A lot has happened in the year and three months since the release of Sarah Tandy's debut album, Infection in the Sentence. My original plan for this interview was to try and focus on aspects of the release that had been overlooked in previous publications, but Sarah was incredibly generous with her time which made for a much more sprawling exchange. Here it is.
So, Sarah, Infection in the Sentence, your first album. Before we talk concepts and music, let's get into that line-up. You had Sheila Maurice-Grey and Binker Golding on horns, Femi Koleoso on kit, Mutale Chashi on bass. Just take us through each player, the hook-up and what it is about their playing/ person that intrigued you enough to want to record with them.
The simple answer is familiarity. It was my first time writing and recording my own music, and I wanted to do it with the people I felt most comfortable with, on and off the bandstand. I think there’s a large element of trust involved in improvised music, and musicians tend to bring out the best in each other when that connection has been able to grow over time.Femi was one of the very first people I met when I first ventured out onto the London jazz scene. We were thrown together on a last minute gig which turned into a residency spanning several years. There were a lot of those kind of gigs back then - late night spots under railway arches and in cellar bars where cocky kids danced to swing and bop. Playing in London was a whole new experience for me. I was blown away by the energy of the city, and something of that seeped into the music. There was a sense that nothing was off- limits musically, and that was incredibly liberating. I used to get butterflies before every gig because I didn’t know where we would end up. So I suppose I wanted to try and capture something of that excitement on the record.
Mutale had been our regular bass player for a while and it was a perfect fit. Him and Femi have such different temperaments that they complement each other beautifully. And his feel is out-of-this-world! He could just be playing quarter notes all night and it would swing like hell.
When it came to the horn section, Binker was the obvious choice. I love his playing so much. He used to play with us pretty regularly on Friday nights back then and every time he showed up with his horn, I knew we were all about to get catapulted into another dimension. That’s the wonderful thing about jazz... you throw one new element into the mix and it changes everything. I feel like his presence on the bandstand made us all dig a bit deeper.
I love the classic tenor/trumpet line up... its so timeless and yet there’s so much you can do with it. Sheila has this wonderful soaring trumpet tone which I could hear floating on top the music while I was writing it. In my head I had always wanted it to be her on the record and luckily she said yes!
So that’s the long version... the short version is “I just called up my mates”
Fair! Yeah, Binker is a first-call improviser for me. Always liked his music but it’s only really after I started running into him blowing standards now and again that I realised just how imaginative his playing is.
Your point on trust makes sense. I guess the jump can be as outlandish as you want if you totally trust the net underneath. So, did you write the pieces with those players in mind? How ‘complete’ was the writing, since it sounds as though you wanted those surprises and you chose musicians with that facility and/or sensibility?
Yes, 100% it was written for those players. I deliberately tried to keep the dots on the page pretty limited. I didn’t set out to write particularly complex through-composed music (much as I appreciate that style) because I wanted everyone to have the space and freedom to
bring their own personality to it. I suppose ultimately I wanted people to be focusing on the conversation between musicians, rather than fully realised compositions. I wanted it to reflect the situation we were most used to performing in, which could get pretty wild sometimes, and I think that might have been harder to achieve if the music had been more tightly structured. Of course, I had a strong sense of how it would turn out, because I know the way those guys approach music. I could have given the same music to a different set of people, and it would have come out sounding completely different. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Sarah Tandy, Sheila Maurice-Grey & Binker Golding
This idea that nothing is off limits is reflected in the diversity of the music on the record. How important was it for you to capture this eclecticism and spirit of risk that you experienced on the London scene? Would it have felt disingenuous to go with some sort of cerebral, narrow-focus concept? (assuming that was ever a viable option commercially). I guess what I’m getting at here is what extent you feel recorded output should try to chronicle lived experience.
That’s a really interesting question. I think to some extent all art has to answer the question of its relationship to the moment in which it is conceived. But I think that question is particularly urgent with jazz because it’s improvised music. It exists ONLY in the present moment. So you can’t separate it from the record you listened to that morning, the gig you went to last night, the tune you’ve had in your head all day, that beat that’s got you dancing round your kitchen. It’s all gonna be in there somewhere. I’d say that jazz IS a reflection of lived experience. It needs to have that element of madness if it’s going to be honest.
What was interesting for me about that time was that in some ways we were working within a very traditional framework... we were playing two sets of jazz standards a night. But within that structure, you found all these other elements creeping in. So when it came to writing my own music, it was basically an experiment. I wanted to capture some of the things that I loved about those old jazz records and imagine what they might sound like if they were written today. So that gave me some space to step outside the traditional jazz framework and try out some things I’d never tried before.
Well, the album’s opener “Bradbury Street” seems to be a number of those things writ large. Has that Second Line parade feel, and these Afrobeat-type vamps, but I never get the sense that anyone is explicitly playing a particular style. In fact, this piece seems especially honest and each player is almost immediately recognisable. I’m guessing it’s no coincidence you named this one after the street where your residency took place.
You sound a little nostalgic about that time. Did you feel as though those late night, under railway arches gigs were disappearing even before the pandemic?
Ha ha I think I’m just a sentimental person to be honest. I’m the sort of person that feels nostalgic for the moment even while its happening. And I think that as long as there are human beings on the earth, there’ll be people dancing in dark corners. But I do think the musical landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years (and not just in jazz). It’s opened so many doors, allowed artists so much more autonomy, created opportunities which would have been unimaginable a few years back. And yet at the same time, I think an inevitable consequence of this is that there is a greater pressure on people to be the ‘finished article’ all the time... to be your own product, and sell it well. And I think that jazz intrinsically resists this idea to some extent. As improvised music, it’s about the search as much as the arrival. So perhaps a part of me misses that sense of being ‘unfinished’ - of not planning a set, not knowing who’ll show up, just doing it for the hell of it, with nowhere particular to be in the morning. But another thing jazz teaches you is knowing when it’s time to move on. Being a bandleader isn’t something which comes naturally to me, it’s something I’ve had to work hard at. And I think it’s essential to learn those skills if you’re going to successfully navigate today’s musical landscape.
I like that we really get to hear some of the other sides to Femi’s drumming
on this record. He’s obviously hugely popular but doesn’t always get to flex some of the subtler aspects of his game. Having said that, I imagine playing with
Bradbury Street and Under the Skin Femi is physically pretty fucking demanding! Do you have a particular discipline to improve on power and speed? I mean in your practice time? Also, those points when intensity and volume are ratcheted right up, got me thinking, how much do you need to hear what you yourself are playing in performance?
Yeah, Femi is one of the most versatile and intuitive musicians I know. He has so many different sides to his playing, so I’m really happy he got a chance to get all the tools out.I’m lucky in some ways because all those years of playing classical piano have left me with a pretty solid technique. I’ve got a few routines left over from that time which I still do, more out of habit than anything else. I think its actually more of a Zen type of thing, checking in where I’m at with it every day. But to be honest I think I’ve always been quite a physical player anyway... I was always getting told off about it at various conservatoires. So it’s always felt natural to me to play that way. Obviously you need to be able to hear yourself. Volume isn’t really an issue in the studio if you have a good engineer. But I have to admit, some of those old pianos in small venues struggled sometimes. I broke a string at Servants once (the owner was SEVERELY unimpressed!!). And one time I looked down mid solo and there was blood smeared all over the keys. I must have torn my finger open somewhere but I hadn’t even noticed it.
Sheesh! You clear the decks for a conversation with Sheila Maurice Grey on
Nursery Rhyme. Like you said earlier, colossal, soaring tone. One of the first times
I saw her play, she absolutely waxed some poor guy on the bandstand.
Talk to us a bit about that piece and what it’s like to play with her.
The strange thing is, that piece wrote itself really. I wanted to write something with a really simple melody and see where I could take it. I’ve always had this weird thing about folk tunes... they have such a timeless quality. We usually learn them in our childhood, sometimes even before we can speak and we carry them through our lives almost unconsciously. So I wanted to try and write a tune which captured that sense of something distantly remembered but intensely familiar.I knew straight away it had to be a trumpet feature... it would have sounded completely different on sax. I absolutely love playing with Sheila and she really brought the magic. She plays so lyrically but there’s also a lot of blues in there too, which I really dig. My little niece has just started to learn trumpet and her friends at school laughed at her and said ‘only boys play trumpet’. So I can’t wait to bring her to a gig so she can see Sheila in action!
So, on to Under the Skin which sounds very much from the Tyner lineage: those stabs, Binker’s entry point and attack etc
Now, I’ve seen folks – young folks - dancing wildly to Under the Skin, which is great, though even as recently as 7-8 years ago, it’s hard to imagine a room of young people dancing to Tyner or let's say Chick Corea’s Litha, which is a comparable tune in terms of tempo, feel and aesthetic. How did we get here?
I think there’s a whole load of different things going on here. Even before UK Jazz exploded in the mainstream media a few years back, the music was already starting to move out of the more traditional spaces and into the clubs. Kansas Smittys used to hold what they called a ‘Jazz Rave’ on Friday nights at the Arch in Cambridge Heath. And nights at the Prince of Wales and the Haggerston were always rammed. In these kind of places you’d have a DJ between sets spinning Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, so when the band came back on, they knew they had to match that energy to keep people moving. You’ve essentially got a room full of young people who are familiar with club culture and who want to dance, but find an added sense of communion in having the live musicians there. And a space like that naturally lends itself to innovation. It’s not hard to see how a few years down the line, you get something like Steam Down.
More generally, I think the way that we consume music has changed massively in the past few years. The world of streaming means that people tend to listen to tracks rather than albums. The era of the Spotify playlist means that genre is becoming much more fluid ... tracks from all genres or none can sit comfortably alongside each other. In addition, there is often a strong commercial impetus for artists from different genres to collaborate with each other. All this means that many traditional boundaries are collapsing. The distinctions between ‘serious’ music and ‘dance’ music or concert hall and club cease to hold much relevance.
Under The Skin
Timelord sees you switch to keys. This continues through to Light/Weight and Snake in the Grass. Was it always case of setting out to write 3 songs a-piece piano and keyboard/ Fender or did you did you make those calls at a later point?
I didn’t actually set out to divide the record equally between piano and keys, although I knew when I was writing the material that certain tunes would work better on one than the other. Snake in the Grass for example was always going to be keys. I think the original plan was to keep as much of it on piano as possible, just because piano’s my thing really. We tried takes of Timelord on both, but in the end keys worked better.
Timelord (Live at JazzRefreshed, Mau Mau Bar)
I know you played in Jazz Jamaica for a time, and rhythmically, there’s strong Afro-Caribbean input in “Snake in the Grass”. When did you first gravitate towards those sounds?
Yeah, I’ll always be massively indebted to Gary Crosby for giving me the Jazz Jamaica gig. I think he knew he was taking a bit of a risk, as I really wasn’t that experienced playing that music back then. It wasn’t something I had grown up with like so many of my friends had. But it turned out to be the most incredible experience. It was also my first time meeting & working with a lot of the elder generation and I learnt so much from them in all ways. So yeah, I guess Jazz Jamaica was the start but it really opened doors for me to go and explore so much other stuff as well. And I’m so glad I had that opportunity because those sounds are woven into so much of the music coming out of the UK these days, so it was wonderful to have had that education.
Snake in the Grass
Great, so that's the closer. Out of interest, where does the album title come from?
The title actually comes from a line of an Emily Dickinson poem. I like the fact that it’s a word-play on ‘inflection’. To me, it captures the idea that there’s a latent music in the way people speak, and often, that music conveys more meaning than the words themselves. When I first moved back to London after having been away for some time, one of the main things that struck me was that a lot of the people around me used language in a different way to me. I spent a lot of time learning to pick up the general gist of things rather than the exact meaning. And at the same time, I was also trying to find new ways into playing this quite traditional style of music. So I was checking out new records, hearing people voice things differently, phrase things differently, hit the drums differently. I guess in my head, it all became part of the same process.I remember years back, my old classical piano teacher saying to me “what are you worried about? It’s only notes”. And that at the time I was thinking ‘its alright for you,
these notes are really fucking HARD’. But now I get it... the notes are the very least of it.
It’s what you breathe into them that makes it music. And I often think there’s something quite subversive about that music. It’s like the truth which leaks out, whether you meant to say it or not.
You spoke earlier about this music being created in the moment, inescapable from the climate in which it is conceived. A hell of a lot has happened in recent months, from what’s shaping up to be a hugely consequential extended lockdown, to the Black Lives Matter protests. As always, many look to artists – musicians, particularly - for a response to social and political upheaval. Do you feel as though there is an expectation that the music be political in some way, taking a stand or at least responding to the key events emerging around you? If so, what are your feelings on this?
Yeah we are living through a hugely interesting time right now, so much is in flux and I think it would odd if the music produced during this time didn’t reflect that in some way. There are already some killing lockdown records out there and I’m sure there’ll be more to come. I think you’re right, we do look to artists for a voice in these times, particularly if the artist has a large platform or a body of work shaped by these issues. And I think the reason we do this is because life is so crazy right now, we look to people who can put into words the things we couldn’t, or express the emotions we didn’t know we had until we heard it coming out of a saxophone. But having said that, I think it would be unreasonable for white people to assume that every black artist should automatically be an ambassador for these issues.
What’s so interesting about the current moment is that there are so many different aspects to it. People will be dealing with grief, illness, mortality, perhaps for the first time. Or they might have lost their livelihood, their economic security. Or be questioning basic assumptions about their life in a way they never had before. But at the same time, perhaps some people are finding a purpose they didn’t know they had. Or learning new skills, or engaging in political activism for the first time . There is such a huge amount to process and everyone will be doing that in their own way. And I think all these elements will inevitably filter into the music we make during this period. A tune doesn’t have to be called F**k Boris for it to be a reflection of the turbulence of the times. As has been pointed out many times, joy itself can be an act of resistance.
With few, if any, opportunities for live expression right now, from the outside it seems as though musicians are at a disadvantage when it comes to spontaneous creative response. How are you finding this?
It’s strange, when the lockdown first happened, I think a lot of musicians were weirdly OK with it. Most of us are no strangers to solitude, to structuring our own days and biding our time. That’s the side of being a musician that no one ever talks about. We’ve all been at that stage where we had no gigs so we just sat at home practising and praying . So at the start, I was full of grand plans for writing, focusing on production, all of that stuff. And then two weeks in I got sick and that changed everything. It’s basically forced me to have the longest break I’ve ever had in my life, which is pretty weird but has given me a new perspective on things. Listening to music during this time has been an absolute life- saver, and I definitely think
I’m hearing things differently because I’m not practising at the moment. I’m also hoping that taking the step back will be good for my writing because the ideas feel fresher. Having said that, my fingers are starting to get twitchy now! Of course I miss performing, like we all do, but right now I’m just focusing on getting back to full health.
I hear that. So who've you been listening to?
I’ve actually been listening to a lot of piano trio stuff… Abdullah Ibrahim… Bill Evans… which is weird because I was never that into Bill when I was younger actually, but then you start hearing different things. Also quite randomly, I’ve become obsessed with Greentea Peng… I just love everything about her whole vibe… I’ve spent hours trying to work out the production on her records. And quite a few of my friends have been doing radio shows as well. I think it’s wonderful that radio has really become a thing during these times. It’s not a form of escapism like Netflix… It’s a way of connecting… We’ve all been so isolated over the past few months, and then you hear your friends playing their favourite records on the radio and for a moment, you’re all sharing a feeling. I think that’s very healing.
First saw Greentea Peng at Tola in Peckham. Same bill as Obongjayar, Yussef and those guys. She was the one I didn't know but her set stood out. Anyway, who are the under the radar scene guys that we should keep an eye on?
Ah, there’s way too many wonderful players coming up, I loose track! I’m not sure how ‘under the radar’ he is these days, but I really love Kaidi Akinnibi’s playing… And Cass Cobbson is still young but he’s going to be a great drummer.
I like them both. Cassius knows what he's doing! Just before we close this, I wanted to bring it back to Black Lives Matter. Now, on the surface, it appears as though the music community have been pro-active in their support of Black Lives Matter. #TheShowMustBePaused initiative was started by music industry execs. I keep seeing musicians alluding to industry reform, self-education etc. Where exactly would you like to see change?
It’s interesting - on the one hand there seems to be a lot of cause for hope. I honestly can’t remember a time where people engaged so widely with issues of injustice and systemic racism, particularly people from privileged backgrounds. However, I also sense in many of my black friends a note of caution amid the optimism... the sense that we will only really know how much lasting change is achieved after the hashtags die down. There are certain long standing issues in the music industry which obviously still need to be addressed... the fact that many labels profiting off black music are mostly still run and owned by white execs, the fact that historically, black artists have been tied into exploitative contracts which prevent them from owning their masters.
I recently read something Steve McQueen wrote about a film set being an insight into race and class in this country... how despite his attempt to tell black stories with black actors, everyone behind the camera was white and middle class. And I think you will probably find a similar dynamic across all the creative industries. So to have any lasting effect, changes need to happen ‘behind the camera’ - in boardrooms, at a creative decision making level. And to achieve that involves a comprehensive dismantling of many of the assumptions of privilege... a recognition that the person with the most expensive education doesn’t automatically have the most to offer.
I have been very fortunate in my career. I owe so much to people taking a leap of faith with me - recognising potential and giving me opportunities which have enabled me to develop and grow, even when I might not have been the most experienced, or the most obvious choice. And I think everyone in the industry, particularly those behind the scenes, has a responsibility to create these kind of spaces where talent can be nurtured and skills developed.