Music interview: Courtney Pine

Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman
Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman
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British jazz star Courtney Pine is currently on tour with classical pianist Zoe Rahman. Duncan Seaman reports.

Courtney Pine might be one of the most celebrated figures in modern British jazz but it seems even he was taken aback to receive two royal honours.

“Ever since the first day my manager came round with this form it’s been just shock and surprise,” the 52-year-old saxophonist and clarinettist says of first the OBE then the CBE that he’s been awarded in the past decade and half for his services to jazz music.

“I thought I was playing underground music. I didn’t think jazz musicians were recognised, not of my generation. I know the late Stan Tracey and the late Ronnie Scott and Cleo Laine and the late Johnny Dankworth were recognised but they kind of knew royalty, they were Princess Margaret’s friends.

“I didn’t think our generation – I’m talking guys who were making jazz music in the mid-80s – I didn’t think that period of time was looked upon or recognised at all so I’m still in shock and I’m still expecting somebody to knock on the door and take it back and say they gave it to the wrong person.”

His second visit to Buckingham Palace, to be made a Commander of the British Empire in 2009, had an air of unreality, he admits. “The CBE you’re in the room with the proper knights, the proper geezers who are there on the battlefield, the proper emperors of industry, and they actually practise with the sword and I’m in that room looking at all of this and it’s just unbelievable.

Courtney Pine with Zoe Rahman

Courtney Pine with Zoe Rahman

“The only person who talked to me was the Irish builder, every other person was standoffish. Even in that level you’re aware of your place in United Kingdom society, so I really haven’t got time to be big-headed about it, I just have to keep it real and keep practising.”

Pine’s latest musicial venture is a tour with the award-winning pianist Zoe Rahman, with whom last year he released the album Song (The Ballad Book).

The record, which includes interpretations of standards such as Amazing Grace and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square alongside Chaka Khan’s Through The Fire and Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free, features Pine on bass clarinet, which he first played on his 2011 album Europa.

He describes it as his favourite instrument with a unique sound. “I think when you’re younger you try to adhere to certain formulas and doing a solo bass clarinet album, or an album that featured a bass clarinet, I really wasn’t ready for it at that time, but now I’m a bit older and braver that’s why I’ve gone for it,” he says.

He likes its seven-octave range. “Then you’re into different tonal aspects,” he says. “It’s an instrument that can play chords, it can play rhythm percussively, it can play bass lines and in the soprano register. You combine all that together in different combinations and you find you can do other things. There’s so much scope in this instrument. Now, in this century, there’s a couple of guys that have decided we’ve had enough of just playing in the background of orchestras, we’re going to bring this instrument to the fore.”

Ask Pine how long he has known Rahman, he says: “The quick answer is not long enough.”

“She’s really a brilliant musician,” he adds, “a brilliant artist really dedicated to her craft.”

They first met at the BBC Jazz Awards which Pine co-presented with the late Humphrey Lyttelton in 2003. “After the event she knocked on the dressing room door and introduced herself because we had so many colleagues in common but we’d never met. We exchanged numbers and I didn’t think anything of it but when it came to doing the Europa project she fitted the bill as her classical roots are exemplary and she really wants to play jazz.

“Also what piqued my interest was the fact that she’s Bangladeshi and I’d never met a musician from Bangladesh who has jazz/classical roots. And in a very masculine style band she really stood her ground. In my work at the time I would literally have a go then pass it on and expect somebody else to have a go and whenever it was her turn to have a go and express herself she really stood up every single night.”

Pine actually grew up in a house filled with Jamaican ska music. “That’s the first sounds I can remember hearing,” he recalls. “It took me a while to realise that these ska musicians were jazz musicians.

“I left school to be in a reggae band. A lot of the reggae musicians have a certain attitude towards jazz and practising. To play jazz you have to practise, to play reggae it’s more about playing like somebody else is playing it so there’s a huge difference, you’re not supposed to practise, it’s that brutal. But after a couple of years I found out that the best reggae musicians were jazz musicians and so the songs that I first heard by The Skatalites which featured Ernest Ranglin, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, they were jazz musicians, they would do jazz gigs in a hotel at night and during the day they would be session musicians because they were the best.

“I met some of these great Jamaican musicians and they explained to me exactly how it went. They’d piece together what we know as reggae music which is descended from blue beat and ska so the first sounds that I heard when I was two, three or four were jazz musicians playing social, functional music, so for me, I was always going to be doing what I’m doing now.”

He cites Miles Davis as the musician he most admired when he was learning to play jazz. “He just seemed to play what he wanted to play, he wasn’t forced to play the hit track years after year and not stray away from it. He never seemed to replicate himself so he was the living example, and it seemed in his bands he had the most amazing sidemen. They weren’t sidemen, they were leaders who happened to play with Miles Davis.”

Other inspirations include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Bostic and Wayne Shorter. When they clicked, he says, “I think that’s the day I became a jazz musician.”

Thirty years after founding the big band the Jazz Warriors, Pine is working with an all-female big group dubbed the Venus Warriors. He believes it’s important to keep giving young jazz musicians opportunities.

“That’s what jazz has always been about,” he says. “I had the opportunity to work with Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, they didn’t have to call somebody like me to play in their band but they did and it inspired me and raced my progress at leaast ten years ahead by playing with these guys.

“The Jazz Warriors originally was the elders who didn’t have the time or the money to work with youngstersand nobody asked them to do it except me. They did it reluctantly but they turned up and inspired us youngsters at that time and created this amazing sound and environment for making jazz music.

“A couple of years later I thought the same can be done for a female band. There are so many great female musicians that I’ve met over the years. I know Deidre Cartwright and the Guest Stars have done some stuff but there hasn’t been many all-female bands on this half of the century. Back in the War there were three or four but there’s so many great female musicians. My wife came up with the idea for the Venus Warriors, just in the same way she came up with the name Jazz Warriors she came up with another diamond. We haven’t had a chance to record it yet we have instigated it, it has been started. I’m really hoping if I win the Lottery I’ll be able to record them and get them on the road.”

Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman play at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on May 4. For details visit www.operanorth.co.uk