Interview

Risky On Purpose: Jasmine Whalley & the Jasmine Quintet

By February 17, 2019

Music. Leeds.

Jasmine Whalley announces the start of a gig by the Jasmine Quintet by playing eight notes on her saxophone, twice; the opening bars of ‘Cold Sweat’, also the opening bars of ‘To Be Here Now’, a compilation of jazz music being played in Leeds.

Each note clears the air for the next, a sixteen step prep before the band drops in and bolts down hip hop influenced beats and basslines and melodic sparks, as tight, sparse and cool as songs by Gil Scott Heron that influenced hip hop. Owen Burns on bass, Georges Hall and MacDonald on drums and keys, Ben Haskins on guitar; the band swirl behind the ascending frenzy of Jasmine’s solos.

The Jasmine Quintet’s upcoming EP adds a party all night layer of studio imagination. Live, the extra fun is watching the band when Jasmine hits some new improvisation or favourite riff, when they can’t hide their delight in her playing. Their faces flash appreciation or astonishment, shared grins.

“That’s nice!” Jasmine says when I tell her about this, worrying that I’m giving away an intra-band secret. “I’m always facing forward, so I can’t see them when I’m playing.

“I’m going to sound so pretentious right now, but when I’m on stage improvising, especially playing my own music with the Quintet, it’s funny because sometimes I’ll play a solo and I don’t know what I’m thinking about. I’ll finish and I’ll think, woah, what just happened?

“It’s really nice because I go into this space where I’m not really thinking about anything, and those are the best feelings.”

When Jasmine decided at primary school that she wanted to play music her first choice was violin, but that didn’t work out. Her pick at high school was the saxophone and it felt natural, heavy and fun, and took Jasmine inside her dad’s record collection. He is a jazz pianist with Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley to share.

“I’m quite driven, and I just want to be able to do things straight away,” says Jasmine. “I feel like when people are younger sometimes they don’t want to practice, they can’t be bothered. I kept getting really frustrated, but my mum told me to just keep practising, that I wasn’t going to be able to do it straight away.

“I can’t remember an exact moment, but there were times at high school when I’d be playing in the concert band or the jazz band and I started noticing that I could do it. If we played a tune I would be like, oh great, I can play that, and I think it sounds okay. That was a really good feeling.”

The Quintet formed before Jasmine’s final year at Leeds College of Music, part of her degree’s requirement for a recital band, and part of Jasmine’s requirement for expressing herself.

“I’m in other people’s projects, but I wanted something that was mine, so I could write my own music. I think it’s good to have your own thing.

“I think as an artist it’s important to have something you can focus on where you’re doing exactly what you want to do. I love writing things with other people and doing what they like, but this is something for me that I enjoy a lot and is really special to have.”

The Quintet are friends recruited from one of those projects, Têtes de Pois, a group of pivotal players making laid back jazz and afrobeat music.

“They were all in the year above me at college and I became really good friends with them,” says Jasmine. “I’m not quite sure why, but knowing them so well and being able to predict what they will do or how they will bounce off something I do makes it really fun.

“A lot of the time I come up with basic ideas and a vague structure. I think I know about melody because I play a melody instrument, but with the chords or a bassline I don’t mind leaving it up to the group because I think they bring something really cool to the music. It really comes together in rehearsal. Same with the drums, I might know what sort of groove I want but I can trust George to come up with the best thing for it. George on keys studies harmony and knows so much more than me, so it would be silly to make him play what I’ve written, because it wouldn’t be as good.”

What’s good is then played in Jasmine’s name, and it’s Jasmine’s sound, determined to be modern but unhooked from era by the freshness of her playing. Recordings of Jasmine’s saxophone sound like they were made yesterday, the way that the best recordings from the 1960s sound like they were made yesterday, which is to say that they sound like they were made tomorrow.

“When I booked our first gig we did some Herbie Hancock tunes, some Michael Brecker, a couple of originals I’d written; but I had no idea what I was doing,” says Jasmine. “After time I realised how I wanted it to sound and develop.

“It’s a mix of artists I’m inspired by like MF Doom; Soweto Kinch, who is a sax player I really love; at the moment I’m really inspired by Bonobo, Marquis Hill, Braxton Cooke; all different artists I like, and hopefully my own sound as well.

“Hopefully when people listen to the music they will hear that it’s me. I don’t know exactly what that means, but hopefully they will be able to hear that it’s mine.”

In 2018 Jasmine Quintet were jointly selected, with Slow Loris, for the Jazz North Introduces scheme, earning them bookings and mentoring; “We might get to work with Soweto Kinch, who is my idol,” says Jasmine. An EP, Bring To Light, is being released in April 2019 with Leeds jazz collective Tight Lines.

“The EP was recorded in July at ATA Studios in Leeds. I managed to fund the recording myself, and we’re using a crowdfunder to raise enough money to have it pressed on vinyl.

“There’s something about jazz music that just makes me think vinyl. Obviously there will be CDs and online releases as well, but the vinyl is special to me because I want people to be taking it home, putting it on a player, putting the effort into sitting down and listening to it. I think that’s my first little dream. There will be other things I want to do but right now that seems like the first big step, to have an EP on vinyl.”

Dreaming and planning takes us back to the naming of the group.

“I had no idea what to call the band, and my tutor said, why not just name it after yourself? I guess I am the lead instrument, and although I didn’t want it to be a solo project, I still wanted people to know who I was. So that was a nice way to do it.”

And back to the responses of the band, who rehearse with Jasmine almost constantly in different groups and know her sound and her playing better than anyone, but are still her first and most appreciative audience when the Quintet are on stage.

It’s important because Jasmine’s playing stands out for its quality of communicating, not only the sixteen note alarm that opens ‘Cold Sweat’, but the emotional connections she makes with her saxophone, here and here, there and there. Blowing through a wind instrument is like singing without words, which is why the best players are called lyrical; the notes they play don’t spell anything you could define in a dictionary, but Jasmine’s playing imparts meaning anyway, defined in the soul.

“When I’m about to solo, I always think about everything I’m about to play,” says Jasmine, “to make sure that it feels expressive rather than just playing, whatever. It’s important to think about what I’m going to play next, and how I’m going to structure it, because I think it’s important to build it properly. I don’t want each solo to be the same.

“I love improvising. Sometimes I find myself getting really nervous, but the thing I try to remember is not to take it too seriously. If I take a risk and it doesn’t pay off I don’t dwell on it, I’m glad that I did it. That’s the thing about jazz, or the jazz that I like, anyway. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

“It’s about the energy and having fun and going for it. I think it’s good to make it risky on purpose. It’s a bit boring if you don’t take any risks while you’re playing.”

Bring To Light by Jasmine is released in April 2019; order it from Bandcamp and follow on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

(photo by pretendonline)

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