The other day I learned that Gerald Clark, pretty much an unfamiliar name to me, was about to launch a Jazz suite dedicated to the Nakba and the Palestinian people. I was intrigued, I contacted Gerald and offered my help. A day later, the album found its way to my letterbox.
I am usually bored by ‘political music.’ Occasionally it lacks the necessary wit let alone a musical edge. But Clark’s Nakba is a masterpiece — music in its purest and most genuine form. It’s probably best described as a ‘Blue Note for Palestine’. This new album is a treat, and you should seriously consider adding it to your Jazz collection.
A sampler medley of the album can be heard here.
You can buy the album here.
I asked Clark about his musical background? Are you a professional musician? What instrument do you compose on?
Gerald Clark: I am not a full-time professional musician at this stage. I write all kinds of music: film scores, pop songs, etc. I’ve recorded an album as a singer-songwriter (The Great Divide), and six short film scores, but I have a feature film to score in the new year, which I’m already doing quite a lot of work for. I’ve written a symphonic suite and a string quartet, mostly to see if I could do it, and several jazz works. I’m a piano player predominately, and virtually all my composition starts sitting at the piano.
Gilad Atzmon: What made you compose a suite for Palestine?
GC: It was 2002, the second ‘Intifada’ had started and Jenin was being attacked. I’ve always been involved with political campaigns and I’d been on a couple of ‘Freedom for Palestine’ marches. I’d been playing around with a rhythmical figure on the piano (which is now the riff at the start of Jenin), when I developed another one (now the riff at the start of Intifada). Then I saw Jocelyn Hurndall give a very moving talk about the death of her son Tom. It all fell into place around those ideas. Ultimately I wanted to do something to help. It took a while to finish it and put it together, but now I have a finished product and I know that every time someone buys the album I’ll be personally donating money to a Palestinian charity, so it feels worthwhile.
GA: This is beautiful. I was very surprised to find out that you didn’t play on the album. I then realised that you were the composer. An unusual role in jazz. How would you describe the process of making an album with a jazz team?
GC: Surprisingly easy. But I agree it’s not that common (I’ve got a lovely album by Russ Garcia that he doesn’t play on, and of course there are arranger/composers like Gil Evans). I’m not sure why … perhaps because most jazz composers are jazz musicians. I would love to have played on it myself, but my jazz piano skills are still in their infancy while my jazz composition/arranging skills are far more developed. I knew I couldn’t have done it justice. But the team were all great musicians. I guess they all felt like sidemen, which works okay as long as someone knows what they want. That said, they were very supportive, they helped to interpret my charts so that they could understand them and know where to cue themselves in. My role in the studio was that of producer really, which I’ve done before. It’s not that different from having a jazz section in a film soundtrack.
GA: What kind of decisions led your choosing the musicians?
GC: One of the reasons I didn’t start this for so long is probably because I knew I wasn’t good enough to play it myself. But Duncan Haynes, the piano player, is a good friend of mine. He listened to the early drafts and expressed enthusiasm for it. Once I knew that he was happy to play on it, I asked Johnny Lippiett (sax) who’s another one of my oldest friends (and who knew Duncan). Byron Wallen was my first-choice trumpet player. He’s such an incredible musician, and Duncan knew him too. In terms of the bass and drums, I wanted some classic hard-bop guys, who could swing hard, but cope with sections of double-time, break into Latin for two bars in the middle of swing (and vice-versa)… Dave Hamblett and Sam Lasserson were perfect, they’re also really nice guys so the recording session was very smooth and fun.
GA: Did you rehearse for a while as an ensemble? Or did you meet in the studio for the first time?
GC: Everyone had the charts for a few weeks in advance, but we met for the first time in the studio and recorded it in a weekend. Johnny lives in NY and flew in on the Saturday morning. Duncan’s based in Peru, and the other three are very busy working musicians, so there wasn’t an easy opportunity to meet up (getting most of the band back in the same room for a launch gig has been challenging too) Most of the finished tracks are the second or third take. That’s it.
GA: This is pretty incredible. But it may explain the freshness of the sound. Since you picked a political cause, was it important for your musicians to empathize with the cause?
GC: They all knew what it was we were recording, so I guess they empathized. I’d had a long chat with Byron about it first – he’s actually been to Palestine and I think his experiences helped him to be involved. I introduced every tune before we recorded it by explaining where the title came from and what it meant – that was quite emotional at times.
GA: Do you believe in the role of art as a political weapon? Can beauty present a prospect of a better future?
GC: Yes, I think I do. Not a weapon perhaps, but it has a very important role to play. If a Jazz Suite for Palestine can bring to jazz fans greater awareness of what’s going on, or a painting can bring to fans of art greater awareness, then it’s worth doing. But for the artist/composer I think it’s much more powerful. It gives the music a much deeper meaning and emotion, which I hope is reflected. And at the end of the day, no matter how horrible a political reality, beautiful art can come from it. Art makes the world a better place and that’s important when things are bad. As a composer I think of Shostakovich’s symphonies which came out of the height of Stalinist oppression (and reflect that in various ways) or the wonderful music from South Africa that gained a much greater western audience in the early-mid 80s.
GA: Why did it take you 10 years to record this beautiful album?
GC: Well I didn’t write it all in 2002-3. I started then. The final piece was actually written in January just before we went into the studio (although most of it was finished about four years ago). As I’ve outlined above, it took me a while to appreciate the concept of recording a jazz quintet album as a composer, and then I had to get everyone into the same studio (let alone the same country) at the same time. I think I just needed to develop my own confidence as a composer/producer before I felt it was something I was able to do.
GA: Looking at Palestine now, having been composing this suite for more than 10 years, are you optimistic?
Gerald Clark: I can’t say that I am. The situation doesn’t seem a lot different. But I think the general public is slightly more on-side now. It’s easier to talk about it. There are issues that we can take up and get popular support with, like the issue of Palestinian Child Prisoners. Once Palestine is seen as an important issue for everyone and not just political activists, then things could move quite quickly. I just hope it’s not too late for the Palestinian people.
GA: What is ahead, when and where do you launch your album? Any plans for tours?
GC: We are launching the album at The Vortex on Wednesday 6th November. I would love to play it a few more times, but that would have to depend on funding for a tour. With Duncan and Johnny living overseas we can’t easily throw it together again – it’s a big undertaking. We might be able to arrange another gig in America, which is something I’d like to explore. Otherwise I think my next jazz project will have to involve people closer to home. But this album will be available to download and we’ll be shipping CDs worldwide (through my website), so the internet gives us an opportunity to get the music out to the whole world.
I’d like to do some more jazz too, I’m not sure what form that’ll take. I’m practicing hard – maybe I’ll be able to play on it.
GA: Good luck with everything and thanks for the music and dedication to the right cause.
GC: Thanks very much.