Julian Bliss

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The British clarinettist on his latest album

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Julian Bliss has turned to the great jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman as the inspiration for his latest album. The Julian Bliss Septet has toured the UK with their programme paying homage to the 'king of swing', and recorded this album in London last year. It's out now on the Signum label. He tells us what it's like for a classical musician to take up swing.

Your latest CD is a tribute to Benny Goodman. When did you first come across his playing?

Years ago now. I must have been 7 or 8 years old. I was on a trip to America and bought one of his CDs when I was out there, and listened to it so much that it didn’t play any more. I was always aware of his music and what he did, especially on the classical side. It wasn’t until many years later that I found this CD again. After listening to it I thought, 'I quite like this - I might start a band myself'. I’d always had a love of jazz, but listening to this CD and talking with a lot of people that were involved in the jazz scene really sparked my imagination

How did you go about forming your ensemble for this recording?

It was all down to the pianist and arranger Neal Thornton. Without him there wouldn’t be a group. I met up with him, and he had a lot of really good ideas. He obviously knows almost everyone in the London jazz scene and has been playing in it for many years. He had some ideas for players that might be good for this, especially for the swing music, for which it's quite tricky to get the right feel. He suggested some people, and we met up and had a rehearsal, and that was it.

As a classical player, how big is the jump to playing swing?

In classical music you have all the notes written down and most of the time that’s what you play. Obviously in jazz there’s a lot of improvisation, not uncertainty, but a certain amount of we’ll see what happens. You kind of have to go with it. It’s also a very relaxed atmosphere on stage. I find sometimes now on the classical side you have to act in a certain way, dress in a certain way. It’s not a bad thing, but in jazz it’s very relaxed. I don’t prefer either – I’ve always loved the classical world and always will, but this is just something a bit different.

So did you feel you had to become fully immersed in swing for this CD?

Definitely. The first couple of concerts were quite daunting. There’s so much to take in, and you have to be using your ears the whole time, even when you’re not playing. It’s not as easy as it looks! It’s one of those things that does require a tremendous amount of skill; some of the good players are absolutely amazing. Over the last year or so I’ve settled into it and I love it, it’s very different to doing classical stuff but equally exciting.

Was it quite a challenge to take on?

Obviously when you think of jazz and the clarinet, Benny Goodman is the first person you think of, but it’s not an easy place to start by any means. It’s somewhat deceptive – you listen to him and his band playing and it sounds very easy, but once you start listening in depth you realise how insanely difficult some of it is. Just to get a nice feel between the band is something that he would work extremely hard on. He had a bit of a reputation for not being very nice to deal with, but he demanded the best and that’s what gave the impression of ease and having fun.

Which are your highlights from this project?

My favourite piece to do in concert is ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The reason we didn’t put that on the CD is that hopefully we want to make another one. From beginning to end, there’s always something different for each concert that makes it special. Recently we played at Wigmore Hall, the opening of their late night series. It was a very interesting atmosphere being in the restaurant and the bar downstairs, but the audience love it and they can have a bit of a dance and a few drinks and everyone has fun. For me, the whole thing is very exciting and entertaining.