Big Band is at the CBSO Centre at 8pm on Friday 21 March (more here).
- To read my review of the Big Band’s Uncouth album go here; to read more about Jonathan Silk go here.