Saxophonist Julian Argüelles is about to tour with his new, young band Tetra – Kit Downes on piano, Sam Lasserson double bass and James Maddren drums – on the back of a new CD of the same name, released last week on Whirlwind Recordings. We managed a quick email exchange. Here are the results:
Q Your new band is a quartet but in the past you have written for all sizes of group and have played in everything from big band to solo. What are the challenges of writing and playing in these differently sized groups? Do you have to adapt your playing depending upon the size of the band? Do you have a favourite size of group?
A I think a lot of people might find these different ensembles a bit of a challenge to adapt to. I don’t and maybe that’s why I am happy to work in these different formats.
The ensembles you mention do have different characteristics though. Solo: obviously you have all the responsibility, and of course performing and improvising as saxophonist on your own is quite rare. Quartet: I love the intimacy and the solo and group improvisation possibilities of a small group, a sax + rhythm quartet has a lovely balance to it, no one really occupies the same musical space.
As a composer/writer I enjoy larger groups because you have more possibilities in terms of musical colour, orchestration, more individual voices, and there is nothing quite like the sound of a big band all “breathing” as one, it can be very powerful.
I don’t really have a favourite but I think an octet has a bit of everything.
Q You have worked a lot in Europe. How does the UK jazz scene compare with that in Germany, for example? What can the UK jazz scene learn from Europe? And what can Europe learn from the UK?
A There are some similarities with the various scenes throughout Europe. They are all packed with great musicians, especially young ones. There seems to be a relative shortage of places to play, and venues are struggling with audience numbers. Some scenes are well supported by government/arts organisations, such as in Scandinavia, Germany and France, and others aren’t such as Spain, Italy, and Eastern Europe.
I’m not sure what we can learn from each other. I think musicians do learn from each other quite naturally, and I have a feeling a lot of the big promoters have made connections and share ideas, etc. An obvious difference is how governments support, treat, feel about the arts, and alternative ways of living generally. It’s becoming harder to live an “alternative” life in the UK, especially in London, which is a shame.
Q You have a very distinctive way of improvising – a melodic line that is immediately identifiable. How would you describe it and how did you develop it?
A That’s kind of you to say. I would say I’m equally interested in melody, harmony and rhythm but I do think people think of me as a musician who has a melodic focus. I’m not sure how it came about, lots of listening and practicing in a certain way I suppose.
Q What drew you to the playing of the members of your Tetra band, how did you meet them, and what do you want of them in this band? What does it feel like to be one of the “established masters” and no longer one of the “young lions”.
A I met Kit and James through a bass player called Euan Burton, we did some gigs together in Scotland. I was surprised that they knew some of my tunes. Sam I found after a bit of research after getting some recommendations of younger bass players I didn’t know. I love the band, it seems that anything is possible with these guys. It feels for a long time I was always the youngest musician in bands I played in (Loose Tubes, Brotherhood (of Breath), Kenny (Wheeler)’s bands, my own quartets, octet, etc) and now finally I’m often the oldest. I don’t mind, I feel I’m in a better place.
Q The titles of your latest tunes are word plays, which kind of suggests the music is “abstract” rather than “thematic”. What inspires you when you are writing? How do you write?
A As for titles, sometimes they come first and sometimes they come after the piece is finished, sometimes they come easily and sometimes they don’t. These new tunes were hard to title – once I found the reduplicated phrase idea then a load of titles became possible.
I write slowly, I consider lots of possibilities and I like to live with pieces for a while before I let anyone near them. I prefer to write with a piano, but I have written with and without instruments. Now I often use a computer to sort of demo them, it helps me to be a bit objective about them. I often write with a preconceived idea or image of what I am after: a flower opening in the morning sun; something melodic but with chromatic harmony; something circular (no beginning or end); something diatonic, etc.
Q How have the Loose Tubes reunion gigs been for you? Were you one of those eager to get together again or reluctant to reform? Is the band likely to continue? Would you be interested in writing for it?
A I’m afraid I was one of the members who had reservations, But when it looked like it was going to happen I felt, it’s like a family wedding, you have to be there! I’d love to write for it one day. When the band existed first time round I was only 20 and was still starting out as a writer and the idea of writing for Tubes was a bit daunting. I think there are several of us who have moved on in that way.
Q What are your views on the state of British jazz, both the music itself and also the general UK scene? What do you think can be done to improve it in the way of infrastructure and support?
A The musicians in the Uk jazz scene are fantastic, as they are all over Europe. There are so many incredible players everywhere. Of course there are not enough places to play, and funding seems to be getting cut. It’s tough for musicians and the many people who are trying to put concerts on. I guess a government who didn’t feel the need to cut arts funding would help, and I think their attitude to one-to-one instrumental teaching might have a terrible effect later on. The awful housing issue in London is going to be a real hindrance to the London scene in the next years. But despite all these institutional problems, which of course are not new to jazz or arts generally, the music is still very strong and healthy.
A new generation of successful promoters might be good, too, especially in the established organisations, but I guess if there isn’t a support system with funding, etc, then it’ll be hard to attract the best possible people.
Q What do you hope your audience will take away from listening to one of your concerts or albums?
A I would hope people like the music of course, but maybe there will be someone who will be affected by it in the same way music has affected me.
- Julian Argüelles’ Tetra is out on Whirlwind Recordings.
- The band is playing the following dates: 26 Oct The Sage, Gateshead; 27 Oct The Spotted Dog, Birmingham; 29 Oct Arthur Sykes Rymer Auditorium, Univ of York; 30 Oct RWCMD, Cardiff; 31 Oct Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton; 3 Nov East Hastings Sea Angling Assoc, Hastings; 4 Nov The Capstone Theatre, Liverpool; 5 Nov Bennington Theatre, Nottingham; 56 Nov The Verdict, Brighton; 7 Nov The Vortex, London. Julian is doing various workshops and masterclasses along the way.
- For more information go to Julian’s website here.