Talking Heads: Jess Gillam

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Jess Gillam’s bright tones will be familiar to many a BBC Radio 3 listener, both as a saxophonist and a regular broadcaster with her program This Classical Life. Often (rightly!) referred to as a breath of fresh air, the Cumbrian-born musician has recently moved to London and is on to the second chapter of her album-making career with Decca. When we talk Kentish Town, where she lives, has just emerged from lockdown. As she confesses, “It’s all a bit weird!”

Gillam’s progression from the wide open, wild spaces of Cumbria to the cramped streets of North London is a striking one. “I lived in Manchester for three years, and then moved to London,” she says. “It was a big shock, a completely different atmosphere. London never stops and that is quite difficult to adapt to sometimes. Culturally the difference is unbelievable. Cumbria has incredible landscapes and scenery, really lovely people, and a really strong sense of community, but there is nowhere near as much culture and things going on as London.”

She had to be careful not to over commit her diary. “I found as soon as I was in London that I was really busy, but also that I wasn’t in London so much as I thought as I was touring and playing in different places. I remember moving on the Monday, I had a rehearsal in the afternoon and a concert the next day. It was a mixture as before I couldn’t commit to too much, but now I love the different challenges. I would love to go to more theatres and watch more concerts though – that’s something I plan to do much more of when they reopen.”

We move on to talk about TIME, that second album for Decca, due for release at the end of September. It was recorded with the Jess Gillam Ensemble, a chamber-sized group of accomplished session musicians and percussionists. Several teasers for the album have appeared, in the exciting form of new and specially commissioned pieces by Luke Howard (Dappled Light) and Will Gregory (Orbit). The tracklisting is pleasingly adventurous, with new interpretations of tracks by James Blake, RadioheadPhilip Glass and Michael Nyman.

Gillam was already aware of Gregory’s pop music. “I’ve been a fan of Goldfrapp since I was quite young”, she explains, “and have listened to their albums. I knew that Will was a sax player and have played various pieces by him – so I just approached him and asked if he could write a piece. Goldfrapp have blossomed as they have gone on, and that’s one of the things I find really inspiring about Will, is that he can write in a classical style, with a score for orchestra, but he can write in so many areas and have a distinctive voice still. For me it makes his music more authentic, and it’s one of the reasons I love it.”

On Dappled Light, I comment that the colours of the cover and match up to Luke Howard’s music rather nicely. “I think he wrote beautifully for the forces that we had”, says Gillam, “and the way he used the percussion was really interesting with the piano. It really paints a picture and a scene I think. The cover art wasn’t planned but we ended up with it because of lockdown. I think it went together really well!”

Jess has a number of new commissions under her belt already. Does she feel it is important for a new composer to capture her personality as well as writing well for the saxophone itself? “I think for me music is all about people, about telling people stories and communication”, she says. “It is a deep level of communication and conveying a story, an emotion or a feeling. I think with whatever piece it is – a Mahler symphony or a Shostakovich string quartet for instance – each one has a history that is linked to a particular person. I find the interpersonal relationships interesting, to find out that music a lot of the time is about people, for people or with somebody in mind. It is really nice to have that human interaction and quality to a new piece, but it’s not essential. I think it’s really nice when a composer listens to your sound and captures that, but I think it’s nice and not essential.”

While listening through the album, the big surprise for this particular listener was Gillam’s cover of James Blake’s Retrograde, in an arrangement by Benjamin Rimmer. The surprise in this case was the vocal qualities of the instrument. “I think it’s an underrated element of the saxophone, it’s almost insane the vocal quality that it has! The way a sound is produced is quite akin to how you would sing, and quite similar to how you would produce the sound if you were a singer, and the things you would think about where the sound is being made are similar through your vocal chords. Whatever you put through the saxophone is a direct representation of how sound comes out. If you’re shouting or whispering, it would be totally different. You get that to some extent on a piano, but it is so connected to our bodies and the physicality of it is just like singing. When I was recording Retrograde it was about looking at how James Blake had got that sound, and replicating some of it on the saxophone.”

Jess has shown through her concerts how adaptable the saxophone can be, showing in an hour-long recital at Wigmore Hall how composers from the last 400 years can find their music in a new dimension. “It is unbelievably versatile, and I have been saying for a while how it’s like a chameleon of instruments. I was reading the famous David Bowie quote where he says people describe him as a chameleon but he’s not a chameleon of styles, because a chameleon puts a lot of effort into changing its colour! It’s the same with the saxophone, you don’t really have to change that much. Of course there is a whole different set of equipment and techniques to play jazz and classical, and you can learn to do it very well, but on a very basic level you don’t need to change anything to be able to play baroque music or Motown or classical, whatever it might be. It has the versatility of sitting right in that hole.”

She may be two albums in, but Jess is still at a very early point in her career – which is something of a double-edged sword. “It’s amazing but also terrifying!” she exclaims. “There is so much to explore with the instruments. The way we consume music now means that people have such eclectic tastes, because you can listen to whatever you like whenever you like on a streaming platform, and you don’t have to sit down and listen to a whole album before getting up and changing the gramophone. It’s a lot easier listening to music now, so the styles we like and are listening to I find are much more based on mood and what we feed our emotions, to inspire or to concentrate. I think people are using music in quite a different way now. The saxophone feels like an instrument that has the potential to sit in so many different places and to explore so many new possibilities. There is so much music still to be made for it I think, because it’s such a young instrument and has so many places to go.”

These new ways of experiencing music, primarily through digital platforms, are at the heart of This Classical Life, her successful weekly show on BBC Radio 3. It appeals to a wide range of listeners, and not just the new technology recruits – from experience, much older gramophone lovers are enjoying her open and diverse approach to music, casting off the genre stereotypes. “There has been a big range in the response I have had, with all age groups from primary school children to 90-year-olds. I think the most magical thing about music is the sense of discovery, and knowing that you can never listen to all the music in the world. There is always something to discover. Regardless of what age you are, that never leaves you, the idea of hearing new sounds, stories and different people!”

These principles are at the heart of her approach, both as a performer and a presenter. “I think listening to new music and finding new artists that they love brings people so much joy. When you find somebody new you can listen to all their music and find out who they are, and what they’re like. It’s one of the greatest things to discover.”

Has the lockdown period given her a greater appreciation of music? “It’s been such a strange time, but it has made me realise even more that I don’t go a single day without putting on some kind of music. It can completely change the surroundings, it can transform your mood, it can make you think a different way, and it can really transform a day. You can be locked down like we have been inside our houses, but listen to music and suddenly you’re in a completely different country, thinking completely different thoughts, and you’re with someone else. It’s an amazing thing.”

Gillam has done a good deal of work over Zoom in the last few months, setting up the hugely successful Virtual Scratch Orchestra during lockdown. It brought musicians of all abilities together for the closest experience to live performance they could achieve in isolated conditions – and in total 900 people were assembled online for a distanced account of Let It Be.

Although Zoom has to an extent saved live music during the Coronavirus pandemic, there are still keen limitations, as Gillam freely admits. “Technology is amazing, and it’s incredible that we can still be a part of something bigger and still connect via the internet in the way we can, but nothing will be able to replicate the feeling of playing with other people in a room, or playing to other people. I’ve been taking part in the Royal Albert At Home concert, and practising playing to a screen is the most bizarre feeling. There is no clapping, no communication with the audience, no way of judging how it’s going! It’s the most inhuman experience in a way but at the same time you know people will watch it and you hope they will enjoy it. It’s a very strange feeling.”

Her set for the Royal Albert Hall was typically varied, including music from Marcello to David Bowie – which puts me in mind of how important the saxophone was through his music. Gillam emphatically agrees. “He played the saxophone himself, and often in his music it acts as a catalyst for the next section, or the next drop, or the next rise in emotion and intensity. The way he would use it, he deployed it as an instrument to take things to the next level.”

She has also used Zoom for lessons with her teacher, renowned British saxophonist John Harle. “I’m just finishing my Masters year at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and I submitted my recital only yesterday. We’ve been having video lessons leading up to that. It’s great to be able to keep studying, but again it isn’t quite the same, it’s quite a strange method over the internet!”

Now the recital is submitted, TIME is of the essence. We’re getting everything together for the September release – the cover and booklet notes, the track order. The whole album was mixed in lockdown, which was quite a technological feat! The producer Jonathan Allen was incredible, he was giving a live feed over to me and we could comment in real time, using WhatsApp. It’s amazing to see what’s actually possible when you need it to be!”

Jess Gillam‘s album TIME will be released by Decca on 25 September. It will include the singles Dappled Light, Suspirium, Orbit, Truman Sleeps and Joby Talbot‘s Transit of Venus. You can read more about the album on her website, and keep up with new audio releases via her Spotify and YouTube pages

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