I am best known as a jazz flautist, pianist and composer. Since 1984 I have been a major writing and performing member of the legendary jazz big band Loose Tubes. I performed and recorded with the legendary South African jazz pianist Bheki Mseleku in the 1990s and I continue to play with major SA jazz artists Afrika Mkhize and Nduduzo Makathini. I also compose and perform on keyboards for the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble. My writing also embraces contemporary classical areas with commissions for Apollo Saxophone Quartet, Ensemble Bash, and others.
For many of us, jazz and classical musicians alike, Debussy has been there since childhood. My Dad played pieces like “La Cathedrale Engloutie”, “Jardins Sous La Pluie”, and my Mum’s favourite “Valse: Le Plus Que Lente”; my music teacher in school played “Voiles”, “Les Tierce Alternees”, “Feux D’Artifice”.
Debussy’s influence on improvisers is quite hard to pin down. Certainly as a young musician, playing around with the great, deep, chasm-like resonances of “La Cathedral Engloutie” was like a gateway into improvising; my Dad showed me some chord voicings from “Danse Profane” which also appealed to my emerging jazz piano sensibilities.
In my work as a creative musician over the last 35 years or so, the influence of Debussy has never been far away. It’s in the harmony and textures of my music, even when the character of the music may be apparently distant from Debussy – referring to the music of another culture or tradition. Over the years my understanding of Debussy’s music has also deepened as I put it alongside my experiences of playing other kinds of music. I believe I’ve now reached a moment as a creative artist where a synthesis is happening.
Why Debussy? I believe that Debussy, more than other composers, gave us attitudes and motivations that are fundamental for creative musicians today: in his efforts to break the bonds of the Conservatoire he welcomed outside influences. He welcomed music from other cultures such as gamelan, rag-time, and Gypsy music; as well as extra-musical influences such as painting, poetry, and cinema. He embraced impressions of modern life like railway trains and stations, variety theatre, firework displays, Sunday promenades in the park with crowds, barrel organs, eccentric characters. He changed what music could be about. And, importantly for improvisers, he did it in his own personal style. He didn’t want imitators; he wanted people to find their own voice. This is why he is important for improvisers and other kinds of creative musicians.
Why now? We live in an era in which it is possible to search out and explore in depth music from a huge range of cultures and historical periods. So, alongside the childhood influences we have no control over, we can pursue the influences we choose. This says something important about our times, about the need to acknowledge, accept, celebrate the very different influences that make us who we are. It was extraordinarily prescient that a century ago Debussy encapsulated this attitude in his work – to ignore the ideology of “purity” in culture, to ignore the cultural dominance of (in his time) Wagner, to be open to influences from “outside”, to allow these influences to shape our character and express themselves as music, each one of us in his or her own way. In 1968 Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt said in a BBC interview “most of the musicians I know take it for granted that we need to know about Otis Redding, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charlie Parker, Bela Bartok…” It’s a principle I’ve lived and worked by for my whole professional life, but it still needs emphasising now, in the 21st century.
There is a sense in which this project could not have happened before now: as I have encountered other musics, embraced and explored them, and periodically come back to Debussy, a synthesis has emerged. My orbit around his music has been an elliptical one.
And now this team of brilliant, trustworthy and inspiring colleagues from different genres of music will help to make this vision a reality.