Matt Roberts

Course Studied: BA Jazz Studies

Year of Graduation: 2008

Top Career Highlights:

  • Performing with Kenny Wheeler
  • Conducting the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra
  • Headlining Ronnie Scott’s

Since graduating, trumpeter Matt Roberts has forged a highly successful career as a bandleader, composer, arranger and performer. An extremely versatile musician, Matt’s musical projects - which include the Gentleman’s Dub Club, The Outlook Orchestra and a range of jazz ensembles (including the Matt Roberts BigISH Band, Sextet and Big Band) have seen him perform at Glastonbury Festival, Ronnie Scott’s and everywhere in-between.

Here, Matt caught up with us to discuss his musical career to date.

What first got you into playing trumpet and how did your love for Jazz begin?

I grew up in a town called Darlington in the North-East, which is in the heart of the northern brass band region. So I started playing cornet and Flugelhorn in those bands at a very young age, around 8/9 years old I think. County Durham also has a great youth Big Band run by a superb educator called Shaune Eland. He turned me on to jazz - specifically Miles Davis. Through Miles I got into Coltrane, Herbie, Wayne, Cannonball Adderley, etc. 

What attracted you to studying music in Leeds?

I knew that I wanted to study music further, but the classical/academic courses that most Universities offer didn’t really speak to me at the time. I also knew of a few older musicians that had been on the Jazz Course at Leeds Conservatoire and had very good things to say about it.

What were the most useful lessons learnt during your time at Leeds Conservatoire?

In terms of practical stuff that I use every day: I remember there were harmony and arranging lessons in the 1st year that were taught by an excellent trumpeter/arranger called Trevor Vincent. They were so thorough that, by the end of the module, every single person on the course could do a convincing big band arrangement.

I also got a great deal from my composition lessons with Graham Hearn. Like me, he was obsessed with Gil Evans and Ellington. He also turned me onto things like the Debussy piano preludes, Bartok’s piano concertos and the music of the Second Viennese School.

How has your study at Leeds Conservatoire aided your career so far and how has your career developed since graduation?

My time at Leeds Conservatoire was invaluable. I still draw from the teaching I received there on a daily basis. It also allowed me to be part of such a strong musical community - I am constantly bumping into fellow alumni out in the professional world.

After college, I picked up a bit of teaching and wedding/corporate gigs to pay the bills. Gentleman’s Dub Club released our first EP and started touring up and down the country. After a year working in Leeds I felt a strong pull down to London. I moved down the following year and began a 2-year Masters course in Composition at Trinity College of Music. There, I acquired skills in orchestration that would later come in handy on work such as my work with the Outlook Orchestra. Meanwhile, my performing work was becoming increasingly busy. By the time I finished at Trinity I was working both as a session trumpeter and an arranger/orchestrator - this is how I’ve made my living ever since.

When did your love for composition, arrangement and transcription begin? Does jazz naturally lend itself to this type of musical activity?

Composition and arranging was also something I was interested in from the second I laid eyes on a piano. I would always write little tunes, even before I had any knowledge of harmony or music theory.

Composition and jazz have always gone hand-in-hand. Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Maria Schneider are names that spring to mind when we think of 'Jazz Composers’, but even musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Coltrane all had unique compositional identities that were inseparable to their identities as improvisers.

How did you begin working with The Outlook Orchestra and Gentleman’s Dub Club? How does performing with these groups compare to your work with the Matt Roberts Sextet and the Matt Roberts Big Band?

Gentleman’s Dub Club started out as a group of mates from Leeds University and Leeds Conservatoire jamming on a sound system in a basement of their shared house on Headingley Lane. In parallel to this there was a group of friends from the University putting on ‘Sound System’ nights around the city. These promoters, and bands/producers such as Gentleman’s Dub Club, Submotion Orchestra, Rusko and Ruckspin, emerged at a similar time. I suppose we all benefitted from a resurgence of interest in Jamaican sound system culture that was largely spurred on by the Dubstep movement that was emerging at the time. The promoters I mentioned would go on to start a festival in Croatia called Outlook Festival, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary this year. To celebrate, they wanted to put together a 20-piece orchestra to celebrate the history of ‘Sound System Culture’ - from Jamaican ska, rocksteady, reggae and dub all the way to Jungle, Drum’n’Bass, Dubstep and Grime. I was lucky enough to work as assistant Musical Director on the project.

Both Gentleman’s Dub Club and The Outlook Orchestra have a team of people working to make sure everything runs smoothly. With my bands, everything falls to me - the music, booking rehearsal rooms, making sure the gigs sell out, etc. 

What pressure comes with being a bandleader?

Being a bandleader can be extremely demanding. It’s not uncommon to find myself being the composer, arranger, copyist, librarian, tour manager, musical director, ego manager, promoter, and trumpeter - all at once!

How does performing at Ronnie Scott’s (with the Matt Roberts Big Band) compare with performing at Glastonbury (Gentleman’s Dub Club)? Do you take different approaches to prepare for these performances?

Gentleman’s Dub Club have a tour manager, a booking agent, a label - they make sure everything runs smoothly and that everybody is happy. This means I can focus on playing the trumpet and having a good time. When my Big Band plays at Ronnie Scott’s it’s all on my head. So preparation is key. I make sure the parts are clear, easy to read. I make sure everybody involved knows exactly what is required of them - arrival times, dress code, etc. This means that when the evening of the gig comes I can enjoy myself.

What are the major benefits for a jazz musician if they were to participate in session work?

Session work is an extremely diverse field and each situation presents different challenges/problems to solve. In my experience jazz musicians like challenging situations. There are also financial rewards!

Lots of your musical projects involve plenty of other Leeds Conservatoire alumni. Is there a real sense of community amongst jazz graduates, long after you leave a place of study?

100%, and not just the Jazz graduates. Leeds Conservatoire produces so many excellent musicians that cover a wide range of musical expertise, so naturally I find myself working with alumni regularly.

What would you say is your greatest career achievement to date? 

One of them was certainly performing with the great trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler which actually happened whilst I was at Leeds Conservatoire. I really enjoy conducting, so conducting the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra were pretty special occasions for me. Headlining Ronnie Scott’s before I turned 30 was also something I never thought would happen. I’ve been very lucky in terms of the opportunities I’ve had.

What projects, releases or tours do you have planned for the near future?

My BigISH Band will be performing a tribute to Wayne Shorter at the London Jazz Festival next month. My Big Band will be headlining Ronnie Scott’s again on December 7th. The Outlook Orchestra are performing at the Royal Festival Hall early next year, so I’ll be starting the orchestrating for that very soon.

Find out more about Matt via his website - click here

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