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Interview, Tim Garland and Jason Rebello on their new album 'Life to Life'

Jason Rebello & Tim Garland
Jason Rebello (left) & Tim Garland (right)

You can hardly go wrong with old friends making music together; musical chemistry is just as much about deep friendship as it is about raw chops. Multi-reedist Tim Garland and keyboardist/pianist Jason Rebello have been collaborating in various capacities for the best part of thirty years now, and while the occasional duet performance has made its way onto their projects together, their new album Life to Life (just released on Whirlwind Recordings) is the first full-length recording of the pair as a duo. Following a successful album launch in St Martin-in-the-Fields last month, Tim and Jason were keenly awaiting the release of Life to Life when I sat down with them earlier this week to discuss the roots of their musical friendship, their influences going into the new album, and how the record came together.

Your new record draws on three decades of musical camaraderie, but where did that connection actually start?

Tim Garland: We met at the Guildhall School of Music; we were both students but Jason was this sort of pinup model, this young star that was a couple of years younger than me – and he’s still a couple of years younger than me!

Jason Rebello: But not a pinup model anymore…

TG: He was getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so – he seemed to come along fully formed. My main focus at the time was composing; I only seriously turned to the saxophone while I was a student, so I came fully-loaded with lots of compositional ideas, but was less fluent on my instrument, I suppose. Jason and I hit it off and did a few gigs, I remember the Jazz Café was a regular spot of ours.

JR: We’ve been playing on and off ever since. There’s a few musicians that I feel are of ‘my generation’ where it feels like we’re a kind of family, there’s something very brotherly about it - Tim is definitely part of that group.

TG: I feel exactly the same way, and as I said in the liner notes of the album – that rapport you get, you can’t rush that or fake it. It’s rather like growing a garden, and what we have now are the fruits of all that work. But what’s interesting for me is that it’s still a learning process, I imagine for both of us because we both have different strengths; Jason’s a very earthy player with an amazing sense of time and groove, and I can learn from that by being kind of visceral and really in my body when I’m playing.

When we came to recording Life to Life I thought it’d be a breeze, that we’d do it in a day, but it actually took about 4 different sessions to work things up to where we wanted them to be. We could’ve aimed lower, but I think we knew how special it could be if we just kept going. Originally the project was called Duology because it was about the science of ‘what can a duo actually do?’; how can it sound orchestral, how can we cover that traditional element but still sound modern, how can we avoid it sounding like wine bar music?

Having known each other for so long, what was it that made you think that now was the time to record this duet album together?

TG: Some of it goes back a couple of years. Jason wrote this great tune for the record called ‘No Hope, No Tears’ which I play bass clarinet on, and that was a lockdown thing for me; I’d asked him to write me something ‘fiendish’ for the bass clarinet, which is an instrument that’s a bit more difficult to play than the saxophone, and he did just that - really kicked my arse! I’m still learning it now, even after we’ve recorded it.

JR: I’ve recorded with Tim before on a couple of his albums, and it just got to the point where we just said ‘well, why don’t we do something together?’, but I think it was probably a couple of years from the idea to actually releasing it, we were playing around with ideas for some time – it was quite gradual.

TG: If you wanna hear the history of our duet career, on my album Enter the Fire back in 1997 we did a duet arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘I Love You Porgy’ that ended up being one of the standout tracks on the album, I think that just comes down to the transparency and ease of playing a duet. There’s also a really poignant track we did together on the album Songs to the North Sky in 2014, the Michael Jackson song ‘She’s Out of My Life’ – that album goes all the way from full orchestra right down to this particular track that’s again just a duet. For me the focus that a duet provides… there’s no passengers, every note is transparent and fully heard, which can take some getting used to. So we’ve got these odd moments where our careers have touched over the years, and recording Life to Life just made sense.

Jason Rebello & Tim Garland

Are there any particular duos that you’re fans of, or maybe draw from?

JR: I don’t think I was consciously thinking of any in particular, but there are a few duos I really like. Obviously there’s Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter], and I love Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, both of those are favourites of mine.

TG: There are two that come to mind for me; the first being John Surman and John Taylor, whose music is very ‘whimsically British’, as opposed to hard-hitting New York-type stuff – you can hear an obvious influence from Western classical music in their stuff. The other is Chick [Corea] and Gary Burton, I think as duos go they’re the top for many people, and of course they knew each other for so long too.

When you’re composing for music like this it’s a bit like swiss cheese – a good composition for jazz allows a lot of space for the improvisers to fill in the gaps, and some of the best bits are the parts that get filled; it’s more of a template from which you build, and knowing how to leave the right gaps is such a big part of writing good jazz compositions – it certainly helps when you know the musicians well too.

How did you two go about preparing the material for the record?

JR: I’d say there was a fair bit of back-and-forth, and there were lots of tunes that didn’t get onto the record. Because Tim has a studio at home that’s set-up for recording, we had a bit more freedom to do that. ‘The Missing Ingredient’ for instance was a last minute addition because we were just able to say “let’s do one more day”; I wrote that piece in a weekend and we recorded it on Monday, and the final result was quite different from what I originally envisioned. But that’s what creativity is like, it kind of follows its own path. Apart from that a lot of the other tunes we’d thought about for a long time and were quite considered, I’d say.

TG: And isn’t it wonderful, to be able to go into the studio and not know so much? When I’ve done orchestral or big band stuff you really have to know, a lot of it is prescribed already because there’s tons of musicians you’re writing for. So conversely, when there’s only two of you you’re able to go in with just a rough sketch – it’s a miracle really, that cloud of unknowing you walk into – you have to trust the space, it’s magic.

And in terms of the tunes that aren’t originals, understandably the inclusion of Chick Corea’s ‘Children’s Song No. 6’ is due to Tim’s history, but what was the significance behind picking the traditional tune ‘Black is the Colour (of My True Love’s Hair)’?

TG: I’ve always been interested in the power of melody in folk tunes, not just the English or Celtic ones but from all around the world; there’s a sort of irreducible power about a tune like that, you can’t take one note out of it, it would make too much difference – the opposite of a bebop chart! It’s about getting out of the tradition that jazz sometimes falls into, this kind of Broadway or swing tradition and so on, and finding something as close to home as you can as a British person. I’ve already recorded this tune on two other albums in my career, so this will be the third time I’ve done it, it’s quite a well-known folk song.

Looking back on the album – and not to put you guys on the spot, but – do you have any particular favourite moments of one anothers’ contributions to the record?

TG: I’ll go first! There’s a track called ‘One Morning’ where Jason does a fantastic solo. It’s totally free and out-of-time; there’s a couple of minutes of written material in that track, and although I’ve heard Jason do this live, it’s just a perfect example of light, shade and nuance… and complete freedom. For me that’s one of the highlights of the album.

JR: It’s difficult for me to pick out a moment on the album, but I will say that I’ve learned so much from Tim as a composer; he’s got such a unique voice, and when he improvises you can hear that too. When you improvise you can rely on a lot of things like licks and patterns, but I like that challenge of being taken outside of my comfort zone; I find that when I play with Tim he really pushes me to find interesting things and tell a story for each particular solo.

Jason Rebello & Tim Garland

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC