After the pandemic twice scuppered the unveiling of some of the most idiomatically diverse new music of his versatile career, trumpeter/composer Chris Batchelor, with the quintet Zoetic, is now finally touring the UK until July (full list of dates and dates below). Zoetic is a subtle and sophisticated chamber group which he conceived three years ago. It includes two other former members of Loose Tubes, and distils almost four decades of culture-crossing experience down to the essentials he loves most. Feature by John Fordham:
Zoetic is close to being a family band for Chris Batchelor. His viola-playing wife Margrit Hasler joins him in its closely-entwined quintet lineup, alongside guitarist John Parricelli and bassist Steve Watts – both former sidekicks from the great Loose Tubes big band – and a regular partner in the impishly genre-fluid Paul Clarvis playing tabla and assorted percussion.
Zoetic’s performances hit a high point of kaleidoscopic invention and spontaneous fluency even by the adventurous standards Batchelor’s quirky ensembles have displayed for years – moving with a coolly conversational ease between serpentine themes that suggest Arabic music, sensuous Brazilian grooves, South African townships dances, Balkan ballads , an American Cool School jazz reminiscent of Jimmy Giuffre’s 1950s and ’60s music, and a lot more.
Zoetic’s sound is melodically catchy without a cliché in earshot, produced by creatively idiosyncratic individuals who simultaneously sense exactly when to make space for the interventions of partners on the fly. It’s also the mature work of a generation of musicians raised in the post-’70s era that saw eclectic enterprises like the ECM record label emerge, and conversations take off between African-American jazz and traditional and folk musics from around the world.
When Chris Batchelor cut his teeth on the UK gig circuit as a 17 year-old in 1980 (in South African alto sax firebrand Dudu Pukwana’s Zila, with its roots in both jazz and African marabi and kwela), he was unwittingly entering a volatile traditions jazz environment that had been steadily shifting the generic rules under its practitioners’ feet since the late 1960s. The vibrant sound of South African jazz has gone particularly deep with him, and his connections with the country have included work with the late Chris McGregor’s pioneering Brotherhood of Breath, with singer Pinise Saul in the Pukwana-dedicated Township Comets, and with iconic Cape veterans Including pianist Tete Mbambisa, and singer/guitarist Philip Tabane.
Batchelor, as he will drily observe, left Leeds College of Music’s pioneering jazz course in 1983 with ‘a Graduate Diploma in Jazz and Light Music’ – the best formal jazz qualification around in the UK in those pre-conservatoire days – and by this time he was already confirming that he could hear a joined-up improviser’s language that embraced folk roots outside of the expected jazz sources of African-American bebop and swing. A little later in the 1980s, Batchelor would share in global mashup band 3 Mustaphas 3’s enthusiasms (“they were my university”) to play anything from a country song in Japanese to Middle Eastern, Balkan, Irish or American music, and discover to his amazement there were improvising trumpeters in Egypt or Serbia who phrased quite differently to jazz players. But in 1983, when Batchelor joined the fledgling Loose Tubes’ south London workshop sessions, he found himself in the formation of what would become one of the most celebrated and innovative big bands in UK jazz history. All those resources and many more have gone into the slow-brewing alchemy that has coalesced into Zoetic.
“I guess Zoetic was in a way a reaction to Pigfoot, a quartet of mine that’s been active since around 2014 and still is,” Batchelor says. ‘That lineup has Paul (Clarvis) in it too, but it’s designed to interpret iconic repertoires from Motown, and classic pop and early jazz, and it’s quite extrovert, brash, and noisy. I was looking for something to balance that out, and something new to write for. And over the period of a year or so, we arrived at the right instrumentation. Not having drums was the big change. That was Paul’s idea – that he could play tabla and percussion instead of a kit, which completely changes the sound picture, and all the grain of the other instruments that can play at a lower volume, and listen closely enough to really blend. Drums can take up a lot of aural space. So that was a big step. Then there was the trumpet/viola combination. Margrit and I had been playing a lot together for pleasure in our studio at home – any kind of music, from improvisation to bluegrass or Irish folk tunes. And I started to think, brass and strings makes a really unusual sound, a very blending sound with all those overtones. So I started to write with that in mind.”
Batchelor considers “European folk harmony rather than American Songbook harmony” to be a guiding light of this band, and he mentions the legendary ‘Jazz on A Summer’s Day’ clarinettist and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre’s drummerless groups (playing what Giuffre himself dubbed ‘folk-jazz’) ‘), and guitarist Bill Frisell’s group with violinist Eyvind Kang and trumpeter Ron Miles as having also influenced him.
His wife Margrit Hasler’s inquisitiveness about musical worlds outside the classical one she had grown up in (she was a regular in the Zurich Opera House’s orchestra for 20 years) has also been a significant factor, particularly as her versatility grew with an enthusiasm for bluegrass, and studies with American jazz violinists and violists including Jenny Scheinman, Mat Maneri, and String Trio of New York member Charlie Burnham. And in Parricelli, Watts, and Clarvis, Batchelor has partners and long-time friends who know each other’s manners and methods almost as well as they know their own.
“I guess it’s true that I’ve been looking at ways of combining different approaches for a long time,” Batchelor reflects. “But it’s not just about my own choices, it’s about being a musician in a city like London, where one day you can be playing samba with Brazilians, and another day salsa with Colombians, and all that’s been a massive feature of my musical life over the years. And in the early days of Loose Tubes, when we were all experimenting with composing, and bringing new music to the workshops, we were discovering that jazz big bands didn’t have to sound American. The feeling was like: ‘what else can we do?’. Maybe play an Irish folk tune, or a townships song. And you had improvisers like Django Bates, Iain Ballamy and Steve Buckley — who’s been a guiding light for me since those days — to play your stuff, which was such an exciting feeling.”
Batchelor reckons that around 80% of Zoetic’s repertoire is his own material, but the band’s evolving repertoire now includes the late American saxophonist Arthur Blythe’s ‘Odessa’ (“one of those long, sinuous Arabic-type lines that fits in very well with everything else we do”), and two ballads composed by the celebrated Brazilian singer/guitarist Edu Lobo that Batchelor has transcribed and arranged for the group because they sound as if they could have been written for Zoetic, and “they’re absolutely beautiful”. The trumpeter also welcomes opportunities to work smaller spaces on this tour, avoiding big PA systems and the intrusion of monitor speakers to allow the players to hear themselves, so the nuanced intimacy of their playing – with each other, and with their listeners – is much Closer to the way a string quartet functions in a recital room.
“When we came back to doing gigs after the lockdowns, the experience of playing in the group felt strange at first – you going ‘wow, this is kind of intense’,” Chris Batchelor says. ‘That two-way street of hearing what you’re playing, and exchanging and reacting, interaction and dialogue – all those things you take for granted when you’re playing a lot – they just felt unfamiliar at first, but it soon comes back . And post-pandemic audiences feel to me really appreciative now, quite hungry for these experiences they’ve missed. It’s changed the dynamic a little bit, I think. Maybe everyone was getting a bit blasé about all the live music you can have around you whenever you want it. Well, if that reminds people how special live music is, that’s just fine with us!”
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Chris Batchelor’s Zoetic is on tour until July 2. Full list of upcoming dates:
June 9 Sheffield Yellow Arch Studios
June 10 Wakefield Jazz
June 11 The Hive, Shrewsbury
June 12 Bristol Beacon
June 17 Birmingham Jazz
June 27 NQ Manchester
July 2 Kings Place, London
The band will record its debut album after the tour.
LINK: Chris Batchelor’s Zoetic on Facebook