Trish Clowes: a musician at the intersection of generations
This fresh saxophonist is the leader and composer of a quartet of equals, creating a platform for improvisation. Sounds complicated? Not to her
Trish Clowes has combined her natural ability as a musician with a work rate that has helped her rise to the front ranks of a new generation
It usually takes a few generations to make a jazz musician. That instinctive ease with music, that freedom of expression, that appetite for invention – qualities so important in an art form where improvisation is paramount – generally develop in a home where music is part of the furniture. Rising British saxophonist Trish Clowes certainly didn’t lick it off the stones. The daughter and grand-daughter of keen amateur musicians, hers was a childhood where playing and listening to music was as natural as talking.
“My Dad nearly became a musician himself,” says Clowes, pondering her fortunate childhood. “I think I’m more of a gambler than him. I’m quite happy to ride the wave, whereas he wanted to know what he was doing, so he became a doctor. But he always played the trumpet,” she adds.
Her mother too was musical, a keen dancer who considered a career in ballet, but in fact Clowes says her earliest musical memories are of her mother’s father playing piano and singing the show tunes of his day. John Lowe endured appalling conditions as a prisoner of war in Singapore and Japan during the second World War, but when he returned, it was art and music, his proud grand-daughter declares, that restored his sanity.
“He sort of had his youth when he came back,” she says of her grandfather, who turns 99 this summer. “He just threw himself into doing art, and taught himself the piano, sang and all that kind of stuff. I got married in 2010, and he played at our wedding, and that was really special, because he was playing all the songs that I remember from when I was a kid.”
But if music was all around her, an upbringing in rural Shropshire didn’t exactly present too many role models for a life as a professional musician and, at 17, Clowes (pronounced “clues”) was all set to follow her father into medicine when she says a lightning bolt hit her.
“When I look back on it now, it seems funny that I didn’t realise earlier that I wanted to do what I do now. I was really seriously going to do medicine, but just at the last minute I changed my mind.”
Significantly, she had the application and the talent to do either, and that work rate and keen intelligence has stood her in good stead as a musician. Graduating in 2007 from the Royal Academy of Music in London – where she studied with saxophonist Iain Ballamy – Clowes has combined her natural ability as a musician with a work rate that has helped her rise to the front ranks of a new generation of UK jazz musicians, leading her own groups, writing her own music, releasing four critically acclaimed albums, and even starting her own music festival. It’s not the laid-back life of a jazz musician that some imagine.
“When you look at who still loves what they do, and who keeps going, if you look at people like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, these people who’ve managed to stay healthy and somehow keep things happening, that’s not magic, that doesn’t accidentally happen, someone isn’t doing that for them.”
“I’ve really thought about that a lot,” she says, warming to her theme. “You know, there’s the stereotype that’s out there, but the reality is that people who stay with it and focused and in love with these things, they work really hard. Being good at something isn’t just a talent thing, or a magic thing, it comes from love and hard work and talent”, she adds almost as an afterthought, “whatever that word means anyway”.
Whatever it means, Clowes has it. As well as showcasing the playing of a fresh saxophone voice – descended from Shorter, influenced by Ballamy, but clearly her own – her recordings to date have also explored the intersection between classical music and jazz, between composition and improvisation. As a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, she recorded her music with orchestras and string quartets, and her self-curated Emulsion festivals are admirably genre-blind. So how does she reconcile being both a composer and an improviser?
“That’s an ongoing debate,” she laughs. “Really, the way I see it, I’m just creating a platform for the improvisers, and then when I’m in that performing space, I have to rethink it, because I want to approach my own music with the same freshness that the rest of the band do. It’s like letting go of the composer side of it, and treating it like someone else’s music, so that you take more risks with it, because when you write a piece of music, you almost know it too well. So I’ve really tried to work on that.”
Clowes arrives in Ireland for a six date Music Network tour this week with a quartet featuring some of the most admired young musicians on the booming London jazz scene: guitarist Chris Montague, keyboardist Ross Stanley and drummer James Maddren. It’s a band of virtuosos, but for Clowes, it’s not just about their technical abilities. Listening to the latest album, My Iris, it’s clear that there is a strong connection between Clowes and her band mates that has developed over time, and though she is the leader and the composer of the music, the quartet plays like a band of equals, with each musician making their own unique contribution.
“It’s such a massive part of what improvised music is,” she says of the spirit in the band. “Just that rapport, the language that you develop together over time. The more comfortable you feel, the more risks you take with your playing, or your writing. That back and forth, even if it’s not literal, even if it’s quite understated, throwing ideas around, it’s so important. I’ve started thinking recently, it’s very different, writing for this band. I know people say that all the time, but writing for this group really is very different to telling a group of musicians exactly what to do.”
The Trish Clowes Quartet play the Sugar Club, Dublin (Feb 6); Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (Feb 7); Triskel Christchurch, Cork (Feb 8); Mermaid, Bray (Feb 9); The Model, Sligo (Feb 10) and the National Opera House, Wexford (Feb 11). More at musicnetwork.ie