In Conversation with Nat Birchall

Jazz saxophonist Nat Birchall from northern England is largely self-taught, crediting Jamaican dub music for launching his love affair with music. Iconic British DJ Gilles Peterson calls him one of the best musicians in the UK. Recently the Mindful Bard recommended his latest album, Invocations, a rhapsodic jazz album that bears up well under infinitely repeated listenings and carries on the Birchall tradition of transcendent-sounding album titles like Akhenaten, Guiding Spirit, and Sacred Dimension. Recently Nat was kind enough to answer some of our questions about his background and musical aspirations.

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

– Victor Hugo

Tell me about your childhood.
My childhood was generally happy?yes, very happy even. We lived, until I was eight anyway, in a large old house about a mile and a half from a small village in the northwest of the UK. We had no electricity or any type of modern convenience apart from a battery operated radio in the kitchen/living room, and we were surrounded by fields and hills and woods; it was idyllic, really.

There was nothing in my childhood that pointed me to music, jazz or otherwise. That would come later, when I was about 13 or so. No one in my family was musical, although my mother would sing around the house as she did the housework. I vividly remember hearing Elvis Presley singing “Devil In Disguise” on that radio we had, and I heard someone singing “English Country Garden.” We also had an old wind-up gramophone and some 78s, but I don’t remember any of them.

When I was 13 or 14 I started to listen to music on the radio? pop and rock music mainly, I suppose. And I started to buy records in late 1971 or early 1972. But then I heard some reggae music somewhere and that resonated with me for some reason. I then began to buy reggae records and hunt them down with some seriousness.

In 1978 I bought my first jazz LP: John Coltrane’s Blue Train. I had read about him in a magazine, Black Music, which I bought every month to find out about new reggae releases.

Sometime in the mid 1970s I bought a cheap guitar from a relative and tried learning to play blues and Bob Dylan songs on it myself. But, long story short, in 1979 I bought an ancient saxophone, intending to just mess around with it for fun. The sound of it did something profound to me and I just never put it down again.

What was your most beneficial educational experience?
I haven’t had much musical education, not in the academic sense anyway. When I first started to play I took some lessons from a local jazz saxophone player, but he had a kind of vague teaching style and after a couple of years or so I stopped going.

The only other “education” I had was many years later, when I’d been playing for 15 years. I enrolled in an HND (Higher National Diploma) jazz studies course. It was a two-year course but it wasn’t particularly helpful in developing my understanding of the music? except for the fact that it allowed me time to practice!

As I’ve learned to play and learned about music, I’ve learned about myself. And I’ve learned that I have to discover things for myself in order to really understand them. I’m not very good at receiving information and assimilating it; it really has no meaning to me unless I experience it myself.

Describe a typical rehearsal.
We don’t rehearse. The way the music is structured means that, with the right musicians, we can talk briefly about the song and often play it right away with only a minimal run through of the first part or so.

What’s your next project?
I don’t know what the next project is, but at the moment I’m working on a reggae/dub album. This is something different for me, even though I’ve been listening to the music for the past 45 years or so. I bought a bass guitar and have been writing the bass lines and recording them with drums. Then we’ll add the other instruments on top. It’s very different from playing all the music live in one afternoon and not doing any overdubs, but I’m enjoying it immensely!

I also have a new (jazz) album ready for release. The album is called Creation and should be out sometime this summer on my own label.

If you had an artist’s mission statement, what would it be?
Through honesty and truth, and a lifetime of hard work, we discover beauty.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.