“I've served jazz and improvisation for 38 years - this is the public representation of my soul”
Andy Hay’s debut album Many Rivers has been a long time coming. After a career working in rhythm sections for great jazz musicians across the UK, Hay invited some of those artists into the studio to record an album that managed to capture the pure essence of improvisation.
As suggested in the title, the album flows between compositions created on the day, with the common thread being the bond between the musicians themselves. Whilst recorded over 2 days at Limefield Studios in Manchester, Hay's creative process extends far beyond the music studio: each LP comes with a hand-painted cover and a unique artwork. The album is not only a very personal representation of a musician but also a complete artistic package, a revelation in today’s mass-produced music-industry.
I was therefore very grateful when Andy agreed to give up his time to speak to me about his life in music and how, after 38 years, his debut album came into being.
I started by asking him what brought him to be behind the drum kit and how he found his love for jazz.
"I’ve done just about everything there is to do sitting behind the kit, but my first love and foremost passion is jazz. It excites me the way it always has done since the beginning. I just buzz; it's opened up a whole other world."
"I follow a drumline tradition. My dad was a jazz drummer, back in the '60s in London, and so I’d be picking up bits and bobs of drums lying around the house. And there was always great music at home: Bill Evans, and Miles and all kinds of great stuff. We ended up moving to the Swansea Valley, South Wales, and, there, I was fortunate enough to grow up playing around the Brecon Jazz Festival. They had some deal with British Airways and were able to bring some great American players over, so there was a really hot melting pool of jazz governing Wales around the mid-80s."
"But, I’d also travel anywhere to go and see somebody play, anywhere I could go and sit in on a workshop, anywhere I got to play. I'd be on the back of a bus, taxi or a moped or something. I’d cross down to London to see Mel Lewis or Buddy Rich or Elvin Jones. You know, we’d proper go for it."
“What I learned as an artist is that some things are your sketchbook, and then some things you'll put on the wall.”
It sounds like you had a great time in South Wales, so what prompted you to move up north? How was the jazz scene different when you arrived?
"Life and it's circumstances brought me up north and I ended up meeting some musicians over in North Wales. One of them was a trumpet player called Neil Yates who I began working with, and he was always in and out of Manchester, playing at Matt and Phred's. So that's where I started with John Ellis and, and all these [musicians on the album]. I ended up getting introduced to the scene and we just got stuck in. Everyone basically started shredding it there."
"When I was playing there in the '90s, it was really a mixed bag. I’ve always just been around that modern, contemporary jazz because those were the rhythm sections I was hired to play in. Quite a few people came down though. Dom Weller, Soweto Kinch and everyone local. I’d go down when I wasn’t playing because you can guarantee there would be a couple of musicians there. You’d have this central point, where you could meet people and stay in the loop. Then there's all the other stuff that was going on in Manchester [with the Haçienda and Madchester] as well. The Northwest has a very different feel. It’s a bit more charged than the South. That was a more West Coast [American Jazz] feel for some reason but there we are. It must be the beaches. There's more sand down south."
So, when did you start thinking about your album?
"After 25 years of gigging around up here in projects, I slowly got to the point in my life where I started thinking 'right, I've done some work for you, I've done some work for you...' and something started to form. I decided that maybe it was the time I started thinking about putting my own thing out. So that's the answer. How did I come around to the whole thing? What I learned as an artist is that some things are your sketchbook, and then some things you'll put on the wall."
Visual art is clearly a major part of your life. How did that passion develop and has it always been connected with music?
"Ever since I was 12 or 13 years old, I've had a camera in my hand where I've gone in my life. So, my interest came through that. And also just sitting at home sifting through all the vinyl and absorbing all the great artwork that was on the covers. For me, it was always connected to the music."
"Then I hit 50 and the gigs started slowing down a bit because, you know, unless you're an international superstar, your gigs start to slow down. I thought maybe life is telling me it’s time to have a look at all those things that you've done and what you’ve absorbed. So, I thought it was a great time to go into a fine art degree."
"I'm a bricklayer by trade. I ended up working with a stonemason for seven years. So this turned into sculpture further on down the line. It's funny, when things come at you in life, don't bypass them because eventually, you can make them all one thing. My calling was music. It was drums, they came to me. And I just thought, well, if anything else that comes along, I’ll take that along for the ride as well."
And what about the players on the album? You have some great musicians on there, such as Nat Birchall and John Ellis. How did you decide that you wanted to record with them?
"Every time I thought, 'my first album', I saw this gallery of faces in front of me. Some of those people I might have only worked with once, but they just leave this massive, massive impression on your mind. So those were the people I wanted to involve."
"I knew what they were going to do. But, I also knew they would surprise you as well - they would surprise you with something even if you knew what they were going to do. And that creates a whole new sound."
"In the end, whether it's art, or it's music, or it's jazz, you're just dealing with people's minds. It’s all coming out of the mind, the heart, the soul, the energy. So you want those people around who are just open to all of that and they can go anywhere with you at any given time. The absolute and utter essence of that recording is that nothing was written down. A few sketches were prepared and then these things were sung and suggested during the session. And when you've got those people there that you trust implicitly, with your heart or soul, you can just lay the ingredients out on the table. And, they'll whip it up into a three-course meal for you. So, yeah, there was a group of people who needed to be there and I would give it all for them and you know 100% that they will return and give it all back."
You say you didn’t write any music down for the recording session. How come you decided to do this? And how do you feel when people decide to label this music as spiritual jazz?
"You're dealing with people, that human expression. I tend to stay away from the written word or getting something really nailed down to the point where basically everyone's playing on automatic. There's no soul. So, generally, I tend to stay away from those areas more even if it means I have to eat beans on toast again tomorrow, and I can't afford another pair of shoes, and I haven't had a holiday in 30 years. These are the choices."
"To me, I don't care what music I'm listening to. If I'm listening to Kurt Cobain sitting on a beach with an acoustic guitar, that's just as spiritual to me as John Coltrane playing 'Love Supreme' live or anyone just playing music, it's the same experience. It's an expression of the song and it doesn't matter who or where it's coming from. You don't have to look too far to tap into the spirituality of music."
"Yes, there are people who are generally slightly more open to the universe and can just let energies develop, create within that space and not get too lost behind what they’re meant to do. With players like John Ellis and Helen Pillienger, it's almost like you don't have to speak the words. You play this one melodic thing and the rest just falls into place."
And what was your thought process for how to release the album? You definitely seem to value the independence of the process.
"The first thing I did when I finished recording the album was I gave it away for nothing. The entire recording session was given away to everyone in the band. Even before it could even be mixed or edited. Get it out there. Give it away. Release it into the universe. If it's of any use to anyone, it will gain its own traction. It will be picked up, listened to and enjoyed or not enjoyed. But that was the first thing. Give it away. completely and utterly away. This way, not even I own it."
"What I wanted to do then was, for posterity, press it to vinyl. I've always collected vinyl. I inherited my dad's vinyl collection. So, it's always been there. And I thought 'Yeah, I'd like to put something down that will go into a library. With a digital library, at any point, it can disappear'. But humans have this crazy way of preserving things. And for years, the DJs have been the librarians of recorded music. So, these collections are libraries now. So I thought, well, it'd be nice for posterity to have a piece of vinyl have that physical thing. It gets preserved."
"I didn't want any barcodes on it. I didn't want to assign it to any label. A few people got in touch and asked if they could have it for this label. 'We'd like you to sign here forever, you know?' I thought there was no way. It's already out there. See, if you want it for free, go and find it."
So, what made you decide to paint a piece of artwork to go with each LP?
"When you buy the album, you get a record inside the painting. Each one is completely different. And then here we are in a lockdown, you know, live music suddenly becomes illegal. I mean, imagine that right? So, I thought, 'Well, I can now sit in with my art and I can create and paint. If people ask for something from a certain part of the world, I can incorporate that into our work'. It's like a cottage industry. I'm doing this crazy indie distribution and getting it out there so people can be aware. As the album sells, I start to push the money back towards the musicians."
It’s been such a pleasure talking about your journey through music and hearing about the album. Any final words for musicians who might be at the start of their musical journey?
"I'd say to anyone on their journey, no matter what they're doing, follow those instincts and follow them hard. Follow them keenly. Besides deciding what you don't like, it is just as important as deciding what you do like and your role will rise in front of you. Your dream will absolutely and utterly appear before you. It's like a ship, you know? It's out there on the ocean. It's out there, but you've got to be at the dock when it arrives."
Andy Hay's debut album - 'Many Rivers' - is available now.
You can buy and stream Many Rivers here.
Keep up-to-date with Andy Hay via his Facebook below: