If you built a Spotify playlist of mid-’60s jazz classics, including everything from Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” and then sneaked a few tracks from Leo Richardson’s 2017 debut, The Chase, into the mix, some jazz connoisseurs wouldn’t even notice.
And that’s pretty much the London-based tenor saxophonist’s intent. His group renders bluesy, hard-swinging music with an energy and authenticity that’s set alight fans of the music’s more traditional inclinations. In a city where the sound of jazz increasingly encompasses influences of EDM, hip-hop and a variety of cultures that make most world music sound positively homogenous in comparison, The Chase embodies a familiar aesthetic.
In a conversation with DownBeat, Richardson discussed everything from his childhood to the future of jazz. Below is an edited excerpt.
The music on The Chase lovingly reproduces and advances the sound of ’60s hard-bop. Were you always passionate about that style?
As a really young kid, 6 or 7 years old, I was completely obsessed with The Beatles. I had all their records, I knew all the words. My stepdad had this record I played to death of a Canadian band called Rush, an album called Moving Pictures . I actually saw them tour that album. It was great.
When I first started getting into jazz, I was 13 or so. Someone bought me a Charlie Parker record. I had been going through the Charlie Parker songbook, learning some solos and stuff, but as much as I loved playing it, I hadn’t really checked it out.
When I got the CD, I thought, “This is so good.” It kind of was a slippery slope from there. I must have been about 17 when my dad bought me Dexter Gordon’s Go. I listened to that for a month; I didn’t listen to anything else. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a flawless record in every way. I was so drawn to the sound he created: the swing, the compositions and his choice of standards.
On The Chase, your inclusion of “Mambo,” a modal-inspired piece, and Alan Skidmore’s guest appearance hint at interests outside the genre.
I do remember a time when I was drawn a lot more to the modal era. It was partly the reason I wanted Alan Skidmore to guest on the album; I’ve known him for years.
The first tune we ever played together was “Transition,” off the Coltrane album Transition. Standing next to someone who can really play the shit out of that and trying to work it out for myself was a really important experience. It definitely led me down another path in the music that I didn’t really known about. I really cherished that experience.
When I called him up and asked him if he’d be up for recording with us, he agreed. I told him I’d write something for us and he said, “As long as there aren’t too many changes. I’m too old for that shit.”
Many London jazz fans will be familiar with you from your regular gig hosting the Late Late Show at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. What led you to finally decide to record an album?
[British trumpeter] Quentin Collins had been harassing me for a while: “You have to make a record, get off your ass and do something.” Before the record, I’d done no writing, because I was so nervous about it. I thought that anything I did was going to be rubbish. I was just worried about if I’d like it or if anyone else was going to like it. It was a really nerve-racking thing to get into. Then I thought, “Sod it, I’ll give it a go.”
You’re either going to like it or not. I owe a lot to Quentin for thinking I was going to come up with something half-decent.
When writing it, I didn’t necessarily think I wanted to try and write this to capture all these things I love: Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Horace Silver. That hard-hitting, intense swing and those great compositions massively influenced me and The Chase. I wasn’t necessarily trying to copy that sound—even though you do have to copy to develop your own. I was definitely trying to emulate it.
London’s jazz scene is changing. Influences seem to be coming from non-traditional sources: EDM, Alice Coltrane’s spiritual music. Why do you think younger players might be looking for influence outside the standard Parker/Coltrane fare, and how important is it to keep the core of the tradition alive?
Like with any genre, jazz is ever-changing. If you look at the development of classical music, from baroque to romantic to modern, things got freer. It’s kind of like, where do you go after [Coltrane’s] Giant Steps?
I think there are some interesting things happening at the moment. It’s really hard. You want to keep the music fresh and moving into different areas, but I guess it goes back to what you’re interested in. It’s all subjective, but I just love the swing thing. The development of the music is always changing and moving into new places, but there’s lots of other stuff that’s going on that’s still influenced by the bop stuff.
That’s the beauty of the music. Jazz is such a broad word that encompasses so many genres.
How tempted are you to experiment with different influences and styles?
I’m pretty confident in the way our sound is developing, and we want to stay on that track.
There’s not many people doing what we’re doing, especially in an original context, where we’re composing our own music. But it’s really important that there’s lots of different stuff going on, and it’s a vibrant scene.
Most importantly, there are a lot of young people getting into jazz, which is what we really need. Without that, the music will die out. I really want to develop what we’ve already started, because I feel like we’ve only just begun. DB