“When I spend any time with him, I come away feeling this resurgent optimism for human beings.” – Ollie Howell on Quincy Jones.
OLLIE HOWELL is a rising young talent of the UK jazz scene. He started out as a “sticks man” but eager to follow in the illustrious footsteps of drummer-composers like Max Roach, Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, and Terry Lyne Carrington before him, Howell also harboured aspirations to make his mark as a writer of music. He composed all of the material on his critically-lauded second long player, ‘Self-Identity,’ just released on the hip US label, Ropeadope, which features a dozen elegantly-wrought compositions played by the drummer’s versatile and well-tuned sextet. It followed in the wake of his 2013 acclaimed debut, ‘Sutures and Stitches,’ a record whose title referred to the trials and tribulations that the drummer endured when he had to undergo several life-saving brain operations.
Now fit and well again, 28-year-old Howell – whose desire to compose really began when he was recuperating in his hospital bed – has a fan and mentor in the shape of the venerable US record producer, Quincy Jones, 83, who describes the young in glowing terms: “he’s an unbelievable drummer. So creative I couldn’t believe it…he really is a 360-degree beautiful young cat.” The two met in Cardiff during 2009 when Jones received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Welsh College Of Music & Drama, where Howell, then 19, was studying. They became fast friends and kept in touch. Last year, in 2016, when Jones was set to unveil his own jazz club called Q’s in Dubai’s Palazzo Versace Hotel, he invited Howell and his band to be the opening act with a week-long residency.
Howell was also the first recipient of the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, which helped to kick-start his career, and also led him into the realm of composing TV and film music. Not content with that, the young drummer/composer has also appeared on the radio as a broadcaster, narrating Quincy Jones’ life story.
Here, in an in-depth interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, he talks about his new album in fine detail, reveals the influences that helped to shape his own musical identity and the warm friendship that he enjoys with Quincy Jones…
What’s the story behind your new album ‘Self-Identity’?
My first album (‘Sutures and Stitches’) was written during a very defining part in my life and those compositions really tell that story of that time, so for the second album, I didn’t want it to be a story about anything particularly or it to chronicle anything apart from me growing as an artist. It led me to start thinking about who I am I as a musician and why am I different to any drummer or composer. So the album is about me. I set out with a question: who am I as musician? I think it really is more the start of a journey. It’s me finding my feet a bit and exploring new things which hopefully are going to lead to other exciting albums in the future. I was trying to push my compositions more creatively and trying to think about different ways to approach the composition process, because I still felt relatively young to it. I write music for film and other things now, and composition has completely taken over but I’ve only been doing for about four years or so.
So, it’s charting your evolution as a composer, then?
Absolutely, and also because I was awarded the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, I had more people to talk to about where to record the album. We went to Peter Gabriel’s amazing Real World studios, and that led me to think that I wanted to make the most of being in the studio. So I spent a bit more time after two sessions with the band to do the small electronic, ambient interlude tracks. They came about because I was left with all this beautiful stuff that Henry (Spencer, the trumpet player) had left on previous sessions just as alternative takes and it was all isolated and recorded beautifully and sitting there about to be dumped so I thought, I’m sure I can do something with this, so I crafted all of those interlude pieces out of fragments that Henry had played and went into the studio and processed them and added effects and some ambience and actually they are some of my favourite moments on the record.
Tell me about your band.
What’s really special for me is that most of them have been with me since even before I did the first album and since our very first gig ever in Wales, so it’s really a strong musical bond and friendship. It’s really nice to just hang out with them as well.
Ant Law, your guitar player, is a new edition, isn’t he?
Yes, although I’ve known Ant for eight years and we’ve been playing a bit together. As soon as I thought I wanted a guitar for this album, there was no doubt in my mind that it had to be Ant Law, who’s got such unique sound. He’s a pioneer of what he does, right down to his string tuning. He’s written a whole book about string tuning and he’s an absolute beast. (Laughs).
Your bass player is Max Luthert.
Yeah, Max and Duncan (Eagles, saxophone) have a group called Partikel. They’ve just released their new album as well and I’ve known them probably the best part of 10 years or so. They’re my go-to guys and friends and musicians I have huge respect for. They’re also great composers and bandleaders in their own right and there’s a connection between us that is hard to fabricate. It’s just born through a love of playing together.
And then you’ve got Matt Robinson, who plays some really nice piano.
He is without a doubt my favourite pianist in London, if not in Europe. He’s got such a beautiful touch and he has this amazing clarity on what he plays and you feel that there’s never anything there that he doesn’t truly feel, even in his solos. Every note is very thoughtfully and carefully placed.
What about Henry Spencer on trumpet?
He’s such an exciting player. He’s got so much energy, which is a lot of fun live as well. I’ve known him for a couple of years and we were looking for an excuse to play together and then I thought this album was a good opportunity to add a little bit of trumpet as Henry’s got a beautiful tone.
The music sounds like a cleverly interwoven tapestry of sound where each musician has an equal responsibility. Was that what you were aiming for or did it just evolve like that?
A little bit of both really. I’m very conscious when I compose for my groups that I want the melodies to allow the horn players to move in and around each other so that different parts of the melody will be picked up by each one. I don’t ever want it to be a situation where the saxophone takes a melody and then the trumpet takes the harmony. I liked the slightly changing role of responsibility, especially with a guitar as well, because it adds a different timbre and tone. The nature of my music is that people can move in and out and some have areas to shine for a bit although they’ll be something that is picked up. I like this kind of ever-evolving thing that happens where nobody has a distinct role as such apart from the obvious one within the limits of your instrument. I like the shifting responsibility.
When and how did you interest in composition start and which instrument do you use to compose on?
I actually started life as a pianist when I was about six and I didn’t play the drums until I was about 12. The piano has always been a huge, huge part of my life and it’s my main method of composing. I sometimes write on other instruments but it’s always my go-to. And I only started writing the first time quite recently when I wrote my first album. I got diagnosed with a brain malformation and I went to hospital and had brain surgery and for awhile wasn’t able to perform. I decided now’s the time to write music, why wait for anything else to happen, so I wanted to find my musical voice and have my own project. So it all started from there and it became a bit like a drug that I really couldn’t shake. I started writing music more and more and I write for multiple different mediums now…I just can’t get enough of it.
Did you discover anything about yourself by making ‘Self-Identity’?
I initially thought of the album being a discovery of who I am as a musician and the start of that journey. So I’ve only just started in discovering what my voice really is. I listen to so many different types of music all the time and I feel a bit more confident trying to merge my favourite musical worlds into one sound now. I don’t feel like I have to be boxed into making a jazz record just because that’s what I did the last time. I guess I’ve found a sense of musical freedom, which I didn’t have before.
You’re signed to Ropeadope, who seem pretty cool company. How did that deal come about?
I have a fabulous management company who I’m with called Polyarts, and we were talking with various people – including Quincy’s people – about who was best to release this album on, because I wanted a home for it with people who really care about the music. That was first and foremost, rather than looking for an international label particularly, and as you say, it’s a very cool label and one that I’ve been aware of for awhile. There are some great artists on it, so we reached out and after one meeting, it was obvious that there was just a bond and everybody loved the music and was so excited about it. I haven’t quite formulated any plans for the third album apart from very vague musical ideas but I’m very, very happy with Ropeadope at the moment. They’ve been a big supporter of the music and it feels a bit more like a movement of musicians rather than just a place to distribute music.
You recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Bath… What was that experience like?
As you walk in, aesthetically, it’s impossible not to be blown away as it’s such an impressive looking space. But the real magic happens when you set up an instrument and play, especially drums in the wood room because it’s such an iconic sound. They got amazing engineers, too. I brought an engineer called Stuart Bruce, who mixed and mastered the album and he’s worked there on and off since its beginning. He knows that room like the back of his hand and his mike placement and choice was absolutely methodical, so it was just a really inspiring place to create really. Sometimes in studios you feel pressurised for time or that you’re enclosed and you want to get this take done and take a break, but there you’re out in the middle of the countryside and you have all this amazing room around you that you just to make music in. Then, when you take a break, there’s a lovely tranquil lake and also the food there is incredible. I’ve never had an experience like it. It was relaxing, we took our time, and we didn’t feel any pressure at all, which is when the best music is probably going to be made.
Tell me about the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship. What did that entail and how did you qualify for that?
It’s a really interesting programme because it’s open to all areas of the arts completely and they take five artists a year and work with them. In my year, for example, there was a contemporary dancer, there was someone who was doing 3-D shadow puppetry, and a creative director. It was all such an amazing mixture of people, which was great. So basically they take five artists and give them some funding and some mentoring throughout the year. Everybody has a project that they want to achieve and mine was that I wanted to create a new album. Obviously, any help that you can get is useful but I was not really prepared for how useful the mentoring was going to be, because I was paired with the head of music at Sky, who introduced me to the TV and film music worlds, which I now work in. I was also given an industry mentor, Cam Blackwood, who is a friend of mine now. He’s a big pop producer but he’s got a huge love for jazz and any interesting music. That was so helpful because it took my thinking just out of the jazz world and I started experimenting with other studio techniques. Just talking to him about ways that I could do the album was really liberating. Still to this day I have a very nice relationship with Sky and do a lot of work with them.
It sounds like a great opportunity.
What was really funny, was that the opportunity itself sounds too good to be true though the way that I was brought into it sounds like a fairytale. I had just had the very last operation for my brain surgery, which was in January 2014, and the day after my operation, I’m lying in my hospital bed and I get the phone call saying, you’ve just won the Sky Academy Awards Scholarship and can you come and be on the Southbank award show next week. I said yeah, but I’ve got a massive scar on my head, is that okay? (Laughs) They said no, no, that’s okay.
It’s amazing the way it all panned out for you.
Yeah, completely. The universe is an interesting place.
Quincy Jones (pictured above at Q’s, his Dubai jazz club) has declared himself a fan of your music and you’ve had quite a long friendship with him. How did he first get acquainted with you and your music?
He found out to one of those television programmes that traces your genealogy that he was a quarter Welsh on his dad’s side, which was totally unexpected, and he was offered an honorary doctorate at the Royal Welsh College of music and drama where I was studying. The head of jazz said to me, “would you like to meet him at the hotel and bring him back to college and then perform for him in a master class?” Within the space of half an hour, I was sat in a hotel lobby meeting one of my musical heroes, chatting to him all the way in a cab and then just walk into this massive room full of 300 people, in front of the BBC Wales cameras. We walked down the middle like a wedding procession and he sits at the front. Then I go behind the kit and just play straight away. So there wasn’t even really time to think but luckily he took me aside afterwards and said “let’s hang out for a couple days, I’ve got some people I want to introduce you to.” And it all sort of began from there really. There’s been various trips to New York and LA and the Montreux Jazz Festival and then at the end of last year, he contacted me and said he was opening his first ever jazz club in Dubai and he’d love me to be the opening artist and do a residency. Again it was too good to be true really but it was one of the most surreal and amazing experiences I’m sure I’ll ever have. We were there for about two weeks before Quincy got there and then at the official press launch I got to walk through the doors with him when he saw it for the first time. He’s been trying to make that place for about 12 years so you could see how much it meant to him emotionally, to have his name up on the wall of his own music venue. Then we did a nice week playing for him and I was there for three months in the end with my band.
What did you learn from being with him that helped you evolve as a musician?
He’s constantly throwing out pearls of wisdom to do with music or to do with production and we talked a lot about film scoring recently because I’m doing a lot more of that but honestly the things I learnt more about from Quincy was the way that he is as a human being. He’s just the warmest, humblest, most friendly person you’ll ever meet. You can see it in the way he interacts with everybody. It could be a guy holding a door open for him or it could people like Paul McCartney, who he’s known for decades. He has a genuine quality that’s so hard to find and it radiates out from him and it makes me think a lot about the way that people treat each other and what I want to say as musician and staying true to that vision and saying what you want to say and not compromising on it. He’s just an incredible person to be around and that’s probably one of the things that I take away all the time. When I spend any time with him, I come away feeling this resurgent optimism for human beings.
I believe that he was also very supportive and encouraging to you when you are having your surgery…
Yeah, I’d just been out to New York and he introduced me to some people and I came back and had a scan on my brain and then the next day they said you’re going to have to have surgery tomorrow. It was very sudden and unexpected and I’d been planning to go out to LA to spend some time so I just sent an email to him and his people, I’m really sorry, I’m going to have to postpone this and then he sent me an email back straightaway. He’s had a aneurysm and brain surgery himself and is no longer able to play the trumpet because of that so he knows what it’s like. He sent me this beautiful email saying, “I know exactly what you’re going through: as soon as you’re ready, you’re going to give me a call and we’ll make something happen.” It was really that, I think, that was one of the main impetuses for me saying I’m not going to be sorry for myself I’m going to write some music and do some things – and have fun – in whatever time I’ve got left on this earth.
Are you out of danger now, as regards your helath?
Yeah, I carry on with life as normal and there’s a chance that something might happen one day but it’s small and actually leads me to lead my life more positively because I’m conscious how precious it is and you never know how long you have here.
You’ve got another fan, haven’t you, in legendary Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb (pictured above).
It happened in a very similar way. He was touring with the So What band, and it was the fiftieth anniversary of (Miles Davis’) ‘Kind Of Blue,’ and he was playing it all with an amazing band – Wallace Roney, Pee-Wee Ellis, Buster Williams – and he came to the Hay on Wye Festival. So my college, being physically the closest to it, reached out and said would you be interested in doing a drum masterclass. Jimmy said yeah and there was some sort of error in communication somewhere down the line. I was told by my head of jazz that we’d just like you to go with your quartet and meet him and then play and see what happens but when we got there, we walked into this room full of chairs with Jimmy and his wife sat at the front with his drum kit. I think somebody had imagined it was at drum master class for hundreds of drummers but it was just me and three other guys. But it was so special for us and we just played and chatted and Jimmy and his wife have been just incredible. They’re like my American family. I go to New York quite a bit and see them and they’ve met my family as well. They’re just absolute sweethearts. It’s interesting because I don’t recognise the musical history he has when I’m sharing stories with him and then suddenly it hits me and I go “wow, you know everybody and have played on all those classic records.”
You’ve opened for him as well….
We did a double bill at Ronnie Scott’s for two nights a couple of years ago, which was only the second gig that I’d ever done with my band. And we had to do two of those. And Jimmy still just plays unbelievably. He’s 88 now and he’s still just as much into it as he was when he was 20.
Can you remember what drew you to music in the first place?
My dad played the piano a bit and he had one lying around the house. He mainly played classical music, which I wasn’t particularly interested in as a kid. But my mum was a massive Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Beatles fan, so I heard a lot of that but my parents tell me that their first inkling that I was interested in music was when I heard something on the radio or TV as a six-year-old and then ran over to the piano and would spend hours until I worked out what I had just heard. They asked if I would like lessons when I was seven and I said yeah, that would be great. I only had them for a year but as a complete chance, they managed to find a local piano teacher who happened to be an amateur jazz pianist. He heard I had a musical ear and then started teaching me what I later found out was ‘Moanin” by Art Blakey. So I had an introduction to jazz much before I knew what jazz was.
So what made you gravitate towards the drums then when you were older?
I think there’s a thing about 12-year-old boys that draws them to the drums anyway. But it was just something I always loved the sound of and there’s something so primal about it. I loved the energy when I watched people like Travis Barker (of Blink 182) or bands that I liked around then. I took to drumming quite quickly and stuck with it but I’d like to think of myself as a musician rather than a drummer really because the piano is just as important to me in composition as the drums. I kind of see them all as one thing rather than being an instrumentalist in one.
What was the soundtrack then to your early life when you were growing up in learning to play the drums?
All sorts. I listened to a lot of ’60s and ’70s stuff through my mum. I was big into rock for awhile and then Ska and reggae. Throughout all that time I was also listening to big band records. I just loved it. From Count Basie to Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones records. In my very first car when I was 17, I had a tape player and one of the things that was constantly in there was Sinatra’s Live At The Sands with Quincy conducting the orchestra. I recorded it on to tape and put in my car and listens to that on repeat and knew all of Sinatra’s monologues (laughs).
With those lame jokes…
Yeah! There was that and I started listening to Art Blakey. He was a big influence. And Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and just everything I could get my hands on. I was just constantly fascinated by anything that I hadn’t heard before that was trying something different.
Was there any other record or album that changed your life?
I think probably the first time I heard ‘Kind Of Blue.’ I think a lot of people hear it as their first jazz record but that wasn’t what happened to me at all. I was aware of it but was listening to other people, like Art Blakey and records by Max Roach and Clifford Brown, which were fast paced, energetic and when you’re a young drummer you’re interested in that and want to play fast all the time. And after a couple of years, when I was maybe 16, somebody said, why haven’t you listened to ‘Kind Of Blue’ yet? I said oh yeah, and sat down and listened to it, suddenly it was like the polar opposite to what I had been listening to – it was slow and mellow and I just fell in love with it straight away. I remember that being another big turning point.
Looking beyond ‘Self-Identity,’ what do you see yourself doing in the future…would you like to score a big Hollywood movie at some point?
My philosophy has always been to do if possible the things that I find the most fun. And at the moment am loving doing film music. I’m doing some indie films and TV scoring, which is something that I’m learning so much about, just generally as a composer, not even the specifics of the genre. So I would definitely love to be moving in that world, whether it’s a big Hollywood film or a big indie film or Netflix series, we’ll see. I don’t ever want to settle just on one thing. I’ve always liked doing lots of things so I want to continue with my band recording, composing and playing live because it’s a huge, huge passion of mine. I’ve also been doing radio presenting recently with Jazz FM and a couple of other stations. I think I’d like to continue some presenting but really I’m just trying to keep all my options open and follow my heart.
Do you think that there’s a possibility that Quincy Jones might produce one of your records?
One of the great things about Quincy I think as a producer and especially as a mentor for young musicians, is that he gives you a lot of encouragement and help and support when you need it. His favourite thing is to let you go and do your own thing. So I’m going to make a third album and I’m sure we’ll have conversations at some stage about it. He’ll be involved if he wants to be involved otherwise he’s just happy helping out in whatever way he can. So I’m going to leave it open and see …but I’m not sure.
You never know though.
Yeah. Exactly. You never know.
OLLIE HOWELL’S ALBUM ‘SELF-IDENTITY’ IS OUT NOW VIA ROPEADOPE.
Ollie Howell is backing the #jazz100 initiative, which aims to introduce new audiences to jazz across the UK and Ireland. See jazz100.org for more info.