Recently I met with 2/3 of Trio HLK, for Jazzwise webpage. Amazing music, going to be really big!
Trio HLK are one of the most distinctive voices to appear on the Scottish jazz scene in recent times. Their debut album, Standard Time was released in May, since when the trio have been touring widely. Fiona Mactaggart met with Trio HLK’s Rich Harrold and Rich Kass, to discuss the emergence of the HLK sound.
Fiona Mactaggart: Thanks very much for coming along. Can we talk about how the three of you first met, how the trio took shape?
Rich Kass: Rich (H) and I met through a mutual friend. Rich had just moved to Edinburgh and we just got together to play Rich’s music. It contained a lot of ideas which I’d been looking into at that point.
F: When was this?
K: 2014. A lot of rhythmic information and things, I started getting into, it kind of evolved from us playing Rich’s music in his flat. Then we went through a few different line-ups, and eventually needed a full-time member. I knew Ant (Law) from when he lived in Edinburgh. By then he was living in London. He’d already released his first album which had a lot of Indian rhythms and influences. So I thought he’d be a great fit for the music; it’s quite specific, demanding certain things. Rich got in touch with him, Ant checked out the music and like it. Then on New Year’s Day 2015, those two (Rich H and Ant Law) got together for a play, as we’d been booked for a gig with Troyka that February. We needed a guitarist.
Rich Harrold: It was part of the tour they were doing: each city gave different support and we gave the support here (Edinburgh). That was cool! We needed someone suitably ‘psychotic’. There were particular demands of the music. First of all, you’d need to commit a lot of time to it, and second, obviously, it requires an interest in a rhythmic way of playing and other things that the music explores. It’s not to everybody’s taste. Ant was perfect for that. He’s from a Physics background as well!
F: So quite complementary, there are different things you each bring to the group.
H: Yes, there are similar things we love about music: we like a certain level of complexity, and experimentation. But at the same time we all come from different musical backgrounds. So I think we share certain things, but also bring a lot of differences to the table.
F: Which segues into the next question: Ant’s obviously not here, but can each of you say a bit about your own musical backgrounds?
H: My parents weren’t particularly musical. My Grandma on my Dad’s side was an organist, not professionally. She plays the church organ now, as a retired lady in the village. I started lessons when I was just nearly six, mainly because my older brother had just started and I wanted to compete! Then I stuck at it and got really into it. I had classical piano lessons, with a private teacher in Manchester who teaches at Chets (Chethams School of Music, Manchester) and also at the Royal Northern (Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester). She lived just around the corner, it was really lucky, she was amazing. She got me into lots of really cool stuff and I stayed with her all the way until I went to music college. I got into jazz separately, and was doing composition stuff as well, then went on to study composition at the Royal Academy (Royal Academy of Music, London) and had jazz lessons while I was there. So I was doing a lot of stuff on the side, some piano lessons with (pianist and composer) Tom Cawley and was always interested in that stuff. But mainly I come from a classical background.
K: I think it’s quite interesting that you had the choice to study composition or piano, and your piano teacher was encouraging you to do performance and go down the concert pianist route.
H: Yeh, she was a bit miffed, she’d coached me all these years! I applied for Composition at the Academy and Piano at the Royal College. I knew that I wanted to be a composer, but I wasn’t really sure that I’d get in.
F: I understand you did a year’s study in New York?
H: I did two years there doing a Masters. It wasn’t New York, it was Yale (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut), studying Composition.
F: So now you do composition and performance: do you see yourself nowadays as mainly a composer or a performer?
H: It’s an interesting question. I feel like I’m more of a composer and I believe I have more weaknesses in my playing than a lot of people who are full-time performers. But I definitely do more performing work than composing work. I see myself as a mixture, but am more confident as a composer. I love doing both, and the great thing about this band is being able to do both. One of the things as a composer in classical music, where the rehearsal time is so limited: I would quite often be pleased with performances, but (at other times) quite fretful as I didn’t fully realise what I was trying to do. Whereas with this group, we just rehearse and rehearse, until it’s right!
(Trio HLK rehearsing with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)
K: In the classical world obviously there are people who are specifically composers, whereas in jazz, most people compose to some extent. Especially if they’ve gone through some kind of education system, they are encouraged to write and try to be a band leader even if they don’t go on to be band leaders. Obviously it varies, but in my opinion there can be a massive difference between composing a melody on a short ABA form, and composing an extended classical piece. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are very different. My perception is that everyone in a lot of music is part performer, part composer. The line is slightly blurred. Rich is a great musician, a great player, who writes really interesting, very thought-out and very musical music.
F: (to Rich K) What is your background? Are there musicians in your family?
K: My Dad plays guitar and sings in the house, but other than that, not really. My Grandma on that side of the family is a published poet (who) did some stuff with Ivor Cutler. It went out under the name Patricia Doubell. A book (was) written about her called “At The Dog In Dulwich”.
F: A Creative!
K: Yeh, totally. I started playing drums in high school, though not actually in school, but in punk groups. Then I had a scholarship to go to LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science), but at the last minute decided to go to music college for a year, for what I thought would be a gap year. After that I auditioned for the Napier (Edinburgh Napier University) course, because my brother did it, and I got in. That was an undergraduate degree. The college course was at Stevenson College (now Edinburgh College). I hadn’t done any music at school, so I was doing the foundation course there. I don’t think I completed the course there as I got an Unconditional for Napier Uni. A friend was at The New School in New York, so I went over and hung out for a bit and we did some concerts, just small gigs, and went to see good gigs and met musicians. I think that was quite an eye-opener. Then I came home. I actually auditioned for a pop gig and got it, then ended up doing quite a lot of pop gigs for a while.
F: Were you still doing punk at that stage?
K: When I got to uni I got into Fusion and a little bit of jazz, and was doing as much music as possible. I did some musical theatre gigs. A friend was guitarist for someone who was signed to a label, so I got that gig, then got some auditions for some well-known boy and girl bands [laughs]. And then, funnily enough, got quite dejected with music.
H: You had quite a funny path. I’ve never heard it all linearly like this.
K: The whole time I’ve been playing some kind of jazz and I had a group, we played at festivals. But I was at a point when I thought I was going to sack off music. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but to be honest, after working in the pop industry for bands on amazing labels, where everyone was just an a——. Some of the people there were not massively into the detail of the music. For someone playing in a band, you’re there to serve a purpose and there’s not a lot of conceptual thinking going on. It’s like: “play the drums, don’t play it, disappear”. Wait three months to get paid.
F: So there were negatives as well as positives.
K: I think the positives were that I was doing things on tv and playing to large crowds, and I’d only just been out of school. I thought that was great. But actually I realised it wasn’t that great. What I thought was success was not, not really.
F: What was between then and joining HLK?
K: I was doing all kinds of different things, gigs around town, a musical theatre gig for quite a while, quite a lot of recording work. Then Rich and I started playing music.
F: So very different backgrounds, a real mix of experience coming into the trio.
K: We do all have quite different backgrounds, and the music has evolved with that in mind, but we all definitely share a love of rhythm and things to do with rhythmic allusions, or placing things in unusual places, or unusual metres. Hanging out both musically and socially when we’re in the van or travelling to gigs, we regularly listen to music: everything from the Goldberg Variations to rock to swing music, to…
H: It can be like a little whistling party because we bring something maybe the others haven’t listened to. It’s quite good because you’re doing nothing but staring at the road, so you get to discuss things in quite good depth.
(Trio HLK rehearsing with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)
F: Do you use YouTube at all, to seek out different music, or historical stuff?
H: I know it’s really good for that, but not personally.
K: I probably use people more, and I find podcasts helpful. When my favourite musicians mention records, I check them out. I’ve probably come onto most of the things that have influenced me most strongly in the last few years, through friends and records, or listening to stuff together.
H: Ant’s a real source of obscure music, he’s got so much. He actually never switches off from music. Straight after a gig he’ll be listening to something else: it’s amazing actually.
K: I’ve got a very vivid memory of a gig in Birmingham where we listened to (dance/electronic artist) Noer on the drive back to Manchester. I was quite tired, it was at about 110dB, a tune called “In It For The Pizza”.
F: A snapshot! Your music’s obviously very rich. From both your social media sites, I see you both have an interest in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Can you each say a bit about whether his music has influenced you and what other musical influences you are aware of, including any which specifically bring Western classical and jazz together, as yours does?
K: I got into Ligeti primarily through Rich (H). Lemon’s a shared one, which again I think you (Rich H) introduced me to. Also Squarepusher’s a shared one we’d both checked out before we knew each other.
H: Massively, yeah.
K: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a prolific Cuban pianist. His drummer is Horacio Hernandez.
H: Yeh, he’s unbelievable. I got into Ligeti since undergrad, via his etudes. I think the stuff that we write doesn’t necessarily sound much like him, but there’s things in there.. I think he was probably interested in similar things. There’s a lot of rhythmic stuff, polyrhythms, a rhythmic pattern with another one over the top, that then starts to shift. You’re constantly aware of these two things and they’re constantly shifting. That’s somethings that really interests me. Similarly harmonically there’s layers to the adjusting harmonies, and he often pairs those things up with other rhythms. So you get this ambiguity going on. He definitely seems to me like someone who is fascinated by rhythm. But there’s also a real playfulness in his writing, it can be really jocular. But when you go into the nitty gritty, it’s really well worked out as well. I like that balance of well conceived, tight nuts and bolts, but also humorous. I think Bach does that as well actually, to an even higher level, I don’t know how he does it.
F: So Bach would be an influence as well?
H: Massively, yes. Millions of influences really. I listened to a lot of Berlioz at uni; I prefer the later stuff. I’ve analysed the pitches of a lot of the earlier pieces, that were serial composed. But I feel the later music brings in more the French Impressionists’ harmonic language. There’s a lot of Debussy in there, Ravel. Sounds to me like Debussy with extended harmony [laughs].
F: So most of your influences would be from classical music?
H: A lot of them are, but in terms of compositional structure and pre-compositional process. But so much of the jazz I’ve studied and listened to, involves a rhythmic language of the writing. And the desire to have that mix of improvisation in there, I’m massively interested in this. The unpredictability of it. So yeah: maybe an equal mix of jazz and classical music.
F: In a way it can be a bit spurious to have strict definitions: the area can be very blurred between music genres, especially nowadays.
H: Yes. Look at a composer like Debussy. He was into jazz and he also spent a lot of time in the Far East, transcribing music. There’s a lot of influences in there and that’s what it (Debussy’s music) sounds like in the end.
F: Regarding Trio HLK’s composition, I understand you (Rich H) were the main composer and then you (Rich K) developed the percussion and drumming parts. Can you both say a bit about how that worked in practice?
H: Originally I wrote some charts, and gave them to Kass. For one or two of the early tunes I’d actually written out a drum part. It quickly became apparent that there were so many more things Kass could imagine and develop on the kit, that it was almost pointless me doing that any more.
F: So you would write something fairly simple..?
H: Yeh. I wrote a part I heard in my head, as a non-drummer. I just started giving Kass piano parts, and he would reproduce the piano parts in a certain way. Often he would spot some kind of rhythmic relationship or numeric pattern, build an additional layer on top that wasn’t even there. There’s a certain amount of analysis and development that comes from him doing this. It’s quite nice to just hand that over [laughs]. So there’s usually a first draft of the composition, which is from start to finish, and usually by the time we’re performing it, it’s quite different from that. Maybe structurally it’s basically the same, but it definitely evolves, some pieces more than others. Sometimes things can be completely taken out, or completely re-written, or we might stumble across something by accident in a rehearsal and decide that that’s a cool idea. And we’ll go away and work on it. So there’s a first draft that I’m responsible for, but after that it turns into something that’s a three-way process.
(Trio HLK with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)
F: I see you don’t use Sibelius or any other notation software, but write the scores by hand.
H: I sometimes use it for some of the guitar parts, which otherwise are too small to read. I prefer to do it by hand. I don’t like how things sound on Sibelius: I push ‘play’ and I lose confidence in what I’ve written! [laughs].
K: There’s also a compositional reason for it.
H: I felt that it you write on Sibelius, the interface, the actual way of writing that you are forced to use, in my experience, affects what you can write. If you’ve got a piece of paper and pencil, then anything you can imagine, you can get on page. Even if it means writing some sort of vague instruction or drawing a symbol. It’s about being able to directly transcribe an idea onto the paper.
K: And less ‘cut and paste’.
F: And how long would you say ‘Standard Time’ took to compose?
H: It’s hard to say. Many of the first pieces have evolved constantly. ‘ESP,’ one of the first pieces, now has this extended vibraphone and piano introduction. Some of the middle pieces such as ‘Smalls’, has a free extended introduction with Evelyn on it. Probably several years.
F: So, a labour of love then?
H: Yes, absolutely.
F: And how did you (Rich K), develop the drum parts?
K: I think, much like the tunes, every one is different. Generally Rich (H) and I get together and we’ll play through it. I have some thoughts and Rich will say “that’s cool”. So I’ll go away and work on that, inhabit the idea for a while. I don’t see anything I’m doing as necessarily composition as opposed to working out how to make the instrument work best within the music, in the context of there being a lot of composed material. I do need to make some decisions about what I’m going to play and the approach, but in jazz most of what’s played by the drummer is not written, but is mostly interpreting the form, melody and rhythm. Whereas a drummer in a pit would play every note in front of them. In HLK it’s kind of a combo of both. How do I interpret those rhythms? I would improvise around those rhythms and have a loose approach. A dynamic, a feel. At other times it needs a part to unify two rhythms, or maybe it’s just too hard for me to begin with, to improvise on and make the music as good as possible. When I have written stuff out I don’t see it as a cop-out, because I’m just trying to unify the music and have a part which makes everything sound as good as possible. Whereas at other times, if I was to write out everything I played, it might be a bit contrived.
H: One of the things about Kass is, he has an amazing ear for orchestration on the kit, for example the bells on ‘ESP’. That was him saying “I imagine this could really work”. Basically he’s a very colourful drummer.
F: When you’re playing at gigs, how much freedom do you allow yourself to improvise? Rich Kass, you have said you have quite a lot of freedom to improvise as a drummer. Is this the same for the rest of the trio?
H: Some sections are very strictly prescribed and are more or less the same every time. Others are forms that are slightly different rhythmically and harmonically, but are essentially cyclical forms that you’d maybe have in a traditional jazz piece. So there are set rhythmic and harmonic structures and everyone’s improvising, but sticking to the form. And then there are some other sections that are somewhere in between. For example there might be a written rhythm structure that is underpinning everything, whereas the harmonic structure is a lot more free, textures can be experimented with, three-way.
F: Do you find that as time goes by you are all improvising more?
K: That’s an interesting question. There’s a certain amount of artistic licence whenever you’re playing, but I wouldn’t call it improv. At gigs in terms of time spent, it’s probably written: improv, 60/40 or 50/50. Over time the improv has become longer.
H: And more adventurous probably.
K: Yeh, it has the opportunity to go in more directions. It could stretch out, then on other nights it might be quite short if someone’s not feeling it. On the last gig for example, Ant played a line and Evelyn immediately played the line back conversationally. This was quite a new thing, them trading some ideas. That section became a sort of tracking improv section.
F: That’s very clear, thank you. Choosing Evelyn Glennie and Steve Lehman to play on the album makes very good sense, as you are referencing Western Classical and Jazz, and you are appealing to both audiences. Were there other reasons for choosing those two particular musicians?
H: Steve for me inhabits both worlds. He studied Contemporary Classical with Tristan Murail, the famous French Spectral composer, in Paris. I think he was studying orchestral classical music and jazz at the same time. So he brought that language to this stuff. You can hear it’s in there harmonically, the sound is innovative, absolutely mind-blowing. Listening to his first album ‘Travail, Transformation And Flow’ is one of the most inspiring musical experiences I’ve ever had.
K: What’s funny as well is: I had a conversation with him (Steve Lehman) about Boulez, and he told me he’d met Boulez when he was in Paris. It’s a funny link. There are shared things that he’s checked out, that you (Rich H) like. He knows so much music.
H: And because of what he’s doing, he’s so important in contemporary jazz. It was more like awe for these two figures, as far as we’re concerned. They are the leading lights of those worlds: the jazz or whatever you want to call that music as it’s definitely not just jazz, and one of the leading classical percussionists in the world.
F: They certainly both bring important elements to the (‘Standard Time’) album.
K: I think something that links some of the things you’ve asked about together: the one thing we share is the idea that the music should be as good as it can be. So from my point of view, all the decisions I made about how the tunes end up sounding, how much the drum parts are written or improvised, how much of a say I have with them, who guests on the album. I think we’re all just thinking: “How’s it going to sound? What’s the best outcome?” So at any point, anything that anyone says or has an idea about, could be respectfully shot down or respectfully encouraged. We don’t just let people be happy if the music’s not right. That’s not to say we’re not very supportive of each other; we are. But there’s a thought: “it’s OK to say what you think”. This approach doesn’t come from “this is the approach that works”; it comes from “this is the context of the piece or the album – what is the thing we all think is best?”
F: So you’re aiming for high standards, and you have the trust to challenge each other in order to achieve this.
K: We all agree 95% of the time. We want to make the sounds be as killing as possible; also being in an atmosphere where we’re supportive whilst being honest.
F: I’ve got your ‘Standard Time’ CD here. Will you explain the graphics on the cover?
K: It’s an exploded clock diagram. The artist is Craig McFadden, a graphic designer. We knew the title was going to be ‘Standard Time’ and we suggested stuff to do with time would be good, the idea of impossible objects which deal with symmetry and asymmetry, and distortion. Which is very related to the music. Craig had a pal who did jewellery design and she used watch parts to create jewellery. The CD cover started life as one of these exploded (watch) diagrams. Also there are references to the tunes, so a dagger for ‘Stabvest’. Spanish hat for ‘Pains’.
H: A guy doing a jig, for ‘The Jig’. There’s Ant’s guitar. Tarot cards. He hasn’t explained it all to us. I like it being his artistic creation. It’s a beautiful thing.
F: It’s certainly very well thought-through, the whole project. Thinking towards the future, are you able to say what direction the trio’s music might be moving in, compositionally and performance-wise?
H: We are assembling the music for the second album, some of which is written, some of which is in progress. We’re in discussion about collaborators. We would like to collaborate again, but maybe we shouldn’t say who with as it’s still early on in discussions. I personally, definitely like the idea of collaborating with people whose music and musicianship we admire and who we’d really like to work with. That for us is an exciting thing to do.
F: When do you think this next release will be out?
K: When we can play it!
H: [laughs] Yeah. Not immediately.
K: You will have heard one of the pieces from the new album at The Queen’s Hall (Edinburgh) concert: ‘Anthropometrics,’ which is a take on ‘Anthropology’. I think the music’s getting better and we’re getting better at understanding how to play together, and how to bring the right things to the right tunes. We’re really looking forward to making the second album. Hopefully I can play the music more expressively and communicate the ideas therein.
H: When I was writing the first draft of tunes for the first album, I tried to work on something new for each composition. Obviously there are things that are similar between the tunes, certain kinds of musical or rhythmic interest and certain harmonic devices, but often it’s about focussing on particular things. The same is true for compositions for the second album: I’m trying to work on a particular idea that I find interesting and trying to find a way of making that particular idea work. For example there’s a new piece based on old blues which has this speeding up and slowing down effect, all quite precisely annotated. The whole piece is a concertina effect. Also layering some more consistent rhythms over the top of that. It’s a constant battle of trying to make it interesting but not too complicated. But there has to be a certain level of complexity, as there’s a lot of stuff going on, but making it as clear as possible what’s going on. Every piece is a bit of a battle with how to most clearly realise this idea. So in terms of where it’s going, hopefully the tunes are getting more interesting!
K: Directions for the future? Being booked, and continuing to collaborate into next year. We always reflect, dissect, it’s constant. The thing about compositions, they’re never finished. We did that gig at Ronnies (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London): we check the gig out every night, talk about it at rehearsal next day, say we should try doing this, and then that night, things come out. The whole thing is a constant battle to fully realise the music and make it as good as possible.
F: It sounds a big effort. ‘Standard Time’ was a fascinating debut, so we can only await the follow-up album with great anticipation.