The art of not defining jazz

An interview with Declan Forde

Jazz-novice Heather Iqbal chats to Leeds College of Music alumnus and up-and-coming pianist Declan Forde about the intricacies of jazz, improvising dance and what it means to brand yourself under a genre at all.

HI: Outside of having the technicalities explained to me, I’m a bit stuck in understanding jazz. I reckon it's because there’s something more cerebral that I’m missing?

DF: I think a lot musicians have the same problem with it. As soon as you label something as ‘jazz’ they think of whatever they think of. Some people are militant in both directions – in sticking to traditional jazz or veering as far as possible away from it.
To be honest, it’s something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about now, because while I love traditional jazz, I don’t really feel like I’ve got much to do with that tradition. I feel like what a lot of people are trying to do is find music to play that has something to do with their background - that has something to do with them.

So, how would you define yourself? Are you a jazz musician, or a pianist?

I think I think of myself as a pianist. Or maybe just as a musician… I really don’t know. It’s so weird having to define yourself. This is a really strange time for me in defining my role, because it affects everything I do. What am I going to do if I get booked for something as a sideman on a gig, what’s my role? Should I try and suss out what the music means to me, or should I just play the role that’s expected? If it’s a straight ahead jazz gig, should I play like someone in 1956 would have? Should I find a way of fitting in with that music that has more to do with what I’m about – or is that selfish?

I guess a lot of people feel that art has to be “selfish” to a certain degree for it to communicate more honestly?  

I think so. I once did a duo gig with Les Chisnall, and at the end this woman came backstage, and she was crying [laughs in disbelief]. She said it was like eavesdropping on a very private conversation, and it was lovely to be involved in making someone feel that. And I think that’s the idea – if my music can even reach one person, if it can make them feel something or understand something, then they’re as much a part of it as the musicians playing. 
And I think that’s quite important – it goes back to the age-old question: why am I playing music? There’s no political impetus behind it, in a way there’s no weight behind it, and so is it really just selfish? But then I think – if it can affect someone like that then it must be significant in even a small way.

How much does that sentiment translate to your improvisation work with dancers?

It resonates a lot. A couple of years ago I saw one of Kim Macari’s (Leeds College of Music graduate) recitals at college with a dancer. It just made complete sense to me to have improvised music and dance together.  
The first time we did a set with improvised dancers, it was myself, my brother Leo Forde, Tom Wheatley and Jay Davis (both Leeds College of Music graduates), and the dancers were Louise Gibbs and Alex Standard (both from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance).
It was a couple of completely improvised sets – the only suggestion was if you don’t want to play anything, don’t play anything. In my head this would result in solos, duos, trios, quartets etc. and worked well that way.  It was fun, a lot of people came down the first time I put it on – we tried to make it so it was totally inclusive; there was a rug and candles and people sat on the floor and I said before we started that people should feel free to chat – I wanted people to feel comfortable and people talked amongst themselves and with us and it was funny at times. The reviews afterwards said that was the nicest thing about it.

I guess the role of the audience is again really important in a different way with the improvised set up?

Absolutely. It seems like there’s almost no point in a performance like that if there’s no one there to witness or engage with it.
The most exciting thing for me is just having no plan and just playing, and I think that translates to an audience. I almost feel more comfortable doing that than playing written music. I suppose that’s what really works for me in defining myself – it’s about the process and making it as engaging and enjoyable and honest for yourself and anyone else who wants to be involved. If you don’t like what you do, it just becomes meaningless.



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