Matthew Halsall ahead of Cork Jazz Festival: "It really puts a big smile on my face" 

Matthew Halsall is a leading light in UK jazz - but with last year’s Salute to the Sun album, he casts his net wider, taking in a variety of sounds and influences from all over the world. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with the Gondwana Records founder ahead of his Everyman Palace gigs this weekend as part of Cork Jazz Festival.
Matthew Halsall ahead of Cork Jazz Festival: "It really puts a big smile on my face" 

Matthew Halsall: Looking forward to performing at Cork Jazz Festival.

Salute to the Sun, the 2020 album composed and led by Manchester jazz trumpeter Matthew Halsall, sounds like its title - beams of sonic colour provided by a variety of instruments including marimba and kalimba, spread across a background of soulful, exploratory jazz forged in improvisation and informed by the modern sonic landscape, in search of escape. Perfect fare, then, considering the last wee while we’ve collectively endured.

Halsall and his band are among the Cork Jazz Weekend’s headliners, getting set as we speak over the phone to bring some of that atmosphere to a festival stacked with heavy-hitters and crowd-pleasers elsewhere on the lineup. The UK has been back in business for a little bit, and he’s pleased to be back in the swing of things.

“It's really good. It's nice, earthy, positive music with a nice message. It's a lot of fun to perform live. There's certain tunes where the percussionist is making lots of tropical sounds, and bird noises, and all sorts that puts a smile on everyone's face. It's a nice varied album, as well, everyone gets their moment in our live performances.

“I feel it was the right record at that time, and I think the response from our fans is that it was a perfect lockdown record, really, because it had a bit of escapism, and it was really meditative. So people felt good when they listen to it, which was well-needed in these dark and crazy times.”

Salute to the Sun will figure heavily into the show - after coming in for critical acclaim and a warm reception among jazz fans following its release.

Halsall talks about the album’s creation, and how his vision for it as a bandleader manifested itself in the final product.

“It was quite a different writing process for me, because I was listening to lots of field recordings from tropical places.

“I'm sitting in Manchester looking out the window and it's raining, but I close my eyes and put my headphones on, and I'm in a beautiful jungle or rainforest with exotic birds and sounds.

“So I decided to use that as a foundation, and took it all off in the end on the final recording because I felt like the musicians and the instrumentation kind of captured that anyway - a nice, earthy, light sound that was right for the record.”

Creating the album amid the Covid circumstances was an experience in and of itself, constituting a fundamental shift in how he went about playing and rehearsing, as well as the recording and creative processes.

It really puts a big smile on my face when I see a gig in Ireland, and especially a prestigious one like this in Cork

Covid crisis aside, it represents a departure in terms of a new band to perform with - the endpoint of a long search that brought him along the contours of his native Manchester’s scene.

“My album 'Into Forever' came out in 2015, we toured that really extensively, and that was quite a big project, 11 to 13 musicians on tour for most of the UK dates. And I think that band had been playing together for a long time.

“People were venturing into different projects, and it felt like it was getting harder and harder to continue to work. As an example, my piano player, from Manchester to London, and now lives in Devon; my sax player moved to Qatar in the Middle East.

“There's lots of things that just sort of pulled it apart, unfortunately, everyone was moving all over the place, people were having kids, different focuses and things in their lives. It felt like ten or eleven years at that point that I've been working with some of those musicians, so it just felt like a time where I naturally felt like it was time to move on.

“I wanted a different challenge, as well. I wanted some fresh energy in the band, so I went on the hunt for rising talent in Manchester, and went to every jam session you can imagine, every gig and asked every musician I knew who was worth checking out, and after about six months to a year of doing my research, I got the band that's currently on tour with me, and I'm really, really happy with the way they all perform and their attitude and focus.”


                        Matthew Halsall is a leading light in UK jazz.
Matthew Halsall is a leading light in UK jazz.

The UK’s been having a very real moment in recent years as far as the emergence of new jazz goes, but a lot of casual listeners’ attention has been focused on what’s emerged from London - the ‘We Out Here’ compilation and the scene that’s come to wider attention around it.

Halsall’s process around the whole record was a result of attempting to create a jazz record in a Northern English voice, and much like Cork city, the music of his town comes together differently.

“It's really healthy, the music scene in Manchester. There's lots of universities and colleges where people study music, and an endless amount of jam sessions and jazz gigs going on, and also there's a lot of record shops, there's a lot of DJ culture.

“I learned a lot from going to watch people like Mr. Scruff DJ because he introduced me to Pharoah Sanders and things like that. So there's lots of different nice things about Manchester. The music community is quite open, and you get to meet some of your heroes. A lot of the time, they're very humble and nice, friendly people.

“You can get on a level with a lot of the musicians, and there's a respect and a pride to sort of stay in Manchester, and be part of our community. Not many of them end up quitting and going to London, y'know, it's kind of quite stubborn resilience, which I'm kind-of proud of.”

The Jazz approaches, and into profoundly changed circumstances, as artists and promoters alike attempt to negotiate a post-Brexit touring picture as the world gradually emerges from a pandemic.

I wanted some fresh energy in the band, so I went on the hunt for rising talent at every jam session you can imagine

And yet, for all the uncertainty surrounding it, Halsall is keenly aware of the Jazz Weekend’s reputation, and is looking forward to getting in front of the city’s festival-going audience.

“My girlfriend's Irish, she's from the North. We've been going out for 13 years, and I go to Ireland a lot.

“I've only actually played twice in Dublin before, and I've not done any other gigs, and it's always really nice, in terms of my family and girlfriend's family, and to even do these interviews, is really nice. It really puts a big smile on my face when I see a gig in Ireland, and especially a prestigious one like this.

“The lineup looks great. I've checked it out and it has been great for many, many years. It feels like a good, positive day on the tour.

“The band are all quite excited about being there. It's great to see a festival, a jazz festival, able to continue, and get through COVID as well. And I think there'll be a relief, and an energy with the crowd.”
Matthew Halsall plays the Everyman Palace tomorrow night. For more info and tickets, see: https://everymancork.com/events/matthew-halsall-gondwana-records-guinnes-cork-jazz/

‘Salute to the Sun’ is available for streaming and download via Bandcamp: https://matthewhalsall.bandcamp.com/album/salute-to-the-sun

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