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Interview with Narcissus’s Pete Lee

Pete Lee is a London based jazz pianist, currently leading contemporary group Narcissus.  Blue Flamingo conducted this interview via email in March 2013.  We were lucky enough to see his RAM performance at The Vortex with Narcissus, so now we’re touching base again!

Tell us about what inspires ‘Pete Lee’s Narcissus’

Over the last few years, I seem to have been torn in two very different musical directions, which futilely compete for my full attention. While I was studying at RAM, taught by the UK’s most prolific contemporary jazz composers & instrumentalists, I was gigging a few times a week with the most killing band of pop musicians of 12-piece group “The White Keys”.  Forming “Narcissus” was my way of bridging the gap between two things which appeared worlds apart.  I identified the two contrasting elements of life and fused them together.  I wanted to compose something with the sense of depth and maturity that you find in Gwilym Simcock’s or Kenny Wheeler’s music, with the sense of conviction, clarity, drive and sheer volume of an electronic pop band.  So that’s the musical background of the project.

I’ve been writing with a specific theme in mind too. I wanted to tie everything together with an idea that an audience could relate to, and that would be a catalyst for the creation of more music.  I chose the topic of the human mind. This includes human perception, attitude and behaviour.  It’s quite a personal theme really – I’ve had my own difficulties with mental health, and recently lost a family member, who had had a long history with mental illness.  So forming Narcissus was a bit of an emotional outpour.  Emotional potency is always a plus in music. The intangibility of the human thought process, and the fact that it is a universal entity, encouraged me to write something honest and truly from my own experience.  It can really interesting to become aware of your state of mind when you’re being most creative.  What’s happening in your mind when you’re lost in music, and how do you ensure that you achieve that state regularly?

 Do you think it makes a difference that it grew up outside the ‘London Bubble’? 

All band members in “Narcissus” have some rooting in Leeds.  We met in Leeds College of Music, but I didn’t form the band until we had relocated to London. It’s important to me that we’ve got a long history of playing together. You don’t really realise how much you trust and rely upon one-another, until you play with other musicians who have a different approach altogether.  It’s easy to forget how much you’ve become accustomed to each others’ playing, but this relationship is the basis for a group that sounds unique and well balanced.  To be honest, we’ve probably spent even more time together driving up and down the M1 in an overcrowded & precarious Transit van, sharing near-death experiences. It’s really important that we’re able to hang out together; it’s never even an effort anymore. Our activities as a group are more influential to the music than the location we came to meet.

This project is especially different for me musically.  Stylistically, it marks a bit of a paradigm shift, a tectonic shift even!  I used to swear by the acoustic sound of double bass and delicate brushes at the kit. I used to think that less was more.  This band is much punchier and more direct.  Now I think that more is more.  We chose to memorise all the material we play, so that when we’re on stage we are free to communicate rather than read.

 What did you learn during the time you studied in London?

I learnt that I’ve got a lot of work to do – a lifetime of work in fact.  I guess I was already aware that with music, there’s always more to learn.  But while studying at the Academy, this really hit home.  I was surrounded by prolific musicians, and I had one-to-ones with Nikki Iles, Gwilym Simcock, Tom Cawley and Django Bates.  It’s an amazing environment to be in – very humbling indeed.

I learnt a lot from Barak Schmool about groove writing – knowledge that I hope to utilise when writing for Narcissus. Pete Churchill’s composition and arranging lessons were great too – I learnt how to arrange my music for octet – which was really challenging.  We’d have a weekly session where we’d have an octet set up, and we’d bring in our compositions and arrangements. Mine would often sound quite rough at first – but I’d use the time between the sessions to tweak my arrangements until they I achieved what I’d first envisaged.

As well as being a humbling experience, the Academy taught me to have some self-belief and motivation. I learned that if I really worked hard, I could achieve an awful lot. The main product has been my group Narcissus with whom I played my final recital. I’m really proud of this group and I’m excited about its future.

 “Writer’s Block” is a great tune….inspired, by, Writer’s Block?  How did you break that Block?

While in my first year at academy, I had a bit of composing crisis!  I didn’t write anything new for a whole year.  To pass my composition module, I wrote new arrangements of 3 year old compositions (shhhh!). But seeing as I was arranging for octet for the first time, it made sense to practice the arranging side of things without worrying about the composition itself.  But once that was over, with my final recital approaching, I accepted that new material was long overdue. I knew how highly original material was valued in the final recital, and I wanted to leave RAM with something of my own.

Over Christmas of 2011, I fulfilled a short-term cruise contract to help out with rent. I was there for 6 weeks, and we revisited a lot of the same ports each time that we’d have new passengers. When we pulled up at port, all the old folks would amble off to the beach, leaving the room with the grand piano free.  I forced myself to write something, dusting off the creative compartments in my brain, ignoring my self-doubt.  It took around 6 weeks to write “Writer’s Block” complete with an arrangement for octet.  My idea with this piece was to unite my pop and jazz ties. It’s really similar to Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” – a really similar structure. It’s got “verses” and “choruses”, keyboard riffs that keep coming back with a horn line that sits on top – swiped almost directly from “Ain’t Nobody”!  But I used harmonic ideas that I’d found in John Taylor’s “Autumn”, and the kind of unison bass and left hand piano runs that you find in Gwilym Simcock’s “1981”.  So it’s a piece that consists of contemporary jazz content, organised into a pop structure.

To be brutally honest, I found it really fun to write something that entirely lacked tact or subtlety. It felt like a bit of a rebel statement in an increasingly pretentious and airy-fairy jazz scene. The enjoyment I found encouraged me to write the rest of the Narcissus repertoire without the self-doubt. I began to believe that I was creating was valid and worthwhile.

 Do you know what might inspire your next tunes?

I want to use more elements of live dance music, including more modern technology and sounds. Perhaps some really subby bass and synth solos. There’s still lots more mileage to be had from my theme too. There’s been some really pressing political & personal issues recently that I’d like to express with music. I’ve been brainstorming – and have a list of tune themes as long as my arm!

 What do you do to chill out when not music-ing?

Music is always on my mind, even if I’m playing Playstation! I read an interesting article recently that suggested that time spent procrastinating can be a time where many people subconsciously order their thoughts, and make grand plans. Perhaps it’s not as beneficial as playing your scales, but I think a good balance of socialising, relaxing, practicing and composing is key to living a life of successes, happiness and sound mental health.

~Thanks Pete! BF

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Biography: Phil Short

Guitarist Phil Short comes from Buxton, Derbyshire, home of Britain’s favourite bottled water. Currently studying for a BMus(Hons) in Popular Music Performance at the London College of Music, Phil is not only the tallest member of the group, but is also a great showman.

Phil is a phenomenal guitar player, playing, amongst many other notable performances, at the Nest Fest in Reading, UK, in 2007 and at the Cavern Club, Liverpool, UK (made famous by The Beatles) in 2009. Phil is also involved with BF’s Educational work – leading groups in our 2009 Arts Council Project Edmonton Flamingos working with inner-city London young people on British Jazz Heritage.

Phil’s recalls his favourite BF experience as ‘Having a call and response solo with the trumpet player at one of our ‘Blue Flamingo‘ gigs: awesome!’ He’s also involved in British rock group Flip Side Up, and upon being asked what he was most looking forward to in Kentucky he responded, in typical British-Northern fashion, ‘The Fried Chicken of course!’

However, on a more academic and useless note, his fourth great-grandfather discovered the planed Uranus. Phil also enjoys writing and recording music, watching TV series all in one go…and…no surprises here: eating.

Phil brings a rock and funk background to the Blue Flamingo Jazz outfit, and with his electric solos – Phil’s presence on stage is massive, filled with energy and creativity…

Phil Short
Blue Flamingo Guitarist: Phil Short
First Published Aug 27th 2010
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Biography: Lani Charlwood

Flautist Lani Charlwood studied music at Royal Holloway, University of London, coincidentally at the same time as Blue Flamingo photographer David Charlwood studied history there.

Lani has performed all over the world, including the Birmingham Symphony Hall, UK and touring Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Lani is a beautiful giantess, graceful at 6’1 and her melodic long flute lines echo this. She is really looking forward to playing in Renfro Valley and seeing Kentucky again.

She originally comes from North London and is multi-talented, working in events-management as well as playing flute regularly in West London. Lani really likes Steam Trains and…scrap booking. Not two subjects that at first appear to go together, but which reflect her playing: experienced and creative.

Despite being to many gigs, and playing regularly all over London – this is Lani’s Blue Flamingo debut, and we welcome her. Having an instrument that’s not traditionally associated with jazz with us, adds a lyricism and sense of beauty to the music.

Lani Thomas
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Biography: Huw White

Pianist Huw White started life as a violinist – but we are thankful he quickly made the swap to Jazz Piano whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Huw hails from Southampton though now lives, alongside fellow Blue Flamingos Freddie and Andy, in Wembley North London.

Huw notes his favourite Blue Flamingo moment as ‘playing an accidental ad lib piano cadenza during a Big Band gig in Ruislip’. But we loved it. Nothing like a bit of solo piano. Indeed Huw has an international name as a top pianist, playing all over Europe including the Nisville Jazz Festival in Serbia, and the Ohrid Summer Festival in Macedonia. Huw has also composed orchestral music for the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra (look out for his arrangements for Robin!) and is a favourite with London’s top jazz clubs. Huw has a new album and tour set for UK release with Tangent coming up.

Huw is, not surprisingly, looking forward to consuming large amounts of Chicken whilst in Kentucky (we promise: we know there’s more to Kentucky than Chicken…horses for example!) A football lover to the heart, Huw wanted to let us know he ‘eat’s aeroplanes’, though we have a feeling this comment was inspired by Freddie’s supposed ‘phobia of crumbs’. But here’s a real fact: Huw recently met a very nice gentleman at a post gig reception, and chatted with him for a few minutes. It wasn’t until afterwards that someone pointed out to him he’d been speaking to the Macedonian President.

Huw’s skill for composing music is reflected in his creative improvisation, pushing the boundaries of tonality, listening and interacting with his fellow musicians and in turn bringing together the many talents of Blue Flamingo Jazz.

Huw White
Blue Flamingo Pianist: Huw White
First Published August 27th 2010
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Biography: David Charlwood

David Charlwood is the Blue Flamingo Photographer and has accompanied us all round London producing aesthetically vibrant and beautifully dynamic work. Many of the photographs on the Blue Flamingo website are his. According to David, he most enjoyed shooting BF ‘at London’s world-famous 100 Club and receiving a themed Christmas card complete with Blue Flamingo and santa hat!’ (We do try).

Despite his great creativity, David (known to his friends as ‘Charlie’) studied history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and did very well (rumours are, his final year thesis is to be published in a very clever history journal)…

Originally from Bournemouth on the English South Coast, David is looking forward to visiting the States again and spending time meeting friends of his fiancé, Blue Flamingo Flautist Lani Thomas.

David has a twin brother who looks nothing like him – though David thinks his brother is more the jazz sibling as he’s a trombonist! David does however play the guitar, and has been known to do a bit of writing whilst not holding a camera in hand…

For more on his photography, please go to: www.CharlwoodPhotography.com

David Charlwood
Blue Flamingo Photographer: David Charlwood
First Published August 27th 2010 @15:18
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Biography: Robin Bailey

Robin Bailey is the Blue Flamingo Vocalist with pedigree and style. Having studied at the Royal Academy of Music and performed all over the world, Robin is a traditional English gentleman from the seaside town of Deal, Kent.

Robin has (rather uniquely!) performed as a soloist in the Thunderbirds Are Go concert with Brian Blessed and the London Concert Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. He is a USA-touring veteran, having performed both in New York and Oklahoma with a capella group Voces8. Robin lists his BF highlights as singing Golden-Era Swing with the Blue Flamingo Big Band in London, and stealing Leah’s (BF Saxophonist) fries in High Barnet, North London.

Robin recently sang at another equestrian event – the Kempton Races Ladies day, dressed as a fireman singing opera, it’s a far cry from his upcoming project, singing in Puccini’s La Bohème in London’s West End Soho Theatre in early 2011.

A singer and vocalist to the heart, Robin is looking forward to trying to imitate the ‘southern’ accent in Kentucky, and is looking forward to the bigger portions of food Stateside. He also enjoys rock-climbing, tennis and running for buses (though we’re not sure that counts as a sport)…

Robin’s experience and expertise brings a completely different sound to Blue Flamingo Jazz …a true British Crooner adding glamour to the show, with a smile and a song.

Robin Bailey
Blue Flamingo Vocalist: Robin Bailey
First Published August 27th 2010 @15:16
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Biography: Freddie Gavita

Freddie Gavita is a first class trumpeter and has degree in jazz from the Royal Academy of Music to prove it. Freddie is a favourite of the British Jazz Scene – playing with the Ronnie Scott’s Big Band and the John Dankworth Orchestra. We can’t wait to hear his own Big Band perform at the London Jazz Festival, and then he’s off on tour with superstars Empirical next year!

However, Freddie is just a boy from Norwich (we checked on a map. It’s in East England) and is…how should we put this? Very much into Norwich City Football team.

When we asked him what he was looking forward to in Kentucky, he responded ‘Trying not to eat chicken all day, hanging out with the band, meeting some new people, looking at some horses.’ We should also tell you, that Freddie’s dead pan face is so good, most people can’t tell if he’s joking or not. Classic British humour if you ask us.

Freddie has a collection of model vintage cars, a phobia of crumbs and all the meals he can cook involve minced beef. He also enjoys Xbox 360, football (there’s a surprise), and swimming.

Freddie’s deep jazz roots ground Blue Flamingo Jazz in British sounds. With soulful improvisation, a unique sense of humour and utmost professionalism, Freddie is a guy to look out for on stage!

Freddie Gavita

First Published: August 26th 2010

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Biography: Andy Ball

Andy Ball is a drummer with qualifications, having studied at both Leeds College of Music, and the Royal Academy of Music. Andy is from Stourgbridge in the West Midlands, though he has seen the world, performing at festivals in Ireland, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

Andy lists his musical highlights as ‘being finalist and Special Award Winner at the 2008 Kodolanyi Jazz Competition in Hungary with the Tim Evans Quartet and performing with Stan Sulzman on his Birthday Concert at the 2009 London Jazz Featival with the Royal Academy Big Band”. That is some jazz street-cred! Andy lists his Blue Flamingo highlight as getting ‘free sloppy Giuseppe pizzas’. It appears our Band are obsessed by food, as when asked what he was most looking forward to in Kentucky he replied, ‘The Colonel’s secret blend of eleven herbs and spices.’

Just as fellow Blue Flamingos Leah and Phil, Andy is involved in music education, taking his septet into primary schools and running workshops. He will also be performing the newly composed (and interestingly named?) narrated jazz suite The Green Mystery of Woolpit.
Despite being able to name all of Cher’s hits in both chronological and alphabetical order, Andy sums up his life rather philosophically thus: ‘There is very little more to my life than jazz, drums and Birmingham City Football Club. And Church. The Pub when time permits.”

Andy’s breadth of experience, education and spontaneity puts a fire under the Blue Flamingo musicians. His ability to play with intense quiet energy as well as fierce funk soul is the power behind much of the Blue Flamingo Beat.

Andy Ball
Blue Flamingo Drummer: Andy Ball
First Published August 27th 2010