Throwing Shapes: A Conversation with Jazz Musician Paul Harrison About ‘Sugarwork’

Anyone who grew up with Smash Hits will know that the first question that music writers are compelled to ask their interviewees is, “How did your band get their name?” I, on the other hand, thought I’d save jazz pianist Paul Harrison the embarrassment by googling the definition of ‘sugarwork’ beforehand. The very first hit turned out to be exceptionally apt.

This quote from a food photography blog rather cheerfully points out that, “Once you start working with sugar, all the rules change.” The writer was describing the illusion of apples on a glass dish that wasn’t glass at all, but a small sculpture spun from sugar, then shaped and coloured to complete the deception. She went on to explain, “Once I point out that I made the bowl by hand, and not out of glass, but sugar, suddenly the world goes topsy turvy.”

Those words could easily describe Paul’s Sugarwork project with Phil Bancroft on tenor saxophone, Graeme Stephen on guitar, and Stuart Brown on drums and percussion. Harrison is an established figure in contemporary music from Scotland as an inventive composer and as an instrumentalist. On this recording, he combines his role on various keyboards with the essential functions of production, editing and mixing.

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Paul Harrison describes himself as the ‘main composer’, but one suspects that he is also the architect of a remarkably solid structure built from both analogue and digital materials. If anything, the allusion that Sugarwork is a daring confection is to understate the sophisticated planning and execution of this very modern music.

It’s also the kind of music that is very often, perhaps too often, described as ‘painting in sound’. Certainly, the compositions on the new CD, simply entitled Sugarwork, are undoubtedly very ‘visual’, but they also struck me as three-dimensional in both scope and ambition. It could it be described, perhaps, as music made for immersion in surround-sound, or perhaps even 3-D jazz. I had to ask Paul whether the overall effect of sculpted sound was one that he had in mind while making this music.

PH: Yes, it’s sculpted sound in that each instrument in the quartet (excepting saxophone perhaps) is made to sound different from track to track. It’s also sculpture in that some pieces have been played live and developed that way, like an ordinary band, and others were improvised in the studio and then transformed with various production techniques, editing, processing and chopping.

Incidentally I should point out that the allusion to food in the name of the band wasn’t deliberate, but just noticed the words I wrote above – techniques; processing; chopping – all words you would definitely hear on Masterchef, one of my handful of televisual indulgences. You mention ‘surround sound’ – I’d definitely recommend hearing the album on headphones for an immersive experience, and some elements of the mixing and production were focused on this. 

I wondered too like many music lovers do, how musicians translate everyday experiences and observations into a piece of expressive music. On one level, After The Forest, The Sky is a dense amalgam of crackling percussion, background conversations between saxophone and guitar, and pulsing electronica. Yet, it could also be interpreted (by imaginative listeners) as a musical description of a real, or perhaps imagined, time and place. I put this to Paul and asked him if he minded people like me putting that kind of spin on the work he’d conceived and created. 

PH: “The title to that composition was slotted onto it later. The first and second parts of the piece are alternately incredibly dark and claustrophobic, and then light and pastoral. Phil Bancroft twists and transforms the melody to emphasise this distinction. I grew up in the Peak District, so perhaps that early appreciation I had for wild natural landscapes is also one of the reasons I’m happily settled in Scotland. I’ve always been fascinated by the awe and terror of landscapes and nature, and this comes through in a lot of the art or writing that I enjoy – the fiction of M.R. James or the music of Boards of Canada or Brian Eno for example. 

It might seem trite to say so, but the titles of the tunes on Sugarwork are also really interesting. They hint at a kind of “fill-in-the-blanks” narrative suggested by the music. Harrison’s The End One Day, with Graeme Stephen’s special brand of guitar hypnotherapy to the fore, and Harrison throwing shadowy electronic shapes in the background. It sounded to me rather like a reflective epilogue, or a bittersweet afterword, and I wondered if Paul had, in fact, set it down as that kind of tone poem.

PH:Yes, I like titles that can invite different, quite personal interpretations. I think titles of films and novels often work that way too. “The End One Day” was called that because it was written as the coda section to another piece (that wasn’t recorded). Graeme expanded it into a solo exploration with his pedalboard effects. There seemed to me to be something ‘apocalyptic’ about it so it went at the end of the album.

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The press notes for this album explain that the ideas are drawn from Harrison’s own eclectic tastes, which stretch beyond jazz forms into electronica, psychedelia and the brassy end of rock. The latter is a presence throughout, but arguably more fully developed as composed music. I threw some names at him, including those of King Crimson, Roxy Music, Soft Machine, Colosseum and Ian Carr’s Nucleus, and asked him if they’d ever figured among his listening choices.

PH:Nucleus made some really great music, and Ian Carr was one of my teachers for a short while. But the only one of those bands I’ve listened to a great deal of is Soft Machine, who epitomise the ‘good’ side of prog rock.  

The parallel here is that I’m trying, with Sugarwork, to show that there can be ‘good’ jazz-fusion too that isn’t all showy solos and over-elaborate 16th-note clichés. Forgive me for being provocative… I think jazz musicians need to be sometimes!  

Of course there’s plenty of good innovative jazz but there were certain things I want to steer well clear of. There are no keyboard solos on the album, partly because my stamp is all over it in other aspects and what time there is in the music for improvisation I wanted to turn over to the other musicians. But also in part because I have found it hard to put keyboard solos in without it sounding too ‘fusion’-ish – demonstrating where I need to practice and develop! Just because I play keyboard solos on every other gig isn’t a good enough reason to shoehorn them in here too. 

Harrison wrote most of the music, with Graeme Stephen contributing the solidly affirmative Goodbye Hello, while the edgy, ever-so-slightly paranoiac Bad Data, and the vertiginous experience of The Stairs are group compositions. It is, however, Harrison’s inclination towards shapely melody and harmonic flow that rises from musicianship of the highest calibre. The outcome is an exceptionally pleasing, new feature on the current jazz landscape.

It’s clear too that Paul Harrison is proud of the album, and I asked him if he thought it was the kind of thing that could only be made by long-standing collaborators, if not friends? 

PH: Graeme, Phil and Stu really just left me to it after the recording sessions, though they have taken a great interest in the way the music has developed. Certainly them being friends rather than ‘hired’ musicians meant an element of trust without which this album would sound very different. 

Many thanks to Paul Harrison for taking part in this Q and A. The ten-track CD ‘Sugarwork’ (1st June 2018) is available from all online retailers, at Sugarwork shows, and directly from www.sugarwork.me

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