Saxophonist/composer Aaron Liddard is about to release “Nylon Man” his debut studio album under his own name, the title a reference to the three cities which have, as he says, ‘most fed my soul’. Aaron Liddard has been particularly broad and all-embracing vision of music, and no fewer than forty-two different musicians playing or singing on the album. Interview feature by Dan Paton.
The fact that saxophonist and composer Aaron Liddard is about to release his debut studio album under his own name belies the vast number of brilliant stories he has amassed as a result of years as a professional musician. These range from the slightly strange video shoot request that initiated his six months working with Amy Winehouse (‘be ready for the taxi at 6am with a baritone saxophone and your pajamas!’) to working weeks of 12 hour days adapting intricate Norman Connors productions and assembling a 13-piece band for live work with Michael Henderson. In the case of the Winehouse video shoot, it was perhaps unfortunate that Liddard did not have any pajamas. Fortunately, he is able to improvise (‘I had an Indian one piece thing’, he explains).
The moment Liddard describes as ‘the highlight of my musical life’ came onstage when none other than Prince asked most of the band to drop down so he could fully enjoy the horn section of which Liddard was a crucial part. Liddard had been opening for Prince at his legendary O2 Arena residency with Beverly Knight, and the band had been invited to play at a couple of the late night after show parties at the smaller Indigo venue. Of his career as a performing musician and bandleader, Liddard says ‘I’ve had a lot of good fortune, but it’s not only that. There are 100 hours of hard work behind every hour of good fortune’. No doubt Liddard was surprised to get a call back from Michael Henderson requesting he organise the band for some shows in London seven years after first working with him, but it can only be because Henderson was impressed with that earlier experience at a soul weekender in Blackpool (at the time an annual event for Liddard).
The title of Liddard’s forthcoming album, Nylon Man, cannily combines the three cities which Liddard claims to have ‘most fed my soul’. These are New York, London and Manchester. Liddard spent his early career in Manchester, then moved to London where he feels he ‘evolved’ professionally. ‘I was well known in Manchester…I had a killing band playing original music, but I’d go to Leeds or Liverpool and no one would know who I was. London has given me a good kick up the bum!’ As many as 15 visits to New York further inspired him to find his own voice (‘if you play from your heart a bit, suddenly the doors are open’), and he describes New York as ‘one of the most challenging cities musically, but also uplifting’. Liddard also identifies USA audiences as uniquely engaged. ‘People will come out even if the band has done very little promotion and then they will queue up to buy the merchandise’, he says, still sounding somewhat staggered. ‘Jazz is less marginalized there’, he explains, ‘but the flip side is that we have a social care system and they don’t. So you have to make it there! The way they make music is very committed’.
The influence of a wide range of musical styles makes itself present on Nylon Man, which is a diverse and often surprising album. The music takes numerous twists and turns, often within the space of individual tracks. Liddard also likens the music to nylon itself: ‘I think the music is really flexible and, as a saxophonist, I’m quite hardy!’. This is not to suggest that Liddard necessarily set out to bombard the listener with stylistic shifts and ideas. He suggests his writing process is more a matter of chance and the recording often involved a lot of trial and error. ‘My belief is that musical ideas are already in existence somewhere and occasionally they’ll choose a person. In this case, they chose me and I could turn them into something people could hear’.
Realising the depth and range of his music took a total of 42 musicians. ‘I’d like to say that this is because the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy claims the meaning of life is 42′, Liddard jests, ‘but really it’s because I needed bebop players to play the bebop moments, players from Latin America to work on the Latin tunes, soul players to be able to play soul’.
Just to cite a couple of examples, Omar Pointe guests on violin on the brisk but relaxed Latin tune Manana and Chicken Soup was recorded in Brazil with a rhythm section of Du Gomide (guitar), Felipe Cortes (bass) and Mauro Martins (drums). Sometimes he did have particular people in mind at the writing stage (Thru Your Eyes was written for singer Giulia Marelli), but at other times, recording involved single ideas being developed and extended through working with a live band. Again, he extends the materials analogy: ‘You can tease a bit of fabric out of the ether, and if you’re gentle with it, you can get a bit more’. A number of the compositions date back a number of years (earlier versions can be heard on a live album recorded with his band Aaron & The Argonauts) but these studio recordings clearly capture considerable further work, and a greater emphasis on production values (engineers Nikolaj Bjerre and Tim Bazel were on board throughout). Indeed, Liddard emphasises editing as being a crucial part of the process. There is a brightness and clarity to the sound throughout the album.
While Nylon Man certainly covers a lot of musical ground, it is not scattershot. Liddard claims that ‘the combining factor is balance – between fast and slow, intense and relaxed, electronic and acoustic.’ Upon listening to the album in full, Liddard says he feels ‘calm and blissed out’, even though the work has its fair share of intense and kinetic passages. The opening section of the brilliantly discombobulating ‘My Kinda’, for example, is particularly punchy, perhaps resembling Acoustic Ladyland in their punk jazz guise. The piece as a whole then runs the gamut of a turbulent relationship, traveling between a range of musical styles without much in the way of signposting. Balancing this is the lush and unconventional groove of Thru Your Eyes or the intriguing combination of memorable melody, Carleen Anderson‘s exquisite vocal delivery and engaging groove on Frisco.
Liddard wrote Frisco overnight in a hostel after attending a hip hop opera in San Francisco. The original melody can be heard in the bristling jazz sections, but after sharing the tune with Carleen Anderson, Liddard ended up subverting it (‘they say that sometimes you have to butcher your babies’, he says mischievously). Anderson had actually spent a year living in San Francisco before returning to the UK, and together he feels they have captured the sound of that city. Liddard describes Anderson as ‘the UK Queen of Soul’ and suggests that ‘there is a nobility about the way she sings…she expresses the message purely and with an amazing amount of heart and passion’. Alongside the contributions of Giulia Marelli (who tackles some of the more knotty melodic material with real agility) and Miss Baby Sol (who appears on Beautiful, a bold ballad), vocalists have a strong and powerful presence on Nylon Man.
Liddard feels that listeners became more open minded around the turn of the millennium, and are now more open to albums that may surprise. He also goes at least partially against the current consensus on streaming too. While many voices are pretty critical of the role algorithms can play in influencing listening habits, Liddard seems to think that streaming has left more space for individual approaches, with people less concerned with following fashion and more keen and more able to seek out the music they actually want to hear. All this seems to look like a broader philosophy that assumes few limits to the possibilities of contemporary music. It helps that his experience as a saxophonist playing in lots of different genres, ‘sometimes with real masters in those styles’, has given him the foundations for converting such an ambitious approach to music making into tangible results.
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The release of Nylon Man (7 October) will be supported by a run of UK live dates:
Thursday, 29 September – Manchester, Matt & Phred’s
Thursday 7th October – Darwen, Sunbird Records
Friday 7 October – Berkhamsted, Arty Barn
Saturday 8 October – London, Temple of Art & Music (TAM)
Thursday 20 October – Newcastle, Hoochie Coochie
Friday 18 November – Abegavenny, The Melville Theater