NYJO Presents… Asha Parkinson

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Before her upcoming NYJO Presents livestream at Ronnie Scott's, saxophonist and NYJO band-member Asha Parkinson kindly took some time to talk music, activism and confirm her love of cheese.

After a short hiatus NYJO Presents is back THIS SUNDAY live from Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Embrace the start of summer by joining us for Asha Parkinson (and band) from 8pm!

Asha runs the Kalpadruma collectivewhich uniquely explores the connection between contemporary classical, jazz and various world music forms. Asha’s set will be a mixture of Kalpadruma’s original material focusing on adapted versions of pieces from their ‘Encounters’ suite: an evocative musical world where jazz, Arabic Maqam, and contemporary classical meet with the powerful poetry of Syrian writer, Maram al-Masri.  

NYJO Presents… Asha Parkinson

Hi Asha! Where to begin… How are you feeling after such a dramatic 12 months?

Having graduated during a pandemic, there’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of career prospects and financial stability. Maintaining sense of purpose is important, as well as healthy, supportive relationships and perspective. By now I’m used to the difference lockdown has created and I’m just working with it. I miss performing  – that feeling of live interaction and community  – but several exciting recording projects have given me motivation.

I take every day as it comes, I set short-term goals as I know that in the early stages of lockdown, thinking too far ahead in the future and missing my pre-COVID life distracted me from taking care of myself. For anyone out there finding the situation hard right now, it’s absolutely natural! My biggest piece of advice is realising what amazing people you have around you to check-in with and setting short-term, achievable goals.

We’re so excited that you’ll be our next artist in the NYJO Presents… series. How do you feel about going back to Ronnie’s?

When I got into playing Jazz at the age of 10/11, playing at Ronnie Scott’s was one of those exciting but distant fantasies about the future. I’ve since played there for other people’s projects, such as in bass player Inga Eichler’s quartet. Before COVID broke out I was going to do a late show with my quintet in April 2020, but this was cancelled due to the pandemic. The fact that this will be my first Ronnie’s outing with my own project is inspiring! Obviously it won’t be like other gigs I’ve done there with the immediate feedback and connection with a live audience, but the opportunity to gig at such a prolific venue with my own repertoire is a massive boost!

Alright then! by Asha Parkinson [sax], accompanied Harry Pearce [d. bass], Joe Parks [cajon], Tim Lallemant [piano] and João Menezes [guitar]. @EFGLondonJazzFestival2019 (Nov 24 2019)

Tell us a little bit about the setlist. What can people expect from the gig?

The vibe is definitely authentic sonic eclecticism! It’s been over a year since the group performed publicly as a quintet and as a nod to my recent collaboration with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, I’ve replaced guitar with qanun which will give a very different flavour. It’s a mix of original music that I initially wrote for larger ensembles (material from my Kalpadruma do-dectet’s upcoming album Onwards and a recent commission bringing together Jazz, Classical and Arabic music). Then a few examples of my influences; arrangements of Turkish ‘baglama’ music and Flamenco. I’m even going to jump on voice for a couple of songs!

It was one of my lockdown goals to get more confidence and practice singing, so when this gig came along, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity. When I write for large ensembles, it always comes from a human place. That’s to say, I orchestrate stuff I can sing or play at the piano, then I forget the academic detail of what I’ve done and return to the essence of the score. Playing these pieces with the small band gives me a chance to return to that essence and to be in the moment with the ideas. I hope people can enjoy a particular meeting point between different musical styles and traditions.

Have you had the chance to perform live much over the past 12 months? Do you miss it?

Apart from my final recital in September, I’ve had no actual gigs since March last year. The feeling I got when rehearsing with my band for my final – after several months of no playing with other people – was incredible!  It made me feel the happiest and most grounded I’d felt since going into lockdown. 

Between October and November, I kept up a Kalpadruma Miniature series on social media where I’d write/ arrange two-minute pieces for members of the collective. This was partly to maintain a following but also because I really wanted that regular musical interaction. Then writing, rehearsing and recording material for my Jazz South Breakthrough Commission over the last few months was like a breath of fresh air after the return of a strict lockdown. Even though I’m able to play with other musicians, the live element is something I really miss, especially the special interaction with an audience.

Check out Asha’s promo vid for her 12-piece ensemble “Kalpadruma”, which brings together Jazz, Classical and Indian musicians from across the UK.

You run your own collective, Kalpadruma, exploring the interstices between various music genres. How did this project come about?

For quite some time, I’d wanted to start up a cross-genre ensemble. I knew I was interested in too many different styles and too keen on lots of colour and timbre to be content playing in a traditional jazz line-up. I wanted to explore my longstanding interest in working across cultures regularly. When I came to Guildhall, it was a perfect environment to get stuff going. I wrote a load of material for do-dectet for a disappointing first concert in an unsuitable venue. I learnt a lot from this and realised I should make it much more of a regular collective – not just getting people to play my music. That’s to say, I wanted the purpose of the ensemble to be open and flexible.

I focused on getting the core quintet to sound really tight and started a monthly residency at the Ritzy in Brixton where I invited along various guest artists from different musical traditions, such as an evening with Bossa-Nova guitar and Arabic oud. The larger ensemble is now much more comfortable with the repertoire, having done several more performances and recording projects since our unsuccessful debut. I hope the recent commission, with great footage from Jazz South will be our calling card, showing that the group is a true meeting point between notation and improvisation and cultural traditions.

Over the past few years you have been involved in a number of initiatives combining music and humanitarian work. What do you think is the link between the two? How can music be used to improve people’s lives?

Finding a shared activity to unite people always promotes peace and understanding. Music particularly is something quite universal and something that’s made to be experienced together. Art and books require an individual to dedicate their own choice of time to experiencing it. Sport still means someone’s a winner. But in music you don’t have to have a winner, the meaning doesn’t have to be the same to anyone, but we can experience it in the same temporality. Just as language can be used as a tool for communication and self-expression, music also does this, but brings it back to something far less prescriptive and far more physical and emotional. My goal as a composer is to find an open-ended musical meeting point, taking into account boundaries and divisions, but understanding them and turning these into a bridge not a wall.

Either playing others’ pieces, or writing originals, what are there the main themes you try to convey with your music?  

Most of all, I want to give people something fresh and vital that communicates what’s universal, or at least, what’s universal to me. I want to encourage open-mindedness towards other cultures, to advocate for justice, to show that my originality is about caring about others’ originality. As a member of the LGBT community, I would also like to begin to raise awareness of the struggle of queer people and incorporate this into my own work.

Desert island discs, you know the drill: eight tracks, a book, and a luxury. What would you take to a desert island?

Check out Asha’s playlist now!

Book: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and my luxury would be a set of cheeses!

Woah. That’s a love of cheese reserved for the purists! We’d like to thanks Asha for her time and her thoughtful responses. If you’d like to find out more about the up and coming saxophonists work, you can check out her website here.

You can now watch Asha’s full performance below!

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