Behind the Music: Interview with Colin Baldry – Ambient Jazz Ensemble

“The best moments for me are always the surprises. Those unexpected gems that can change a track.”

Without using the words Ambient or Jazz, how would you sum up the sound of AJE: Instrumental storytelling, cinematic journeys; chilled soundscapes growing into expansive, thematic suites utilising rhythm section, brass and real strings with simpatico electronica.

What are the biggest influences on the music you create? Artists wise it’s Early Weather Report, The Leaf Label, Jaga Jazzist, Miles Davis, Jon Hopkins and Steven Wilson. However, the broad palette of sounds and ideas I’ve drawn on in my experience of writing and producing are key influences too.

Who is in the core group of AJE musicians and what is the distribution of instruments? The line up has consistently been a rhythm section of drums, double bass, piano and percussion with the addition of a brass section and string quartet. Any lead lines or solos are shared by sax, trumpet and vocals. The new album has more Rhodes than piano and the saxophone interest is more textural though. There has also been some experimentation with personnel over the three albums.

For the new record, I deliberately changed the rhythm section to keep the core sound fresh and to keep me excited. Truthfully, the only constant is myself, but the current core group includes The Stella Horns (brass section), Ollie Weston (saxes, flute & bass clarinet), The Adderbury Ensemble (strings) and Sam Baldry (percussion). The new album also features Richard Spaven (drums) and Sam Crowe (keys).

When did you first know that music would be a huge part of your life and how did this evolve into AJE? When I was a teenager, I was playing double bass in a great orchestra and doing many varied gigs on bass guitar as well as studying music. I guess there was a crossroads at this point where I felt music was going to be my life because there didn’t seem to be time for anything else. Around this time I was playing and listening to tons of jazz, but as I started to forge a career playing bass, the tours and sessions were always in rock/pop and soul music. Therefore, my first production and writing experiences were in pop and soul as well as with club remixing.

Together with my writing partner, we found a niche as media composers writing instrumental music for TV and having dedicated 15 years to this, I found myself experimenting with a passion project. It was an escape from the constraints of the TV world and my previous rock and pop experience. This was utilising a melting pot of ideas and ingredients I hadn’t been able to use. Jazz being one of them. In giving soundscapes room to grow over an unlimited space of time, it was a chance to let all those early jazz and orchestral influences back in again. This was what became AJE.

“I’m a bit old school and want the album to be listened to in it’s entirety from front to back.”

How does your experience across the industry impact the creative process of AJE? It’s a question of balance between knowing exactly what you want, without being a total control freak to an extent that may prevent some real magic happening when working with other musicians. I tend to get a sketch or demo of each piece which is complete enough to tell me it’s going to hang together as an idea; but it’s got to have enough room for players to contribute. It may be a sonic thing where the articulation of an instrument –  when expertly played – needs space or a musical one where there needs to be a hole to improvise. Either way, the best moments for me are always the surprises. Those unexpected gems that can change a track and help the progression from demo to master. My recording experience means I can communicate with players to get the best from them whilst, at the same time, engineer a session or score parts.

What does working with a more orchestral set up enable you to do that is different to smaller Jazz ensembles? In many ways it’s more restrictive because when you have a group of players, you have to have parts prepared and printed. When working with that set up it’s all about getting that unique blend and that authentic sound. This richer palette lends itself to a more expansive cinematic approach and pushes me to go that bit bigger sonically and musically. The beauty of it is the possibility of a jazz trio piano solo and a soaring orchestral theme within the same piece.

Across your releases to date it feels like there are definitely some world influences. For example the vocals on ‘Breathe It In’ and ‘The Future Starts Now’, and the Latin rhythms within ‘Eleven Days’. Were these conscious decisions from the start or did they gradually evolve? There are a couple of examples on the new album (Break The Night With Silence and A Velvet Revolution) which were conscious decisions to use textures built from ethnic instrumentation. The gospel vocal influence on ‘The Future Starts Now’ can also be heard on ‘The Journey’ from the first album ‘Suite Shop’. When experimenting with introductory soundscapes, I guess it’s inevitable that there will be some world music sounds because it’s a genre that I’m naturally drawn to. However, any other parts or grooves would be a case of them evolving naturally. 

Returning to your orchestral experience for a moment, how do you go about blending the elements of scored notation with the freedom key to jazz and ambient music? This goes back to my passion project experimentation stage, I suppose, because they are musical elements I’m instinctively drawn to. We’re talking about cinematic jazz and I’ve been quoted as loving the Marvin Gaye & Curtis Mayfield film soundtracks from the early 70s (Trouble Man & Superfly). Inevitably you’re going to have sections – or even entire pieces – which are more one than the other, but when the two work together ‘jazz’ is merely the palette of sounds and collaborative musicianship that supports the orchestral themes and textures. Interestingly, one thing I steer clear of is scoring ‘jazzy’ parts, particularly for strings, so I am subconsciously keeping the two elements separate to a degree. Ambient music, I feel on the other hand, has many crossovers with orchestral sensibility because of the expansive, cinematic nature of the two worlds.

What does an AJE recording session usually involve? My home studio has a modestly sized live room, so drums or string/brass sections are set up in there and I engineer in the control room. The sessions are well prepped. All parts are printed, all tracks are prepared and there’s a plan. Then it differs depending on what it is; sax, keys, bass and drums are individual sessions, free and creative with lots of improvisation, trial and error and happy accidents. Contrasting with this, string and brass sessions are about accuracy of­­­­ the written parts, getting the blend and capturing the authenticity.

Was the production process of your new album ‘Aura’ different due to COVID restrictions? No. It was recorded throughout 2019 & mixed in January 2020. The mastering was postponed for a while because of the first lockdown, but apart from that it was all ready to go.

“When a listener walks through the door into your world the last thing you want to do is confuse them.”

AJE have already released three full albums, with each having its own musical personality. How do you continue to ensure that there is always something new for your listeners? It’s something I’m always thinking about, particularly in view of the fact that when I feel I’m making sweeping changes that are going to drastically alter the sound, there’s always something about it that sounds like AJE. To ensure a change this time, the new album has an entirely new rhythm section, in terms of both personnel and approach. This was a conscious decision to keep the sound fresh and as a result affected my decision making when working further with tracks. Also, Rhodes replaces piano on many of the new tracks and I chose to play double bass myself to keep it simpler and make it bigger. The new album has a very positive, uplifting sound and a conscious direction where even the ambient textures have forward momentum making a cinematic journey rather than a scene.

Equally, the third pre-released album track ’Scars’ feels incredibly emotive against the choral energy of ‘The Future Starts Now’ and the relaxation of ‘Break The Night With Silence.’ How important do you feel it is to highlight the musical diversity of a forthcoming release?   I remember listening to the demos of ‘Aura’ and thinking many of the tracks were heavily reliant on chord progressions compared to ‘AJE’ and ‘Suite Shop’, at which stage I dropped one idea and added a more static sounding piece. So, I suppose I naturally do think it’s important to have musical diversity to shape any album. I’m a bit old school and want the album to be listened to in it’s entirety from front to back and that it should be constructed as such as a narrative.

I grew up listening to prog rock and classical records – among many other genres – and they are designed to be experienced as a whole. You’re taken on a journey even within each piece. You experience a tremendous amount of light and shade as you listen through an entire record. However, I don’t think you should make the musical diversity of an album a main feature. I’m aware of the importance of a musical identity; when a listener walks through the door into your world the last thing you want to do is confuse them.

And finally, what has been the most memorable moment of AJE’s musical life so far and what makes it standout. It’s always about the music for me, so I’d have to say coming up with tune for the title track ‘Aura’. It’s a really bold statement, a tune which builds in intensity and adds strings and brass until it almost bursts. The tune doesn’t come in until 2.00m so every step of the way I was conscious of not ruining that moment. Just enough of a hint in the early stages, building it in the right way with sax and bass clarinet textures. Also not going too over the top when it does arrive and disguising the outro with a haze of tape delays. It’s an example where I’ve had a strong idea, not compromised, and felt it get better and better through every stage of the writing, recording and mixing process.

Thanks Colin Baldry (AJE) for chatting with Listen to Discover

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Find out more about the music of Ambient Jazz Ensemble at: Featured Track Review: Ambient Jazz Ensemble: Scars

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