Dancing On Frith Street: An Interview with Duncan Heining
This is the full version of an interview with Duncan Heining, parts of which were published in Jazz Wise Magazine on the release of Loose Tubes “Dancing On Frith Street”, October 2010.
- How did your involvement with Loose Tubes start and what had you been up to before that?
I had been visiting Django and Steve Berry where they lived in Beckenham, having a play with them. They were on their way to this rehearsal band run by Graham Collier and I tagged along. I think it was the second or third meeting of the band, before Django and Steve had started bringing their own charts. I kept on coming; Graham Collier didn’t seem to mind that I had gatecrashed!
Before that I had been playing with Django’s group “Humans” (we did a couple of BBC radio broadcasts) which later turned into “Human Chain”, and Steve Berry’s group. I had also become involved with John Stevens through Community Music recently and was beginning to play a bit with “Freebop” alongside Courtney Pine and others.
Before that I did a degree in Music at York University where I played a lot of contemporary music. I met some great musicians there like the clarinet player Alan Hacker, composers like Trevor Wishart and Victor Hoyland – very inspiring!
And before that I played in a rock band in school doing (amongst other things) Jethro Tull and Focus tunes!
- Have you heard the live CD and (if so) what are your thoughts about it?
Yes I have heard it. I think it’s brilliant! The band sounds really amazing. You really get a sense of the physical power of all those people playing together, which was one of the things that knocked people out about Loose Tubes. And the band is really hot – the playing is excellent and the ensemble incredibly sharp. Live recordings are always problematic to mix and Django has done a great job.
- Loose Tubes played several residencies at Ronnie's. Were Pete and Ronnie supportive and what are your recollections of your residencies at the club and in particular this last set of gigs?
Ronnie and Pete loved the band. Well it put bums on seats for one thing, but I know they dug the iconoclastic spirit. I remember one time when some tourists complained to Pete because Ashley (compere and bass trombone, went on to form Freak Power with Norman Cook) had sworn at them for talking loudly during the music. Pete responded with: “he’s right you are a bunch of *****” and threw them out of the club! Pete and Ronnie came with us when we marched offstage and into Frith Street intent on marching to Downing Street. (We decided to come back onstage and finish the tune). There is a lot of doom and gloom around now about the economic climate, “tightening our belts”, etc which is quite similar to the Thatcher days Loose Tubes evolved in. Although Tubes was never a political band (despite the odd statement opposing nuclear power and some benefit concerts) it was the spirit of the music itself which loudly opposed the deadening, reactionary political climate. Our trombone section blew a nice long raspberry at Thatcher, Tebbitt and all the rest of them. It was like we were letting people in on a great party. At the same time there was something considered, intent and purposeful about Loose Tubes; not mere technical display, not just loud riotous splattering notes and audiences against the wall; it was serious and it was fun. It was like the music was saying “never mind the numbing lies of politics. Here is the real truth!”
- What for you were the highpoints of your time with Loose Tubes?
There were so many! Certainly the Ronnies residencies were important because they were so intense: concentrated playing; concentrated relationships. And because of the time of day (first set at 10pm, second set begins after midnight) you get into this strange other way of existing. Other high points were: the Proms – very scary!; touring abroad, especially Canada (my first experience of midnight sun), but also Europe. The broadcasts, making the records. Everything! Even the interminable coach trips – bombing along the autobahn in driving rain; epic journeys punctuated by riotous and howling laughter and intense, heated and often inconclusive discussions; tumbling out at the other end to do a gig; and then the après-gig drinking in foreign bars… Onstage, the feeling of being part of this unstoppable force, of the music having this palpable, physical presence… I think you can hear this on the new CD.
In the 1980’s Loose Tubes were one of the most popular jazz bands in Britain. People were excited about the band, not just because of the humour but because there was real quality there, real musical ability and ingenuity. I’m not casting aspersions but there have been other bands that just blustered a lot and made a riotous row. Loose Tubes was much more than this.
- What do you value most about your time with the band?
It’s difficult to single out particular aspects, but I’ve got to say that it put me on the path of composing my own material, and gave me tons of experience of writing for large ensembles. After years sitting amongst them, you really know what a saxophone section sounds like! Or four trumpets, or four trombones and a tuba. You also get to know what is possible, what you can ask people to play, and what is impractical.
Another area is my playing. Being around such great musicians, like Django, Iain Ballamy, Tim Whitehead, to name only three, was incredibly inspiring. Not only their playing but their thoughts, their spirit and intellect, were so beneficial to me. They helped me to think about how I wanted to sound, what my direction was.
- What if any regrets do you have about your time with the band?
- Looking back what for you are Loose Tubes achievements and did it (for you) achieve its goals?
For me Loose Tubes was about welcoming all the different musical influences that go to make up our lives. We live in an age when it is possible to be exposed to and influenced by a huge range of musics, either voluntarily or involuntarily. As a child I heard lots of classical music but also Stevie Wonder and other Tamla Mowtown artists; as a teenager it was pop and rock but I also started pursuing ever more far-flung and esoteric interests, from Javanese Gamelan to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Captain Beefheart to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Later on I discovered a love for Charlie Parker, Keith Jarrett, Kora music, bossa nova, Sardana music, etc. Loose Tubes played an eclectic repertoire that reflected the passions of the different musicians in the band. There was an awareness of the mainstream jazz tradition but without being straightjacketted by it. Sometimes it’s possible to get a very narrow conception of jazz; there are voices – strong, influential voices - that seem to be dictating what Jazz should be. Often it’s a historical thing. There are those that say that Jazz is that thing that died when Charlie Parker died (just as there are those reactionaries that say that classical music is that thing that died when Wagner died). Some don’t want tunes or grooves but noise and are obdurate about it. Others want to go further back, to say Jazz should sound like The Hot Five. For some, big band music should sound like Boyd Rayburn or Maynard Fergusson or Benny Goodman. Loose Tubes came along said “ No disrespect to Boyd Rayburn or Maynard Fergusson or Benny Goodman, but COBBLERS!!!!”
Early on, one of the most important tunes we played was Django’s arrangement of Weather Report’s “Young and Fine”. That tune sort of positioned us with respect to a certain modern jazz sound – Weather Report were also a very eclectic band that were not afraid to sound at one moment funky, at another moment like Duke Ellington, at another like an African marketplace, at another like a wild west scene with whippoorwills blowing through the desert - and there were other Jazz precedents like Gil Evans, some of Herbie Hancock’s writing on “Speak Like A Child”, for example, that were there in quite a lot of the writing in Loose Tubes. But because Chris Batchelor was into Ghanaian Kpanlogo and Columbian Merengue and Irish ballads as well as Anthony Braxton and Keith Jarrett; and because Dave DeFreis was deeply into South African township Jazz as well as Brazilian music, reggae, and other things; because of these other passions, the doors were open to these sounds as well. I had the sound of avant-garde composers like Ligeti and Berio in my ears and it seemed right to me to find a place for these alongside Eric Dolphy, Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Evan Parker, etc. So I wrote a piece called “Sosbun Brakk” which tried to bring all these things under one roof. I didn’t do it for any gimmick – it seemed very natural for me to write it, and it is a serious piece, not a weird aberration or cul-de-sac. But it was just as important for me to write the smooth-funky “Children’s Game” which came straight after, and also to write the reggae-style “The Last Word” which came after that. What I’m getting at is that Loose Tubes promoted a concept of Jazz that was extremely broad, without becoming hopelessly eclectic and dilettante. I know there are musicians around now who were inspired as young players by Loose Tubes in this.
8. As a teacher what have you carried forward into your teaching practice that you learned in Loose Tubes?
I’ve tried to show my students that you can learn from very widely different musical genres, whatever your particular chosen area might be. Some of the sonorities of Debussy, Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok and Messaien show up in the playing of Jarrett and Bill Evans and in the writing of Gil Evans (classical musicians can learn from these too); the kind of rhythmic fluidity you find in Ghanaian music feeds into the way you might play funky styles; the intense listening involved in free improvisation helps in playing any and all styles of music, written or not.
One “should be” thing:
music should be fun!
I teach a lot of junior age children with my partner Elaine using percussion instruments and classroom xylophones, playing mostly rhythmic music. The workshop sessions are lively and fun and always involve a bit of singing and dancing. We have composed a repertoire which includes bits of African, Brazilian and Middle Eastern music as well as pop and rock styles, so that’s quite “Tubesie”. And we also do some improvised soundscapes where the children have to listen carefully and respond sensitively, taking the sounds seriously. All of these things I think are in keeping with the Loose Tubes vibe.
9. Do your students ever ask you about the band?
Yes some (older) young musicians are aware of it and speak in reverential tones! So I’m so glad this release is coming. It’s hard to find the vinyl albums and “Open Letter”. Sometimes it’s possible to feel that Loose Tubes has been air-brushed out of Jazz history. This release is amazingly and undeniably strong and sounds like now. So now people can really hear what all the fuss was about!