Manchester-based drummer and composer – and former astrophysics student – Johnny Hunter is about to release a new album, While We Still Can, with his Quartet – Ben Watte on tenor saxophone, Graham South on trumpet and Stewart Wilson on bass – and he is launching it at the Efpi mini-fest at Kings Place in London on Saturday 25 June. We exchanged emails:
Q What was the starting point – the initial impetus for your Quartet?
A I had been exploring playing with no harmony instrument with some musicians in Sheffield then, on moving to Manchester in 2011, I asked Stew, Ben and Graham if they wanted to get together for a play and help me continue my studies. I started writing for this quartet, taking inspiration from the “chordless” groups of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson as well as contemporary artists such as Dave Douglas, John Zorn and Chris Speed.
Q Was it a conscious decision to have a band without a chordal instrument? What effect does that have on the music?
A Having no chordal instrument creates much more space within the sound and more freedom is afforded to the improvisers and to myself as the composer. I have experimented with static harmony over moving bass, or a static bass (riff or drone) underneath moving harmony. One of the features of Middle Eastern improvising that attracted me was the idea of having no chord progressions but, instead, cells of four consecutive notes stacked upon each other over a drone.
Also, I like how the bass can drastically alter things, especially when there are only two other voices describing the harmony. For example, if, on a very familiar chord progression, you change the bass notes, it can make it sound very different however, if the bass plays the “expected” notes, what allowances does that offer for the note choice of the two remaining voices and how important are they?
Q Is there a deeper meaning in the title? And in the artwork? Are there any astrophysical influences in your music?
A The title is about the appreciation of everything in your life, be it your pets, your family or your bass player; you never know when they may move to Glasgow. There are no (conscious) astrophysical influences in the music, no. However, I think my method has perhaps been affected by my background; for me, music and improvising are about experimentation and discovery.
Regarding the artwork, I want to give a special mention to Angela Guyton who is the incredible artist behind it. She has created the art for all of my CDs in the past. I never have anything in mind when I approach her, I just trust that she will come up with something amazing.
Q Do drummers make good leaders? Do you think they lead bands in a different way from say a saxophonist or a pianist?
A It’s very difficult to answer this question; I’m sure some drummers make good leaders and some don’t. I don’t know whether we do lead in a different way, I suppose you’d be better off asking my musicians. I tend to be less bothered by accuracy than some of the other leaders I play for but whether that’s due to me being a drummer or my background in the freer side things, I don’t know.
- The Johnny Hunter Quartet’s While We Still Can is out now on Efpi Records. As well as being featured at the Kings Place Efpi event, the album will get a home launch at the Manchester Jazz Festival on 25 July.
- More about the Efpi mini-festival – which also features Let Spin and Beats & Pieces – HERE.
- My interview with Ben Cottrell, leader of Beats & Pieces, for London Jazz News is HERE.