A rising star on the alternative jazz scene is back on his old patch this weekend, teaming up with his former guitar teacher in Preston. MALCOLM WYATT spoke to Stuart McCallum about his various musical projects.
Two accomplished North-West guitarists come together in an acoustic setting this Sunday night, and it’s a case of the master meets the star student at The Continental.
Tutor Mike Walker is set to join forces with Preston-born University of Salford alumni Stuart McCallum at the South Meadow Lane venue.
Stuart, brought up close to Leyland’s Worden Park, has four well-received solo albums to his name, and previously featured for The Cinematic Orchestra.
Mike has also seen his fair share of international success over the years, not least with The Impossible Gentlemen.
Both artists have overseen major writing commissions since their uni sessions, including Mike’s Ropes, a suite for a 22-piece string orchestra and jazz quintet, performed at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music’s packed Opera Theatre.
In fact, Stuart’s recent Distilled Live tour premiered at the same venue, complete with a 16-piece orchestra.
And while Stuart’s career has moved on immeasurably since his student days, he’s looking forward to sharing a stage with the man who helped kick-start his career.
Their latest collaboration – one of five gigs for the duo – followed a chance jam at a mutual friend’s party, the rapport immediately apparent.
The pair say they are out to create music ‘characterised by focus and restraint’, Stuart proposing ‘chilled-out bliss’ while Mike promises ‘subliminated yearning’.
Stuart, 35, added: “I played The Continental for the Distilled and Distilled Live tours, and Mike’s played there a few times too. I’m looking forward to it.”
The ex-Balshaw’s High School pupil has played and recorded with some of today’s most prominent jazz artists, his latest live dates just part of a hectic schedule.
His third album, 2011’s Distilled, led to a 40-date European tour, culminating in the recording of the live version in late 2012.
The latter is as good a place as anywhere to get to know his music, hooking you from the start with laid-back but stirring opener What Is Beauty? sampling the soothing tones of late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, a big inspiration on Stuart.
That live show incorporated visuals from another regular collaborator, the artist Linder Sterling, for whom he recently scored a ballet, The Ultimate Form.
So how did a kid brought up on “Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and classic rock” get to appreciate ambient jazz and that whole scene?
“I wasn’t really that into it. I had piano lessons up to grade one when I was young, but it wasn’t until I was around 15 that I started getting into music seriously.
“I got into Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, George Benson, John Scofield and all that later, introduced by my guitar teacher at the time. It was pretty much a natural progression.
“I guess the rock stuff wasn’t for me. I also picked up a guitar when I was quite young, but again it wasn’t really until I was 15 that something clicked.
“I had private lessons from a friend of a friend, Keith Ashcroft, near Chorley. When it did click it wasn’t really a choice after that. It just felt like music chose me.
“Then I went to Salford University, where Mike taught.
“And now here I am with him again, playing some of his tunes, some of mine, and a few we’ve written together.”
What’s the best description of his work – alternative jazz or ambient jazz-electronica? It’s instrumental music with improvisations, so I guess that’s jazz.
“But the music I’ll be playing at Preston is different from my solo work. It’s more acoustic.
“Genres are less defined these days.
“It’s not like you walk into HMV and have to walk downstairs to access it. It’s all on Amazon or iTunes.”
Is he still involved with The Cinematic Orchestra?
“You’ve just got to have your fingers in a lot of pies, unless you’re one of the small percentage that manage to make a lot of cash out of just one thing.
“I teach part-time at Leeds College of Music, have my solo material, and projects like with Mike, with high-profile bands like the Cinematics and lower-profile ones too.”
The Cinematics link also involved soundtrack work for a Disney nature documentary, and Stuart’s music is being used in a film portrait of the real life inspiration for 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon.
Stuart playing guitar live with a laptop at his side for beats loops brings to mind acts like Public Service Broadcasting and Brian Eno. But what does he listen to?
“A mixture of folk, electronica, world music, jazz, indie, a bit of whatever really. I just try to keep an open mind. My students at Leeds tend to put me on to various things I’d never have heard of otherwise. They know what’s happening!”
His busy schedule involves a lot of jazz festivals, with regular slots at Manchester as well as Glasgow and even the Tate Modern in St Ives, Cornwall, and Tokyo’s Ropponghi Art Night.
“The Manchester Jazz Festival has been very supportive over the years and I’ve had some really nice gigs there, building a relationship with them.
“Both Glasgow and St Ives were with Linder, the Glasgow set a 13-hour improvised performance with dancers, musicians and a musical director, and the Tate show an exhibition about the dark arts, looking at folklore’s darker side, using local musicians, generally making a racket!
“The ballet I was commissioned to write was with Linder and the Northern Ballet, based in Leeds, premiered at le Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris, then the Hepworth Wakefield.”
Stuart’s worked with big names on the emerging jazz scene like Ari Hoenig, Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, Mike Gibbs, Gwilym Simcock and Tim Garland. And now he’s working with a drummer, Richard Spaven, who will be producing his next album.
“I’m working on my follow-up to Distilled with Richard.
“He’s super-experienced and worked with the Cinematics, Flying Lotus, Jose James and a lot of electronic artists.
“As well as the work with Mike, I’ve a project with a vocalist, then I’m doing an album with a pianist from Australia in February – a duo of piano, guitar and electronics, which we’ll tour out there and over here.
“And I’m off to Glasgow tonight for rehearsals before a Celtic Connections festival with a kind of jazz-meets-Irish traditional band, so that should be good.”
So where is home between all those dates and commitments?
“On the edge of Manchester, not far from the Trafford Centre. The older I get the more I want to be closer to greenery, and where I am is a bit more leafy.”
For ticket details call 01772 499425 or go to The Continental’s webpage here, http://www.newcontinental.net/whats-on/event/mike-walker-stuart-mccallum. And to find out more about Stuart, follow this link http://stuartmccallum.com.