Colin Webster, jazz saxophonist: Something Else! Interview

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Colin Webster seems to be cropping up in many guises recently. He works with other musicians and also produces solo works, which are about pushing sax and human capabilities to the extremes. He has played in small spaces and larger venues. His debut solo album Antennae, released by Gaffer Records in October 2013, was then followed by It’s On Like Boiled Corn from Norwegianism Records in 2015.

He is known for his duos with drummer Mark Holub and turntablist Graham Dunning, and performs regularly with Dutch free jazz/noise trio Dead Neanderthals. He has played with many key musicians of the current scene, including Mark Holub, Archie Shepp, Steve Noble, Alex Ward and many others. He also seems like a pretty decent guy, so I decided to find out a bit more about this popular player.

Colin grew up in a small town near Swindon in the rural county of Wiltshire. When he was 18, he moved to London. He started playing music when he was about 8 years old, first the piano because his parents bought one and he began to have lessons.

When I asked Colin Webster who or what inspired him musically, he said, “It’s hard to say as it’s such a gradual process, and none of the steps along the way seemed that significant at the time. I suppose listening to music and being interested in it was the catalyst. I used to love listening to the radio, or digging out old tapes. My parents were the ones who encouraged me to start playing an actual instrument. Piano was my first instrument for many years, although I don’t play it so much any more. When I was a teenager, I started playing the saxophone, and got hooked on it straight away.”

So how, I wondered, did he first start to perform? “At school. I was in a rock band playing keyboards and saxophone. The teachers would sometimes let us organize concerts during the lunch break, or we would also play at parties and things like that. I also had a job while I was still at school playing jazz standards on the piano at a local restaurant. I worked there as a waiter and one night the owner told me I was terrible at waiting tables, but gave me a gig there every week.”

I asked Colin Webster what emotions he feels when he performs, and about the reactions he gets from audiences.

“It’s always different for each situation — the style of music, the type of venue or crowd,” he said. “The perfect situation is always to be aware of nothing except the music, lost in deep concentration. There are always so many distractions, but I would say that’s the goal. Generally speaking, if I manage to reach this level of focus on the music, I’m not that aware of the audience. As the bulk of the playing I’m doing at the moment is improvised, I try to be extremely aware of the musicians I’m playing with. It’s something that I’ve had to work on — to shut out any distractions, and bring my focus exclusively on music, interacting, contributing. I suppose that when an improvised concert could be described as a success, the audience is also drawn into this zone with the musicians.”

What about his own listening? “My listening habits are erratic. I wouldn’t even begin to try and make sense of it. I’m usually trying to hear something new, or at least new to me. It goes in phases as well, and usually centres around certain artists or ‘scenes’. But really it ranges anything from free jazz to doom metal, gamelan to techno.

Does he have a philosophy on life, I wondered? Colin Webster replied simply, “Not yet.”

Audiences, for Colin, have been very supportive and he said, “I’ve been lucky enough to tour quite a lot and play all over the world to quite a variety of audiences and sometimes it’s in the most unlikely situations that you find the greatest connection. One situation that comes to mind was on a French tour with Dead Neanderthals last year. We played at Rennes, France, in a ‘strike house’ where striking workers can go for food and support and so on. We played a show in a barn at the back of the house with another free-jazz group. The room was packed, and for some reason everyone there was completely engaged with the music to a huge degree — and this is demanding, unrelenting music. I don’t know whether it was the collective mentality that went with belonging to this community, but it’s rare to experience such a focused crowd.”

As to the future, Colin is full of possibilities. “New projects and connections are developing all the time. Touring means I’ve managed to meet a lot of players from all over Europe and this has led to a lot of new collaborations. Some are one-off gigs or sessions, some have a more long-term view. Also, some of my existing projects are continuing to develop and grow. The great thing about working on all of these different projects is that they all require different approaches, or different tactics. The stuff I do with Graham Dunning requires a very different mindset to what I do with Dead Neanderthals, or with Mark Holub for example.”

Colin Webster does have interests away from music. He is currently heavily into artwork for his record label Raw Tonk Records. He said, “Some weeks I feel like I spend more time on visual art than music.”
With the music scene being an ever-changing thing, I asked Colin how he sees young people connecting with jazz and music. “I maybe can’t talk about ‘jazz,’ as I’m probably not fully connected to mainstream jazz myself. But if you use ‘improvised music’ as an umbrella term, I definitely see younger people connecting to it all the time,” Webster said. “All over Europe, there are young DIY scenes of musicians merging improvisation, electronics, noise and so on, and it’s been like that for years. It’s how it’s presented: Improvised music can be exciting, visceral, revolutionary, engaging as much as any other style of music.

That Colin Webster is a player of the present and future is no doubt, and the engaging feature of Colin’s playing is how he has influences of early Brotzmann and Parker — a fact he commented on when I pointed it out on one of his albums with Mark Holub, Viscera. “Yeah, early Evan and early Brotzmann were definitely on my mind when we did this session,” Webster says.

He also is ready to take advantage of any opportunity given to him and collaborated with Andrew Lisle, and Alex Ward on 2014’s Red Kite because they were offered a free recording session at the notorious Cro’s Nest — a South London studio usually associated with underground metal bands. Such fortuitous events seem to have provided Colin Webster with many opportunities, as the three performers on Red Kite are prolific on the UK and European improvised music scene, with Alex Ward having played with Derek Bailey, Steve Noble and John Edwards.

Colin Webster is one of those musicians who you just know are going places and others — like the intuitive manager at the restaurant where he made such a bad job of being a waiter — obviously know talent when they hear it. He is an intuitive player, with intensity and drive behind his playing. I am willing to bet, we shall hear a lot more.

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