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Dial H for Hitchcock

Dial H for Hitchcock

Courtesy Rob Blackham


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Depping in other people’s bands is my favorite thing to do... How are you going to make it sound better, how are you going to make it work?
—Alex Hitchcock
When we meet in a South London pub, tenor saxophonist Alex Hitchcock mentions that he has a rehearsal the next day with the bassist Jasper Høiby for which he needs to learn about an hour of new music. It's for one gig, which is at the weekend. "So it's in at the deep end—quite exciting." If that seems like a lot of work for a one-off, it's because he's reluctant to have charts on the stand: when Høiby recorded with Hitchcock's group last February, he showed up with the music pretty much memorized. In other words, his advance work meant they could get it off the page and avoid getting boxed in. This is very much Hitchcock's approach too.

"Honestly, depping in other people's bands is my favorite thing to do, I think. You get this pad of new music in front of you and you're like, Right, how are you going to make it sound better, how are you going to make it work?" He really likes the challenge of contributing to other people's music, and he enjoys the variety afforded by playing one kind of music on a Friday night, and something completely different on Saturday.

With such a positive and collaborative attitude, it's not surprising that Hitchcock is in such demand across the London nu-jazz scene: he's a member of the Herbie Hancock-inspired jazz-funk combo Resolution 88. The pianist Deschanel Gordon, a recent winner of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year, declares Hitchcock to be his favorite saxophonist, and books him whenever possible. Hitchcock himself recently organized a gig at Ronnie Scott's with veteran US pianist Kirk Lightsey. He's also been working with the young drummer Myele Manzanza and, separately, bassist Matt Ridley. (Bass players' music appeals to him. "They tend to write from a strong sense of where things are going to go harmonically. They're at the intersection between the piano and the drums.")

As if that wasn't enough, a few weeks before our interview Hitchcock had played three nights of his own music with three different groups in a series called Dream Band at the Vortex in East London. It stemmed from a project in 2021, for which he recorded a 12-track album with a long list of top UK talent in various combinations.

We talk about the fate of albums in general: the question of whether a 70-year period of releasing music on LP or CD has come to an end. What should recording musicians do? Release a couple of tracks and call it a single? Or four and call it an EP? Do you record an album's worth of material and put out a track at a time? Or do you persist with the old album-length formats? Maybe, like Kamasi Washington, you simply make a big, bold statement—a triple CD (The Epic, Brainfeeder, 2015).

Nobody knows for sure what the future will hold for music recording. But what Alex Hitchcock does know is that he wants to be as versatile as possible, because that's what he finds stimulating. Working as a sideman in so many different situations has made him realize that he can expand the boundaries of his own music by booking a range of musicians from widely differing traditions and styles. It also works the other way. "Someone like Kirk Lightsey has seen a lot of saxophone players like me. Playing with him has made me think I should maybe lean into my own thing more, because if I just tried to play in the style of him, he would see through that, because he's one of the architects of that music. I didn't want it to be pastiche, so the question was: what is it that I do—and I've gotta do that." Of course, all these gut- level decisions need to be made in the context of the band and the material—in this case Lightsey's comping and the rhythms of drummer Sangoma Everett. "Often it's in this sort of tempo..." He slaps the table with a slow-to-medium beat ..."so if you don't swing really hard in quavers at that tempo, you have to go double-time, and then you're playing your whole solo double-time, and there's a whole different language to that."

When he plays with Deschanel Gordon's band, it's in a harder, more modern style. The added density in the playing of Gordon and drummer Will Cleasby gives him a whole different set of information to respond to on the saxophone.

Hitchcock grew up in Hammersmith, West London, and began learning the saxophone at the age of 10. At high school he was tutored on alto by a teacher called Katie Brown, who got him playing Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, and Cannonball Adderley transcriptions early on. He dallied briefly with NYJO (the National Youth Jazz Orchestra) but preferred the learning approach at WAC Arts, a free weekend college in North London. "That was a much more diverse group of musicians. A lot of it was learning by ear and playing grooves and static harmony rather than loads of changes." He went on to study English at Cambridge, where he switched to tenor and played in a big band with bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and trombonist Tom Green. After that he returned to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music.

Now 31, he recently got married, an event that usually makes demands on the pocket-book. So how does he make a living from jazz—a profession famed for its endless opportunities to lose money rather than make it? "My approach has been to say yes to as much as possible—wait for the diary to be full, and then be selective. So I'll still do the odd function, but I'll do it for much more money than I used to. And I'll be a little more selective about which creative projects to do, and I guess in terms of my own thing, I've had generous support from The Arts Council and Help Musicians [formerly the Musicians' Benevolent Fund] in the past. I try to plough money from album sales into the recording of the next album, and reach a point where I'm self-sustaining. And then I'm making money from gigs and the teaching I do."

And there is plenty of work coming up: in November 2022 he released a joint transatlantic project with UK guitarist Ant Law called Same Moon in the Same World (Outside In Music, 2022)—a line from the 1999 Haruki Murakami novel Sputnik Sweetheart. It started as a lockdown project, recorded over 12 months, and gave Hitchcock the chance to collaborate with some American jazz musicians he wouldn't normally come into contact with, including Eric Harland, Joel Ross, Shai Maestro, Linda May Han Oh, Jeff Ballard, and Kendrick Scott.

Then there's the Dream Band project (Fresh Sound, 2021). He's anxious to scotch the idea of a single "dream band," in the sense of the best possible band he could play with: there is an infinite number of possible dream bands. But as a graduate of the elite Royal Academy, he's acutely conscious that there's a danger of being pigeonholed, so he's worked hard to engage with musicians right across the diverse London jazz scene. Having spent three days in the studio with a different band each day —"with my favorite musicians who I could get my hands on, plus a couple of guests recorded remotely"—he then recreated the idea in a live context, three different bands on three nights in front of a live audience.

"The most meaningful experiences that I have playing music are: the connections with the people, first and foremost, then the music, then the audience." The people included several who had never played together before. Hitchcock reveled in the resulting chemistry. "It gives you a stimulus to write, because if you can imagine someone's particular voice on a particular tune—Lewis Wright's vibes, or Mark Kavuma's trumpet —those are immediately distinctive artistic voices. They play one note and you know who they are."

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