The basic ethos of improvisation is sharing musical ideas - an interview with Veryan Weston

Bartosz Adamczak

Veryan Weston is a brillian pianist, composer, whose work is often a mediation between the spontaneity of improvisation and rigour of intellectual, academical background. We’ve asked him about many things and he told us about his first band Stinky Winkles and their polish episode. About his current work and plans. About over 30 years of collaboration with Trevor Watts (who was asked the same question recently). About pentatonic scales in his composition Tessellations. About there being still a lot more things to explore and new things to try.

I’d like to start with an obscure polish accent in your discography. Among your very first published recordings, there’s the LP Stinky Winkles released by Polish Jazz Society (Poljazz label). How did it happen that a british jazz group released a debut in Poland, during the time of Communism. What are your memories concerning the concert, the recording and your visit to Poland in that era?

The period we are referring to was the late 70's through to the early 1980s. My partner and our son moved to a big house consisting of apartments, adjoining cottages and studios in Hertfordshire 25 miles north of London. And the organisation was called The Digswell Arts Trust. One of the reasons for being invited to be part of this artists community was for us to somehow engage with local residents and people from the town, so that they could have the opportunity to explore their own creativity as well as see exhibitions events etc.

The majority of artists in residence were visual artists, so for me, as a musician, I helped co-form a band. It consisted of young guys who lived locally and initially we played jazz funk in local pub backrooms and the occasional party or dance even. But I started to write material for the band that stretched their comfort zone perhaps....I don't know whether that is the completely right way of putting it...... I could say then that I started to sneak in musical ideas that interested me and made demands on them!

What happened though was that the music began to trans-morph in to something quite unusual, a lot to do with what they also had within themselves as musicians with their own backgrounds that were pretty diverse. But because they were young and so had less of a reputation meant that we had limited work choices and so we chose to take part in competitions. The first one was the Greater London Arts Association 'Young Jazz Musician of the Year' award and we won this in 1979. This got us opportunities to play nationally and develop the music playing in places like Ronnie Scotts as well as doing tours and the occasional festival.

In 1980 we won the Dunkirk Jazz Festival band competition which got us further away from England...admittedly only 20 miles over in to a town on the other side of the Channel. After that we won a jazz band competition in San Sebastian (Spain) which got us a little bit of prize money as well as a tour of the Basque country.

The forth and final competition we took part in was the Jazz on the Odra Jazz Festival competition which happened in 1981. This time the organisers of the competition demanded that bands played a selection of popular jazz pieces prescribed to them from their own specific list. So Misty became 'A Little Misty' because we made the melody twelve-tone, Donna Lee was an interpolation with the original showtune – Indiana, and Sonny Rollins 'Doxy' was renamed 'Poxy' and had more of a punk and hard rock feel than anything resembling rinky-tink jazz.

The prize was a tour of Poland and a recording released on the state 'Poljazz' label. Also during this time there were acute shortages in Poland. After each concert we did, the poor drivers for the tour had to try and find a garage that had petrol, and this often meant they had to queue there all night, and then pick us up in the morning to go to the next concert. During one of the hotel breakfasts I noticed Lech Wałęsa sitting on the next table. It was very special to have been part of that experience. We noticed that audiences were very mixed....all ages, families, soldiers, young students and all very open to our music.

Among your early recorded output we can also find music done with Trevor Watts Moire Orchestra which dates back to 1985. Over 30 years later Trevor is still among your most frequent collaborators, in duo and other musical settings. What is your perspective on what kind of musical or extra-musical connection is required to play together for that long, how does this connection evolve over the course of 3 decades?

Yes, this was soon after Stinky Winkles disbanded and I met and got friendly with Trevor (Watts)....we shared similar music interests, although Trevor was older and much more experienced than me. To be part of Moiré Music was very special and musically demanding. I learned to play different rhythmic cycles with each hand that often overlapped or crossed and so this helped develop a hand independence which was an enjoyable challenge. Also having Ghanaian percussionists like Nana Tsiboe there and the Irish drummer Liam Genocky was really really special and gave the rhythm a great feel.

It was at this time also with one of Trevor's more 'expanded' Moiré Music ensembles that I met singer Phil Minton who I went on to work a lot with in the late eighties, the 90's and all the way through to now.

Having that history with Trevor then, and actually even before then at the Little Theatre Club when he was playing in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble where I was starting to be active as a free improviser, has helped to shape what we do now as players together. We both like to explore the three basic components of music – harmony, melody and rhythm, so in a way it might not necessarily be thought of, as Derek Bailey called, 'non-idiomatic' improvising, but nevertheless still tries to be fresh and exploratory, so there is that element of the unknown for us that still gives us inspiration through surprise. For us there is still a lot to explore.

But it is working together for such a long time that has given me as an individual a huge reward. The fact that there has been all that time together, not only on the stand playing music, but traveling, eating, drinking, and waiting together that has naturally nurtured a kind of long term intuition. It's a sort of ability to be able to predict things in a positive way that gives me faith in humanity actually.

A few of your recordings feature play-on-words titles like “Shorter than the longer piece” (Mercury Concert), “Exchanged Frequencies” - “Frequent Exchanges” (5 More Dialogues). And, as already mentioned, your first band was called Stinky Winkles. Is humour an important element in your musical vision?

Very now-and-again. I prefer to think of titles for pieces of music as 'playful' rather than humorous.

“Different Tessellations” release presents your composition performed by a pianist Leo Svirsky and another part sung by Vociferus Choir. What was your approach toward composing for another pianist and the vocal ensemble? What ideas and musical problems do you focus on as a composer that are different compared to the activity as an improviser?

That project was as a result of being invited to Graz in Austria to write a piece of music for a small group of jazz ensemble singers. The piece written for the singers (that also included me) uses the same material that I used for a solo piano piece called 'Tessellations for Piano' which I have played a number of times and which has also been recorded in Brussels on a Luthéal piano. Later, we were able to organise three concerts and a BBC studio recording in England.

Because of being involved as a singer in the Vociferous Choir, I chose to ask another pianist to perform the first Tessellations piece on the gigs. Leo Svirsky is originally from Washington DC but lives in Holland where he has been studying piano at the Conservatory there. He has a fantastic ability to pick up ideas quickly and use them in his own way, and this suited the first Tessellations piece. In this way his version is quite different from mine.

So this aspect concerns the improvisation within the structure of the piece. The structure or framework of the composition consists of material that is as a result of research I have been doing over 30 + years in to pentatonic scales and their relationships with each other.

How would you compare british / european improvised music scene between the time Stinky Winkles got ther Poljazz debut released and present time? What has changed for better, what for worse?

Improvised music seems to have now been accepted much more as a legitimate process of musical creativity even in academic institutions, than say thirty years ago. It has now become quite common to read many theses concerning various aspects and dimensions of improvisation that does not necessarily stem from the post 'free jazz' American scene. The guitarist from Stinky Winkles - Gary Peters has had two publications by Chicago Press ('The Philosophy of Improvisation', and now 'Improvising Improvisation') and much is viewed from more philosophical and intellectual angles.

I feel the change has been predominantly much more for the better as the basic ethos of improvisation is sharing musical ideas in the moment with other musicians, so the music is co-operatively made ….so you don't have one man (more often as is the case) calling the shots as to what should be or should not be played.

Perhaps a more difficult (or 'worse' as you put it) situation with the improvised music scene is potential factionalism, where what you do no longer necessarily 'fits' the aesthetic prerequisite agendas of the other participants. But then you have the clear choice: either work out what they are doing and whether this interests you enough to explore your own music within that vocabulary, or walk away if you don't want to be part of it.

What are your current projects and musical plans for the nearest future?

There has just been a release of a large recording project made in Toronto called 'The Make Project'. This involved drummer - Jean Martin, and Element Choir co-ordinator and singer – Christine Duncan. It is a very large scale and ambitious project involving 50 + participants and is composed but collaboratively as well, with improvisations.

I am hoping a recording of 'Ways for an Orchestra' will be released in Italy on the I Dischi Di Angelica record label. These are selected songs Phil Minton and I have performed over 30 years but involving a chamber orchestra from Bologna. So they are arrangements and orchestrations and even require the band to explore improvisation as well.

For the future, Trevor and I are working on 'The Quantum Illusion' project that involves me using a keystation and old sound module. This is a 'work in progress'. Also I am working on ideas on the piano that challenge my own technical facility. And these ideas I feel I can include quite easily with Trevor. At the moment they are exercises that are being absorbed in to a more unconscious level, so perhaps this process is never-ending.....they use a lot of the pentatonic research and related ideas as well as other sequential patterns, that will need to be forgotten before they can emerge as new ideas rediscovered through improvisation. So what is a new idea?

I’ve often wonder how much private time and space is left in professional musician’s life, given the rigors of touring, practise etc. Do you have any hobbies not related to music that you can dedicate your time to?

Tai Chi, cooking, family, reading, photography and …...oh yes – listening to music.

Last but not least, you’ve made a few visits to Poland in recent years, what is your favourite polish food?

I am a vegan, but notice that this kind of international cuisine has become very much part of the Polish cosmopolitan life as well, so as a result I have had some very nice meals there.