Nigel Williamson chats to the ‘saviour of British jazz,’ saxophonist and clarinettist Courtney Pine, about his life-changing musical encounters and the music that still makes him feel good.
Saxophonist and clarinettist Courtney Pine remembers vividly when he decided he was going to be a bandleader. “I was in a reggae band and the first time I travelled abroad as a 17-year-old, I went to Portugal where we were booked to play a festival,” he recalls. “Manu Dibango was also on the bill and hearing him play was a life-changing moment. That’s when I decided I was going to be a solo artist rather than standing in the back of a reggae band.”
That was in 1981 and within five years Pine was being hailed as ‘the saviour of British jazz’ as his debut album, Journey to the Urge Within, became the first recording by a British jazz artist to break into the UK Top 40. Since then his albums have blended his adventurous jazz saxophone playing with everything from hip-hop to reggae and from drum’n’bass to soca and African rhythms. His use of samples, loops and beats has at times shocked ‘the jazz police,’ but he’s endured to become an eminence grise of British jazz and earlier this year released his 16th album, Song (The Ballad Book).
Born in London in 1964 into a Jamaican immigrant family, the first music he heard growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Paddington was his parents’ ska records. When the family moved to North London, he found himself at school with the son of Mac Tontoh, the Ghanaian co-founder of Osibisa, who in the early 70s introduced Afro-rhythms into British rock a decade and more before the term ‘world music’ was invented. “I ended up hanging around with Osibisa every weekend, learning what it was to be a musician,” Pine says. “The way Mac Tontoh nurtured me goes way beyond music, and if Osibisa didn’t exist I don’t think I would have been a musician at all.”
With Osibisa and Manu Dibango as mentors and role models, it’s not surprising that African music looms large on Pine’s Songlines playlist, and in choosing Dibango’s 1982 dance hit ‘Africa Boogie’, he lets drop an exclusive about the veteran 82-year-old Cameroonian saxophonist’s future plans: “He’s invited me to produce his next album, which is unbelievable.”
Salif Keita – the second African name Pine mentions – was a labelmate in the early 90s, although their relationship was initially an uneasy one. “We were both signed to Island Records and they tried to put us together. Salif looked at me, like ‘who are you?’ He was very suspicious,” Pine recalls with a hearty chuckle. A while later, Pine’s band were billed to go on straight after Salif at the Montreux jazz festival. “Salif rocked the house, of course, but we got two encores. After that he started talking to me! All his productions have been brilliant and I have every single album he’s ever done.” He nominates ‘Africa’ from 1995’s Folon as his favourite Salif track.
Before a concert these days, Pine reveals that his dressing room ‘warm-up’ involves listening to the Spanish-Equatoguinean flamenco singer Concha Buika and in particular the title-track from her third album, 2006’s Mi Niña Lola. “The first thing that struck me was the voice. I’d never heard anything like her in my life. It’s so haunting. ‘Mi Niña Lola’ was the first song I heard and it makes me cry every time I hear it. I don’t know what she is on about, but it works for me and I play it before I go on stage. She did an album with Chucho Valdés and her mind works like a jazz singer. She’s someone I’d love to meet.”
Pine was introduced to his next choice – the Hungarian band Besh O Drom – by the London-based band, Oi Va Voi. “They’d done a gig with them somewhere and said that I had to hear this wild band,” he reveals. “The sax player and founder Gergő Barcza is a Berkeley jazz student but he then went back to Hungary and he’s gone off like a lunatic. I contacted him and said I can’t get your music here, so he sent me five CDs. He’s got mad chops. It’s traditional folk music but they translate it to a rave – capital letters R-A-V-E. I’d love to see them play Glastonbury. The sound they make is unbelievable.”
Another East European favourite is the Bulgarian clarinettist Ivo Papasov. “The funny thing is I remember years ago a Nigerian taxi driver saying to me, ‘if you play jazz you need to listen to Ivo Papasov.’ I forgot his name but I finally heard his music ten years later and realised he was the guy the taxi driver had been talking about,” he says. “As a clarinet player myself, I listen to him and hear a totally different approach to the instrument. He’s found a uniquely individual voice.”
Growing up in North London, Pine recalls “a melting pot in which we didn’t just have Jamaicans, Ghanaians and Dominicans, but Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis. It was a great environment for a young man who was attuned to sound.” It led to an enduring interest in Indian music and he cites Talvin Singh’s 1998 Mercury Prize winning album OK as a seminal work. “It’s an album that transcends fashion. The blend and the flavours are just perfect,” he says. “It’s my jogging record. I was in St Kitts recently and I was running up a mountain with Talvin playing in my ears. It hasn’t dated at all.”
It was Singh who introduced him to another of his playlist choices, ‘Snake!’ from the 2008 album Kinsmen by the New York-based Indian sax player Rudresh Mahanthappa. “He’s another who came up through the Berkeley music school system but he’s retained his classical South Indian roots and found a way of putting it together with his American upbringing in a very unique way.”
Pine’s final choice, Farmer Nappy’s 2014 Trinidadian carnival hit ‘Big People Party’, takes him back to his own Caribbean roots. “Modern day soca calypso music is really strong and powerful and relevant to the Caribbean existence,” he says. “Every time I hear the record it makes me smile. There are lots of other Caribbean artists who touch me and could have made the list. But this just makes me feel so good…”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #113 (December 2015). Subscribe to Songlines
One of the tracks Courtney Pine selected for his playlist was Besh O Drom’s ‘Büntető’.