Steve Pretty, the leader of the quirky brass collective Hackney Colliery Band, chats to us about the records that shaped his musical sensibility
Éthiopiques Volume 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969–1974 by Mulatu Astatke
In the Nineties, there were a lot of great compilations of 1970s Ethiopian releases coming out. And Éthiopiques contained a lot of tracks by Mulatu Astatke who’s a musician like no other—he really brings something unique to the table. He draws influences from American music, studied percussion, plays things like the congas, but also traditional Ethiopian folk music—he bridges many different musical worlds.
But he’s also an impressive individual who spans the history of jazz and world music in an amazing way. He’s worked with everyone from Duke Ellington to Kanye West so it’s a great gamut of music history.
Mulatu Astatke’s always been a big influence on the band’s sound and what we like doing so it was amazing to get the chance to record some songs with him for our album and perform them live. He very much operates in textural terms. You know, as a jazz musician you often think in terms of melodies and solos, and it can get quite showy sometimes, a lot of jazz is about showing your technical prowess. But Mulatu, he’s just got a totally different conception of it, he approaches it more holistically. For him, it’s about creating moods and textures.
New Conception of Jazz by Bugge Wesseltoft
In terms of what opened my ears to creative possibility, this record was extremely important. Bugge was really influential on me when I was a teenager getting into jazz and finding the different possibilities of what jazz meant. Bugge is a pianist and a keyboard player but he also uses electronics in a very interesting way which is something I am really into. He uses the tools of electronic music but in a super creative, interesting way, sort of approaching them like a jazz musician. I think that’s what that record showed very clearly; that kind of feeling of not being too constrained by the label of “jazz”. It’s was quite a bold move to call it The New Conception of Jazz, to be fair [laughs].
I have a lot of love and respect for the Norwegian and Scandinavian jazz scenes which have always been a huge influence for me. I like that they have their own conception of what jazz can be and cross over into Scandinavian folk music and electronica.
Also, at the time I had plenty of friends who weren’t really into jazz, and I understand why, but if you played them something like that, they’d go, “Oh I really like this”. And you’re like, “Well, that’s jazz. What did you think jazz was?” I think having that real conviction and artistic focus is what I admire about this record.
Live with the British Sinfonia by Jaga Jazzist
This one’s amazing. It crosses over avant-garde classical music with jazz. Jaga Jazzist have this amazing left-field, unique sort of groove, drum work and fantastic instrumental playing, and here, they perform with this amazing chamber orchestra too.
There’s some incredible musicianship on this recording that pushes the norm of what jazz is. I don’t even know if you could really call it jazz. There’s certainly some improvisation on it but it operates in that world between jazz and electronica and other stuff.
There’s another great band called Snarky Puppy who are doing a similar thing, however, Jaga Jazzist have been around for much longer and, for me, do it in a much more engaging way in terms of the kind of conception they’ve got. Again, it’s very technical in a lot of ways but also very accessible and it’s not just technical for the sake of it. It’s beautifully textured.
In a Silent Way by Miles Davis
I discovered this album when I was a teenager and I didn’t really get it at first because I was still listening mainly to bebop and that kind of stuff. I think it was when I got to university that I really got into it. I used to buy quite a lot of vinyl because it was the cheapest way of getting hold of a lot of jazz records, and that was one that I picked up quite early on and it became really influential.
The approach Davis takes is very distinctive and uncompromising but it’s generally a very beautiful record. A lot of his records from the 1960s and 1970s are amazing but quite hard-edged, aggressive and difficult; this one has the same sort of approach but it also features these beautiful and introspective melodies.
Davis redefined the role of “just being a jazz musician.” He’s in the fairly rare category of musicians who are a bit more elevated than that and have a constantly adventurous spirit and redefine anything they try their hand at. He would go into a genre, and completely change it, create these new sub-genres and then go and do something totally different a few years later.
I started doing a lot more production in the last few years for the band but also for some other bands and getting my stuff together on that front. And the production on In a Silent Way is amazing in that the whole album was compiled from live improvised sessions and then reassembled in the studio, so the studio kind of becomes an instrument in its own right. This album is a great example of this merge of live playing and production.
Abbey Road by The Beatles
It’s my parents who introduced me to it. They were teenagers in the 1960s and they were big Beatles fans so I discovered it through them. I remember long car journeys and holidays where I had my Walkman and I’d be listening to tapings of vinyl records so I would listen to a lot of Beatles records in those days, and Abbey Road just eventually became a favourite.
Because of the 50th anniversary, I’ve been re-listening to this album a lot lately. The thing that I admire so much about it is the breadth of genres that is covered on it and the boldness and conviction to be able to go, “We’re absolutely at the peak of our fame and are arguably the biggest band that has ever existed in terms of popularity”, and at that point to go, “OK, we’re going to mix it up now and experiment with genres”, it’s just nuts.
I admire that kind of conviction to cross genres, revel in it and enjoy it and that’s something we try to do with the Hackney Colliery Band. Just to make it clear, I’m not comparing us to The Beatles [laughs]. We just try to embrace different kinds of musical influences and dip our toes into Balkan-style music and then Norwegian electronica or Ethiopian stuff. It’s tricky in a way because it’s hard for a band like us to market but it’s what keeps it fresh and exciting, and keeps the audience on their toes.
The Hackney Colliery Band will be performing at the Barbican on October 5, click here for more details and tickets
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