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Congratulations on your newly released album ‘British Standard Time’.Alongside your love of the jazz tradition, you clearly have a love of song, what led you to choose the songs you’ve selected to feature in this new work? Could you describe your thoughts behind this project?
Once I’d thought of the idea – and I’m not the first person to have done so, Clark Tracey did an excellent album of instrumental jazz by UK composers a few years back – what was interesting is how much material there was, from songs that people might have assumed were from the Great American Songbook like These Foolish Things to loads of modern jazz compositions, to the musicals – Newley & Bricusse, Lionel Bart – and of course once you get to the pop era there’s an embarrassment of riches. And it gave me a theme, a kind of binding idea for the project – which was originally a live thing for the superb singer Jo Harrop.
On British Stand Time you’ve brought together an exciting lineup of artists, both frontline vocalist and the whole band (Jo Harrop, Luca Manning, Tony Momrelle and Carroll Thompson). How did the creative process work with many great artists in one room?
I’ve always found great musicians and vocalists receptive if they get the idea and they’re drawn to it. I think the concept appealed to people but also so did the songs themselves, the arrangements and the great instrumentalists we had on the album. For one thing, I think bassist Flo Moore and drummer Sophie Alloway deserve a mention in dispatches for nailing so many different rhythmic styles so well.
What do you feel was the most challenging when creating BST?
In the first instance the usual grind of getting gigs and getting the project out there! Then the pandemic came, which is when Hampstead Jazz Club became a bit of a fairy godmother and enabled us to at least record the work. Probably the most challenging thing is the next bit, when I have to find a way to get it back on the road!
Are there any more plans for BST going forwards, is this something you would be interested in revisiting and continuing to develop?
Absolutely, we have a couple of launch gigs and then I need to look at a way to get the project playing live again. There’s easily another album in my head, by the way!
Your work as a songwriter, pianist, and arranger is renowned, spanning many genres, collaborations, writing, arranging, and musically directing countless projects. What is it that draws to you when selecting particular sounds and would you say that bringing people together is central to your work?
It might be something to do with having been a music promoter in my past, working at venues – I’m very interested in how music is heard and received by audiences, that act of communication. So I’ve tended to try to balance musical complexity with accessibility, which is a tough call and I’m not saying I’ve always pulled it off. But the simple – though difficult – act of writing or at least arranging a song that really connects with people, that’s what inspires me.
Looking at your various collaborations with musicians – what do you love about it? Is there a stand out, most memorable moment…?
So many, I mean just before Christmas I was doing a restaurant gig with Jo Harrop – the usual bread and butter gig – and we we’re swangin’! Working with Charenee Wade in the US was something else, that’s a real classic jazz singer in the great tradition; hearing Judi Jackson singing the folk song Lord Randall in my stage show Cafe Society Swing – really emotional. Co-writing collaborations can go either way, but it was particularly easy and creative with Ayanna Witter-Johnson and also with Camilla Beeput, with whom I wrote a musical about Lena Horne. When it’s easy, you know it’s right.
You have a particular interest in voice. What interests you so much about it?
I loved pop music before I got into jazz, my earliest musical memories are Beatles songs. So that’s probably something to do with it. When I was a teenager and it was all about Punk and Disco I was already listening to Billie Holiday, and though I loved some of the pop music of the time I knew Billie was just more grown up – this was the real thing.
In 2021 you founded a new jazz group called ‘Quintet Blue’. How did you come up with this specific band setting?
I started doing some gigs with Nigel Price, a real virtuoso and great geezer, and we both love the non-nonsense, groovy, bluesy music of the 50s and 60s. So it started there and I knew Denys Baptiste, although he’s often involved in more complex and searching music, had the same feeling – so I just arranged a lot of stuff and we rehearsed it and it fell into place really fast. It’s about the ‘jukebox jazz’ of the period, the stuff that really got played and appreciated by a wider jazz audience – which wasn’t necessarily the innovative stuff that makes the jazz history books. And there’s an influence of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West too, one of my favourite bands.We have a great rhythm section by the way, Mikele Montoli on bass and Shaney Forbes on drums.
What are your plans for the band? Do you have live dates where people can come and hear?
We have a bunch of dates for Quintet Blue and I’m trying to hustle more!They’re all listed at alexwebbsongwriter.com
What are your greatest musical influences, do they span many genres?
Everything, but Charlie Parker, who I discovered in my teens, is probably the reason I’m a musician.He’s still a kind of god to me.
Who is the musical genius you admire the most?
See above. Also JS Bach, who’s the daddy of all of us, and living? Stevie Wonder.
If you had to choose one project or any specific performance that stands out in your career, what would it be, and why was it special?
Difficult, but there was a big show at the Barbican for the Labour Party just before the 2015 election where Vimala Rowe and I did Strange Fruit and we got this huge ovation – it just didn’t stop, and I couldn’t even see what was happening because the lights were so bright. But we knew we’d landed the punch. Shame about the election …
Finally going back to your great new release British Standard Time, what’s planned for 2022, where can people come and hear you play?
We have launch shows at Hampstead Jazz Club on Friday 28 January and Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec on Friday 4th February – with vocalists Carroll Thomson and Freddie Benedict.And more to come, I hope.