I can never quite remember when or where I met James; he’s just always…there, timeless and ever-present, just like his music. I’m pretty sure that’s what has attracted so many stars to work with him – Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Wynton Marsalis, Joss Stone, Dame Cleo Laine amongst many others. If you want to experience that feeling, head down to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club where he plays many nights and is grandly named Artistic Director. This is the place where he speaks his own language – as an improviser and communicator. Nowadays it is rare to hear musical polyglots like this. And James is one such musician – able to play in any style, with anybody, wherever. To boot, he is a great talker, so if you do find yourself at one of his performances, go and have a chat…just like me you’ll probably have that feeling that you’ve been musical companions for ever. In the meantime, here he is talking to MusicMaps.
James, tell us in a nutshell what you do.
Simply, I play piano and write music. I perform all genres of music, from classical to jazz and pop, not to mention my new passion – claw hammer banjo!
How did music get you to where you are now?
I’ve met so many great people through music. I think being open minded about who you work with and where it could take you is an important thing. You never know what’s around the corner.
Why did you choose to work in music?
It’s always been music in one way or another. I started playing the piano from when I was 5 years old. And it’s ended up taking me around the world.
What advice would you give to the parent of someone learning music for the first time?
Be as supportive and positive as you can and maybe even try to learn an instrument yourself. Music is a real enhancement to life. Whether your child will end up being the next Mozart or simply end up playing for his or her own pleasure, it doesn’t matter. The fact that there is music in a child’s life is a brilliant thing. For me personally, music has given me a social confidence and has connected me with so many people from all walks of life and cultures. I’ve performed with musicians from all over the world. Even when we don’t speak the same language, we end up creating a beautiful piece of music together. So I’m encouraging parents to encourage their children!
Name a piece of music that inspires you
Tricky question. I like music that works on many different levels: Bach’s Inventions are sublimely beautiful in their simplicity, and yet they could be analysed by a PhD and we’d be none the wiser. I love big romantic piano concertos – for their wonderful lingering melodies and playing the tune on top of an entire symphony orchestra is a great feeling. I tend to steer towards music that develops in your ears, if that’s possible. Like prog rock and some of the great rock bands.
Give us your most memorable moment in music?
Another tricky question – I have performed and recorded all over the world and I love it all. Here’s a few: conducting a big band in the Royal Albert Hall and just sneaking a quick glance behind me at the packed house, joining in with a Scottish folk band in a small pub on the Isle of Skye, jamming with Chucho Valdes at Ronnie Scotts, assuming that a major star knew the words to his own hit song and telling the autocue girl that she wasn’t needed…in a live TV show, performing a set of impromptu Beatles songs to an entranced audience of locals on a Malaysian island…
What did you choose piano?
It was the only instrument we had at home! I have learnt many instruments since, including the violin, viola, double bass, guitar, ukulele and, of course, the five string banjo.
What is the best piece of advice you were given by a music teacher?
Make sure you practise the thing you can’t play and not what you can! Never be superior towards other musicians learning on their journey; music means just as much to them as it does to you.
Thanks for your time, James.
See you at Ronnie’s!