Double bassist Olie Brice plays jazz and the music known as improv, both as a leader and a sideman. He has a trio, a duo and a band called BABs, but it’s with his quintet that he made an album called Immune To Clockwork in 2014 and, with subtly altered personnel, he will be touring the UK later this month and on into June. I Q’d and he A’d by email.
Q How did you decide on the double bass as an instrument?
A I was always attracted to the sound of the double bass. The first time I can remember being excited by it was on records my parents played – Danny Thompson on John Martyn and Pentangle albums, and Barre Phillips and Gary Peacock on John Surman albums. I was a guitarist as a teenager, and often imagined playing the bass (I remember playing along to records with my acoustic guitar upright on a chair!) but the expense, size and unavailability were off-putting and I didn’t really believe it could happen.
When I got together with my partner, Tania, we were talking about what we wanted to do with our lives, and I told her that my dream was to be a free jazz double bassist, but that I thought it was probably too late (I was 21 or 22). She immediately insisted that it wasn’t too late but that I should hurry up, and we went out and hired one! It was immediately apparent that I had found not only the right instrument, but my life’s path. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been a full-time musician if I’d stuck to the guitar. Thanks Tania!
Q Were you always interested in the free-er end of jazz/improv music?
A Yes. I was listening to Ornette, Albert Ayler, Derek Bailey, Coltrane, Evan Parker, etc, in my teens. I always liked jazz as well, but grew up with only a couple of albums in the house that were clearly in that tradition – Blue Train and Kind Of Blue. It was really only after I started playing the double bass and getting serious about being a musician that I realised that in order to play free the way I wanted to, I needed more of a grounding in traditional jazz. Through that process I fell in love with that music, following it back through bebop and swing, and now listen as much as anything else to the likes of Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Don Byas, Ellington and Billie Holiday.
Q Who has influenced you most a) as a bassist b) in music generally?
A That’s a tricky one! I’m a pretty voracious listener, and it’s tempting to give you a long list of names… I’ll try and keep it short. A few bassists who immediately spring to mind include Jimmy Garrison, Wilbur Ware, Barry Guy, Richard Davis, Johnny Dyani, Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Blanton, Mark Helias, Fred Hopkins, Mark Dresser… In music generally again I could list thousands of people, but there is one name that stands out the most: Ornette Coleman. His particular mixture of melody, blues, freedom and complete individuality changed my life when I was about 15, and continues to do so to this day.
As important as records has been the influence of live music – experiencing the intensity and commitment of great musicians in small venues both as a fan and then more recently playing with them. In that regard the likes of Paul Dunmall, Mark Sanders, Tony Marsh, Evan Parker, Tony Malaby, Lol Coxhill, Tony Levin, Paul Rogers and John Edwards, among countless others, have been huge influences.
Q How did you decide on the personnel of your quintet?
A It’s been a process, with the line-up changing over time. Alex Bonney has been in the band from the beginning (originally a quartet with Rachel Musson and Josh Morrison) and was an obvious choice – I think he shares my desire to combine freedom and textural exploration with melody and song, and I love playing with him. Jeff (Williams) was one of my very favourite drummers long before I knew him, he’s simply one of the all time great jazz drummers. I used to go and hear him play as much as possible, and had often imagined playing with him. At some point I got up the nerve to approach him, knowing he’d be the perfect drummer for what I was trying to do. I was delighted that he was up for it; having him as a friend and colleague is an incredible honour and joy. George (Crowley) joined the group as a dep – Mark Hanslip had moved back up north, and I asked George to cover some gigs, again wanting someone who was basically a jazz tenor player and could bring a big sound and understanding of that tradition, but was also attracted to freedom and able to take off and soar when the music was going that way. After a while George was doing all the gigs, it was always fantastic playing with him, and it made sense to ask him to join properly.
Mike (Fletcher) is the newest member of the quintet. After recording Immune to Clockwork we were mostly gigging as a quartet (Waclaw (Zimpel) lives in Poland and I think has only actually gigged with us once!) but for the album launch I thought it ought to be a quintet, like the recording. At the time I was doing a lot of touring with Mike’s trio, also with Jeff, and really loved playing with him, definitely a musical soulmate. I asked him to do the launch gig, and it was so much fun having him in the mix that I invited him to join the band. This is definitely my favourite line-up I’ve had, and one I hope to continue with.
Q What is it about the number 5 – what opportunities does it bring you, as compared to a duo, trio or quartet?
A As discussed above, it wasn’t an entirely conscious decision, more a process. But I love having the three horns. One of my influences as a composer is the sensation of a synagogue full of people singing together which I experienced regularly as I was growing up. Having the three-horn front line allows us to approximate some of that feeling of collectively creating that kind of sound. I rarely write harmony parts – most of the time the three horn players are improvising their own take on the same compositional content.
Q The quintet features slightly unusual instrumentation – C melody sax and cornet rather than alto and trumpet? Was that the individual musicians’ decision or yours?
That’s entirely down to the musicians involved, and in fact Mike has recently switched back to mainly playing alto and might not play C melody on the tour. Alex’s transition to cornet is quite recent, he plays trumpet and pocket trumpet on my quintet record.
Q You recorded with the quintet in 2014 and are now embarking upon an England/Wales tour. How does the band and its music in a live performance compare with the same band in the recording studio?
The first and most obvious answer is that the personnel has changed since we recorded the album, Immune to Clockwork. George Crowley has replaced Mark Hanslip on tenor, and Mike Fletcher’s alto sax replaces Waclaw Zimpel’s alto clarinet.
The music has changed in other ways as well though – my playing relationship with all the musicians involved has developed, both in this band and other projects. I think the musicians are more familiar with what I’m trying to do as a composer, and are therefore able to be more assertive and bring their own characters ever more into the mix. The writing has developed too, hopefully – I recently wrote a blog article about influences on my composing, which can be found HERE.
- For full details of Olie Brice’s music, including discography and tour dates – they begin the tour at The Spotted Dog in Digbeth, Birmingham, on Tuesday 24 May – go to his website HERE.