Matthew Halsall - Salute to the Sun (Interview & Album Review)
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
20 November 2020
Album Rating ★★★★★
Live Potential 5 / 5
Solo Performances 5 / 5
Diversity in Songs 4 / 5
Favourite Songs Joyful Spirits of the Universe, Tropical Landscapes, Harmony with Nature
(images are provided by Emily Dennison - artwork by Daniel Halsall)
Back with his first LP since 2015's Into Forever, composer-trumpeter-producer-DJ Matthew Halsall asserts himself as a living legend amongst his spiritual jazz peers with this new album. Salute to the Sun tingles from start to finish, with the raised hairs from your goosebumps reaching out to connect with the warmth of Halsall's oozing trumpet.
A hand-picked ensemble featuring some of Manchester’s finest young musicians contribute with some exquisitely delicate playing, including Matt Cliffe on flute & saxophone, Maddie Herbert on harp, Liviu Gheorghe on piano, Alan Taylor on drums, Jack McCarthy on percussion as well as long-time Halsall collaborator, bassist Gavin Barras, who has been at the heart of Halsall’s bands for over a decade. Halsall's trademark unflashy playing brings out the best from his band, as he draws upon his spiritual influences of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders to present this new music on the ideas of ecology, the environment and harmony with nature.
"I wanted to create something playful but also quite primitive, earthy and organic that connected to the sounds in nature [...] I started to experiment with more wooden percussive instruments such as kalimba and marimba”.
This atmosphere begins on 'Harmony with Nature' with a waterfall-like sound trickling into an ambient hum before Barras' bass plucks what feels like a simple but purposeful melody. Everyone slowly enters, each musician fluttering, edging and teasing their instrument into a full and rich sound. This pattern continues throughout the LP, with Cliffe's flute solo on 'Joyful Spirits of the Universe' strongly wading in with some extra dynamics that elevate the general feeling of connectedness. 'Canopy & Stars' sees Cliffe provide a stomping sax solo to continue the trance-like movements of the band.
Halsall's trumpet playing feels particularly laidback in this song but magically seems to play in the right spaces between the rhythm section's dialogue. The kalimba and marimba experimentation are prominent in 'Tropical Landscapes', a song that is inspired by the paintings of Henri Rousseau, Peter Doig and Paul Gauguin with their depictions of exotic paradises. Herbert's harp and Gheorghe's piano in the title track feel completely transcendent, evoking an introspective thought and an even deeper emotional connection to the music. Everyone combines to weave through soft touches that gently push the song on its voyage, reaching a slow-burning climax with Halsall's solo.
The album is sensual, relaxing and purrs along throughout with natural energy that breathes deeply into you.
Speaking to Halsall about the new LP, he shared with Ben why he released Salute to the Sun now.
"I've never really stopped making music since, you know, probably 2007. And I, obviously I've run the record label Gondwana records. And in 2018, we had the 10-year anniversary of the record label. And after IntoForever, I was producing Dwight Trible’s album, which came out. I was also working with a lot of the new signings on the record label because I did they A&R for the record labels. So when you have a new artist, there's a lot of the A&R side of things. And so I was fully immersed in that."
"With the band, I think my whole band for the last five years had reached a point where it was quite impractical. [So,] I came up with a new idea to build a band that was all based in Manchester again, and that we could record and rehearse every week. And also, I wanted to do a residency in Manchester. So we set up a basement sessions, at Yes, on the last Thursday of every month. It was a small, really intimate thing where we could try out new material. So, I spent, probably the last year and a half, two years, just restructuring and building and writing lots of new material. And we've actually recorded, not just the latest album, we've recorded probably two or three other albums at the same time, just been frantically writing and recording every week."
"And the label now is in a really good place where we employed a label manager two years ago, which freed me up a lot because before that, I was basically the label manager stroke A&R and kind of an overall artistic director. So we restructured the company, and there's now four people working on it. And then we're about to employ another person. So that was a big, big thing for me as well."
Halsall reissued Oneness, Sending My Love and Colour Yes for the 10-year anniversary of Gondwana, and he went into detail about how it helped to celebrate the beginnings of his career and the musicians he played with earlier on.
"So around that period of 2018, I was sort of feeling quite nostalgic about this 10-year journey. That's kind of the reason we were like we should do some reissues to celebrate the kind of beginnings of the record label and the beginnings of my career. When we put out the first two albums, it was quite funny like financially, I had a budget of like a grand or something. I worked at Ticketmaster and once I left Ticketmaster I was on job seekers and now setting up this company and was pretty much treated like scum of the earth from the council and government and then all of a sudden like, you know, over the 10 years, you turn it into a really, really nice, healthy, successful business and it was nice to be able to go back."
"The band did the recording sessions on it, like 75 quid or 100 quid each. So it was nice to go back and give everyone extra session fees and, and to kind of be able to mix it properly, master it properly - it was never put on vinyl because I could only afford to print 1000 CDs back then. And do the artwork like really quite kind of deluxe with a silver foil and nice paintings and stuff from some of my favourite modernist artists."
"It's quite nice to go really far back to the very beginning because it kind of helps me at a point where I'm starting again with a new band and helped me to really pick up some tricks and learn from some of the mistakes or some of the positives of that Oneness record.
And in fairness, everyone like Nat Birchall was always saying to me about the Oneness album, he was always like, “why haven't you released that track?” But I just couldn't. I think when you're starting out in as a debut artist, it's quite hard to release something so loose and quite free and spiritual. So I went for the well-defined album with the Sending My Love album instead."
Having played numerous sets at Yes in Manchester to gauge the reaction from new tracks, Halsall wanted to get the right energy on the record to reflect these sessions.
"I've got a really nice mobile recording setup where I can record all the live gigs as well. Sometimes it was quite interesting, because some of the tunes on Salute to the Sun sounded better in the recording studio environment, and some of them sounded absolutely incredible live as well. So it was quite interesting to just hear how the musicians respond in different environments and stuff. "
"But every single one was sold out. And there was a real buzz and I think that had a good impact on the energy in the band and stuff. I think the last track on the album would be the one that I think basically designed that track so that like we could do something quite heavy and a bit more kind of a darker, more full kind of tune to take out on the road."
"The title track was always quite a special one in the crowd. My crowd is quite funny because you think that jazz and being in a basement in particular, it's got to be all kind of quite heavy and guns blazing. But they actually seem to clap the most when I played something quite mellow and spiritual and they're not that bothered about whether it's like 200 BPM or 50 BPM it's kind of the spiritual mellowness of my music. They all love it."
Aside from being a prolific composer, Halsall DJ's on a monthly residency show on Worldwide FM. The impact of DJ culture is embedded in him, and he fondly remembers exploring electronic genres and the impact it has on him playing with a group of musicians.
"When I grew up, I was introduced to the DJ culture by my friend Will and his parents. His dad Paul had an incredible record collection. I met him when I was maybe 14 and he introduced me to that whole world like, and he was into jazz. He was into psych and alternative rock and whatever. But he was also really into sort of hip hop, jazz and techno and electro and Detroit music. So I got quite an amazing education through Paul, Caroline and Will, and they had a home studio and we got some turntables and we used to DJ in his attic and so we got the DJ bug when I was about 14 and then became obsessed with it."
"Will and I got the train to Manchester every weekend or Liverpool and record shops and basically go to club nights. Paul took us to Mr. Scruff nights when we were 14, it was pretty much one of the very first Keep It Unreal and was around the time that the album came out in 1999. And we loved it, and for me as I'd grown up in a jazz big band and I'd played in orchestras and brass bands, but to hear the type of jazz that Mr. Scruff was dropping, that was the first place I heard ‘You’ve Got To Have Freedom’ by Pharaoh Sanders and went home that night and basically went and listened to his entire back catalogue. On the internet, it was it was a dodgy time for the industry because it was all like I remember was Limewire and all of those. And they even though I just couldn't find half the records in the record shops, I started by having the digital downloads and I discovered Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda through all of that."
"And that album was the sort of lightbulb moment in my career where I was meditating in the Maharishi school studying transcendental meditation and Eastern philosophies and doing yoga before lessons and then going out to these club nights and you know, having a really good time dancing underage, but kind of being mind blown by DJ culture and discovering things like Alice Coltrane."
"When I discovered spiritual jazz, I was like, “fuck, right this is the real deal for me, this really connects with who I am right now and what I want to do with my own creativity", and listening to music that was basically super meditative."
"When I'm recording and when I'm playing live, I do treat it like a DJ thing. So we're recording with headphones on and isolated, so I can talk to the band whilst we're playing with it. We're not all just squashed up in a room and all of that. And so I'll direct the intros and then on the solos, I'm very impulsive. I literally only say after they've played the head of the tune, and then I'll impulsively go right flute solo."
His spiritual music influences aren't restricted to jazz though, as he finds different types of music evoke the same meditative state for him.
"I like a lot of ambient music. Brian Eno and I like a lot of classical music like Steve Reich and stuff. And I find that quite meditative. It's kind of got a constant pulse and energy to it. I think the DJ sample culture, I find that quite meditative with people I remember very early on, Mr. Scruff and the Cinematic Orchestra and Madlib really influenced me because the idea of taking four bars of a jazz tune, or eight bars, and then making a whole tune out of it is kind of is like finding that magical enlightening moment of a piece of music. And then turning that into a really beautiful sort of mantra-esque kind of meditative pulse. And I find a lot of hip hop super mellow to listen to that I enjoy from a DJ side as a composer."
His interest in various music is owed somewhat to the eclectic taste of DJs like Gilles Peterson, who plays jazz and a plethora of other crossover genres. Halsall still feels overawed by the support of Peterson and others like Stuart Maconie when he started out in 2008.
"It was quite mad at the beginning because I think having my own label really helps because I remember being obsessed with Ninja Tune and Warp Records and I wasn't particularly at that point that excited at the idea of any “jazz” jazz record labels. If I'm being honest, Cinematic Orchestra’s first two albums were like, the sort of closest thing to the kind of world that I wanted to be in. And I loved Mr. Scruff albums, and I loved a lot of stuff on Warp Records and I actually studied sound engineering in Liverpool and was for a period when I was 17 to about 21, I would say I was more interested in electronica and that culture – Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and loads of artists like that. Then I was into jazz, and then I've kind of moved to Manchester because there was the Cinematic Orchestra, half of that band were basically playing at Matt & Phred’s jazz club."
"I remember one day getting a train from Liverpool all the way to Brighton to meet a guy that worked for Warp Records to give him a CD because I was that obsessed with trying to become the next Boards of Canada at one point, and I think that likewise, I kept thinking about sending demos to Ninja Tune and I never actually sent a demo to them. And everything that I made that was sort of on a hip hop edge sounded really shit, and it still does now when I listen back to it, like thank God I didn't put out any of that electronica or that hip hop."
"I think it was a lucky escape that Warp didn’t offer me a deal because it would have probably been quite short-lived. And yeah, if I ever got the courage to send stuff to Ninja Tune, I would have probably made a really crap hip hop album or something. But so having my own record label and actually digging quite deep and going, “Fuck it, I'm gonna make a record that is like Kind of Blue meets the Cinematic Orchestra,” that was really important to me and gave me quite a perfect start."
"I had no expectations...But in general, I had nothing to lose because I was working at Ticketmaster and kind of doing what I wanted to do music-wise and quite free creatively. I could not believe it when Stuart Maconie said that he was into it and that he wanted to do a BBC Maida Vale session for my first album and pretty much a couple of weeks after we'd sent the press release out. Then Gilles got fully behind it straight away as well."
"By the time I was 25 and I was releasing that album, Gilles was like a god to me in the DJ world because he kind of crossed between all the genres that I was into and was the person that introduced me to Cinematic Orchestra and stuff like that. So to get his backing was probably and still is to this day, every time Giles plays track, it still means so much to me, because now he’s become a friend and stuff, but I don't expect him to play anything."
Using his experience over the last decade, Halsall has pushed his label Gondwana Records into new directions with new artists Allysha Joy, Noya Rao, and Caoilfhionn Rose changing up from ambient, minimalist kind of jazz music Gondwana began on.
"Kind of unconsciously, we'd certainly got to a point where I wanted to sign some female artists because I thought it was important, but I also didn't want to just sign female jazz artists for the sake of it. So I started looking at other genres that I liked as a DJ...So if it's something I would play in a DJ set, or I want to see a live set from a listener and kind of collector side, then it's good enough to put out on the record label. And certainly, Noya Rao and Allysha Joy and all of the artists are really good live and really, really cut through in my DJ sets as well. I've really enjoyed playing at festivals and stuff and dropping some of those heavyweight tunes."
"I think at the heart of Gondwana is somewhere between, I would say in general, a spiritual jazz record label meets a crossover with elements of jazz in it, so I guess maybe somewhere between like Warp Records, ECM, Impulse records, Blue Note and a bit of Erased Tapes now as well and a bit of Ninja Tune."
Having spent time living in Osaka, Japan, Halsall was lucky enough to take some of these artists on tour over there too to support their careers.
"I'm really straight down the middle with the musicians, I'm not a greedy record label owner - I'm a musician and composer that has a record label, both for my own releases, but to give other people a platform and a voice in the industry. There's nothing better than going to Tokyo with three of your favourite bands and being able to DJ on the same night with them, and all go for an incredible meal afterwards with the promoters and stuff in this wicked Japanese restaurant. And you know, it was one of the most magical moments in my in the sort of 10-year journey I've been on."
"One of the most special moments for Gondwana I think was the Roundhouse in London. It was such an incredible moment in my life, to be able to, sort of, perform at the beginning of the event and then to basically go and watch and hang out with all the musicians that we've been building up and working with for a long time."
Delving deeper into themes of Halsall's music, he shares some of the processes he embarks on to produce his music in the early stages of writing, as well as the impact Manchester has had on him.
"A lot of my music is about escapism, Fletcher Moss Park was written in the botanical gardens in Didsbury, Manchester. I was living in Withington at the time, and I would get up really early like 5am in the spring, sort of summer months, and I would go with my laptop and just compose in the park as the sun was rising and no one was around, and that was really spiritual. I like the idea of, I think, even on the new album, the atmosphere in which you compose was really important to me, not necessarily the place that you live."
"I think I think there's a magic to living in Manchester and finding musicians that are from Manchester or work and live in Manchester and work with them on an album. That's special and for that, I have no complaints or no kind of regrets with these I was becoming obsessed with this idea of escapism and being able to sort of teleport people to some exotic tropical place when they listen to an album. So as with Fletcher Moss Park where you felt a connection to the park and the kind of atmosphere of a park and with this new album, I was listening to ambient sounds."
"It sounds quite shit when I explain it but on YouTube, like tropical rain forests epic two-hour long field recordings and jungle ones that I think people sleep to them or whatever, or meditate with them on in the background. But for me, I actually found them really good to sit and have on as the starting point and then start composing and thinking about how I would compose in a rain forest and then what sort of instruments I would use to capture that energy in that moment...that's still a process that I love."
Halsall also recognises how his upbringing has influenced his music and how he imagines certain instruments are used to reflect his thoughts.
"I think with instrumentation I love the bansuri flute, which is Indian, and I love the Japanese Koto. I love the African instruments, the Djembe drums and I think that I associate areas with instruments and when I start studying those instruments, it helps me to reconnect with those areas that I have been to."
"I’ve experienced a certain level of privilege through being a musician and coming from a sort of somewhere between a working and a middle-class kind of upbringing, my Dad being working class and my Mum middle, and having opportunities to go touring with jazz big bands from the age of 13. I remember going to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane on a tour when I was 14 years old with a big band, and going to Russia when I was 15, and New Orleans when I was 15...And I think that, so all of that has had an impact on the way I hear and think about music because of the journey that I associate with music as an artist like it's an incredible career path."
"I feel very lucky and privileged that I've been able to see a lot of the world through being a performer and an artist and it still blows every time we get an email, my manager sends me an email and you know, “would you like to play in Poland for the first time” or “would you like to play in Japan” or wherever it is, I still I don't take anything for granted. The band and I get super excited about all of these opportunities and it’s wicked. So I think it seeps into my music that kind of travelling with music."
His travels as a teenager have helped Halsall add to his wide collection of music he enjoys, particularly listening to music that has contributed to this album.
"When I was doing Salute to the Sun there was definitely albums I listened to. There was a Francis Bebey album Psychedelic Sanza which was a really important, incredible album. Even the album cover of that I've found it gave me that idea of like tropical landscapes and kind of it's got a jungly kind of tribal feel to it. I think there's an album Tropical Drums of Deutschland which I became obsessed with because of obviously the links to what I was creating, and it was inspiring."
"In terms of new stuff, I really like there's a band in London, a trio Wildflower, I really like their music. I really like the Organic Pulse Ensemble, I think it's one guy that just layers up loads and loads of instruments. He's like a mega multi-instrumentalist. Alabaster de Plume wrote an album, To Cy & Lee, that album is incredibly beautiful. I'm really kind of happy to see the boom and interest in jazz. And these young, amazing artists coming through with so much energy. Maisha I really like, and Makaya McCraven too. He knows his tunes from like, the dark depths of spiritual and I've heard him doing covers of some wicked super rare tunes. Christian Scott as well. I really respect a trumpet player with his own record label and doing a wicked thing in America."
With future releases on Gondwana from himself, Hania Rani, Portico Quartet, Mammal Hands and an unnamed new signing from Leeds coming in the next year after this year's lockdown disruption, Halsall took the opportunity to reflect on how the first lockdown experience affected him.
"I've always worked from home like in the last 10 years and I've always enjoyed this little my little bubble. I'm quite an introvert. I like working with musicians and making records but outside of that I'm quite happy to just sit and kind of enjoy my own little world and build my studio and hang out with my girlfriend. I wish we just go into a proper lockdown again and just start messing about tiptoeing around this idea that we can fit it without a severe circuit breaker because it is absolute nonsense."
"The whole country needs to come together. We need togetherness, one of the things I've always made a big point of is oneness and togetherness, and I think that the idea of separating the country into little pockets of Liverpool self-isolating is going to solve this problem is absolute nonsense. Even economically, it's just running cities and areas into the ground and unsurprisingly non-Tory areas as well."
"It'd be nice for everyone to live within their own means and not get too greedy.
I know every single beautiful area within a two- or three-mile radius of my house from just walking, we've not really used the car that much and supported independent local businesses and experienced beautiful nature and wildlife on your doorstep instead of getting in the car and driving two miles to somewhere to find it. That's probably the best thing that's happened. And that beautiful silence in the first couple of weeks of lockdown when the traffic was gone, no one was going to work and no one was flying. It was incredible in the spiritual sense. I remember getting a phone and a couple of microphones and just walking around the parks because it's the first time ever I could really hear the birds singing and hear the wildlife."
Even if it was the first time Halsall could hear the wildlife properly in years, he can easily create his own superb sounds of calm and spiritual moods. We can't wait for next year's record for more relaxation and connectedness to nature.
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