Dave Woodhall talks to Courtney Pine ahead of the jazz legend’s Birmingham show at the weekend.
It’s almost thirty years since Courtney Pine’s first album Journey to the Urge Within showed that British jazz wasn’t all about elderly white men in pubs. Since that 1986 milestone Courtney has been at the forefront of musical innovation, regularly reinventing himself and his music while bringing through a succession of young talent into his band.
The latest album House of Legends sees Courtney paying homage to his Caribbean roots with an album that fuses the musical styles you’d expect from such a journey – soca, calypso, ska. It’s a hugely entertaining recording which, as you might expect, has also met with a mixed response from purist critics. Courtney told us the story behind this project. “It’s about people who survived such existence and grew to develop and present the efforts and talents expressed to the world, such as Claudia Jones who came up with the idea for the Notting Hill Carnival. The album’s based on various people from the Caribbean who had something to say.”
Courtney is appearing at the Drum on Saturday 27th April to showcase the album, or at least part of it. “I’m a jazz musician. We don’t get time to play everything, we do as much as we can. I’ve got a really good band working with me and they understand what the music’s about. I think it sounds much better live and we put as much of it in as we can in the 90-odd minutes we have. If I had my way I’d do a four hour set but that’s all we can do. In Western society, people are used to getting the last bus home or to relieve their babysitters, it’s not like Africa or the Caribbean where music can be a whole evening’s entertainment.”
House of Legends sounds more of a mainstream, easier album to listen to than some of your earlier work. “It’s taken a long time to do but I’ve always had this album in mind. I found out at a late age that a lot of musicians came from the Caribbean to New Orleans to contribute to the creation of jazz. I looked at Jelly Roll Morton, whose mother was from Haiti, and Leslie Hutchinson, there’s a track called Hutch on the album, he’s from Grenada and hung out with Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet. I realised that the sound of jazz is made up of a lot of Caribbean influences and in making this record I’m showing that. My folks are from the Blue Mountains in Jamaica, but the Caribbean is so full of different nations with their own flavours. There’s a lot of cross-fertilisation but each nation has its own way of playing and representing music. For example, St Kitts where my wife is from has a different tempo for their soca music and there’s a track on the album, Liamuiga; Cook Up dedicated to the people of St Kitts. But it gave a lot of critics a hard time because they like to make comparisons and they had nothing to compare it with apart from maybe Sonny Rollins.”
Liamuiga; Cook Up is a truly catchy track, the sort that once you hear you can’t get out of your head. “I work with a lot of simplicity and I try to take away the fiddly bits, but I left a couple of fiddly bits on this album. When you hear that particular tune you can hear the Caribbean. It’s not just about ska and reggae music, it’s about other rhythms as well.”
On a more serious note there’s also Song for Stephen Lawrence. In the week that sees the twentieth anniversary of his murder this track obviously contains a powerful message. “I wanted to do it because it’s such a deep topic, a very personal issue. When I grew up we had similar issues and when I started looking outside London I realised we’re not the only ones who had this kind of story. Thankfully Stephen’s mum Doreen is a very dedicated and strong-willed person and she did what a lot of people weren’t brave enough to do. It’s created a big difference, a big turning point in UK society. It’s an issue that’s still not resolved but the more support we can give Doreen and victims of this type of crime the better.”
The scapegoats may change but the problems remain. “There’s always been immigrants, from the Vikings through the Dutch, Jews, Africans from the 15th century onwards, but the idea that somebody can be isolated and picked on because of their beliefs or the colour of their skin is evil and negative. Many people have gained power with this kind of rhetoric and it’s not going to stop now. In the eighties I played lots of anti-racism festivals with reggae bands, people got together over music to combat this evil and we still have that spirit, we have to do what we can. The history of jazz always preaches harmony and collaboration, finding ways to live positively. Music is such a powerful force for good.”
You’re playing the Drum, which is a smaller venue than you must be used to. “I like it, it’s a fantastic place. The Drum do a great job in presenting and making people feel comfortable. The first time I played there I was getting calls from jazz people telling me I shouldn’t play there, that the area wasn’t very nice and the people running it weren’t nice. But it was great and since then I’ve always supported the place, every time I perform there it’s been a good show. Last time I went there was for Andy Hamilton’s tribute night. His son invited me to perform with his band, the place was packed, with people turned away, and Andy’s presence was definitely there. Andy left such a legacy to the city, I’ve never played his old venue in Bearwood but I hope to get there one day.”
You must have played everywhere else in Birmingham, though. “First the reggae venues in the eighties then the jazz gigs. Everywhere from the Hummingbird to Ronnie Scott’s, and I’ve played the festivals as well. There’s a strong jazz fraternity up there, with musicians such as Soweto Kinch, Julie Dexter who’s coming back from America, Steve Ajao is a fantastic musician, Andy Gill, who’s Saxa’s son, I’ve worked with many musicians from Birmingham and a lot of them have come down to London to work with us. I’ve got family in Dudley, my wife’s got family in Birmingham, she did a lot of her training there so I did a lot of my courting in Birmingham. I feel very at home there. You walk round the Bull ring and you see somebody that you think looks like me, that is me.”
Courtney Pine is at the Drum on 27th April. Tickets £15, Box Office: 0121 333 2444. Website and online bookings: www.the-drum.org.uk
The album House of Legends is out now on Destine-E World Records.