A relentless innovator on the jazz scene for over three decades now, multi-instrumentalist and composer Courtney Pine hits Belfast this May 5th as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Pine has been a regular visitor to Belfast since the early 1980s when he played as a horn-for-hire with a reggae band. His parents had immigrated to London from Jamaica in the early 1960s, and for a young Courtney Pine music was a family affair. Talking with State, Pine recalls how his musical heritage provided a gateway to the world of jazz-fusion and musical experimentation.
“The first songs I ever heard were Ska,” Pine begins. “My parents used to play it as a social music. I grew up in Paddington, near Nottinghill, and when my parents came over in the early ’60s they lived in a one bedroom apartment and people from our community would come around every weekend, just to check in and see that everything was ok. They would have lots of rum or vodka (vodka because you could drive around in those days without being breathalyzed), and I just remember Stetson hats, ska music being played, and just a general community spirit. So those were the first songs that I grew up on.”
“I found out later that these guys who made ska music were jazz musicians, guys like Ernest Ranglin and the Skatalites. They were jazz musicians at night, and during the day they were called to do sessions because they were the best musicians in town. So that was my first musical injection, and everything I’ve done since then has to have a kind of vibe, or feel, or energy about it.”
As a recording artist, Pine’s music has taken on many shapes over the years. While staying true to the tradition of jazz, Pine has taken inspiration and flavour from a variety of popular and world music styles. From hip-hop fusion to Caribbean jazz, Pine has assimilated his musical influences and sculpted his own fresh idiom.
“When I hooked up with this thing called jazz, I realised that musicians like Miles Davis were brilliant, because as their life changed, their music changed. Their music reflected their life. So for me, if I listened to and enjoyed drum and bass, I would incorporate that into my style of what I call jazz – and that’s the reason why my music has been changing or evolving, because I believe as a musician you should reflect your life, and if your life is changing your music should change.”
“I think that’s what jazz is asking you,” Pine continues. “You have to know the tradition of jazz – about people like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Sarah Vaughan. I have to understand what they did, both technically and practically, but I also have to reflect the now, the music that’s around me, and my functionality. Just in the same way that Albert Ayler or Charlie Parker reflected their social climate, that’s what I’m trying to do right now. But also you really have to know and understand why they did it, so that you can do it in the appropriate way. As a musician you really have to understand the jazz standards, the harmonies, the melodies and the rhythms of what they played.”
On his latest release entitled Song (The Ballad Book) Pine has recorded a stripped back album of both jazz standards and more contemporary songs, performed as duets alongside pianist Zoe Rahman. Here Pine sets aside his saxophones in favour of the bass clarinet, an instrument that he has embraced more closely in recent years and also showcased on his 2011 album Europa.