Interview:

Veryan Weston
By Ken Waxman

London-based pianist Veryan Weston is a well-travelled musician who regularly turns up in a variety of free music situations in the United Kingdom and aboard. Best-known for his long associations with iconoclastic saxophonist Lol Coxhill and distinctive vocalist Phil Minton, Weston has also spent time in various ensembles with, among others, drummer Eddie Prévost, saxophonist John Butcher and is sometimes a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra. Weston and British alto saxophonist Trevor Watts are playing at the Stone this month as part of a duo tour of the US.

The New York City Jazz Record: Your New York performance is a duo with Trevor Watts. How long has it been that you two have been collaborating?

Veryan Weston: I first met Trevor at the Little Theatre Club in the late ‘70s. I used to go and listen to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble which sometimes was just Trevor and drummer John Stevens doing stuff like Face to Face [a 1973 Emanem CD with Stevens playing percussion and cornet and Watts, soprano saxophone]. And then I would also hear him at the Plough pub in Stockwell where John was part of a house rhythm section consisting of Lindsay Cooper, the bass player not the bassoonist, and pianist Stan Tracy. I started to get to know Trevor and talk about music with him just before he left London to go and live in Hastings in the early ‘80s. He started Moiré Music soon after that and so I was in right at the beginning of this project that initially included four saxophonists, two violinists, piano, bass guitar, drums and percussion. Working with Trevor is now a very important strand in my activity as a musician. His very open interests in a lot of different kinds of music enables our musical relationship to have a lot of dynamic, i.e. the music can go anywhere, and so there is still an enormous amount of potential music to explore on gigs.

TNYCJR: Once you moved to London from Cornwall in 1972, you became a regular at the legendary Little Theatre Club which your older sister Armorel helped start in the ‘60s. Who did you play with at first? And had you already been interested in so-called free music in your youth?

VW: There were other younger players at the Club who wanted to play together so I played with some of them. Before this though, I was only a teenager in Cornwall so was mainly just trying to listen to as much music as possible more generally. This consisted of not only jazz recordings on Impulse, Atlantic and Blue Note, but also the sounds from [world music labels] Ocora and Nonesuch. I remember hearing John Cage on BBC Radio3 in 1967 and being knocked out by the way he responded to questions with more questions. His questions often had lovely humor in them but could not be answered. I also had favorite pianists earlier in my mid- teens; they were Otis Spann and Mose Allison. I discovered Thelonious Monk a bit later.

TNYCJR: What kind of music had you played before going to London? Did you have classical training?

VW: I played a smattering of jazz, blues, pop and show tunes. I played these in hotels and the occasional Armed Forces base in the West Country. My first music teacher when I was 10 years old was Alfred Deller’s son Mark, who was also a counter-tenor, and who took over from his dad in the Deller Consort. I didn’t like the process of classical training. By then I used my eyes to connect the patterns of the black and white notes of the keyboard by memory. So when you are then told to look up at a piece of paper with squiggles on it and somehow translate those symbols to sound, this seemed much less fun to just discovering sounds using rhythm, harmony and melody with my own two eyes and ears.

TNYCJR: In the late ‘70s you were involved with a jazz-rock band called the Stinky Winkles, which also won awards in the UK, France, Spain and Poland. The name makes it sound like a pretty pop-oriented outfit. Was that the idea? If so what happened? When did the band break up?

VW: I was then living in the Digswell House in Welwyn Garden City Hertfordshire, a residential community for artists with an ethos instigated by Cambridge educationalist Henry Morris. The objective was to enable artists to live in, work in and be part of the local community. So part of my remit was to get out there and play music with people rather than live in an ivory tower and disappear up my own poop-shoot. The members of Stinky Winkles were lads living in the area who played their instruments well. One of the only ways we could get work at first was to take part in shitty competitions. Capitalism likes to have winners. The judges made their decisions for whatever reason, and we got to play outside the UK which was great. We gradually broke up after guitarist Gary Peters left the band. Now he’s a professor at York St John University and he’s just written an interesting book called The Philosophy of Improvisation (University of Chicago Press). The Stinky Winkles, name was as a result of Lol Coxhill eating some seafood that had been around for some time. Lol would occasionally just come up and be an invited guest with the band.

TNYCJR: That brings up your longest lasting musical lasting relationship, which has been with Coxhill. How did you and he get together?

VW: I first met Lol at the Little Theatre Club. He came in with a hat full of coins and managed to change this at the bar for some more easily carry-able notes. Much later on Lol took part in a Digswell event which also included drummer Roger Turner. At the end of the night we ended up playing standards, and Lol joined in and also played with the Johnny Rondo trio which was a lovely band with the pianist, not the bassist, Dave Holland and cellist Colin Wood. Shortly after this Lol applied to come to Digswell and had no problem getting in. One of my first gigs with Lol was in Brighton at the Polytechnic, as it was then called, and the band also had bassist Harry Miller, Marc Charig on French horn, and Alan Jackson on drums. It was good to learn to play jazz standards, show tunes and be-bop tunes in order to then work on the occasional standards gig with Lol. He has a vast repertoire of tunes he can just pull out of his memory. But my first public recordings were straight improvisations with him – The Joy of Paranoia [1977] and Digswell Duets [1978].

TNYCJR: At the same time you seemed to have begun working with visual artists plus composing and performing music for films. How did you reconcile Stinky Winkles, jazz and free music work with all this, especially when you had to deal with major projects like Derek Jarman's Carravaggio which involved that eccentric film director and actors such as Tilda Swinton?

VW: Yes, Lol and I were involved in a part of the music for Carravagio. It wasn’t a major project; it lasted one afternoon. I don’t know what I offered Lol, but he gave me an enormous amount by being just him, a friend and musician. We did a lot of improvisation plus occasional gigs playing standards and stuff like the Carravagio film. Stinky Winkles were local to Digswell House area and resident artists were all requested to be artists in the community so I got involved with those guys. It was reconciliation by default. I like doing different things which are often a challenge. I also worked with a potter called Elizabeth Fritsch, who is a great artist, and her work exudes music.

TNYCJR: Looking at your educational background which includes a fellowship with the Digswell Arts Trust in Hertfordshire, a degree course in Performance Art at Middlesex Polytechnic and a Masters degree in Music Composition from Goldsmith's College were you also planning to become an academic?

VW: No. Basically I didn’t have enough work as a performing musician, and the dole people were getting bored with seeing me every week. I enrolled for a course because I could get a mature student grant which also considered the fact that I have two children. Those were the days. The M Mus was just an extension of this. I thought that at least I would then be paid to study music which I liked doing anyway and still do. Also it introduced me to a whole load of other people including students and teachers, so it enlarged my horizons, I suppose. But I don’t really like these kinds of institutions to be honest. I was invited back to teach for a while and found it quite painful.

TNYCJR: You were also revising your book on piano improvisation in the ‘70s. What was the reason for your writing it? Did it reach a final form? If so is it now used as an instruction book by musicians?

VW: No, it was a way of developing methods and correlating observations and research in a daily journal. It was never published. The book contained various aspects of theory, fingerings, hand-independence exercises, and structures that facilitates a more even and two-handed approach to contemporary piano improvisation. At Digswell I got some financial support to revise the material by re-structuring it using musical syntax rather than it being just chronological. This enabled me to not only reassess the material in the original book, but also helped me to edit and revise all the day-to-day jottings.

TNYCJR: Shortly after that you began as association with Eddie Prévost. How did that happen and compared to AMM were those projects more “jazz” oriented?

VW: Yes Eddie likes playing in more of a “free-jazz” way sometimes when the occasion seems right – like with certain instrumental combinations and with certain instrumentalists who have specific experience.

TNYCJR: In the mid-‘90s you started working with vocalist Phil Minton. How and why did this arrangement begin and is it still on-going? It included bands like the one with saxophonist John Butcher and drummer Roger Turner and another with bass guitarist Luc Ex and drummer Michael Vatcher. Was the first more “free music” and the other more “political” for instance?

VW: I met Phil in a real substantial way when we were both playing in Trevor’s Moiré Music large band project for the [Austrian] Saalfelden Festival in 1985. We hung out together and got on and decided to work on the Ways project [recorded on ITM in 1987], singing and playing different kinds of songs that we liked a lot and really wanted to record. The quartet with John and Roger used text by James Joyce and was constructed to accomodate the experiences of Roger and John as well as us. The band called 4 Walls was as a result of poor [cellist] Tom Cora dying so tragically young. He was part of a band with Luc and Michael called Roof. Luc and Michael wanted to carry on with Phil and so Phil suggested I get involved. You see 4 Walls were part of a house of musicians that had no Roof anymore. As for politics: that’s in everything we do.

TNYCJR: Did Phil’s contribution change your musical outlook? You have also been known to sing on occasion as well. Is this an outgrowth of the work with Phil?

VW: I started singing when I was about 11 in the choir at Salisbury Cathedral School which has a choral tradition that goes back 900 years. Being stuck away in this boarding school with all its nasty creepy class values and religious beliefs filled me for most of these early years with a real feeling of melancholia, but the singing was a release. I used to love listening to the choir in that enormous thick stone space. It was like my kind of blues. I certainly got more from Phil than Mark Deller that’s for sure. Occasionally in London I get to be involved in one of Phil’s Feral Choir projects and it’s beautiful. Also in Sol6 I get to sing a couple of Satie songs, and I have a little solo project which includes singing a few other songs as well.

In fact, the last time I played New York was in 1999 was with Phil at Merkin Hall. It was the quartet with Roger Turner and John Butcher as part of a small US tour of A Mouthful of Ecstasy.

TNYCJR: There are also a couple of CDs on which you play pipe or chamber organ, and one using harpsichord. Were these just spur-of-the-moment decisions with one/off bands or related to other long-term concepts?

VW: [Australia-based violinist/composer] Jon Rose also shares the Cathedral School experience – as did [the late radical British composer] Cornelius Cardew. Jon and I like to explore different tunings related to a time that predates equal temperament. Also we like to use keyboards that have more unusual colors than the modern evolved grand piano. So these are harpsichords, fortepianos, spinets, clavichords, harmoniums and tracker-action organs. That is anything that is essentially still acoustic.

TNYCJR: Recently you’ve recorded CDs dealing with “Tessellations”. Can you define this?

VW: Tessellations is completely different from other stuff I do, which may be why I do it. This is a personal project based on research done on specific kinds of pentatonic scales that are all related to one another. Tessellations are kinds of visual structures and so I have borrowed a term to somehow try and describe some of the almost geometric ideas in the Tessellations pieces that I have written. Trevor gave me a lot of inspiration back in the past when I was working in Moiré Music, since Moiré is another visually-related word. Elizabeth Fritsch is also hot on geometry and rhythm too, while dance is a good medium point from which both aspects are connected.

TNYCJR: Your other recent CD on Emanem is Haste with soprano and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and cellist Hannah Marshall. Is this another on-going group? Is the association with Marshall, who is in Sol6 and other bands with you another long-time commitment as well?

TNYCJR: Yes, it is an ongoing group – I feel we have only just started. Hannah and I also play in the Trio of Uncertainty which includes a wonderful classically trained violinist called Satoko Fukuda and yes, Hannah is in Sol6 where we sing songs by Satie, Ives, Bacharach and Eisler as well as include instrumental compositions by George Russell and Steve Lacy. There are other regular affiliations for me as well, a trio with [bassist] John Edwards and [drummer] Mark Sanders, which is in the process of being expanded out to a quartet which will include Trevor. Also I play in a duo which I like a lot with [saxophonist] Caroline Kraabel, and perform at the very occasional Skip Film event with [guitarist/violinist] Hugh Metcalfe where he and I improvise along with his Super8 films. But in essence I’m a freelance musician open to any gig – providing it interests me.

—For New York City Jazz Record July 2012