Behind the Music: Interview with Myele Manzanza

‘To me, jazz is almost more of an ethos or a philosophy towards music-making than a musical genre.’

With new album ‘Crisis & Opportunity’ out 2nd April, we chatted to Myele Manzanza to discover more about the release, his compositional approach, and what he believes the future of independent jazz clubs to be.

Firstly, congratulations on creating such a stunning EP, what led to it coming about?  Thank you. I guess it was driven in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. I came from New Zealand to London in late 2019 with loads of ambition and big plans for developing my UK/EU performance career, all of which got thrown out the window. After dealing with some internal lateral drift, and some “what the hell am I supposed to do now?” type questions, I recognised that there was suddenly a whole lot more time for writing, a sudden availability of excellent musicians who would normally be too busy touring, and ultimately a deep desire to keep productive and avoid falling into the depression and despair of having nothing to do! So the game plan came about to focus this period on composition, recording, and creative development, with the end goal of creating 5 albums that represent different sides of my musicianship and my interests as a composer and producer. That labour is now starting to bear fruit with ‘Crisis & Opportunity Vol. 1 – London’.

So why the title ‘Crisis & Opportunity’? It came about from a conversation with my housemate at the time. I’m likely not remembering the conversation too directly, but there was some talk about Chinese language, Taoist philosophy and yin-yang type subjects, and how crisis and opportunity can be two sides of the same coin. For him, the ‘crisis’ of the lockdown and having to reset his work situation gave him the ‘opportunity’ to do home renovations and work on his garden which became a big project. For me, the crisis of having my plans get wiped out became an opportunity to go deeper into my process as a composer and musician and make some of my best work to date. I thought the idea worked well as a guiding principle for the project as well as a nice title for the album. 

How did the group of musicians on the album initially form? I had the opportunity to work with all the musicians involved either at jam sessions or from having called them up for my own concerts. Ashley Henry was someone whose music I had discovered through his Jazz Re:Freshed releases. His debut major label release ‘Beautiful Vinyl Hunter’ was a real standout London jazz record and I knew I wanted to work with him before even moving here. I had the opportunity to call him up for a trio date at the Southbank Centre and the musical chemistry was solid and I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to develop a project around him. In particular, the compositions Brixton Blues, London, and to an extent the arrangement of the tune ‘Crisis & Opportunity’ were all written with him in mind. 

I met Benjamin Muralt through my good friend Ashton Sellars at a jam session at the Brixton record store ‘Pure Vinyl’ not long after having arrived in London, and within the first 5 seconds of playing with him I knew he’d be my first call London bassist. Originally from Switzerland, and having lived in London for 5 years or so, he brings an incredible tone on his instrument and has an ability for making his notes to feel ‘wide’ whilst being rhythmically accurate, which as a drummer is a great joy to work with. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe has long been a mentor and collaborator of mine, and whilst he lives in Los Angeles now, he spent a long time in London doing formative work in the intersections of jazz, broken beat, hip hop and electronic improvisation. He contributed synths across the album which helped give it some extra layers of production, orchestration and overall sonic depth.

George Crowley was recommended to me as a first call saxophonist by Mark de Clive-Lowe prior to moving to London. Originally from Norwich, but having spent the last decade or so in London, he has a great handle on a wide range of jazz vocabulary as well as a sharp sense of humour and is easily able to handle anything I throw his way.  Trumpeter James Copus came through as a recommendation from George. This album was the first opportunity I had to work with him and he came through and more often than not ended up stealing the show. A ferociously talented trumpet player with the ability to play with intense fire as well as sensitive delicacy. 

While the recording session was the first time I had worked with all members of the group together, I had no doubt that we would gel as a unit and I’m proud of the work we were able to achieve together.

‘I have no doubt that for independent jazz clubs it’s going to be a
difficult road to recovery.’

What are the most important qualities you look for when selecting other musicians to collaborate with? The most important thing I look for is that they have a strong artistic sound and vision of their own, that’s compatible with whatever it is that I’m trying to do. They should also have a good balance of strength and empathy in terms of bringing the stuff that only they can bring, whilst being empathetic enough to be of service to the bigger picture we’re working on.

Of course there needs to be a high baseline level of skill and knowledge, as my music can be quite demanding in terms of harmonic and rhythmic terrain, and basic levels of professionalism – like having looked at the material before turning up to rehearsal and showing up on time – count for a lot when it comes to the raw logistics of organising a band, show or tour. However, at the end of the day I’m excited about working with musicians who have a strong sense of self in how they play and can bring that to the music I’m trying to make.

What are the biggest influences on the music you create? Ultimately I’d have to say my father Sam Manzanza. He taught me a lot about African rhythm from a young age which was a great blessing. It has helped me dissect all sorts of music and be a more versatile and diverse musician. I’d liken the connection between traditional African rhythms and contemporary music to the connection between Latin and modern European languages. If you have an understanding of the roots you’re in a better place to get a grasp of the connections between English, French, German etc. I’d say the same goes for music.

If someone was watching one of your recording sessions, what would they see/hear? It wouldn’t be too dissimilar to a live performance in that as I’m primarily working in a jazz/improvised music idiom you’re hearing a lot of the creative process as 1 minute of music being made in 1 minute of time, as opposed to most contemporary productions where 1 minute of music would often take much lengthy refinement to get to the final result. I do allow for some studio refinement, so if one of the musicians doesn’t quite nail their take they might drop in on an individual part rather than having the whole band go at it, and we may pause to discuss different approaches, but in essence what you hear on my recent albums is what was played by the band in the room at the time.

Returning to ‘Crisis & Opportunity’, I love how each track is crammed with character. How do you know when a track has said everything you want it to say? Another good question. Ultimately there’s a gut intuition thing. You just know when it’s ready. You can easily fall into the trap of second guessing something to oblivion, but I guess you just have to work through something until it’s as undeniable as possible. If it’s got to a point where it’s subjective and there are multiple options that would work well you just have to make a decision and move forward.

So what do you feel this release says about your music that previous releases haven’t? This album is – to my ear at least – something that could only come out of London, and is undeniably influenced by the city both in the personnel all being London based, and the writing and approach being inspired by my time in the city. I would also say that the compositions are more condensed and simpler in a lot of ways. I’ve been told in the past that I can be guilty of over-writing and I think as I get a little more mature I’m finding ways to say more with less. Hopefully that comes through in this project ☺

Turning to live music, which of the tracks on the album are you most looking forward to performing? Honestly I’m just looking forward to performing live, period! In saying that, I know Portobello Superhero in a crowded & sweaty dancefloor would crush it, so hopefully we get the opportunity to do that soon.

Out of your performances, which one stays in your memory most vividly to this day? I’m recalling a gig I did with my father when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and he had me sitting in on percussion. He was playing his brand of afrobeat/high life in a local Wellington bar on a Friday night with a bit of a dancefloor. I remember things were starting to heat up in the crowd and I whispered in his ear that he should get the crowd to chant ‘Ole Ole Ole Ole’ proper football stadium style. He did and the crowd immediately jumped on it. It was the first time I saw how musical decisions could have a direct impact on people and crowds. It was a pretty exhilarating moment for me and one of many formative moments in my musical journey. 

How do you feel about the immediate future of the live music industry, particularly independent jazz clubs? It’s pretty clear that the lockdowns have been absolutely brutal to the industry and we can only hope that as the vaccines start rolling out, and venues begin to reopen, that there’s a solid demand from audiences to get out and enjoy live music again. In regard to independent jazz clubs, I have no doubt that it’s going to be a difficult road to recovery for them. They’ll have the benefit of being able to host seated socially distanced events earlier than the more dancefloor-driven night clubs and festivals, but I’m sure a lot of them would have been running on the smell of an oily rag even before the pandemic hit. So while it’ll be tough sailing in the short term, I’m confident that the next 10 years post-pandemic will be an era of renewed appreciation for what we had, and that people will be chomping at the bit to see music in communal settings again. 

‘While the album recording session was the first time I’d worked with all members of the group together, I had no doubt we would gel as a unit.’

Where do you feel jazz and its related genres fit within today’s music scene? Jazz has always been today’s music. It’s always been something that has been part of the times and evolved with the times. To me – and there are plenty of people who would disagree – jazz is almost more an ethos or a philosophy towards music-making than a musical genre. I see it as a method of music-making where one is in the perpetual search of new sounds and ideas in the moment-to-moment process of performing it. Any genre or stylistic conventions are secondary to that. The jazz ethos existed long before anyone called it that, and it will always be something that holds weight through time, even if it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Turning to composition, how do you ensure there is the right balance between freedom of expression and notated elements in your music? I suppose one of the main ethos’ of jazz composition that has seemed to more-or-less hold through the ages is that you’re composing a framework from which musicians can improvise and create. So you might set agreed things like main melodic themes, a set of chord changes, or a rhythmic feel, but from there the intention is to create and allow a lot of room for interpretation. In terms of the balance between free expression and notated elements, each piece, or each section of each piece has a different degree of balance between the two but more often than not it comes down to picking the right personnel to get the sound you want. I knew that the overall sound I was after for ‘Crisis & Opportunity Vol. 1 – London’ would come pretty easily with the group of musicians I chose, and I could be fairly light-handed in terms of the guidance I gave to get what I wanted because they already had what I was after anyway.

So how does being a percussionist affect the way that you compose? I think there was some useful naivete in that as I was never formally trained on a harmonic or melodic instrument, my approach to composition was driven more by what sounds good to me, rather than by things that are functional on my instrument or what is the right theoretical way to go about things.

And finally, what would be your one piece of advice to jazz composers or musicians who are just starting out? Persist. Put your music out there. Keep practicing. Keep writing. Persist. Keep committing to your best ideas. Don’t be afraid to discard ideas that don’t serve you. Persist. Keep going. Persist.

Myele Manzanza’s forthcoming album Crisis & Opportunity” Vol.1  is out 2nd April, and is avaliable to pre-order via BandCamp here.

Thanks Myele Manzanza for chatting with Listen to Discover
Photography credit: Dave Hamblett 

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