We caught up with John during the release of the John Pope Quintet's debut album, and chatted about his process, working with the other musicians in the band and memories of Lancaster Jazz Festival.
Wow! 'Mixed With Glass' is an epic piece of work! Could you tell us a bit about the compositions and how the album developed?
The tunes on this record are all pieces I wrote specifically for this band. Some I wrote in a big batch quite early on, and others have drifted in over the years we’ve been playing together. A couple (‘Ing’, ‘Misha’) are tributes to specific musicians, and others are more emotionally driven. When we play live we usually include some cover tunes as well, but for this first album I wanted to keep it all original. I suppose til now I’ve mostly been known as a side person in bands, or as a total improviser, so it was important to me to make a statement as a composer; I do this to! And also it means I have to write another new batch now...
You have a bit of a supergroup of musicians playing in the John Pope Quintet, how did you come to working with them?
This band first came together to play a tribute concert for Jazz North East, commemorating the great Ornette Coleman, about a year after he passed on. I knew I wanted a chord-less band like his classic group, but I’d also been really inspired by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Mingus’s “At Antibes” band, so I thought it would be cool to have tenor sax as well (plus I always want to find ways to work with Faye MacCalman). I knew these musicians all had strong connections to classic jazz but also had adventurous streaks. They didn’t disappoint, they really threw themselves at the Ornette stuff, and as soon as we’d done that gig the spark was lit for me to write for them.
Tell us a bit about the beautiful artwork you have for 'Mixed With Glass'?
Graeme Hopper is a bit of an underground legend in the North East: he makes lo-fi improvised music as ‘Chlorine’ and his approach to college is always inspiring, both visually and musically. He’d done artwork for Sunderland legends Field Music for their ‘Open Here’ record, which I loved, and I filed it away in my mind that I’d love to have him do something. Then in 2020 I saw him tweet that nobody was asking him to do album work at the moment, so I DM’d him and he was up for doing it. I had an idea that I wanted something that would reflect a structure, but beyond that I gave him free reign and he built this amazing collage tower on a bold pink pastel field. He says he was obliquely suggesting the bass, but to me the object conjures up the idea of a monolith, and the eye staring out has these lovely surrealist, Dali-type vibrations.
You've played at the festival multiple times over the years! Everytime it's a joy to see you play is various guises. Do you have a Lancaster Jazz Festival highlight?
My favourite thing about Lancaster is the beautiful community feeling, both among the audience and the musicians who are playing. Each time I’m there I always seem to wind up playing multiple sets with different bands, so I’m seeing lots of people and the atmosphere is always so friendly and excited. A real highlight for me was Kit Downes playing solo in 2018; he did a whole solo gig on the enormous organ in Ashton Hall and it was mesmerising. My father is a church organist, like Kit’s, so I told him afterwards it had been particularly moving for me. Having the chance to mingle with artists and feel that spirit of sharing is really special and Lancaster makes that really easy.
What's in store for you in 2021?
Who knows?! Things are so elastic at the moment as we navigate the ongoing uncertainties of the pandemic, so I can make all the plans I like but I’m trying not to get too fixated on anything that will have to change. I’m talking to some folks about the possibility of touring this record at the end of the year, but right now my focus is on recording: the process of putting this album out has been great in terms of stretching my bandleading and project-planning chops, so I’m keen to use those to maybe explore some other areas and see how an improviser can still make work in this restricted situation. Remote collaboration has been quite rewarding, and I’m learning more about recording myself and mixing/mastering etc, so I think the next thing you see from me will probably be based on those ideas.
Photo by Victoria Wai