Wellington Jazz Festival 2021 Interviews: Callum Passells

You may already have seen him on stage and not realised it. Tāmaki Makaurau composer and musician Callum Passells has toured with some of out best, like Aldous Harding and Hans Pucket. Usually he’s the sax man adding that extra pizazz and funk. Jazz fans may have seen him performing in numerous other outfits over the years, too, including Passells/Howell/Deck and LCR. But for the upcoming 2021 Wellington Jazz Festival, it’ll be all about Callum Passells, as he brings his group, LCR (Left/Centre/Right), to the Capital to play a newly minted commission, inspired by protest marches.

Passells thinks there is a distinct difference between performing overseas and what he does here at home. “Over there, you are likely to be unknown. So you need to establish a trust with the crowd. With Aldous (who was headlining), the crowd had some expectations of what would happen on stage – trust was already there – but not with Hans Pucket. We were completely unknown, an opening act on the other side of the world. We had to work hard to win over the room over, get people onside, to look up from their beers and stop chatting and listen.”

That experience has informed Passells’ approach back here, too. He knows that jazz, as a genre and a ‘concept’ covers a lot of ground. He wants to keep his audience engaged. Even jazz-heads can be put off by the music if it’s too self indulgent or academic. But he believes if the space is opened up it can be inviting. Finding a balance between the familiar, the challenging and the interesting is essential to a successful invitation.

As a composer, who also plays regularly, Passells draws on a well of creativity from the ‘old masters’ of jazz, including Coleman and composer Lee Konitz, treading the path less travelled. He’s a  ‘melodicist’, often working in groups where the sonic arc doesn’t necessarily rely on standard chord structures and harmonies. So, like the Doors, there’s no bassist, melody is most important and tone, especially from his instrument of choice, the alto sax, can alter significantly depending on the player, their mood and intention. “A tenor sax can also be individualised, but the alto, I find, it more likely to ‘speak’ with its distinctive voice, of its own (volition). That’s what makes an alto so distinctive and unique.”

It’s Passells’ ability to make “the outlying and complex accessible” (jazzlocal32.com), that has empowered him to undertake this new commission with the Jazz Festival as he explores the collective improvisation and rhythmic structures of aspects of protest chants. At the heart he will look into on how communities learn, adapt and reshape rhythm and melody during protest marches.
Passells tells me that the inspiration for this work comes directly from his own recent experiences on the front line at marches held in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I was involved in last year’s protests right in the middle of this malaise of sound, playing my horn alongside protestors and supporters. When you are right in the middle, you are surrounded by chanting and music.” He says it’s a spontaneous but also somehow ordered, and yet visceral, raw, 360 degree experience. It’s all building this ad-hoc supporting texture. “You get that in marches, Batacuda, street part music, Carnivals. That mix between spontaneous chaos and structure. That’s partly what I wanted to capture in this new work.”

And that’s precisely what he’s done. Creating, he tells me, a multi-part suite which explores the protest chant as the basis and construct of a swirling, building a musical motif. The intention, is to have three separate groups of musicians arranged on the stage in groups – one to the left, one in the centre and one to the right, LCR, all competing for ear-space. As it were in a protest or march. To create a poignant, memorable, rhythmic and propulsive experience for the audience. “To witness the sensory overload of protest through music,” says the publicity blurb.

Callum Pasells

Passells says that he found playing music within a protest situation to be a really “beautiful experience”. Musicians are there primarily to motivate the crowd and to bring in an energy force. He says that sometimes that music can create “a sense of joy” or high spirits. That might seem at odds with the intention of the protest but because the music is woven in between the chanting, the physical force of movement and the rhythm of a massed group it all creates an original, impromptu musical experience, which he finds compelling and inspiring.

“I was fascinated by the way all these dissonant elements in the marches could come together, almost organically together, led of course by the cause – BLM. And the made their own beautiful harmonies, whilst simultaneously battling with each other for your attention.”

To this writer it sounds like those sing-alongs of ‘London’s Burning’ we did at school, where each group started the verse at a different time and the sound overlapped. Passells agrees, that it’s the kind of effect he was going for, but using chants and building a groove around them. Think of the common ones, like “1,2,3,4…” and “What do we want? When do we want it? Now!” “Black Lives Matter!” He’ll work these into musical motifs and they will all play together or overlap each other, shout each other down or blend in to create individual parts to a greater whole. He doesn’t divulge exactly which chants he uses, that would be spoiling the show, but you get the idea.

Passells says that technically the concept of engineering something prescriptive and constructed by using a method of improvisation and spontaneity is of itself a challenging and creative pursuit. He has to create a kind of architecture for the pieces and then add in room for flexibility, improvisations and conductions. It all sounds like highly organised chaos.

He also notes that the way we hear music as it’s performed by a moving band or in a march or parade is a challenge when bringing it to a static stage, in front of a seated audience. Depending on whether you are a player in the band or march or a bystander watching, the music is phased along city blocks with the sound arriving to ears along a route at different times. A drummer at the front of a long march, with many participants could be a second out of time with the horns playing further down the line, and the chanters and singers could also be joining in on a differing phasing. Composing a piece that does all of this intentionally will be, no doubt, remarkable.

What’s also unique about this experience is the structure of the performance. With three separate ‘bands’ on stage, left right and centre, the movement between players is spontaneous and fluid but because it all overlaps there’s no room for indulgent solos or irrelevant noodling. The ensuing organised chaos only allows for a collective experience.

He says that given the experiences of 2020, he wanted to create a work that encapsulated the energy, the “sense of purpose” and the “sensory experience” of a protest march. But he was also acutely aware of the reason for the Black Lives Matter marches and was keen to use jazz, which is, of course rooted in the history of Black America, as a show of solidarity. It also calls in support of reactions to systemic racism and bigotry here at home in Aotearoa, and in that sense it is a very universal message for our times.

This first appeared here: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/wellington-jazz-festival-2021-interviews-callum-passells/

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