Recently I had the opportunity to interview piano player and composer Andrea Vicari Andrea was busy preparing for her annual trip to South West France where she directs the Dordogne International Jazz Summer School. Therefore, it was great to secure an hour of her time.
Now, Andrea has been my favourite British jazz musician for the last 16 years since I discovered her CD by chance back in 1998. That CD was called Lunar Spell and was issued on 33 Records in 1995, one year after her debut release entitled Suburban Gorillas. I was so impressed with Lunar Spell I decided to get a copy and purchased Suburban Gorillas for good measure. What I liked was Andrea’s compositions were totally original; there were no covers of standards or discernible riffs borrowed from other musicians, which is so often the case when young artists are just starting out.
That is quite a complement for a jazz artist. Having said that, I have never heard Andrea’s music on the radio in the years I have been following her career and listening to jazz on the airwaves, which I am not sure why that would be the case (JLR will correct that). Andrea’s other efforts on CD include Tryptych which was released in 2004 and Mango Tango from 2007. Andrea is also a member of the pan European group Jazz ExTempore Orchestra which was formed in the late 2000s and has issued two CDs to date: Roundtrip in 2009 and East & West which was issued last year on 33 Records.
Andrea is also very busy on the British jazz scene, regularly appearing with her group or as a sideman (woman) for other prominent artists. Along with Janette Mason, Andrea has directed an all-female group which has performed standards plus original compositions. One interesting band I would have liked to see was her Horace Silver tribute band; Horace Silver is one of my all-time favourite musicians. Andrea also teaches jazz piano at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
Born in Florida and growing up in the Midlands, Andrea developed her love of jazz at a young age through her parents. Her father was a semi-professional piano player and her mother was also a jazz fan; this helped to shape Andrea’s love for music and her deciding to pursue a professional career. Andrea started playing jazz at the age of 15 with the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra in Birmingham. From there, Andrea made her way to Cardiff University to study a classical degree and then received a one year scholarship to study a Post Graduate Certificate in jazz at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama; a young Andrea knew it would be a great opportunity to open doors for her to get onto the London jazz scene.
Opportunities would only take you so far, you still need talent, drive and determination to forge a career in a niche market such as jazz. It should be noted as well that there are not many women on the jazz scene who lead their own groups; Barbara Thompson comes to mind, who I saw many moons ago in St Albans. Internationally there is German organist Barbara Dennerlein and Americans such as Rachel Z, Geri Allen and the talented Esparanza Spalding. From previous generations there are pioneers like Carla Bley Patrice Rushen and Joanne Brackeen; I should add I am specifically referring to women leaders who are primarily musicians first and foremost, not singers (Spalding is a bass player and singer). To my mind that makes Andrea a vital presence on the British jazz scene.
During our chat I was intrigued about Andrea’s background and influences. I was also interested in her opinions on the making of music and her future in jazz. Note: audio of this conversation will be available on JLR this week. Check for listings.
- I read your biography and see that you were born in Florida and grew up in Birmingham.
My family were from Birmingham originally but emigrated to Florida, it was just after the war and there was rationing, they left to have a better life and they had a very good life there; but decided to come back to Birmingham after 10 years in Florida.
- How did you get into jazz and what were your early influences?
My dad was a jazz pianist, mostly semi pro, my mum was also a jazz fan. At first I thought it wasn’t my kind of music but my parents’ music. Then when I was 15 I joined a big band, the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra; that was my first jazz education.
- Did you have a piano teacher or did you go to a certain music school as a teenager?
I had classical lessons and then I had a piano teacher when I was at Guildhall, he’s now Head of Faculty at the Conservatoire at Trinity where I teach, so he’s now my line manager!
- You received a scholarship whilst at Cardiff University to study at the Guildhall School of Music. How exciting was that opportunity and did you envisage it being a path to a professional career?
It was incredibly exciting. I thought I’ve got a whole year doing exactly what I want. I was around the age of 22 and I had made my decision it would be my career, and if I got into Guildhall that would help speed up the process. I thought if I get in great, if I didn’t it doesn’t matter because I am going to move to London and make my living from jazz. At that time, Guildhall was the only institution in London to study jazz and had about 17 students so was seen as the crème de la crème, I definitely got gigs on the back of that course.
- I first discovered your CD Lunar Spell in the late 1990 and purchased Suburban Gorillas soon afterwards. Suburban Gorillas was quite a grand project for a debut CD; how did that project come about?
I had applied and received funding from the Arts Council to write some music for a large ensemble. I also received a Peter Wittingham award which is specifically aimed at musicians under 30. In those days, it was for non-classical music so I applied and got shortlisted. I had to explain in an interview that I wanted to make a CD and played the pieces I had recorded so far which I got Arts Council funding for; and needed more funding to finish writing the rest of the pieces.
They were really impressed with what I had written and how quickly the musicians got it together in a day’s rehearsal. It was a 10 piece band and I needed more funding to hire a studio and pay the musicians and put the CD out on 33 Records.
- I think you have a gift for writing melodies and rhythms in a jazz context. Many musicians are technically gifted but are not able to write memorable tunes. What are your views on composition making?
I would totally agree with you! Melody is something I really value, and things you can sing back; if someone comes to my gig and they leave singing it, I think I’ve done something, you know, made a difference. There is some rhythmic stuff as well but a lot of it works because of melody.
- Your association with the Jazz ExTempore Orchestra is really interesting. How did that come about?
I was contacted around seven years ago by Elvis Stanic who is a guitarist from Croatia; he’s festival Director at Liburnia jazz festival in Croatia. He invited me along with a Bulgarian drummer (Hristo Yotsov) and Dutch bass player (Rico De Jeer); the idea was to bring all of our cultures together, develop music together and play for one week in Croatia and do talks afterwards. It was funded by the Croatian arts ministry, who decided they wanted to extend it beyond one week so helped to fund that. We have recorded two CDs, Round Trip (2009) plus East and West last year, so that’s how the project came about.
- What does the future hold for Andrea Vicari?
It is always difficult to tell but I think you have to keep reinventing things as an artist; you have to put that creative process that you’ve got into writing and how you are going to develop it as an artist. I always want to do something new, whether that be writing or performing or writing jazz books for composition and learning; as a legacy that would be an achievement.