Interview: jazz pianist Huw Warren
Jon Gower talks to a musically restless pianist about his recent exploration of the Plygain tradition.
In a thirty year career, the Welsh pianist composer Huw Warren has ranged widely and collaborated globally, championing the music of others, such as the Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal as well as generating album after album of his own material.
His latest recording project has seen him team up with singer Angharad Jenkins to respond to Plygain carols on an album called Calennig.
‘I knew precious little about the actual music to begin with,’ says Warren. ‘I had been to a Plygain concert at Parc near Bala and it was an amazingly intense experience, with all of the community being there but I didn’t know much about the Plygain carols themselves. When Angharad Jenkins sent me a little recording of her singing some of them I thought they were really great, I loved them.’
Plygain carols come from a long tradition and are far removed from, say the silvery sound of jingle bells at Christmas, They are almost sombre in tone, and that’s one of the things Huw Warren loves about them.
‘To me they sound more like folk music, modal music, like plainchant even. They feel old in a nice way.’
New take on old songs
Huw Warren thinks that he and Angharad Jenkins have done something new with these old songs.
‘Plygain is three part harmony, we don’t do that. We’ve taken the melodies and reframed them in my arrangements of them. But what we’ve done respects the tradition. That’s the necessary balance – not challenging the tradition whilst doing something new. There will be purists who say you can’t do this to Plygain but it’s no different to what I did in the hymns project Duw a Wyr with Lleuwen Steffan, taking music you like and trying to frame it in the best possible way.’
Huw Warren has collaborated with many folk musicians in the past, most notably June Tabor who formed part of the trio ‘Quercus’ alongside saxophonist Ian Bellamy.
‘June wouldn’t worry about where the material came from, or what it was like stylistically, she was only interested in the words really and the melody we could always change. So I’ve been used to working on framing words. That’s an approach I’ve taken into many other collaborations.’
The one with Angharad Jenkins came about when they worked together on an online project under the umbrella of the National Eisteddfod. They were creating an advent calendar.
‘They asked Angharad to do something and she said she’d always wanted to work with me. She asked could we record some Plygain for this and sent me a little demo and it was great – that was my emotional response to the music, not a technical thing. It’s knowing that emotionally I can do something with it.’
Huw Warren’s creativity is generated in part from a kind of restlessness.
‘I have a low boredom threshold and also it’s to do with liking lots of different things and being able to able to play lots of different styles and sources. I don’t like the sort of situation where you see a band and they come on stage and you hear the first tune and you know that every tune is going to sound a little bit like that all night. I always pushed against that.’
It’s all a long way from his early experiences playing organ to accompany cabaret acts in a club.
‘My very first gig was still at school, in the Naval & Military Club in Port Tennant in Swansea. I learned some lessons there which still stay with me today. You accompanied a range of people: some would show up and be really professional and they’d have all the music but others would show up with some of the music while others would show up with none and expect you to know it all – songs such as ‘Ten Guitars’ which Engelbert Humperdinck made popular and things like ‘Green, Green Grass of Home.’
There was an element of bluffing in the early days.
‘I knew that if you didn’t make any sound at all the cabaret performers would know something was up! If you just played something, anything, they wouldn’t notice the wrong chord or anything so I learned all that I need to just by doing it. There I was, a teenager basically, suddenly playing organ three nights a way backing cabaret. I didn’t know many songs, a few Beatles songs but I didn’t know much about jazz at the time, I was beginning to listen to it but I never thought I’d play it. A former professional drummer came to work at the club and he said let’s go to play jazz at the jazz club in Swansea and I said ‘I don’t play jazz’ and he said ‘Yes you do’ so we went.’
It led to a career which has seen him cross genres from pop through jazz to world music with ease, founding the jazz quartet ‘Perfect Houseplants’ and working with a huge range of artists such as Maria Pia De Vito, Kenny Wheeler, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and saxophonist Mark Lockheart.
One of his most recent collaborations was with the saxophonist Iain Ballamy, performing a brand new commission inspired by the Irish Sea for the Symffoni Mara project performed for the very first time in the West Wales Arts Centre.
That restlessness of his is a bit like the sea itself, carrying a substantial cargo of tunes thither and hither. By now Huw Warren – currently visiting professor of Jazz Piano at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – carries thousands of songs around in his head, or millions of notes.
‘It’s like saying how many words do you carry around in your head. A lot of jazz tunes do very similar things and when you learn more and more repertoire what you’re doing is learning just the bits that are slightly different rather than learning the whole thing. It’s not like learning a whole Beethoven piano concerto. Someone once said harmony is like Lego, it’s the same bricks being put together all but in different ways, making a different shaped house.’
Which means Huw Warren is a sort of champion house builder, creating confident musical architectures, or, in concert, raising the roof.
Calennig by Angharad Jenkins and Huw Warren is available to buy here.
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