Interview with John Pope: artist in residence


We caught up with John Pope, our artist in residence for this year’s Lancaster Jazz Festival.

It’s great to have you back in Lancaster!  What it’s like to be back as an artist in residence? Can you tell us about what you’ve been up to?

I’ve always enjoyed visiting Lancaster for the festival: it feels like a bit like a world of its own. Partly because it’s small and a bit tucked away, but also I’ve come to associate it with a specific group of people. That sense of a particular community really pervades the town and gives it a sense of being kind of charged with its own energy. There’s something really thrilling about all these different spaces turning into venues at festival time, be it a small square or a coffee shop, a big library or a brewery or what-have-you; like little hidden enclaves that have suddenly changed when musicians and audiences step into them.

It’s been really great getting to expand that relationship with the festival through this residency project. The team were really open and receptive to any idea we cooked up, so I was given pretty much free reign to sculpt an approach for the different groups I’d be working with. That’s wound up being more of a holistic ‘mentorship’ role with the duo 40,40A, who are young musicians at the beginning of their artistic journey. And the sessions with ‘Off The Rails’ have taken more of a workshop route, where we’ve been looking at how to approach improvisation on a few different levels; not just soloing, but collective improvisation, large-group free playing and ‘structural’ improvising, where you treat the written music as a pool of material to draw on and restructure in the moment. It’s a delight for me, because I get to take some of the ideas that rattle around in my head between projects and give them some space to be realised, plus I get to meet and make music with a bunch of new people. That’s really my favourite thing about this art-life, meeting folks and making music with them.

Can you tell us a bit about what you and 40,40A worked on together?

These sessions have been the least planned-out, mostly because when I first came in to meet them I had no idea that their music would be like, or how two teenagers might respond to some guy in his late-30s trying to give them advice! I always try to get playing as quickly as possible, so the first thing we did at every meeting was improvise, no tune or pre-discussion, just go. Then we talked a bit about influences and I asked them to show me their music and they just ripped into their tunes, which are pretty high-intensity! I was really impressed with the tightness and inventiveness of what they’re doing, and that gave me a pretty good idea of where to focus the attention of our sessions; making suggestions about different ways to work with their material, maybe explore some different textures or develop a particular section further. We tried improvising with some tight restrictions, so everything has to be placed quite carefully, and took some of the sections of their pieces and stretched them out to see what else might happen if they didn’t move straight on to the next idea (a really tempting impulse for young musicians!). I also tried to give them a bit of a global view of how an artists like me functions outside of making music; ‘boring’ stuff like getting a press list together or making sure your website looks good, thinking about how to organise recordings or gigs. The kind of thing I wish I’d taken seriously a bit earlier!

Hopefully that kind of insight will prepare them for the sometimes challenging first steps in the pro art world. As for me, I’m excited to see where they go next and glad to know the future of this music has thoughtful, open-minded artists like George and Esther shaping it.

Finally – what are you listening to right now – any recommendations for us to check out?

I’ve just been revisiting the absolutely immersive Coin Coin albums by the wonderful Matana Roberts. They have a beautiful way of blending various disciplines of sound-making in a way that really feels personal and plugged into a continuum of music. I’m really interested in music that sounds kind of ‘endless’, as if it carries on even when you can’t hear it being played. Matana’s music really has that sense of belonging to history and the immediate moment in the same breath; they’re four albums into a proposed 12-album series, and I’ve heard a fifth is due this year. As well as that, brand new albums from Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra (Lightning Dreamers) and the brilliant Alexander Hawkins and his trio (Carnival Celestial) have recently come out; I’ve had a little dip into both already, but am really looking forward to giving both a deep listen very soon!

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