Courtesy of Veryan Weston
CONVERSATION WITH 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 (
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 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/jazz/jon3/freedom/focartweston.shtml).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
two pieces recorded at The Worm in Rotterdam,
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: www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi/mweston.html.
Other relevant websites include: emanem,
margaretapeters, and MusicNow.
is a Staff Contributor for Jazz Weekly. Comments? Email