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Rob Brockway

 

Rob Brockway is an excellent pianist. There are jazz musicians who have impressive technical ability and imaginative improvisational skill, but Rob also has that indefinable charismatic playing that has the ability to move you.

As an introduction, listen to this recording of The Burrow from Rob’s final recital at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Rob says: ‘I wrote the tune for the house in Plaistow where several great friends of mine (Miguel Gorodi, Alec Harper, Nic Breakspear) lived. I hope it shows the Rob Brockwayfun I had visiting, even for all the damp walls and unwashed dishes.’ (click here).

Rob was born in Paraparaumu in New Zealand’s North Island in 1989. His parents were Maths teachers who had met in London and had travelled to work in New Zealand. When Rob was six, the family returned to the UK, setting up home in Hexham in the North of England.

It was Rob’s grandmother who gave him his first music lessons on violin almost as soon as the family were back. She was not a professional musician, but she had a passion that rubbed off on Rob and his cousin, an oboe player who studied at the Royal College of Music and who is now playing professionally. Whilst none of the family are professional musicians, there is a love of music there; Rob’s mother played cello and aunts play violin and bassoon. Inevitably, perhaps, Rob’s introduction to music was in the classical arena, and he was soon learning to play piano and clarinet.

At the Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham, Rob played in the school orchestra, the symphonic wind band and as an off-shoot of that, played saxophone in the county big band. ‘We were just playing from the charts,’ Rob says. ‘We were not particularly learning how to improvise, but I enjoyed the big band. I wasn’t planning on becoming a jazz musician at that point, my interest at that time was moving more towards the local folk music of Northumberland. I had played fiddle in a ceilidh band when I was about nine or ten, and whilst at the High School, I started going to a lot of folk sessions, particularly to a club at the Royal Hotel in Hexham. This clip (click here) is of the late Terry Conway, who played regularly at the folk sessions I went to and supported us youngsters with kindness. In the video there are also some beautiful photos of the land I grew up in.’

The interest led to Rob starting to write and play his own music. ‘Show Of Hands is a West Country folk duo that I was into for a long time,’ Rob recalls. ‘Steve Knightley’s songs tell rich stories, full of humanity. For a couple of teenage years, that was exactly what I wanted to do.’ (Click here for a video of Show Of Hands).

At seventeen, Rob went to the Sixth Form at Newcastle College intending to concentrate on the Music course there. ‘It was very much a pop Rob Brockwaymusic setting,’ Rob recalls, ‘but after a while I craved the adventure of playing jazz again.’ The two years at the College brought some significant changes to Rob’s interest in music. Part of that was down to his professor, Chilean tenor player, Claude Werner. ‘He was a key influence,’ Rob says. ‘As much as anything, he gave me a work ethic, and he encouraged me to look for my own way of playing – it’s unusual to pursue that at such an early stage, but his method clicked with me.’

Playing jams and attending the National Youth Jazz Collective summer school brought him into contact with many of today’s talented jazz musicians including Miguel Gorodi, Reuben Fowler, Laura Jurd and Jackson Mathod.

By the end of his time at Newcastle, Rob was devoting much of his time to the piano and his commitment gained him offers of places on the music courses at Birmingham, Trinity College and the Guildhall. He chose the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where that work ethic learned in Newcastle resulted in his gaining a 1st Class Honours degree and the highest marks for his final recital in the history of the Jazz Department. You can listen to Rob’s final recital from 2012 if you click here. There are several tracks from the recital – try Strange Lights In The Sky (click here).

The years at Guildhall were particularly productive in his understanding of music and jazz in particular. ‘I came to the Guildhall wanting to be an ‘original’ from the word go,’ Rob says, ‘and I soon realised how difficult that would be without a grounding in the tradition. My teachers, especially Nikki Iles, helped me to find that grounding. Carlos Lopez-Real has an openness to all sorts of music, and that rubbed off on me. Malcolm Edmonstone has a kind of infectious enthusiasm that so many people talk about; he’s hilarious at times but also really cares for his students, and he brought me a quality of attention I’d never been given Rob Brockway Triobefore.’

Click here to listen to Rob playing Taking A Chance On Love with the Guildhall Jazz Band with Stan Sulzmann in 2011. Rob says: ‘The famed, beautifully lyrical British saxophonist Stan Sulzmann brought a set of his wonderful arrangements in to perform with the GJB  – a pleasure and a real learning experience for us all.’

During the time at Guildhall Rob represented the College in 2010 at Den Haag in the Netherlands at the 20th Jazz Meeting of the International Association of Schools of Jazz, a worldwide body of jazz educators and students founded by legendary saxophonist Dave Liebman. ‘I came away appreciating how many possibilities there are in jazz, you just need to open it up; that you are allowed to find your own sound.’

For his final recital, Rob played with his Trio: Andrew Robb (bass) and David Ingamells (drums). The Trio went on to play together for a time after Rob finished at College including a gig at the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room, as part of the BBC's Proms Plus Lates series. Part of the set was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

The Rob Brockway Trio (Andrew Robb, Rob Brockway, David Ingamells)
Photograph courtesy of Ruth Ingamells.

In 2012, Rob also played piano with reeds player Andrew Linham’s Quartet with Darren McCarthy (bass) and Dan Paton (drums) on the album Abandoned Silence. Click here to see a video of the band playing Wednesday Afternoons from the album. Rob can also be seen playing on a video of Song For Carla with Caspar Sutton-Jones’s Quartet at The Vortex jazz club in London (click here).

I first heard Rob playing in 2013 with the London City Big Band at The Spice of Life in Soho. The band was working on a project to explore Count Basie’s The Atomic Mr Basie album and the results were outstanding. Speaking of the project, Rob recalls how he likes the economy of Basie’s piano playing and his own liking for the track Lil Darlin’. Other influences Rob quotes as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk Junctureand Keith Jarrett.

As with many musicians, by the time an album is released they have moved on with their playing. The album with Andrew Linham is now two years ago. Rob has since played with Henry Spencer’s band Juncture, winners of the Marlborough Jazz Festival’s Best Newcomer award. On The Bridge, click here, features Rob’s piano.

At the moment, Rob is content to build on his playing experience. For the future he plans to write and play his own original music with a group that is flexible, not giving too much thought to written material and exploring a range of moods and emotions. Rob is also interested in the combination of poetry and jazz and would like to experiment with those art forms.

Here is a short story by Rob that we thank him for letting us share:

 

Palpitation

You kids gotta learn about time.

Sonny RollinsSonny Rollins, man, he knew about time. Sonny could play a downbeat, and walk out of the club. He'd stroll into Binky's, you know that coffee house on the corner of Squid Street and 32nd, and maybe sit in on a little blues but then he'd make his way down to the basement, where there was an old girl telling fortunes. All this time, his heart's a-beating the pulse.

Sonny says, "I want to know why I play this music."

The gal sighs, looks him up and down, and shuffles the deck. She deals out three cards. His heart's in his mouth, but it ain't rushing a single beat. She takes the first and turns it over. Two of coins. She checks him out again, more quizzically this time. "You betcha don't do it for money."

She turns the next. The Lovers. His heart sits back on the beat a little, wistful; doesn't drop the tempo though. "And Tarot Cardyou sure as hell don't do it for love." Sonny's eyes narrow. Not so thrilled about that one.

One more card, and the answer is his. His pulse gets urgent, like Blakey. All those years. He spent a day practising each note on his horn; a month took him from the cavernous bottom to the lofty reaches, then he did it all over again. With solemn grace, the lady turns the card.

Death.

She meets his eye. "Rest easy, chile, it ain't like that. It means change. The answer is yours if you look inside your heart."

His heart's tied up though, spang-a-langin' flawlessly through the twentieth chorus of 'Existentiality' down the street and refusing to tell its secret. He wails inside, stands and bolts up the stairs, not leaving her even a dime. Out the door, down the road ... his eye is fixed on that beating heart, squeezing and probing, trying to keep time too, and then he sees it; for a moment, it's beautifully, terribly clear. His heart drops a beat, and he scoops to catch it. Just as soon, the answer's gone. He shakes himself loose, slinks back into the club, smacks into the top of the head like he'd never left, and he has no idea why.

 

Click here for Rob Brockway’s website.

© Sandy Brown Jazz and Rob Brockway 2014-2015

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