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Malcolm Creese

Bassist Malcolm Creese may not be a household name, but he’s well known in British circles, covering many genres. Creese has played on sessions for artists including Depeche Mode; toured and recorded with Cleo Laine/John Dankworth and Stan Tracey; been part of large symphony orchestras, including those that performed the scores for the recent films The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King and Cold Mountain; and performed concerts with artists including Kenny Wheeler and Sting. But Malcolm’s main priority is Acoustic Triangle, his all-acoustic trio that blurs the boundaries between classical and jazz in a way that has not been done before, also featuring Tim Garland, a saxophonist who is rapidly gaining international stature, and Gwilym Simcock, a young pianist who displays a remarkable maturity for his age.

Early Years

Creese comes from a musical background. "I’m very lucky," says Creese, "that I do come from a musical family. My father is a professional violinist, semi-retired, who was a violinist for almost thirty years with the London Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the top orchestras in the world. My mother is a pianist, mostly an accompanist; she’s one of those clever people who can look at an orchestral score and play it on the piano instantly by transposing three or four of the lines and condensing it all into two hands on the piano."

Picking up the cello at the precocious age of three, Creese continued to make the cello his primary instrument through his schooling in classical studies at London’s Guildhall School of Music. He was also exposed to the music world at an early age, when he joined the choir at St. John’s in Cambridge, which, explains Creese, "at the time was one of the world’s best choirs, rated very highly. We did a lot of touring; we toured North America as long ago as 1970. We made a lot of albums as well; I was with them from the ages of eight until twelve, so it was a very good early start in the music business."

Late Comer to the Double-Bass

Creese came late to the double-bass, picking it up at the age of twenty-five. While he is completely self-taught, the discipline of a classical upbringing made the transition easier. "I found it easier than the cello," Creese says. "I think it’s an easier instrument insofar as it’s tuned differently, in fourths instead of fifths. That means you can play straightforward scales without too much shifting of position, whereas on the cello you’re constantly shifting position. I also think that in the classical world you are asked to play more difficult things on the cello; with the average orchestral score the cellos and violins are often scraping away frantically while the bass is playing long, slow notes."

While it was the lure of jazz that drew Creese to the bass for the most part, he still finds himself playing bass in orchestras although, as Creese explains, "it took a while before I was able to do so. To be honest, I had to do a lot of work and get some technique together and, of course, work on my sight-reading. You’re reading the same notes in the same clef as with a cello, but they’re all in different places on the instrument, so that was a hard thing, to learn how to sight-read on the bass. I actually joined a lot of big bands early on in my bass playing career, and learned to read that way; I did a lot of woodshedding with rehearsal bands, and just practiced my sight-reading for a long time to get it sharp.

"So now things have really come full circle," continues Creese, "as I find myself playing in orchestras on bass and occasionally I see some older members who say: ‘Hang on a minute, I thought you were a cellist the last time I saw you.’"

Interestingly enough, one of Creese’s earliest jazz influences on bass was electric bassist Jaco Pastorius. "I went to see Weather Report a lot in the 1970s," says Creese, "and I was absolutely blown away by them; I briefly toyed with a fretless electric bass, but then I was able to buy a double-bass, and that was it for me; it really was the instrument I wanted to stick with, so I gave up the electric, but Jaco was still a major influence. He was very lyrical and very unusual; his whole sound and approach was new."

Double-bassists who influenced Creese included Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, and British bassist Mick Hutton. Creese is also informed by Dave Holland; "his sound and approach to the bass," Creese explains, "is in some ways similar to mine although I certainly wouldn’t put myself in the same category; he’s an absolute star."

Finding an Instrument

Picking a bass that serves well for both the more pizzicato style of jazz playing as well as the Arco style more prevalent in classical work is a challenge. Creese’s instrument is an early 19th Century instrument, a good hybrid. "It’s a 7/8 size instrument," says Creese, "a lot of jazz basses are what’s called 3/4 size, while classical basses are bigger, more generous, and deeper. This instrument is somewhere in between the two, and it happens to be an instrument on which I’m happy playing jazz and classical music. I really wanted one instrument rather than to keep swapping; you grow into an instrument, you wake up in the morning and pick it up and it feels like another arm. I’ve found it difficult on the bass to readjust to different instruments, so this really suits me."

First Breaks

Creese’s first big break came around 1990, when he hooked up with pianist/bandleader Stan Tracey. "He had about seven different bands of different sizes at the time," says Creese. "I toured with Stan for about six years."

In 1991 Creese was asked to join Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, a relationship that lasted eleven years. "For a while I was playing with both Cleo and Stan at the same time," Creese explains, "which was tricky as I was juggling dates a lot, and I’d sometimes find myself playing with both of them at the same festivals. But Stan Tracey was my first really big gig in this part of the world, and I enjoyed that. I did a lot of touring; in fact I played every continent except South America with Stan; and then I joined Cleo and we also did a lot of touring, recording and broadcasting; I absolutely adore her."

Creese still maintains an active career as a freelance musician, in the studio and for live events; in addition, about eighteen months ago, he joined Trad Jazz legend Acker Bilk. "I have to say I enjoy that kind of music," says Creese. "I enjoy Kenny Wheeler and I enjoy Dixieland, and there’s a world of difference between them, but I do like the variety and I hope that makes me a better player; to be aware of these different genres and different areas of jazz, which is such a diverse art form these days. It’s gone in so many different directions and I like to try to keep in with as many as I can.

"The other thing about Acker’s band," continues Creese, "apart from the fact that it’s lovely and laidback, very easy and great fun, is that we play just one or two gigs a week, on average, but we’re playing to two or three thousand people every night, and I just don’t get to do that very often. I did that with Cleo obviously, but most of the more modern areas of jazz just don’t have audiences of that size, and it’s very nice to be able to entertain that many people; to be able to go around and play in big venues, be treated well, be paid well and at the end of the day to come home thinking that a lot of people have been very moved, that they’ve all walked away tapping their feet and smiling; I think there’s something to be said for having that opportunity. After about a year-and-a-half I’m still really enjoying it; Acker’s a lovely man and the guys in the band are great."

Trio Beginnings

In the mid-1990s, Malcolm began working in a trio that included pianist John Horler who, at the time, was also Cleo Laine’s pianist, and British clarinet/saxophone legend Tony Coe. "I’d worked with John before I joined up with Cleo," says Creese, "and on one occasion we had a week at Ronnie Scott’s in London and the singer, Elaine Delmar, hired Tony Coe to play with us. Of course I’d heard of him, but I hadn’t met him at this stage, so we showed up at rehearsal and he just knocked me out. Tony’s an extraordinarily individual musician; I don’t believe there’s a clarinetist in any field of music who has taken the instrument as far as Tony; he does acrobatics on the instrument that most people just can’t believe; we’d play concerts and there’d be fantastic classical clarinetists in the front row with their mouths wide open; absolutely astonishing. And on saxophones he’s such an individual voice; he’s also a creative composer, simply one of the best musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.

"So we had a great time at Ronnie Scott’s," Creese continues, "and then I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to do some other things with him?’ I thought of maybe just doing a trio with him; Tony doesn’t like drummers and so I thought there’s no point in doing a standard sort of jazz quartet because he wouldn’t like it; so I thought, ‘let’s do something different.’ I really adored John Horler’s playing, I always have, so I talked to John and asked if he’d fancy doing a trio with Tony. So I put the trio together around 1994 or 1995, and we had five or six years of touring with that trio; we did a couple of albums, and it was a lot of fun."

It was with this trio that the idea that would become the foundation of Acoustic Triangle first took shape. "That’s when I first introduced the premise of playing completely acoustically," explains Creese. "We decided we really needed a grand piano, so there was no point in doing places which didn’t have a good grand. ‘Let’s aim high,’ we thought and, by the way, ‘do we really need microphones?’ So we thought no, and decided to try it without. We did a couple of concerts in nice venues, and it was so nice. I make quite a big noise on the bass, because I have very high action, my strings are quite a long way from the fingerboard, which means I can hit it quite hard and get a lot of acoustic sound; so I’ve never been one to rely on an amplifier to get volume anyway.

"If you think of an acoustic bass as a big sound box," continues Creese, "the strings are supposed to vibrate and push air out of these two holes; the harder you hit it the more vibrating it’s going to do and the more air you’re going to push out; it’s as simple as that. You can still have a nice quality of sound; you just get more sound if you hit it harder."

Creese’s approach eschews the use of amplification. "I like to have attack and dynamic variation," Creese says, "and if you depend on an amplifier you lose some of that; it becomes a much flatter, level sound. I thought if I could compete with a grand piano with the lid up, and a saxophone player, without an amplifier; if I could get enough sound to fill a hall, then this will work. And I managed to do it. I remember we played a hall with Tony that sat four or five hundred people, and we had a wonderful review afterwards that said ‘you can hear the bass singing at the back of the hall,’ and I thought, ‘that’s it, I don’t need an amplifier again in this situation.’

"The acoustic thing is great," continues Creese. "the trio with Tony and John, which grew into Acoustic Triangle, was and still is the only acoustic jazz outfit in all of Britain, and I don’t think there are many in the world; even with those that call themselves acoustic, you usually find the bass player has an amp, at least, or someone’s got a microphone stuffed under the piano lid. It just doesn’t happen very often and it’s the sound I really want; I think it’s really starting to pay off now because a lot of people are beginning to notice that we’re doing this; it gets a lot of attention, a lot of people are asking questions about this acoustic approach and are surprised that we can get away with it.

"It’s a nicer sound," Creese concludes, "and people behave quieter so they can hear you; when you are amplified you do lose some of the quiet moments; you just can’t come down to nothing the way a classical player can; you do lose some of the dynamic range."

Acoustic Triangle

The trio with Horler and Coe had begun to think classically; Coe, in particular, is an expert on Berg and a few other contemporary classical composers; but the repertoire primarily consisted of material by Horler and Coe. There was, however, the intention of incorporating certain ideas from classical music. Performing acoustically was clearly one, but Creese wanted to take it further. "It’s been a process, but I’ve always wanted to do this because I was a classical musician first, and I’ve always wanted to find a way of bridging that gap between classical and jazz; there’s an artificial barrier there which annoys me, and I’ve always liked the idea of reflecting my classical background in my jazz work."

After six years Coe decided to part company with the trio, and the search was on for a replacement. "John and I sat down," explains Creese, "and drew up a list of possibilities. We had both worked with Tim Garland a lot over the years and I’d always admired his playing; he is a diverse player his tenure with Lammas was interesting because he was incorporating all these folksy influences he’s done all kinds of things and I just love the breadth of his musical understanding and experience.

"So we were going through this list," continues Creese, "and I said to John, ‘you know the guy I’d really like to play with is Tim.’ John said, ‘yeah, but you won’t get him, he’s just joined up with Chick Corea, there’s no way he’ll be able to do this.’ So I said, ‘well, I wouldn’t mind ringing him,’ and John said, ‘you’ll be wasting your time.’ So I rung Tim and I said, "look, Tony’s just left the trio.’ And Tim said, ‘yeah, I know, I heard.’ So I said, ‘is there any way you’d be prepared to work with John and I?’ and he said, ‘you know, when I heard that Tony had left I was secretly hoping you might think of me; there’s nothing I’d rather do more right now than work with you and John; I love your music; I love your playing; and I love your first album with Tony; I’d be delighted; but can I write for the band?’ And I said, ‘yeah, of course you can write! When do you want to start?’

"And he was just delighted," concludes Creese. "I phoned John back and he nearly fell over backwards, he was just amazed, he couldn’t believe it. We’re both big fans of Tim, and that was just a fantastic lift, and one of the best things that ever happened to us really. And Tony’s a hard act to follow; but Tim’s a totally individual player, he’s got this enormous hollow sound on tenor which I’ve never heard from anyone else; I think he’s got a beautiful sound. I think he’s simply the best soprano player in the world; I don’t think there’s anyone who can make the soprano sound the way he does. Sometimes he can wail and roar and other times he can make it sound almost like an alto flute; it’s an absolutely beautiful sound. On the second Ravel piece on Interactions, towards the end of it, his sound totally changes from being a saxophone to almost like a flute. Tony is, of course, another wonderful soprano player, but I really rate Tim as the finest in the world."

The trio with Creese, Horler and Garland recorded Interactions for Creese’s own Audio-b.com label. Released as both a standard CD and as one of the first dual-layer hybrid Super Audio CD disks (SACD), which allows listeners with SACD equipment to hear either an SACD stereo mix or 5.1 surround mix, both of which are characterized by a warmer sound and broader dynamic range, or for listeners with standard stereo equipment to hear a rich CD stereo mix, Interactions won a number of awards upon release. With material contributed by Garland and Horler, the album opened up with three songs by Ravel, beautifully arranged for the trio by Garland.

"Tim’s arrangements are so sympathetic with Ravel’s writing," explains Creese, "he really understands the writing, so they’re very thoughtfully done; they’re not irreverent in any way. I really feel that when you take a piece of classical music and mess around with it that it must be right; it must be done with reverence. The thing about Ravel is that not only did he spend a lot of time rearranging his own music, but he also rearranged others’; so I felt OK about doing this; also, Ravel died in 1937 while he was living in the States, and at the time he was fascinated with jazz and improvisation, so I thought we could realistically get away with it, without being insulting to the composer."

Bridging the gap between classical and jazz is still a difficult thing to accomplish. Efforts by other artists have stated classical themes, followed by obvious improvised sections. Acoustic Triangle, on the other hand, has managed to integrate the classical and improvisational elements, explains Creese, "by making it seamless between the written passages and the improvised passages. A lot of people aren’t really aware when we’re improvising and when we’re not; we’re sort of blurring the edges there."

With Interactions receiving unanimous critical acclaim, the group went through another upheaval when John Horler left the trio. "John is really a jazz player," explains Creese, "although he’s appreciative of classical music, he’s never been a classical player or had classical technique. He’s just the most wonderful jazz player."

The Next Step

But to take the trio to the next step required finding a pianist with broad experience in both classical and jazz arenas. Enter Welshman Gwilym Simcock who has a breadth of experience, and maturity in both his playing and his writing, which far exceeds his age of only twenty-two.

"Gwilym comes from a classical background," says Creese, "and he’s come to jazz more recently, just as I did. Tim and I had both worked with him; Tim has his Dean Street Underground Orchestra, and I first met Gwilym on one of those dates, when he was sitting in for the regular pianist. For the rehearsal Gwilym and I got there a bit early and he said, ‘do you fancy a play?’ So we played Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’ and I really enjoyed what he did with it, and thought, ‘God, this guy’s really interesting and he’s only about nine!’

"So when Tim and I did the same thing as I had done with John," continues Creese, "drawing up a list, we went through a few pianists and just thought that this guy, young though he is, sounds a lot more mature than he should do, and we both thought he was really going to go places. And it turned out that this was really what he wanted to do; find a jazz outlet that was going to incorporate his classical playing. He was unlikely to find many such opportunities, so he jumped at the idea and we did a lot of playing together, a lot of rehearsing and then the writing started again and things got a bit more classical and a bit more modern. I think Gwilym’s been a big factor there."

The result of their labor is the new album, Catalyst, which features a number of Garland compositions, as well as a three-movement suite by Simcock. While there are no reworked classical pieces on this recording, there are tunes by Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and Cole Porter.

Working with Extended Composition

One of the defining points of Acoustic Triangle from its inception, but even more so since settling into the current line-up, has been its exploration of more extended form. "We just got fed up with thirty-two bar sequences," explains Creese, "or twelve-bar sequences going around and let’s face it; most jazz is twelve or thirty-two bars repeated. We thought we could do that with so many other bands, let’s do something really different; let’s do something more extended, more classical that can really grow, that has time to develop and isn’t formulaic in the same way.

"That was a conscious decision back when John and Tony and I were working together," continues Creese, "and we’ve just continued that through to Acoustic Triangle and that’s really what we’re up to; we want to do more and more extended writing. I haven’t done much writing for the group; there are a couple of things that I’ve done that we haven’t recorded yet, but frankly I’m so busy organizing the recordings, the booking, the promotion, the production; sometimes ten or twelve hours a day in an office. So while I’m certainly not a composer of the stature of Tim or Gwilym, I do plan to do a bit more in the future. I have some ideas of my own that I’d like to put on paper; and Acoustic Triangle is the perfect vehicle to play them with, so I am sure I’ll have the opportunity in future to put some more time into writing.

Developing a Distinctive Sound

Through the evolution of the trio, Acoustic Triangle continues to develop its own language, its own distinct sound. Creese explains that "there is a certain harmonic element to it; we keep discovering chords and thinking, ‘what’s this, what can we do with that?’ Each time we get together Gwilym’s found a new chord or something, and we take it to bits and analyze it and have fun with it. We are all interested in harmony, but there are other things as well. I think the group sound is interesting because, for example, on Catalyst there are only two or three points where it gets into a walking bass sort of thing; we just don’t do that very often, and that is because we are really into other things.

"I think the lack of a constant obvious rhythm," continues Creese, "is a factor in our sound; the fact that a lot of the music we play is rubato or, even if it’s in tempo, it’s not stated all the time. I think Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio is an important influence there, because when you listen to it there are times where there’s a really strong feeling of four to the bar, but when you analyze it, nobody’s playing it. It’s almost like slight of hand; Jack DeJohnette is almost playing a solo, Keith is playing these ridiculously long lines, going over the bar lines and all the beats, and Gary Peacock is doing something at the top end of the bass that’s also out of tempo; and yet you can still hear this "a-one-a-two-a-three-a-four" thing that nobody’s actually playing. Now we’ve taken that in a slightly different direction as we don’t need to imply it all the time.

"We don’t think of ourselves as having a front line and a back line," Creese continues. "Tim’s not a front line player exclusively in this trio, and Gwilym and I aren’t rhythm section players. In Acoustic Triangle we’re all equal soloists and equal accompanists, and we’re all interacting with each other all the time. So, as a bass player, it’s a different role; I like that role, the equality between the musicians; we’re all listening to each other and feeding off each other; the bass doesn’t often get to be that involved in that. There are passages, on "The Glide" and "Winding Wind" on Interactions, and on a couple of occasions on Catalyst, where all three of us are improvising together; we call it collective improvisation, and it involves me in a different role than is normal for the bass, where you’re supporting improvisers, or pumping away while they express themselves.

"We also don’t do much in the way of changing time signatures," concludes Creese, "whereas a lot of modern jazz groups feel that they have to change the signature every few bars or people won’t take them seriously. We’re not into that, we’re not going to be quirky for the sake of it; we want to be really melodic."

In fact, while there is a larger degree of abstraction with the current lineup, there is a lyrical quality to Acoustic Triangle that is fundamental to their sound. "There’s a passage in the middle of ‘Coffee Time,’ explains Creese, "where we go completely berserk, and play free with the bass clarinet playing funny harmonics, and then this sort of haunting tune emerges from this gloom; it’s quite evocative. There is certainly more freedom, more free improvisation and, while I think we’ll be doing more of that, I don’t think we’ll ever become an entirely free band because melody is so important to us.

Recording Acoustic Triangle

With Acoustic Triangle going for a completely acoustic sound in performance, it is only natural that they do the same for recording. There is the same attention to room acoustics and piano quality. Acoustic Triangle has, in fact, recorded both their albums in the same venue, St. George’s in Bristol, UK. "It is my favourite venue," says Creese, "the sound is wonderful; it has amazing acoustics. The BBC uses it for a lot of chamber recordings, they have their own piano that lives there, as well as a couple of other Steinways. I think there are three at the moment. It’s a lovely 550-seater room that was a church and is now a concert hall, and the sound just suits me."

The natural sound of the room is, in fact, such an important part of the overall recorded sound that it almost becomes a fourth member of the group. "That’s exactly how we feel," Creese explains, "The room is just so important to us. When we record we put two microphones way in the back of the church to capture the ambience; we mix it in as if it were digital reverb but it’s real and sounds much nicer; you just can’t beat that natural sound; it’s a spacious, wonderful sort of blooming sound that doesn’t suit more rhythm-based jazz ensembles, but it really suits us."

Audio-b.com

Creese formed his own record label, Audio-b.com, in the late 1980s, as a response to the inability to get more esoteric groups recorded by larger labels. "At the time," says Creese, "there weren’t a lot of independent labels, so I thought, ‘why don’t I try doing something myself?’ and it built up gradually from there. It’s never been a huge moneymaker, I must say; we’ve been going for about fifteen years and only produce, on average, one record a year, but they keep getting better; I’ve produced over sixty albums now, for Audio-b.com and other labels."

While some artists find self-producing to be problematic, Creese actually prefers it. "I find it a real advantage," Creese explains, "to be so familiar with the material, and really have an idea how I want it to come out. I don’t play on all the records I produce, but I do play on most of them because, selfishly, most of them are projects I am involved with as a bassist. The other thing is to find a really good engineer, and I’ve now found one who I respect enormously Bob Whitney, who engineered Catalyst, he’s just fabulous, he’s a musician himself, so he really understands what I’m trying to do."

The Future of Acoustic Triangle

Now that Acoustic Triangle has settled into a line-up that best combines the classical and jazz experiences, what does the future hold?

"One of the things we’d like to do," Creese says, "is to collaborate with other musicians. We recently did a gig as a quintet that included drummer Martin France and trumpeter Gerard Presencer, and it felt very good. We still played acoustically Martin is a very sensitive drummer, and he was into what we were doing so it wasn’t a problem, although I don’t always think we could get away with that, it also depends a lot on the room and the audience.

"What we’d also like to do," continues Creese, "is work with string quartets and orchestras a bit more. We’ve approached the Lindsay Quartet, who is pretty open-minded, about doing collaboration. What we don’t want to do is have the jazz people playing jazz and the string quartet accompanying them with long, slow notes; we want to write and perform things that really integrate the quartet and trio, so everybody’s featured as a soloist and everybody’s improvising. There will also be more extended writing.

"I also think," Creese continues, "that we’ll be moving away from doing other peoples’ material and moving more into exclusively original works. We’ll obviously continue with the acoustic premise, but I’d like to explore other venues that aren’t on the circuit, new venues and new ideas. And I’d like to write for the trio; the other two are always encouraging me to do so; I was working on this piece for Catalyst that simply never got finished in time, but I’ll have to finish it, along with doing some more writing."

Writing, performing, producing, promoting, arranging tours Malcolm Creese is certainly one of the hardest-working musicians around. And while these varied duties take up a lot of time, it is his work with Acoustic Triangle that is establishing him as a most unique artist, with a distinctive vision that blurs the boundaries between extended classical writing and collective improvisation. Along with Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock, Creese is defining a new language for jazz; one that throws out popular convention and creates a new space for improvisational expression.

Article reprinted courtesy of Nick Lea and jazzviews.co.uk

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Malcolm Creese
  • Interview Date: 2/1/2004
  • Subtitle: Blurring the Boundaries
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