A RISING star on the alternative jazz scene is back on his old patch, teaming up with his former guitar tutor for five dates as a duo in the North. Here, writewyattuk catches up with Stuart McCallum to talk about his various musical projects.
Two accomplished North-West guitarists are set to come together in an acoustic setting on Sunday night (February 2nd), adding fresh twists to their own songs and re-imagining a few standards at The Continental in Preston.
It’s the case of the master meets the accomplished student, as tutor Mike Walker joins star University of Salford alumni Stuart McCallum at the Lancashire venue.
Preston-born Stuart, 35, joined The Cinematic Orchestra in 2004, his success there just part of a number of ground-breaking projects and international performances in the last decade.
He’s now released four well-received solo albums, the third of those – 2011’s Distilled – leading to a 40-date European tour, itself culminating in the recording of Distilled Live on the Naim label in late 2012.
Stuart, brought up in the town that’s been my home for the past two decades, Leyland, has played and recorded with some of today’s most prominent jazz artists, his latest live dates just part of a hectic on-going schedule.
His show at the Continental is the culmination of five dates with Mike Walker, following gigs in Sowerby Bridge, Altrincham and Leeds and at the Marsden Jazz Festival (February 1), sharing a stage with the man who helped move his career on.
Mike Walker has seen his fair share of international success on the jazz scene over the years, not least with The Impossible Gentlemen.
The duo say they are out to create music ‘characterised by focus and restraint’, Stuart proposing ‘chilled-out bliss’ while Mike promises ‘subliminated yearning’, their latest collaboration following a chance jam at a mutual friend’s party, a rapport immediately apparent.
Both have overseen major writing commissions since their initial sessions, including Mike’s Ropes, a suite for a 22-piece string orchestra and a jazz quintet, performed at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music to a packed Opera Theatre.
In fact, Stuart’s own Distilled Live tour premiered at the same venue, complete with a 16-piece orchestra, with added visuals from another regular collaborator, the artist Linder Sterling (whose past work included artwork with Buzzcocks), for whom he recently scored music for a ballet, The Ultimate Form.
The Distilled Live set is perhaps the perfect way to introduce yourself to Stuart’s music, stirring from the laid-back but powerful opener What Is Beauty? onwards (with a link below), that first song sampling the soothing tones of late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, whose teachings have deeply inspired McCallum’s music and outlook.
So how did a kid brought up on ‘Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and classic rock’ get to appreciate ambient jazz and that whole scene?
“I wasn’t really that into it. I had piano lessons, up to grade one, when I was young but it wasn’t until I was around 15 when I started getting into music quite seriously.
“I got into Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, George Benson, John Scofield and all that kind of stuff later. I was introduced by my guitar teacher at that time, and it was pretty much a natural progression, I guess the rock stuff wasn’t for me.
“I also picked up a guitar when I was quite young, but again it wasn’t really until I was 15 that something clicked.
“I had private lessons from a friend of a friend, Keith Ashcroft, out Chorley way. When it did click it wasn’t really a choice after that. It just felt like music chose me.
“Then I went to Salford University, where Mike was teaching and I wanted to have lessons from. And now here I am – so many years later – playing with him again.
“I’ve five dates with Mike, playing some of his tunes, some of mine, and a few we’ve written together.”
So what’s the best description of what he does? Alternative jazz? Ambient jazz-electronica?
“Genres are less defined these days, and it’s not like you walk into HMV and have to walk downstairs to access it all these days. It’s all on Amazon or iTunes.”
So is he still involved with The Cinematic Orchestra?
“Unless you’re one of the small percentage that manage to make a lot of cash out of just one thing, you have to do a lot of projects. I teach part-time at Leeds College of Music, have my solo material, then projects like that with Mike, with quite high-profile bands like the Cinematics and a lot of lower-profile bands too.
“You’ve just got to have your fingers in a lot of pies.”
The Cinematics link also involved soundtrack work for Disney on a nature documentary, and the makers of a portrait of the real life inspiration for 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon have also used Stuart’s music.
“In my niche, you have to be flexible enough to play at a number of venues, from the Continental upwards – and from solo artist and duos and up. And I guess if you want to project a big sound you have to put a lot of work into it.”
“I tend to listen to a mixture of folk, electronica, world music, some jazz, some indie, a bit of whatever really. I just try to keep an open mind. My students at Leeds tend to put me on to various things I would never have heard of otherwise. It’s good to keep in with the kids. They know what’s happening!”
The busy schedule seems to involve a lot of festival appearances, including regular slots at Manchester Jazz Festival as well as at Glasgow and even the Tate Modern in my beloved St Ives, Cornwall.
“The Manchester Jazz Festival has been very supportive of me over the years and I’ve had some really nice gigs there and built a relationship with them. Both Glasgow and St Ives were with Linder (Sterling).
“The Glasgow set was a 13-hour improvised performance with dancers and musicians and a musical director, and the Tate show an exhibition about the dark arts and British art. Linder did this piece, The Dark Monarch, about folklore and its darker side, using local musicians, generally making a racket!
“The ballet I got commissioned to write was with Linder and the Northern Ballet, based in Leeds, with the premiere at le Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris then at the Hepworth Wakefield.
“They’re moving that down to St Ives in a couple of weeks, where Linder’s in residence. But I’m in the studio so can’t make that.”
You’ve worked with some big names on the emerging jazz scene – including Ari Hoenig, Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, Mike Gibbs, Gwilym Simcock and Tim Garland. Is there anyone on the list you’d like to work with?
“Not really. I’m happy just doing what I’m doing. I’m working on my follow-up album to Distilled with a drummer called Richard Spaven, who’s producing the record. He’s a great person that I want to work with!
“He’s super-experienced, and did stuff with the Cinematics, Flying Lotus and Jose James, and a lot of top electronic artists. So it’s great having him produce it. It should be a good combination.
“I’ve got the live work with Mike, another project with a vocalist, then I’m doing an album with a pianist coming over from Australia to record in February, a duo of piano, guitar and electronics, which we’ll tour out there and over here.
“Then I’m off to Glasgow tonight for a couple of days rehearsing before a Celtic Connections festival with a kind of jazz-meets-Irish traditional band, so that should be good.”
That list of overseas engagements should have included Stuart’s composing, recording and performing at Tokyo’s Ropponghi Art Night alongside Nitin Sawhney and Ghostpoet. So where is home between all those dates and commitments?
“In Manchester, a bit out on the edge, not far from the Trafford Centre. I think the older I get the more I want to be closer to greenery, and where I am is a bit more leafy.”
For ticket details regarding The Continental gig, call 01772 499425 or try via here.
Following his Mike Walker gigs, Stuart has a few more in the diary this month, including residency dates at Manchester’s Matt and Phred’s (February 4th and February 19th), then shows at Leeds College of Music (February 17th) and Leek Foxlowe Arts Centre (February 22nd).
To find out more about Stuart, his forthcoming shows and more, follow this link to his website.
This article is a different version of one previously published for the Lancashire Evening Post, with a link here.
And to get a taster of what Stuart’s all about, why not try this powerful piece here.