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“I’ve been trying, haven’t I?” laughs COURTNEY PINE, when I remark that he’s enjoyed a long and varied career. “There were a few doubts when I started but I was determined then and I’m still determined now,” declares the OBE- and CBE-decorated multi-reed player and radio broadcaster, whom many regard as a British national treasure. “Luckily for me, jazz is not about two singles, a ballad, and then the album, or even chart positions – jazz is about going to play the Montreux Jazz Festival and going to places like São Paulo to play …and the next thing you know, it’s almost 30 years later.”

Indeed, it’s 31 years since a 22-year-old Pine exploded on the British music scene like a supernova with his debut album, ‘Journey To The Urge Within,’ which dented the UK Top 40 albums chart and made the Paddington-reared musician an overnight sensation. Now 53, the short hair and cool, sharp-suited jazz image of his youth has long been replaced by dreads and a more Bohemian look, which also reflects the more exploratory nature of his music, and its multifarious influences and inspirations. His latest opus, ‘Black Notes From The Deep,’ released this week by Freestyle, is his sixteenth long player and is significant in that it marks his return to the tenor saxophone, the instrument he began with back in the day.


“It’s been a while,” chuckles, Pine, who’s likeably self-effacing and a consummate master of the ironic quip. “I’d forgotten that you could do all that with the tenor. It was like, oh yeah, I know how to do this!” Some of his more recent albums had witnessed the London-born musician exploring the tonalities of a variety of different wind instruments.  Says Pine: “For the Caribbean project I did, which was called ‘House Of Legends,’ I chose the soprano saxophone to represent the female of the species, which was so important to the survival of the Caribbean. Then I did a duets album with (pianist) Zoe Rahman, and played bass clarinet.” Furthermore, on his 2009 album, ‘Transition in Tradition’ – a homage to early jazz saxophone pioneer, Sidney Bechet – Pine juggled soprano sax, bass clarinet, and flute, displaying his undoubted skill as a multi-instrumentalist. But he decided to dust off the tenor sax for Jamaican jazz guitarist, Ernest Ranglin’s farewell tour. “I brought the tenor out for him and felt that I should continue and use it for this album,” he says, though he also plays flute (bass and alto), organ, and synthesiser  on ‘Black Notes From The Deep.’

A conversation with the great Sonny Rollins – the tenor titan, now 87, whose nickname is ‘Saxophone Colossus’ – also fuelled Pine’s desire to return to the tenor saxophone. “I had to go back to it,” he states.  “I asked Sonny Rollins a couple of years ago, why don’t you play all the other saxophones and flute like Coltrane did, and he looked at me funny because I mentioned the Coltrane word, and then said, ‘well you see, Courtney, it’s more of a challenge playing it all on one instrument.’ But it took me a couple of months to appreciate what he said. I was pushing my trolley one Sunday morning in Tesco’s and then it suddenly hit me, bam! That’s what he meant. To play all that stuff on one instrument is much more of a challenge than playing ten.”  

What’s also significant about ‘Black Notes From The Deep’ is the presence on it of another home-grown UK mega-talent – R&B singer-songwriter/auteur, OMAR, who guests on four tracks. Though prior to this album they had only ever recorded together once before – on a 1996 tribute album to Bob Marley called ‘One Love’ – they’ve known each other for many years. “I actually know Omar from a summer school in Paddington,” reveals Pine. “But he doesn’t remember. He was six, and I was like 9 or 10. But I remember him. An amazing personality. Even at that age, he was destined to do something.

 Pine confesses to being a big fan of Omar’s music – “‘There’s Nothing Like This’ was my wedding song,” he reveals – and their collaboration came about after he had a dream, as he explains: “I was invited to play with Herbie Hancock in Japan at the Jazz Day. The experience was unbelievable. I came back and had this dream about performing ‘Butterfly,’ which is one of Herbie Hancock’s standards, and Omar was singing it. So the next time I saw Omar, I told him about the dream. He looked at me kind of strange but that dream has now become a reality.”  

At the moment, the pair are also label mates at the UK-based Freestyle label. “Omar recommended that I should go with them,” reveals Pine. “I’ve been releasing stuff on my own label, Destin-E, since 2004, popping them out, going doing a tour, coming back, chopping them out again, and just going on this cycle, so I felt like going with a company that specialises in doing something different and going back to making a vinyl product. It’s an album with a capital ‘A’ – 40 or so minutes of music – and not a CD.”


Also appearing on the album is rising UK pianist, Robert Mitchell (above), who’s now making acclaimed albums under his own name “I met Robert when he was like 17/18,” says Pine.  “He was playing with a group called J-Life and he was very quiet but he did all his talking with his hands on all 88 keys of the piano. He’s one of those musicians who’s striving to find his own sound and over the years he’s developed so much to the point where he’s an artist now. He has records out under his own name and I’m so lucky that he’s still young and vibrant to try anything. For me, he was the perfect choice for the piano chair.”


On bass, is Alec Dankworth, who, for those that don’t know, is the son of UK jazz icons, Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth. “Alec, as you know, is royalty,” states Pine. “When I record, I like to have somebody who is older and wiser than me, on the recording so if I do mess up and get too excited, they can say, ‘well, Courtney, have you done this or have you checked that?’ And he’s that person; he’s a real solid anchor. He works all across the board, from mainstream to Ginger Baker and he can do it all. And he’s still excited about playing music.”


Sitting on the drum stool in Courtney Pine’s studio band is noted London-based American sticks man, Rod Youngs. “He has so much humility,” says the saxophonist. “Usually, Americans come over here and they’re brash. The first thing they say is, ‘you guys aren’t playing it right, you need to do it like this,’ and they try to make us feel inferior but Rod is not like that at all.”  Though Courtney was able to use him in the studio, he hasn’t been able to book him for road dates. “He’s so busy playing every night with different, various people, that  I can’t get him to do a show,” he laments, though he’s grateful for his participation in the studio. “There’s a track on the album called ‘Rivers Of Blood’ and I wanted some timpani on it for emphasis. I’ve never recorded with timpani but I just wanted that depth of sound and timpani roar – and that’s what Rod did at school. He was a timpanist, so there were a lot of elements that flew together and I’m so blessed that he came in and was able to do a great job.”

Despite Youngs’ presence on the album, Pine says that overall, he has tried to resist the influence of American jazz and instead, uses his music to express the cultural eclecticism and melting pot-style vitality of the UK. “I think it is important that we document who we are and that’s why I’ve remained in the United Kingdom,” he says. He was tempted to go the USA to develop his career, but ultimately rejected the idea. “I’ve had three extreme offers to go and live in America,” he discloses. “One from (former Island Records’ boss) Chris Blackwell to spearhead Antilles Records in America, though he sold the company two months later, which was so funny and typical of the music industry. The second one was being asked to join the great Art Blakey and The Jazz  Messengers, and the third time I had a chance to get there, I was signed to Universal for seven years and did an album called ‘Modern Day Jazz Stories.'”

Ultimately, though, Pine has resisted the temptation to move to the US and become one of their own. He admits that had he done so, his career would have taken a very different trajectory altogether. “I’d be still on tenor all the time, and playing ‘Cherokee’ and doing bebop just to survive,” he admits. “All the other guys that had tried alternative things in America didn’t get a record contract, like Teodross Avery, the Ethiopian saxophone player. What happened to him? That’s because to get that gig there, you have to play bebop. It’s not like here, where they book you because you’re an artist. It’s a very different approach in America, where they are dealing with a cultural heritage. So for me, me staying here and developing a sound of who I am was more exciting and more important.”

Pine prefers the UK because of its flourishing and abundant musical diversity. “That diversity won’t have reached America yet,” he says. “They’ve got some other problems to deal with. But yeah, that diversity thing is key, not just because of colonisation, because let’s face it, guys could have come here and sat on their arses and done nothing but my dad came here to help build Britain. He was a carpenter, and he did. So all that has to be embraced. But anyway I digress – my point is that I couldn’t have made the albums that I’ve made here, in America.”


Looking back, does Pine regret not joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers when he had the opportunity? “(Saxophonist and ex-Jazz Messenger) Branford Marsalis is always cursing me for it,” he laughs, “because he sees how another path could have gone. It would have been Kenny Garrett, Wallace Roney, and myself as the front line if I’d joined. Of course, there’s regret but I always say to myself, I was never in a position to take on that gig because I’d just released my first album and had my first child. So I was not ready for it.”

He did, though, sit in with the band, and Art Blakey took him under his wing for a time. “Art was an amazing guy,” enthuses Pine. “I went over there to practice with the Jazz Messengers and then, all of a sudden, I was invited to join them. I remember when I got there, Art was in hospital. When he came out, he bought me a pair of shoes, because I didn’t have any clothes. That was how open he was, because he was dealing with a 19-year-old kid and he really looked after me, even though he wasn’t well. He was an incredible person. I learned in a very short space of time how you’re supposed to present jazz. He would say ‘jazz comes from the creator to the artist to the audience’ and ‘there’s no other music like this in the world.’ And he would go up on stage and do that. And that’s what we need to do when we go on stage. All the time. His legacy goes on.”


Going right back to the dawn of his career, to 1986, when Island Records released his debut LP, ‘Journey To The Urge Within,’ Pine, who served his musical apprenticeship playing in reggae bands, remembers wanting to create a different kind of jazz album. “I just wasn’t interested in presenting a straight ahead record,”  he says. One track, in particular, he remembers, encapsulated his eclectic musical vision. “There was the B-side to a song called ‘Can You Feel The Force’ by The Real Thing. It was called ‘Children Of The Ghetto.’ I was thinking, how could I present this in jazz and make a statement about who I was? So I thought, I’ll just do a version of that song. It seemed outrageous at the time putting that particular song on a jazz record.” 

Ex-Supremes singer, Susaye Green, was drafted in by producer Roy Carter at the last minute to do vocals after the original vocalist scheduled to record the song dropped out. “Susaye did a phenomenal job. It was so important for me to have a record sound that went across the board,” says Pine, who reveals that several major record labels at the time offered him deals but didn’t seem to understand where he was coming from musically. “I had about seven genuine offers from other record companies but they wanted me to do smooth jazz. That was the time that Kenny G was big. I told them, no, what I want is to do something like Art Blakey, Pharaoh Sanders, and Gil Scott-Heron, that kind of approach. That was where I was coming from. But the only label that said go ahead and do it, who do you want to produce it, was Island Records. They didn’t give me a big deal but they gave me free rein to do what I wanted to do and didn’t want to fabricate me into a pop star.”

But the commercial success of ‘Journey…’ surprised many people. “Everybody was shocked,” remembers Pine. “The album got into the national charts.” Suddenly, the young saxophonist was on Joe Public’s mainstream radar and was getting heavy media coverage here in the UK. The exposure his music was receiving was no doubt pleasing for the young saxophonist who wanted to put jazz back in the spotlight again but the downside was that he starting to be marketed as the jazz equivalent of a pop star. “I didn’t want to be a celebrity,” he says. “I just wanted to play the saxophone and play music. I didn’t want to hang out at (infamous west end nightclub) Stringfellows all night – I’d rather be at home practising.”  


In terms of his influences, there have been many musicians who have inspired Courtney Pine over the years, but one stands out above all others – Miles Davis (above). The two never met – “he walked past me once at a gig in Nice,” laughs Pine –  but it was Davis’s courage as a musician that had a big impact on the British saxophonist.  “That’s because as his life changed, he changed his music. There are so many different periods of Miles Davis musically, from bebop to jazz-rock and even hip-hop – he did an album called ‘Doo-Bop.’ He was not scared to go out there with a new sound, a new approach, and new instrumentation. That can be scary but he was the one that really showed us that you can actually do that. So he’s definitely number one on the list.”

Of all the many gigs all over the world that Courtney Pine has played, one in particular stands out and he regards it as one of the major highlights of his career. “In 1988, I was asked to play at the Free Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley Stadium,” he reveals. “And the jazz world, being the way it is, there was so much bickering. It was like ‘yeah, you’ve got the hit album now, but we’re going to do it as a group collective’ and me, being the way I am, said yeah, okay. So Steve Williamson, Harry Beckett, and the IDJ dancers were on board. I got to Wembley at 8.30 in the morning as I lived around the corner. Nobody talked to us for the whole day. I went up to Tracy Chapman because she was on her own with her guitar. She was so shy and bashful, bless her. But nobody talked to us. We then saw Whoopi Goldberg getting pushed over by Whitney Houston’s security. It was just an unbelievable day. Then, at 6 o’clock, they turned round to us, and said you’re on. We hadn’t had a sound check, we hadn’t had a dressing room allocated… we were just invisible. But we went on instead of Stevie Wonder. His people left the floppy disk for his Synclavier keyboard in the hotel so he couldn’t go on at peak viewing time. So there we were playing ‘Nights In Tunisia.’ You could not have written it in a script. And we blazed. And it proved my point that we can play jazz to anybody and that’s been an inspiring moment to me personally. Despite it all and people asking us, what are you doing and why are you doing it, we did it.”

Back to the present day and Courtney Pine is currently out on the road joint-headlining with Omar in support of ‘Black Notes From The Deep.’  “What’s great for me is, is that Omar’s bringing his audience,” says Pine. “So I’m getting my audience – the couples and the guy with his arms folded going ‘go on then, prove it’ – and then on his side, he’s getting high heels, skirts, and make-up, and they also sing-along.  It’s so funny. And then you’ve got my jazz people going, ‘what the hell’s going on?’ It’s such a weird, beautiful, United Kingdom-thing. Every show, it’s the same thing. You’re seeing some very, very different people at my concerts now.”  

When he emerged in a blaze of glory in 1986, Courtney Pine could have been just a here-today, gone-tomorrow flash in the pan. Indeed, most of the pop artists that came along at the same time as Pine have long faded into oblivion. Pine, though, remains, seemingly immutable to time’s scythe.  But his longevity isn’t that surprising – at least not for those who know jazz musicians. “I had to explain to the NME and people back in the day, that this is a long-term project,” he says in regard to his career in music. “I’m out for the long innings. I don’t just want to make a number one record and disappear into the background. I’m out there, regardless if it’s 10 or 10,000 people, and whether they’re 12-year-olds or 89-year-olds. I’m out to play music and present it to the best of my ability every night. Luckily we still have freedom in the United Kingdom to present and allow this music to be heard.”