Interview with Nick Lea - Jazz Views
Brighton based composer/arranger and sometimes alto saxophonist/flautist, Hilary Burt seems to be one of the UK's best kept secrets. However with the release of her new album, Step Off And Fly with her band Blue Calluna, this will hopefully change.
She brings a freshness to her music that has an optimistic and sunny disposition, yet often fails to conform to expectations or genre limitations. Her work with Terry Pack's Trees allowed her to compose and arrange for a large ensemble presenting lots of colours with which to work, and remarkably she is also able to bring this skill to her writing for a smaller group too.
It was therefore a great pleasure to once again be able to talk to Hilary about her work, her new band, and their new recording.
Can you tell us about your new album?
Step Off And Fly is an album by my new 8 piece band ‘Hilary Burt’s Blue Calluna’. Ten of the songs are original compositions by myself plus I’ve done re-workings of 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Big Yellow Taxi' and 'In Dublin’s Fair City'. It is a self-release and I’ve distributed it to Spotify, Apple Music and all the major platforms. We recorded it over a number of months mainly because I was still finishing bits and pieces on various tunes and also I decided to do the horns and vocals separately so I had more control over the final mixing process. I divided the album up into two sections and first we did 6 tunes and then when they were complete we tackled the other seven. The personnel are: Lucy Pickering on vocals and flute; Kate Hogg on alto sax, flute and bansuri flute; Beccy Rork on tenor and soprano sax and flute; myself Hilary Burt on alto sax and flute; Steve Morgan on keyboards; Dave Barnard and Richard Leney on bass guitar (Dave was on the recording but Richard has been depping for him recently); Alex Eberhard on drums; and Chris Stockel on percussion.
Was Blue Calluna formed especially for the album, or was the band a working unit before any plans to record?
I had a lot of baggage that I was trying to process: fears around presenting my music, about having my own band, and about recording an album. The main hurdle for me was the performance side of things and presenting my music with my own band. I have done performances under my own name in the past playing original music but to be honest, the experiences were pretty terrifying and I wasn’t really enjoying it. Stage fright and fear of people not liking my music seemed to be paramount for many years. So the original idea was to try and conquer my fear of performing under my own name and feel okay about playing my own compositions. That seemed really enormous and one of life’s hurdles for me. For that I needed the right people around me. So I started writing pieces with a view to performing them with my own band. That was big enough in my head! Then, once the pieces started coming together, I realised that if I worked intensely for 6 months or so, I’d have enough material for an album. So that’s what I did.
How did you select the musicians for Blue Calluna?
First and foremost I wanted people who’s musicianship I admired, who were creative improvisors, who were team players and who I thought would all get on together. It was pretty easy coming up with the names because I’d played alongside all of the musicians previously and just had a feeling it would work as a new group. Lucy Pickering, Beccy Rork and Kate Hogg were fellow players from Terry Pack’s Trees which I had been writing for and performing with for a couple of years; Steve Morgan and Richard Leney I knew from the Sussex Jazz Orchestra where I play alto saxophone; Alex Eberhard and Dave Barnard I knew through Mark, my husband, [trombonist, Mark Bassey] and they had worked with me on my first album, North Beach in 2014; finally Chris Stockel I had met at a party where uncharacteristically I had brought along my alto and was jamming on some tunes. Chris was playing bongos sitting next to me and I thought he was a great player and a really nice guy. I took his card and thought if I ever needed a percussion player, I’d get in touch with him. A couple of years later, he got a call!!
Was the music written and arranged especially for the recording, or has the music been in your repertoire for sometime?
It varies. Four of the thirteen tunes were being played by other bands: my arrangement of 'Eleanor Rigby' was originally written for Terry Pack’s Trees and I think they continue to play it on gigs. I altered a few things for Blue Calluna - for example I wanted Lucy Pickering to be featured more and to have backing vocals on the tune (Vikki Parker, Annie Lightly and Collette Murphy). This meant extending a few areas of the piece and getting Lucy to sing the verses. 'Golden Animation', 'Sarah’s Hour' and 'Mojo' are all in the Sussex Jazz Orchestra repertoire but needed re-scoring for Blue Calluna. All the other tunes bar one were written in 2017/18 with the band in mind. The exception was 'The Kestrel', written in 2014, after the passing of our friend and fellow musician Simon D’souza.
As a composer, who would you say have been particular influences?
From an orchestral point of view I love the music of Vince Mendoza, Maria Schneider and film composer Thomas Newman. They combine strong melodies with lush orchestral sections and all have a very distinct sound. I have always loved Pat Metheny’s chords and melodies; Jacob Collier and Laura Mvula have fantastically original approaches and just do their own thing which I find very empowering; I also love individual pop tracks like 'Babylon' (David Grey), 'Mr Blue Sky' (Electric Light Orchestra), 'Happy' (Pharrell Williams), 'One Day Like This' (Elbow). I have very eclectic tastes and my ‘Cooking Playlist’ incorporates lots of different styles!
Writing for Blue Calluna must be a completely different proposition than writing for the Trees large ensemble. Is one more difficult than the other?
Writing for Trees was amazing because I could literally do anything I wanted on almost any instrument. If I wanted a big brassy sound I knew I’d have a tuba, trombones, trumpets and possibly even a French horn at my disposal! That’s pretty amazing. The hardest bit about Trees was extracting the parts from Sibelius, going through every single part and making sure there were no mistakes and that it all looked good on the page. Then printing it all out and sellotaping it together!! Somehow I’m sure Maria Schneider doesn’t have to do all that!! Writing for Blue Calluna is lovely because you have to be very specific and restrained. I have 4 front line and 4 backline but within that there is a lot of flexibility. Just as an example I could have Kate Hogg playing the alto sax or the flute or the bansuri flute or the penny whistle; I could have Alex Eberhard playing drums or singing or playing the guitar. Every single member of the band has different skills and that’s really exciting for me as a writer.
Your arrangements, whether for small or large groups, are now starting to have a unique sound that is becoming readily identifiable, is this something you have been working on consciously?
No not really. I am very melody driven and start by whistling or singing a tune. Once I have that written down or typed into Sibelius, I can then start adding in chords and having some fun. I have favourite chords and sometimes think, “Oh I can’t use that again”, but actually that’s probably what’s becoming part of ‘my sound’!
Where and how did you learn your arranging and composing skills?
I learnt on the job mostly - and for that I have Trees to thank. I am fiercely independent and could have sat down with Mark who teaches all this stuff and asked him to go through my pieces. But as the song goes, “I did it my way”! That meant hours re-writing tunes that didn’t work; rescoring melodies for different instruments when I found out they didn’t sit well on the instrument I’d chosen; printing and re-printing parts after listening back to rehearsals and realising something didn’t work. I had to do it on my own and stupidly didn’t want any help! It’s quite hard living with someone who teaches composition and arranging and who knows it all backwards. I felt very self conscious at first and under confident. But now I’m just getting on with it and feeling very happy about what I do.
I had been writing before I did the jazz degree at Middlesex University in 2002 and before I met Mark. I had a Clavinova at home in my little flat in London and I used to spend hours building up tunes at the piano, playing each line in and recording it. I’d rarely write anything down. 'Simeon' and 'Baka' [from the Trees album, Heart Of Oak] came from this time. Actually it’s a similar process now but of course I’m using Sibelius and a computer but I still have my keyboard that I can link up if necessary.
I’ve studied a lot as well. I love learning new skills and expanding my knowledge base. I’ve done several Logic courses to teach myself how to use that software; I taught myself Musescore and later Sibelius; I did a fantastic reharmonisation course at Berklee Online with Steve Rochinski - 12 weeks of really intense tuition and weekly assignments which went into so much detail about chords and structures. I also did a mixing and mastering course there with Jeff Baust which was amazing and taught me about panning and reverb and all those other interesting concepts! It means I can cobble a piece together on Logic and it can sound half decent. For the album, Step Off And Fly, I used James McMillan however at Quiet Money. He’s a top guy and really brought the album alive.
What other projects are you involved with?
I’m currently studying again and this time learning about Music Licensing. I’d really love to have my music used in film or TV so I’m cautiously starting to pitch tunes and put myself out there. I’m just finishing a new tune for Blue Calluna which we’ll play at our gig on March 15th 2019 in Brighton [Brighton Unitarian Church, 7.30pm]; and I’m also working with a yoga instructor and penning some music which could be used in yoga classes. I teach children with dyslexia too so life is busy at the moment. My dogs keep me fit and sane and we have daily long walks where I have the space to think about those different strands and keep on top of it all. Mark and I have just bought a drum kit for our lounge so lately I’ve been sitting behind that accompanying his trombone practice! I don’t know what he thinks, but I’m having fun!