“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.”
Hilary Burt is interviewed by Nick Lea in 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!
Interview by Charlie Anderson from Sussex Jazz Magazine - Dec 2018
How would you describe the music of ‘Hilary Burt’s Blue Calluna’?
My compositions come from a knowledge of jazz and jazz harmony but my writing also has elements of latin, funk and folk. I decided that the most accurate genre is ‘jazz-folk’ but even that doesn’t fit many of my tunes.
I never think about ‘my sound’ (but according to others, I have one). I just start off on a song journey, humming a tune and see where it leads. It’s such an exciting period working on a tune - it’s one of the times I’m absolutely happiest and can forget about other stuff.
I’ve started telling stories in my songs now and that has been quite a recent development. The lovely thing is, I can write something in Sibelius, print it out, take it to the band, and it blows Sibelius out of the water. They are such wonderful musicians that the piece just grows 10 fold when we all play it together.
Tell us about your new album with Blue Calluna, Step Off and Fly.
I started imagining the possibility of a new band and an album last summer (around July/August 2017). I had a few tunes that were song based and I knew I was never going to be the vocalist! So I started thinking about who I wanted in the band. Not only was I looking for musicians whose playing I loved, but also who would bring warmth and vitality to the project. It wasn’t hard to gather the names!
Step Off And Fly is a 13 song album. There are three instrumentals, Golden Animation - originally written with the Sussex Jazz Orchestra in mind; Sarah’s Hour - written in about 1999 and also scored for the SJO; and a new tune Ingrid’s Song written for a friend who visited me last summer. The other songs are mostly vocal-led (by the great Lucy Pickering) and the majority have been written specifically for Blue Calluna. The title track ‘Step Off And Fly’ was written as much for me as for anyone else, encouraging us to be brave and ‘look fear straight in the eye’. I often find myself writing about new beginnings, new chapters, moving on in life, creating one’s own change, that kind of thing. Over the years I’ve had to transform situations that weren’t working and I guess that’s part of who I am and what I want to express.
How does your latest album with your band Blue Calluna differ from your previous album, North Beach?
My previous album North Beach (2014) was my first toe in the recording water for me as an artist. I’d recorded with other bands in the 1990s when I was a full-time primary school teacher, leaving school at the end of the day and going straight to a rehearsal or a workshop. But this was the first project under my own name. Also I was never planning to perform the music on North Beach. It was a straightforward studio album just to get some of my music ‘out there’.
North Beach was a big achievement for me because in 2011, I was feeling completely left behind in the music technology world. It was really getting me down and I knew I had to learn new skills which involved a computer. I started going to a 10 week course at the City Lit in Holborn to learn about Logic. We used to live in London and the City Lit was where I met Mark (husband Mark Bassey) so I felt very comfortable there even though it was quite a trek from Brighton every Saturday morning. As I learnt more about Logic I was able to get my ideas down on the computer and let my creative juices flow. The core of that first album was me on flute, with Logic sounds and samples made to sound as natural as possible. I also invited Mark, Simon D’souza, Alex Eberhard, Terry Pack, both my brothers Nick and Gary Burt, and a number of other musicians to play on it so it was a lovely combination of technology and human warmth. It was a very exciting time!
How have you developed as a composer and what has helped you the most?
The main thing that has happened is that I am now believing in myself which was always missing before. I had enormous fears of people laughing at my music and not being taken seriously. Those feelings can take a long time to work through. They’re still there but they’re much quieter now and I can talk to the younger Hilary and be a parent to her when necessary (I was bullied at Secondary School and had endless teasing from both my brothers - we’re good friends now!). Last year I must have felt the time was finally right and the world was safe enough for me to venture out with my own group. Something had obviously shifted within me.
Also in 2015, Terry Pack invited me to join his ‘Unfeasibly Large Ensemble’ Trees and put out a general invitation for anyone who wanted to write for the band. That was really my impetus to learn Musescore and later Sibelius. Without those skills I don’t think I could have written for all those instruments. I had no idea how people would react when I first took along my tune ‘Simeon’ but the reaction was positive and I owe Terry and the members of Trees a great deal for giving me that opportunity.
The other crucial thing in my development has been my study at Berklee Online. I’d already completed a jazz degree at Middlesex in 2004 but I wanted to take my music a bit further. The very first course I did there was Reharmonisation with Steve Rochinski. This really blew me away and introduced me to so many new musical concepts. It was very intense - only 14 weeks - but we had weekly assignments that were marked (scrutinised actually) and being with other students from around the world who were part of this steep learning curve really inspired me. I also did another Logic course there as well as a mixing and mastering course. The tutors at Berklee Online gave me a lot of confidence in my writing ability.
Needless to say, living with Mark has been fantastic. He obviously knew all the reharmonisation stuff I was doing at Berklee but I needed to do it on my terms and find my own teachers. Plus I don’t think it’s that healthy having your husband check your work and teach you about modal interchange! Apart from anything else it’s not really that romantic!! Having said that, if he knows I’m working on a piece, he’ll always ask, “Have you got anything to play me?” and he’ll come up to my music room and listen. He never suggests changes. He just seems to enjoy listening to what I’ve been up to that day - and that’s really nice :-)
Are there any other projects that you are involved with?
I play alto in the Sussex Jazz Orchestra and take part in Mark’s jazz improvisation ‘carousel’ which is at our house on a Wednesday afternoon. I still teach children and am now a dyslexia specialist with my own practice, Spotty Dog Tutoring. It’s a good combination: walking the dogs, helping my dyslexic students build up their literacy skills, and doing my music. To be honest I’m looking forward to a quieter spell now. It’s been a very intense time getting the music ready for the album, writing and designing the CD, and creating the online infrastructure for the music. I have a stencilling kit sitting in the corner of my room so I might just get the paints out and start stencilling the walls of our house!
Sussex Jazz Magazine interview by Charlie Anderson December 2018