Interview with jazz maestra Jessica Lauren

Sensational jazz musician Jessica Lauren talks to us ahead of her performance at The Gulbenkian.

Jessica Lauren returns to the Gulbenkian for the first time since the release of her new album – Almeria – as part of a celebration of jazz. The celebrated musician will take to the stage on March 1st for a unrivalled combination of harmonies and chit-chat. Chloe and Oliver caught up with her for us ahead of the big show.

Start off by telling us how you got into jazz music?

When I was a kid my mum had a very small record collection but she had Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson – a piano player who she really loved – and Barbra Streisand so I fell in love with the first two. Particularly Oscar Peterson because he had hands like hams, enormous hands, and he was so amazingly fluid on the piano. I’ve kind of found a minimalist version because I could never aspire to that. Growing up there was a real swing jazz vibe and Sinatra, I know we think of him as this old mafia figure, he was as hip as could be when he was young. I listen really widely, to be honest, there’s hardly any music that I don’t listen to so I draw inspiration from everywhere, there’s so many different influences and I’ve kind of ended up as a mixture of everything.

Is there anyone in particular at the moment that you enjoy listening to?

Well there’s a fantastic new renaissance of jazz coming out of South London which is really exciting with the likes of Korkoroko, Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings with Sons of Kemet. There are so many fantastic artists coming out of Britain at the moment, particularly in London, from spiritual jazz to flugelhorns and a Ghanaian marimba called the gyil. It’s all very different to what I do but it’s exciting to be even a small part of this buzzy movement.

From when you first started playing music, personally and musically, how have you developed?

I can’t say I’m really ‘in the industry’, I’m signed to a record company but they’re fairly small so we’re not talking any mega-corporation. Even still, back in the day you would create records to make money and the gigs were purely there to promote the album but the music sales would generate the income. Now it’s the opposite and you’ll make an album to promote your live shows. The digital revenues that you get are just really, really, really tiny compared to the old dinosaur days of huge rock stars with mansions and cocaine habits. It’s a universe away from us, independent creatives. I might get 10,000 streams on Spotify – wouldn’t that be lovely – and from that I might be able to afford a cappuccino. That’s depressing when you think I’ve recorded this music with real musicians who need feeding and paying. I don’t like talking about money because I do it for the love not for money but hopefully I’ll be able to sustain making music without having to keep stacking shelves at Tesco or Co-Op at night.

From that view it’s kind of boring but then we’ve got so many fantastic opportunities through the internet, I’m a small artist but I know someone in New Zealand or Chicago can find and listen to my music. They can get in direct touch with us to say they enjoy it, they don’t have to write a letter and buy a stamp anymore. Although there’s something quite nice about that – you could maybe dip your feather quill into an inkwell and pen me a letter. Look at it like that and it’s fantastic, sci-fi come real. In terms of making music you still have to practise, fill the car with endless gear and unload, you’ll still get hungry after a gig and try to find a shop that’s open.

I still talk about my CDs that I have out and someone said to me the other day ‘oh really? Who makes CDs anymore?’ and actually I quite like them, wait for them to be fashionable again in seven years and that same person will rush out to get them. Where’s our vinyl emoji is what I want to know, we’ve got an emoji for just about everything but no for a vinyl record and we want a vinyl emoji so get out there and make it happen – that’s what I say. We’ve got fire to put next to it and the sunglasses emoji as well.

Do you think jazz is as accessible as other forms of music?

Jazz is incredibly blessed to be able to find great works of recorded jazz all the way from the 20th Century so you can notice that it’s becoming a broader church than used to be in Harlem in 1945 or 1960s London which would have been very one-dimensional and oriented around one theme. There’s so many different sorts of jazz, nowadays, and certain areas are becoming club music. People are dancing crazily to jazz in Peckham – probably right now – and it’s becoming more and more diverse. Loads of women and people of BAME backgrounds getting involved, playing instruments that could have been viewed as “male” instruments. There’s some jazz that is frighteningly inaccessible, mind, and there’s jazz that’s approachable to everyone.

It goes the full spectrum but you only need to look and you can get involved all the way from the cool tunes of Miles Davis, an inwards meditation soul music, to the wildest psychedelic space-stronk of the Sun Ra Arkestra. People can get the impression that Jazz is quite technical and for a certain audience but the notes, actually, are the toolbox and not the furniture. The Arkestra are a perfect example of the notes, scales and riffs being turned into something much deeper than music. Don’t confuse the toolkit with the furniture, we’re trying to make beautiful furniture but just because you’ve got a shiny, expensive toolkit doesn’t mean you’ll make great jazz.

What can we expect from your show on March 1st?

My music is quite minimalist and it’s, funnily enough, accessible. I want it to be very approachable so I try to make music for everyone. You can bring your granny and your little ones, we’ve got a five piece band – the Naga 5. It’s a very hot chilli and I carry dried ones in my bag just to spice up food that I’m eating. It’s also a five-headed snake god so we’ve got my regular band – drums, double bass, keys and percussion with bells and various Afro-Cuban instruments – and Josephine Davis guesting with us on saxophone. Really lucky to have her, she’s amazing. We’ll be mainly playing tunes from my album Almeria and it’s our love letter to the world in these crazy times where everyone is looking out for themselves. It’s imaginary spaces and places, I like to paint musical pictures of these places. It’ll be warm and smiling, we’re benevolent pirates on stage, it’s jazz for people who might not like jazz.

That was part one of our blockbuster interview with the charming Jessica Lauren, keep your eyes peeled for part two.

Tickets for The Jazz Sessions: Jessica Lauren’s Naga Five can be purchased through this link – https://thegulbenkian.co.uk/event/the-jazz-sessions-jessica-laurens-naga-five-2/ – it promises to be spectacular.

Oliver McManus

Special Guest

Hello! I'm currently studying at Canterbury College, in my second year of a journalism course and when I'm not studying or serving pizzas at Pizza Hut you'll often find me either writing or asleep!