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Interview ‘A magical balance of monumentality and the ephemeral’

Jazz pianist ALEXANDER HAWKINS explains to Chris Searle what he's attempting to achieve on his new album Iron into Wind

INSPIRATION across generations has always been powerfully expressed in jazz and the bond between two musicians of different origins, nationalities and ages is huge between septuagenarian Cape Town drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and Oxford-born pianist Alexander Hawkins, who’s in his late thirties.

Hawkins is pianist in Moholo-Moholo’s Five Blokes band and together they cut the marvellous Keep Your Head Straight duo album on the Ogun label on which it’s almost as if there are two percussionists drumming.

The impact that playing with the master ex-Blue Notes drummer on Hawkins’s own musicianship has been immense. “I can’t begin to capture his full significance to me,” he says. “Along with Evan Parker and a few others, he has been transformational.

“We like to romanticise certain aspects of music but for him and his contemporaries in South Africa during apartheid, music was a matter of life and death. Part of his gift has been to convey the absolute seriousness and deep social significance of the craft but without neglecting the joy and humour.

“He has helped me understand that the avant garde can communicate and belong to everyone. He also has an unbelievable ability to operate ‘in the moment’. Improvisation is as prone to habit as any area of life – when it is careless and unthinking it can become elitist.

“Louis has an uncanny way of avoiding the routine at every turn.”

The experience of playing with Moholo-Moholo, alongside London bassist John Edwards, tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and altoist Jason Yarde, with their Barbadian and Jamaican lineages, has been “a total joy,” he says.

“The band is criss-crossed by longstanding musical relationships which lets us all take more extravagant risks than usual, as well as ‘lock in’ to something when we need to. There’s a mutual trust and understanding between us which makes it feel that all directions are possible at any given time.”

His part reflective, part rampaging solo album Iron into Wind must have been a solitary experience after the intense musical solidarity of Five Blokes and it’s “a special challenge,” Hawkins says. “It is solitary but I can enjoy that musical solitude. So long as one can avoid self- indulgence, it affords a magical opportunity for introspection.

“But all musical experiences feed into each other, so I take something of my time with Louis into the solo context. So perhaps it’s solitary but not lonely.”

The album’s title Iron into Wind comes from the great Uruguayan socialist writer Eduardo Galeano and for Hawkins the phrase captures “something of the magical balance of monumentality and the ephemeral in music.”

In backward political times of populism and mounting racism, “music exists as a form of resistance for players and listeners,” he says. “It essentially exists outside of the mainstream modes of production but, at a grassroots level, it expresses an egalitarian ideal where its players are mutually supportive and independent and at the same time free to express themselves.

“It is a celebration of the many cultures which have informed the music, as well as a reminder of the often hazardous circumstances which gave birth to it.”

Iron into Wind is released on Intakt Records.

 

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