When first I saw Corey Mwamba play his instrument, I couldn’t get the image of a scientist out of my head. In many ways Corey is just that, he is a scientist of sound, ironically studying both Chemistry and Music at the University of Derby.
“I work using sound, both on my own and with other creative people. I try to express the many aspects of life, both real and imaginary, to anyone who will listen.”
Corey is one of those musicians who immerses himself in the music, instinctive and intuitive, excelling in improvisation and a master at weaving textures by playing every inch of his instrument.
Indeed, Corey is primarily known as a highly creative improviser with a wide stylistic range: there have been appearances with Orphy Robinson, Pat Thomas, and Lol Coxhill; Andy Hamilton, Tony Kofi, the Master Drummers of Africa; Mat Maneri, Evan Parker, the Quantic Soul Orchestra, Robert Mitchell’s Panacea; as well as his own solo performances and with his collective the Symbiosis Ensemble. He has also worked as a percussionist with Derby Concert Orchestra. You can read a full biography here.
We could probably add philosopher to the scientist tag, being that Corey is also known for his straight talking and for not being shy in expressing his views on music, jazz and life in general. So, we decided to interview him, to give you more of an insight into this fascinating scientist of sound.
JRF: For those people who are not familiar you or your music, how would you describe your music or your sound?
CM: Always with the easy questions! 🙂
I like to describe my music as an open, living music: “open” in the sense of it using a wide range of musical vocabulary to express life, stories and places whether real or imagined; and “living” in the sense that it isn’t set or systemised, and has the ability to change within itself, in real time. A lot of it involves total improvisation; some of it involves jazz.
JRF: You play an instrument that is probably considered unusual to the general population, how did you get started and why did you choose that instrument?
CM: I had organ lessons as a kid, but they weren’t serious. I got started playing at 16-17 because of a girl at college who played alto sax in the jazz band, who I fancied. I went to a rehearsal and was tapping on a chair with some drum brushes. I don’t think I was playing particularly well, but the leader of the group then asked me if I wanted to play in the band. I thought he was joking, so I said “yes, of course. When?” and he said “Tomorrow: we have a gig.”
I sat in the music rehearsal room and put a tape of Courtney Pine’s Journey To The Urge Within in my Walkman, trying – stupidly – to learn how to play like the incredible Mark Mondesir. It was very demoralising. I did the gig and a solo, but felt ill at the idea [I still get stage fright].
I was studying Maths, Chemistry, Biology and French at the time – and seriously had no real time for music. Unfortunately it had got me. But I didn’t want to play the drums. I could hear lots of melodies and harmonies in my head as well, so I wanted to play something that combined all of these. I bought a Dorling Kindersley book on Jazz and saw a picture of Orphy Robinson playing the vibes and marimba; and knew that that was exactly the thing I wanted to play. I found a teacher; but hardly touched the vibes. What he taught me about was music and that was so much more valuable. After the fifth lesson he stopped our lessons and sent me to do this totally improvised music session which had the great Steve Noble as a special guest. I’ve been playing since.
JRF: How does where you come from, in the UK and your African roots, affect how and what you play?
CM: My mother is actually of Jamaican heritage and my dad’s from Zambia so I have three things at play. For a start, English is an open, living language and I have a great interest in language construction. A lecturer friend of mine told me of ideas around “localised diaspora”; it’s a large idea, but I look at the sliver of it that deals with the conflicts, interactions and conversations around being from a place where you are “not” from. So my music doesn’t overtly sound “African” or “Caribbean”. It’s very much Black British music, and because we’re within a diaspora that makes (or should make!) it complex, multi-threaded.
JRF: You are based in Derby, does your location limit your opportunities? Is there a thriving Jazz scene in your region?
CM: I’m based and from Derby. I also don’t drive, and the instrument is not exactly portable! But I don’t feel limited in what I’m able to do. It’s work; so I do what I need to do, to work. It’s a hassle getting trains everywhere, but this is my work and it’s important to me. I also feel that living in Derby gives me quite a bit of space in which to think and write; and just be. And living in the Midlands means that I’m not too far from anywhere North or South. I spend a lot of time travelling.
There are some great musicians in the region, but places to play are rare, I’d say. I don’t play much in Derby unless I put a gig on myself. There’s an audience for the music though, and I’d love to play at home more! But these things take time and love to build.
JRF: You’re not shy in stating your opinion, how would you assess the state of Jazz in the UK? Both in terms of the music and the establishment.
CM: On the musician/composer side, jazz in Britain and Ireland is really healthy. Regardless of anyone’s tastes in music, that has to be the truth because there are so many high quality musicians and composers about. I would say there are things happening within the music that vital and exciting, forward-looking and reflective; and that the range of music happening is vast. And it’s happening everywhere, not just in London.
But I think some promoters, funders and some of those in the media need to learn how to have proper adult conversations with the people who create the art, and vice-versa. The scene is too small to be divided or have perceptions of division.
I also think there is a disparity in where the funding for pushing the music out there goes. I’m not saying it should be an even split – but that it is not a fair one in terms of geographic spread. It is clearly centred around London-based activity. This is a perennial problem across all art-forms.
In addition, regardless of the actual amount of money jazz does not make it still – still – tries to see itself as a purely commercial entity in this country rather than an art-form, and that disconnect always causes problems. For example, digital/on-line formats in jazz should be a simple and cost-effective route for musicians and composers – who typically work on a lower financial scale – to get their music out there without recourse to a label. But if the media is still stuck in the mindset of only reviewing albums from labels, only those who are willing to bankrupt themselves, or have a lot of money to put out music will be accepted. For me this means the listening and reception of the music will not move forward.
JRF: So, what do you think of the state of music generally?
CM: I think a lot of it is generally consumable, but not enough space or commitment is given to the music which takes time to digest, and how to create that music. I also think we are too focussed on the creation of music and less focussed on its reception and appreciation: and this leads back to the creation of more generally consumable music. That’s why nights like yours are important – you’re consistently putting live music out there to people, making it accessible for those who are prepared to listen.
JRF: What would you say are the biggest problems or issues blighting the UK Jazz scene?
CM: I think the main issue is to do with the way scene looks at itself; and what is counted as “legitimate” or “good” within the music. I find it increasingly worrying that there seems to be as many taste-setters in the music as there are musicians – what’s worse is that in the main they seem to like the same things, or just the new thing. There’s no real reflection, just promotion.
My personal preferences do not lean towards wearing suits and reproducing music that was played between the mid-Forties to mid-Sixties; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen, and those people who do it really well should be respected. But what I do is also within the music – and there have been occasions in the past where some people have not seen it as such. There was a point where some had the opinion that totally improvised music was/is a wasteful area that Black British musicians shouldn’t be stepping into, and it was even more startling to hear that from other Black musicians. It’s not something I worry about now – my work is there, and I’m still creating music that people do enjoy and get something from. But I worry that certain sectors of the Black music community are creating and have created mental whips for younger ones, especially in jazz.
I feel the scene is close enough to be almost family-like; and we get the odd squabble and so on. Looking after each other as a family would possibly reduce a lot of angst and hand-wringing.
JRF: Bringing back to you, what are the biggest challenges you face as a Jazz musician? What would you need to surmount these challenges?
CM: Personally, it’s all about train prices, which seem to increase every month now. I’ve been very lucky in terms of being able to work across a wide range of jazz with some great people. The main thing for me now is getting to places by public transport. I need my own train. Or vibes in every city!
JRF: Where do you see Jazz music in 5 years time? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
CM: I don’t know. I’m an optimist by nature, so I can only guess that more great music will be made, and I’ll still be working with great people. Where you’ll be able to hear it could possibly change though. I’m hoping people link up more across different areas (geographic), work together to spread live music wider.
JRF: You’re releasing a new album with Dave Kane & Joshua Blackmore, how did this come about?
CM: Dave, Joshua and I have had the trio for four years now, and we’ve documented quite a few of the gigs; but we’d never done a recording in a “non-live”/studio setting. I was very convinced that we are a live group; but the other two got me seriously thinking about it. I was then given further encouragement by Michaela Butter who is one of the directors of Embrace Arts in Leicester. She’s a great thinker in the arts and really pro-active. She offered their superb concert hall, which meant I didn’t need to think about working in a studio. We then received support from listeners – like jazz re:freshed, the singer Juliet Kelly – to get the album recorded. We’ve had great support from people who want to hear the music, and it is in fact available now for download here. The CD release is this month, in about nine days’ time.
JRF: What is the concept behind the album?
CM: Well, the trio’s music is very simple really! We don’t talk about what we’re about to do and everything on the recording is totally improvised. There is a love, groove and language to the sound we create and we want you to enjoy it, let it take you where you like. Don’t over-think it.
JRF: Is there a tour to promote the album planned?
CM: The trio is best heard live, so I’m certainly working on it – Leeds and Derby will be getting visits – and we need to see you guys very soon!
JRF: Thanks for your time Corey, no doubt we will be hearing a lot more from you over the coming months, but for now, any final words?
CM: I hope more people get behind your night and support your work. You’re doing what others are only now slowly waking up to do.
JRF: You’re too kind!
Make sure you check out Corey and his new release here.