Courtesy of Veryan Weston


I encountered pianist and composer Veryan Weston, via e-mail, after Trevor Watts kindly asked me to provide the liner notes to their duet CD, "6 Dialogues". I had been fascinated with Weston's music since first hearing his adaptation of a Webern string quartet (by his group 'Stinky Winkles') on Morgan Fisher's "Miniatures" compilation. It's no coincidence that Weston consistently blurs the lines between great composition and great improvisation: while establishing himself as a world-class improvising pianist, he also earned a Masters in Music Composition at Goldsmith's College, University of London. Weston has recorded in duets with saxophonists Lol Coxhill, Trevor Watts, Carolyn Kraabel, and John Butcher, percussionist Eddie Prevost, and vocalist Phil Minton. He's also worked with the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, Trevor Watts' Moire Music, in quartets with Minton and/or Prevost, and in a cooperative trio with bassist John Edwards and percussionist Mark Sanders (…to name just a few). In any musical setting, Weston is a joy to listen to: his energy is incandescent, and his ideas flow effortlessly in unexpected and often whimsical directions. My current favorite Weston performance is a lengthy video clip of the trio with Edwards and Sanders that can be accessed right on your home computer, thanks to the BBC ( This interview was conducted via e-mail during June and July of 2002.

Dave Wayne: I've heard some of your recent work with bassist John Edwards & percussionist Mark Sanders. Amazing stuff!! Is this music the result of a concerted effort to re-invent - or at least re-think - the jazz piano trio, or is it something else entirely?

VERYAN WESTON: John Edwards sees it from the perspective of how he approaches his own instrument, and used the phrase 'push the envelope of the instrument' to describe how he explores different, new, and personal possibilities of sound. This certainly helps to define the nature of the 'sound' of this trio. Mark also has developed and explored new sounds on his drums and percussion. So new vocabularies will create new possibilities of sound worlds. The piano also has potential for different sounds, but personally, these are not really as important for me as working on finding new syntax. Combinations of pitches can create new harmonies and melodies. Rhythm has also infinite dimensions, especially in relation to placement and space as well as fractional divisions within certain rhythmic constants… this is enough to be going on with. As you pointed out, it is a 'classic line-up', and it is interesting to perhaps compare the end-results, but only by incidence afterwards; there was certainly no 'concerted effort' or conscious decision to do any re-inventing.

DW: Listening to the trio, I felt that the three of you have a wonderful grasp of 'dimensions' in music. In other words - you go beyond skillful textural, metric, variations - there is also quite a bit of action going on between the musical background and foreground. To me, it's analogous to the difference between looking at a painting and looking at a sculpture. It's not at all as if the bass and drums are 'accompanying' the piano. The roles may be reversed - with the piano accompanying the bass and drums - or shuffled in any possible permutation. Does the development of the trio music (with Edwards and Sanders) permit the utilization of compositional strategies? More broadly, what is your view of the role of composition at the cutting edge of jazz today?

VERYAN WESTON: Since your first question refers to a recording involving three musicians where there are no leaders or single composers, then it is only really possible to discuss what you term 'utilization of compositional strategies' means from a personal perspective. Perhaps in spontaneous improvisation situations there are sometimes ideas presented consciously and already formulated. Now, this seems contrary to what most people would think of as spontaneous improvisation, so this is what could be thought of as "the utilization of compositional strategies". During improvising, there is perhaps a process of sometimes monitoring the situation and applying these ideas, and maybe other players are possibly doing the same. So maybe improvisation could be thought of as an ongoing application of shared compositional ideas.

To continue examining your first question, as well as looking at improvisation as the process of applying pre-established ideas using a pre-established vocabulary, there is also what Evan Parker calls "composed by improvising". This is a phrase that Evan uses in his sleeve notes in his first release on his new label (psi 01.01 'Lines Burnt in Light'). So improvisation can also be understood as something that is 'set down'. And whether it's recorded or not, while it is there as we listen in our own local ether, it has substance built in, using improvisation as the fundamental creative process of making music. In this way, improvisation is synonymous with composition (a prefix of 'spontaneous' before 'composition' could be useful).

So going on to your 2nd question: "…what is your view of the role of composition at the cutting edge of jazz today?" As a preconceived part of jazz and/or improvised music, composition can also be very useful. From personal experience, the piece "Mouthfull of ecstasy" which Phil Minton and I co-composed with Roger Turner and John Butcher, produced something very unusual. The pragmatic reason for composing in this instance was the use of a set text (chosen parts of James Joyce's Finnegans wake), and so processes of composition were only used as a means to an end. Something was created that feels integrated with the improvising, and both aspects (improvisation & composition) have helped to shape one another in a positive way.

Another current and ongoing example is a piece called "Tessellations" performed and recorded for solo acoustic piano. Its structural foundation is based on some discoveries made about how certain pentatonic scales are related to one another. Each scale has at least two pre-established ideas for improvising; there are 52 scales and the piece is continuous, lasting about 65 minutes. It could be seen as limiting, certainly demanding, but this in itself provides an interesting challenge and intensity. The piece has been devised as an exposition of the relationships between these scales, and hopefully will help provide a few extra ideas for musicians to work with in improvisation (or even composition) more broadly.

DW: Yeah - well I think you've hit the nail on the head. Several times! It's more interesting to think about composition and improvisation (in jazz or any other musical context) for what they really are: processes by which one can create music or sound (or anything!). There is going to be some overlap between the 2 - and this is more a consequence of the ways our brains work (or not!) than anything else. So - you've clearly thought a lot about the roles of composition and improvisation in your music, as well as that of others. In what way was your thinking different (concerning improvisation and composition) in the 70s, when you were getting started as a professional musician? Did you start out thinking of yourself as a "jazz" pianist?

VERYAN WESTON In the 70's it would be honest to say that I was still in assimilation mode. In other words other peoples' vocabularies or sounds or ideas were used more directly or literally. With a group like Stinky Winkles, stuff was written that reflected this kind of procedure, and as a result the music in both the improvisations and compositions were sometimes more like eclectic collages of ideas. This practice of 'going from one genre to another' is called "style modulation" by some. There was a fair bit of this kind of thing happening in the 70's and 80's and style modulation was thought of, by some, as part of 'post-modernism'. There were even artists becoming established or identifiable as a result of doing this kind of thing: Alfred Schnittke in the classical world, and John Zorn in the jazz world. It can create moments of humour or dramatic contrast, and it's clearly evident in some of the music done in live mix sessions using turntables, samplers, and such. It seems to really work and say something fresh sometimes: people like the Invisbl Skratch Piklz were also very interactive with these processes of music making.

Maybe it's a natural instinct in some musicians to relate back somehow more directly in what they do, and use the past. With the McLuhan phenomena of mass media explosion coupled with this notion of recycling as part of our day-to-day lifestyles, the utilization of various musical sources doesn't seem to be that unnatural.
So did I start out thinking of myself as a 'jazz pianist'? Jazz, although it originated 'far' away on the other side of the Atlantic, felt like it had some real energy and spirit (this is pre 70's we're talking). I remember feeling very happy after sitting in at a jazz session in Falmouth (Cornwall) at the age of 17 (1967), when one of the musicians came up to me afterwards and said I sounded like Thelonious Monk. Then, I just wanted to sound like someone else who I really idolized. Before this though were classical piano and voice lessons at boarding school from Alfred Deller's son, Mark, so origins were mixed probably like many other peoples here in England.

DW: You mentioned being in 'assimilation mode' early on in your career. It would seem to me that many artists never make it out of that phase! Listening back to your work with the group, Stinky Winkles, it is readily apparent that each of you were reaching for something beyond what had already been done, musically. Please elaborate on the importance of the Stinky Winkles to your development as an improviser, and as a composer. Who else was in the band? How did the Winkles first come together?

VERYAN WESTON I was living in Brixton (South London) in the mid 70's with Jill (my partner) and our son. She noticed an advert in a magazine ("What's On") inviting artists to apply for residencies at a place called Digswell House, up in Hertfordshire in the leafy suburbs of Welwyn Garden City. There were 16 residencies, and most were for fine artists or craftspeople. The administrator was a young jazz enthusiast who had heard both Coltrane and Ornette play in London. Anyway, thanks to him, and to Stan Tracey (who became an inadvertent referee), we moved to Digswell House. Part of the idea at Digswell was to be involved as artists at a local level. The Digswell Arts Trust was set up by an educator named Henry Morris who believed that it was important to work actively and directly in the local community. So there were exhibitions, performances, open days, events, etc. scheduled in and around the place throughout the year. Although we had a reputation amongst some as being weirdo artists, we attracted young people, mothers (there was a crèche run by Jill), and workshop participants.
Digswell House was owned by an organization called The New Towns Commission, which was a government asset. Unfortunately Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK soon after we got there. The house was then sold privately, making the government a fair bit of profit when it was split in to luxury maisonettes. Fortunately we had to be re-housed, being a family with two young children, over on the other side of Welwyn Garden where we still live.

Anyway, at Digswell I helped run workshops with Lol Coxhill, who came to live there soon after we did. I made my first released recording with Lol under his name -"The Joy of Paranoia" (Ogun), and also got support from the Digswell Arts Trust to edit some written personal theories on piano improvisation. At one of the Digswell events in the local town centre, I heard this guitarist called Gary Peters playing in a rock band. He struck me as being special. At another gig in a local pub, I heard Cliff Venner, this young drummer playing in a rock band. He had a great feel and smiled a lot when he played. I first heard (saxophonist) Simon Picard in Southend-on-Sea when Lol and I went down there with Gary Peters. Being a coastal resort, Lol bought some fresh winkles, a kind of shell food snack, but then he had to play and was not able to eat them. After hearing Simon play with some kind of bluesy 'rockish' band in this hot and stuffy bar, we returned home and Lol rediscovered his Winkles in the van. By then they had acquired a certain pungent aroma that nevertheless didn't put Lol off from consuming the lot. At this moment it was suggested we start a band consisting of these musicians with the name 'Stinky Winkles'. The final musician was electric bassist Dan Brown, who we mutually agreed would be a good fifth member; he was quiet, easy going and supportive. Like Simon, he had a father who was a musician as well. Soon after, we started rehearsing regularly.

Initially, we used material that felt common or comfortable to all of us. This was a bit of a compromise, but it was also a challenge to play a kind of Crusaders/Little Feat/Chick Corea/Herbie Hancock/Zappa/Steely Dan composite. This material was then gradually replaced with more developed material. At a certain point we had enough pieces that we thought were interesting enough for gigs outside the Hertfordshire locality. Not having a reputation, we decided to take part in nasty competitions as a means of getting work. This resulted in a few broadcasts, some subsidized tours, and a recording of a live gig in Poland that we knew nothing about. The only other recording made was through a connection with Lol's friend Morgan Fisher for his "Miniatures" project. On that we used the last part of a piece recorded for a Radio London, broadcast from Ronnie Scott's. This was the middle movement of Webern's Opus 5, which we felt appropriate given Morgan's theme.

Gary Peters then decided to quit and became very involved in philosophy of aesthetics, in which he gained a doctorate. He now teaches at Bristol University. Dan Brown recently survived an illness that could have been lethal. He still lives nearby and kindly helps me with computer problems. Simon lives in London and Zurich with his wife, and is still an active performer. Cliff Venner has recently returned from a year's Buddhist retreat in Ireland.

DW: It seems to me that you've recorded quite a bit of duets. Do you have a natural preference for duo situations?

VERYAN WESTON I have no preference for duo situations…the fact that there are a few duo recordings (with Eddie Prévost, Lol Coxhill, Phil Minton, Caroline Kraabel, Trevor Watts and Jon Rose) is for pragmatic reasons… ease or organization and the evolvement of a relationship with one person…and maybe the duo is more likely to be audibly a clearly defined partnership. Duets are perhaps also good as there is possibly a clearer chance of audio-psychic phenomena occurring.

Also quite strange is that with the three duo CDs made with three very good saxophonists (Caroline Kraabel, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill), it sounds like there are three different pianists….this is also something that is more likely to be heard more clearly and directly with duet situations…it sounds obvious but it is significant. As an extreme example, it's as simple as saying you are going to be a different person talking with your mother than you are with your brother. In conclusion, it perhaps illustrates some important aspects to do with human behaviour through the use of music improvisation.

DW: I love the title "Worms Organising Archdukes" - how did you (or Lol) come up with that one??

VERYAN WESTON This was the genius of Martin Davidson, who comes up with a fair number of very imaginative titles for the recordings on his Emanem label. "Worms"…two pieces recorded at The Worm in Rotterdam, "Organising"…a duet with me on a chamber organ, and "Archdukes" - two more pieces recorded at the Archduke in Brussels…and they are in that order on the CD.

Note: All of Weston's CD releases mentioned in the above interview are on the EMANEM label, except 4 Walls' 'and the world ain't square' which is on Red Note. Audio clips, a short biography and complete discography is available at: Other relevant websites include: emanem, margaretapeters, and MusicNow

Dave Wayne is a Staff Contributor for Jazz Weekly. Comments? Email Him