*Boom boom boom* the tapping of the mike signals the gaze of the audience drawn. "Testing, testing." the disheveled man notes, his shirt only loftily tucked in as his jeans. the neon light gleamed the words "Shhh... it's a library" (you have no idea how much I couldn't even with that sign) in the Library Members Club, a stones throw away from Covent Garden.
After a full day of London Fashion Week madness, settling down with Lizzie in the cobbled corner of London was lovely. I had been invited by Art Naked to watch the American saxophonist Paul Jones play a live jazz quartet. His saxophone reminded me of the faded glit of the dented 1930s, the melancholic notes trickling out from its bell, the meaning behind each note clear. The melodies behind me playfully bounced off the walls.
A couple of days after the performance, I managed to catch Paul Jones just after he touched ground in the US, and have a quick chat about his work and why music is the passion that keeps him going.
J: Tell me a little bit about yourself?
P: I was born in Salisbury Maryland, which is the state surrounding Washington in the United States. I spent my childhood there and I was always into music at a really young age, even though there wasn't really a lot of music going on there. I was in a marching band and stuff like that, and I remember wanting to just be able to play whatever I want, and when I got into high school I joined the Jazz Band and I just started improvising and I was really blown away by that. Because that was like the first moment that I was like “Oh, I can play whatever I want?” and they were like “Yeah!”
J: Do you remember what your first song was that you improved?
P: I might have been ‘Blue Bossa’ or ‘Song from my father’. They’re two jazz standards. I mean my mum involved me in like a summer camp for jazz because all the other kids had jazz in New Hampshire and I had to catch up! So before school started, I went to summer camp and started learning how to do it. I knew I wanted to do band in high school and continue on that path, so I go really into that, I didn't really have any formal lessons.
J: Would you say you’re self-taught then?
P: I’m more of a combination, like I think kind of all artists get to a point where they could start to teach themselves, ya know, and they create their own stuff and develop their processes. But definitely went through a big school phase for sure.
J: I guess you’re only as good as your teacher…
P: Something like that, aha!
J: That actually quite nicely leads to the second question! So how did you find yourself playing the saxophone?
P: I was one of these kids that was like four years old and wanted to play the saxophone, but I had to wait. Most kids have to wait till your hands get big enough to physically reach the keys!
J: That might help just a little bit!
P: Yeah! So I had to wait till I was around 10, I played piano before then, and I wasn't into piano then, I’m very into it now, I practice it for like an hour a day. I wanted to play at a very young age, it just took a while for me to find the path to really doing it.
J: I guess you have to hone yourself.
P: Yeah, because you’re in a band and you’re in elementary and middle and high school and everyone’s like, “Oh that’s cool you’re doing that” and I was like “I really kinda like this!” And when I went to college, I didn’t what to do, so I thought “I’ll take a music course.”
J: How did you find studying music? Some people find that when you have a passion and have to study it for education, so it’s more like urgh, now it’s work.
P: I’m definitely very passionate about music, it’s just sort of what I do. I've had doubts about it, but I just know it’s one of those things I’m going to do for my entire life. So when you look stuff under the microscope, I think “Cool!” and usually, if I get not into something because I’m looking at it too intently, it’s mostly just because I’m tired and I need to relax. It’s cool I mean, I was also behind everyone else, a lot of them in high school either went to a performing arts school or they had really strong band programs. I was even behind studying jazz because I moved to New Hampshire, and all the other kids had already had 3 or 4 years of good jazz training and I had none. So I always felt like I was trying to play catch-up, and now most of the people I play with are a good 3 to 5 years younger than me. I enjoy learning this.
J: After you kind of learned all of this, you have to find that way to apply it. So what was your first gig?
P: I was in a coffee shop and was probably like, 15, 16 and I was so nervous. So I just got up, and I wanted to play, and it was cool. The scariest performance I had ever done that very first one in fourth grade! Once I got used to standing up in front of everyone, all the gigs after that were all kind of the same, them just sitting there and looking at you and waiting for you to play. Whether you’re in school or a bar. It changes more now I’m doing gigs where I wrote all the music I’ve hired the band, I’ve rehearsed with the band, my energy has been put into it. Have a bit more control.
J: Do you still feel you get a bit of stage fright?
P: Yeah! During big shows, I mean I have a show coming on March 6th in New York, and I’m a little nervous about it! I mean I have to get people to come out, I have one of my former mentors playing piano, he’s one of the best pianists alive in my opinion, it’s intimidating and exciting at the same time. Hopefully it’s going to go well, but in every show where you’re the leader, and you've got all these great people backing you up, you’ve got these expectations… there’s a lot of pressure. It’s intense.
J: Would you still say you have that same thrill that you must have had when you first played in fourth grade?
P: I think so. I just enjoy it, it’s what I do.
J: It doesn’t really need an explanation.
P: Yeah, it’s just something I knew I was going to do. My dad even told me that when I asked him “When I told you I want to be a musician, why didn’t you say ‘hey, that’s fun and everything, but also, you like computers so why don’t you go and do computer science or something.” And he was like “Nah, you like music! I don’t think I could have stopped you!”
J: It’s good that you have always had your parent’s support about it, not everyone does.
P: I got lucky in that sense. They definitely were cool, with it.
J: That’s always good. Where would your dream place to perform be?
P: The Village Vanguard in New York would be mind-blowing. If I ever got to do that, that would be pretty surreal.
J: What is your favorite piece of music? What kind of music do you listen?
P: It’s always changing. I like pretty much all music, it sorta depends.
J: If you looked at your iPod, or whatever it is your listen to music on, what would be the last song played?
P: I bought this Curtis McDonald album and the last song I was listening to was ‘Mosaic 1’. He’s another saxophonist. I listen to a lot of modern jazz, but I also really love funk music, hip-hop music, rock music, and stuff from the 70s or 80s or 90s. Like Hall & Oats, they were always a big favourite of mine. I’m always looking for the next thing.
J: Always developing. Do you feel that when you listen to more contemporary jazz you find that it gives you inspiration to write new material?
P: Sometimes. I like new stuff and I like learning, I like listening to old stuff, I wanna learn about that.
J: You’ve shared the stage with the likes of Ben Davies and Leon Boykins, how did it feel playing with such iconic jazz figures?
P: We all went to the Manhattan School of Music together, it was really great to perform with them, they’re some of my best friends. It’s really great to keep on making music with them.
J: This this definitely my favorite question to ask! From Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra, past or present, who would be your dream musician to share the stage with?
P: That’s a big one! As a saxophonist, if I could just even see John Coltrane perform that would’ve been unbelievable. But then also, if I could take a lesson with Gordon Bok that would have been the best. People like Miles Davis, the real super-heavies.
J: Inspiring, these people were really at the forefront of music. But we might as well get to business… what is the story behind your new album, ‘Short Stories’?
P: *Laughs* Short Story is actually a Joe Henderson song, he’s another saxophonist. I graduation from Manhattan School of Music and I wasn’t exactly sire what was the next step. Ever since I was a kid, I could see all the way up to grad school, I had a plan, but I didn’t know what was after. I started composing after school and gigging, I easily did a hundred in New York! I sort of felt like it was time to out something out there of my own, since I had worked with a lot of groups, I always had all these ideas that I wanted to put down. So I started working on putting together an album, most of the music is based on taking words and making them into melodies. I developed a way to take the alphabet and you line it up, and then you take the musical alphabet and you line them up together, it’s kind of like a codex. You put in words, then it gives you musical notes, and you turn all of that into a melody. I started performing around town and it felt really good. It felt like a way to move things forward, like gigging endlessly in the city is cool but I want to keep moving forward.
J: Always looking to the horizon.
P: Yeah, I wanna do better gigs, I wanna see the world, playing something I can really put my heart into. Getting to the next level.
J: Do you have any personal favorites form the album?
P: I really like perform the title track when I get to do it with my full group. I really like the way Matt Davies sets it up with his guitar. I really like the song ‘At the Lighthouse’, I wrote it 8 years ago.
P: Well, I’m into computers and I like the equipment and because the new technology is portable I can record pretty much anywhere. Another project I want to work on is making a 30 minute Youtube film with a suite of music based on Revels’ for jazz quartets, I’d like to do that in the fall.
J: So you’ve got a lot to do this year! Have you got any tours or gigs in-between the projects?
P: Not really. After just coming to London (for The Library gig) I was in Asia and South Korea in September, I was in Chicago for a couple days. So right now, I’m more in the creative phase of things. I’ve been thinking of setting up a North-East tour, I have a lot of old friends and people I’d love to play with. I want to come back to London, maybe by the end of the year. I’m trying to reach out to Europe and get more involved.
J: Do you feel like each culture responds differently to jazz?
P: Yes and no. Music is definitely an interesting language, but comedy is different. Comedy doesn’t necessarily translate because it’s so cultural. But music, everyone naturally understands frequencies, it crosses cultures. When I was in China, people were like “Woah” because they don’t have a lot of Western music. So people would just in form the streets and their minds would be blown. But then in South Korea, people were into it but were used to it. And then in the US, they know about jazz but they don’t. In Europe, it feels like everyone is inspired by music, which is very cool. There’s definitely a big love for music in Europe, whereas in the US, if your name isn’t huge, you have to pay your do’s for a long time.
J: The industry in the US is sort of ‘glossy’.
P: I feel like in the US it has to be good, but it doesn’t have to be good! It’s always different everywhere, and it’s all part of the challenge of being a leader. Can you communicate to people? That’s the goal with music. If you can communicate with them, you’re doing alright.
You can buy Paul Jones' new album, 'Short Stories' in iTunes, here.
copyright © josh milton 2017