Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1086

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Courtney Pine: Sax Education

Courtney Pine
Courtney Pine Courtney Pine and Omar COPYRIGHT: Alfred George Bailey Courtney Pine Courtney Pine

Widely hailed as the pre-eminent figure in the resurgence of British jazz over the last 30 years, English multi-instrumentalist Courtney Pine CBE this month presents the nineteenth album of his stellar career, “Black Notes From The Deep”. Which interestingly sees him collaborating on four of its ten tracks with internationally-celebrated UK soul singer/songwriter Omar, including its offshoot single - a joyously-flowing interpretation of Herbie Hancock’s 1974 fusion classic “Butterfly”.

Indeed, additionally featuring instrumental input from the likes of bass-player Alec Dankworth, pianist Robert Mitchell and drummer Rod Youngs while Courtney himself plays an array of instruments including saxophone, organ, synth, flute and tambourine, “Black Notes From The Deep” encompasses moods ranging from its funky and punchy opener “Rules” and buoyantly-skipping “In Another Time” to the brooding-yet-tender balladry of “Rivers Of Blood” and swinging waltz-time feel of “A Change Is Sure To Come”.

Born in London in March 1964 to Jamaican parents, Courtney would begin teaching himself the saxophone (the instrument he is still most associated with) from the age of 14 before eventually in 1986 releasing his debut album “Journey To The Urge Within”. Which groundbreakingly would go on to become the first serious jazz album ever to make the British Top 40, earning a Silver Disc along the way. Since which time other significant releases - several of which also penetrated the US Jazz chart - have included 1988’s “Destiny’s Song” (produced by noted American trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis); 1990’s “Closer To Home” (a collection of reggae tunes recorded in Jamaica with reggae producer Gussie Clarke); 1995’s “Modern Day Jazz Stories” (which boasted the UK chart single “I’ve Know Rivers Featuring Cassandra Wilson”); 2000’s “Back In The Day” (featuring vocal contributions from UK soul stars Beverley Knight, Lynden David Hall and Kele Le Roc); and 2004’s “Devotion”, which became Pine’s first release through his own independent label Destin-e Records after previously recording for both Island and Polygram.

Meanwhile, with Courtney also becoming renowned over the years as a presenter and broadcaster (in particular for his long-running BBC Radio 2 show “Jazz Crusade”), 2000 would prestigiously find him being awarded an OBE before nine years later being appointed a Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire (CBE) in the 2009 New Years Honours for his services to music. While other accomplishments along the way include his being the principal founder of seminal black British big band The Jazz Warriors (whom he led through two albums, 1987’s “Out Of Many, One People” and 2008’s “Afropeans”) as well as being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University Of Southampton in July 2010.

…All of which brings us back to today. As ever-affable and upbeat “national treasure” Courtney - whose three decades of international touring have seen him perform on shows ranging from the main stage at Glastonbury to Tokyo, Japan’s intimate Blue Note club - reacquaints himself with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss his aforementioned new album while simultaneously reflecting on his trailblazing career as one of the very first black musicians to make a firm imprint on the jazz scene this side of the Atlantic.

PETE: Let’s talk about you bringing on board Omar for the new album and what you feel he’s contributed to the project

COURTNEY: “Culturally we’re from a very similar area. We met in what I call Paddington, which to me encompasses Ladbroke Gove, the Harrow Road - you know, all that neighbourhood that you can also put places like Grenfell Tower and the Carnival into. Basically, it’s a collection of people from an area that has something in common, and Omar and I do. And so with us having met several times and shared musicians, I always wanted to work with him. And what I feel he’s primarily brought to the project is another viewpoint. Because what I found out is that he didn’t actually grow up in the area - as a child he moved out to the countryside. Which means he’s got a whole other perspective on music and culture and life. Like for example on one of the tunes, I said to him ‘I want this to be about a suicide bomber and his last thoughts’. But then he actually came up with a totally different idea for the track which turned into the song we now have on the album called “Rules”, which was the antidote to the kind of negative viewpoint I was coming from! So yeah, in that way I guess he was a perfect foil for some of my mad thoughts!”

PETE: So let’s discuss the three core instrumentalists that accompany you throughout “Black Notes From The Deep”

COURTNEY: “Well, whenever I work with musicians I always try to have somebody on my recordings that is older than me and has more wisdom than me - and that’s Alec Dankworth! You know, family-wise he comes from jazz royalty and he plays double-bass with everybody from mainstream jazz to be-bop to Ginger Baker! So you can’t go wrong recording with Alec Dankworth! Like you’ll be at that point right in the heart of a recording and he’ll just stop and say ‘Hang on a minute - why is it like this?’ - which is exactly what I need!… Then Rod Youngs is an American who’s come over and totally become a part of our jazz vibe. Like he plays drums every night with every other type of musician… I mean, I actually met him through Jazz Jamaica, completely embracing Caribbean culture! Which showed me that, rather than coming over with that American swagger like he knows everything, instead he’s come over to learn and develop. And so with me feeling a timpani would really hammer home the point I was trying to convey on the track “Rivers Of Blood”, when I discovered he’d studied the timpani at college I knew he was the perfect choice... While Robert Mitchell, on the other hand, I’ve seen go from a 17-year-old piano prodigy to a Steinway artist who has albums out now under his own name. Which to me shows he’s somebody who has the drive to really, really state who he is as a member of the United Kingdom, just as I have. So yeah, with him it’s definitely about working with somebody you have something in common with.”

The album Black Notes from the Deep is out through Freestyle Records

You can read more from our interview with British jazz great Courtney Pine CBE, including his reasons for covering Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” on his new album "Black Notes from the Deep", his thoughts on being a pioneer of British jazz for the last three decades and how he views the many changes that have taken place in Jazz since he first started out? All in the current issue of Blues & Soul Magazine - click the 'BUY NOW' link below to order straight from the B&S shop or read on for high street retailer details...

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