Graham Costello: 'Jazz is half about knowing where it came from but the other half is where you're taking it'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 17 December 2018
credit: Peter J Stevenson
Glasgow-based drummer and composer discusses his band STRATA, his connection to the DIY scene and the future of contemporary jazz
Though British jazz has undeniably been experiencing a surge in popularity in recent years, its return to the mainstream is unsurprising when you consider the nature of the contemporary jazz scene. According to Spotify, in the early part of 2018, 'the number of UK users aged 30 and under listening to their flagship Jazz UK playlist had increased by 108%'. Despite the fact that the focus is inevitably placed on the burgeoning jazz scene in London, which has seen rising stars in the likes of Yussef Dayes, Moses Boyd and Sons of Kemet, the growing interest in jazz extends far beyond the capital, helped largely by the creativity of young musicians across the country. Modern jazz is all about experimenting by fusing the genre with elements of varying styles from hip hop to grime to create something diverse, exciting and accessible.
Scottish musician Graham Costello, whose love for music grew out of his experiences in Glasgow's underground and DIY scene, is set to join the ranks as one of the genre's most compelling innovators in the UK. With his band STRATA, made up of Harry Weir, Liam Shortall, Fergus McCreadie, Joe Williamson and Mark Hendry, he has been working hard to share his love of jazz with new audiences, attempting to remove any notions of elitism associated with the genre in the process.
'There are now younger bands like myself and my contemporaries that are getting booked and we're finally getting the chance to show that this is the younger generation and this is how we approach this music.' Costello explains when asked about jazz in the UK today. 'With jazz, there's this weird duality, especially when you're taught about jazz. You have to respect the history in terms of needing to know how to play jazz standards and the stuff that came from the early 20th century. To me, jazz is half about knowing where it came from but the other half of it is where you're taking it.'
STRATA focus on improvisation, using Costello's compositions as their basis, and since their formation, the band has gigged extensively, having been featured on the BBC's Jazz Nights At The Quay, played a number of prominent festivals and held a residency at Glasgow's Bar Bloc+.
'The big thing with STRATA is that I want us to be the tightest band that you ever see because it's very complex music.' Costello says. 'But it's not complex music for the sake of it being complex. It needs rehearsing and it needs to be played with control and comfort otherwise it sounds robotic in terms of the nature of how the music is written.'
Costello's background in the DIY scene has had a great impact on STRATA's unique musicality but the band met while they were studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
'I can't believe that actually happened.' Costello amusingly professes. 'I had always listened to jazz but I had never understood it. I love the energy and the creativity and it's spontaneous, which I've always loved. But I had no idea how it worked. Somehow I got an audition at RCS and somehow I managed to get an unconditional place. That first year was like sink or swim because it's a very intense and specialist course.'
Despite his self-effacing attitude, Costello has proven himself as a true force within the wider music industry in Scotland. Although primarily a jazz musician, his understanding and appreciation of genres beyond jazz have led to more people taking note of what STRATA are trying to do.
'I love the punk energy and the DIY nature of the underground and independent scene in Glasgow. I come from a background of weekly rehearsals even if there's not a gig, putting your own gigs on, not really caring about money or anything. That was the ethic that I was brought up in in the music scene. With the jazz scene, it's a little different. There are gigs where you're reading music, there's maybe one rehearsal before the gig and that was like a proper culture shock to me because I'm not from this background at all. So I learned to approach gigs a different way.
'I guess the main idea behind STRATA is the punk and energetic nature of the stuff I played in Glasgow but with more complex musical ideas that studying music allows you to add. Playing with the guys in the band as well, you learn how to improvise because you develop that kind of chemistry after playing together for so long. And that's what Strata's all about, fusing those two worlds together because there's never any proper crossover between them.'
Costello has always found the separation between the DIY and jazz scenes to be strange, especially considering the shared energy and unconventional innovations in sound that appear in both arenas. STRATA's aim is predominantly to merge the two audiences, introducing the experimentalism and unpredictability of jazz to DIY and underground audiences and vice versa.
'There are a lot of different types of jazz now; it's becoming harder to define what jazz is because it's becoming fused with so many things. Personally, I fuse jazz with minimalism because I'm really into people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. So I fuse it with noise. For me, STRATA is jazz, minimalism and noise.'
With STRATA's debut album OBELISK due in February, the band has plans to tour Scotland and eventually, to go further afield in the UK and Europe. In the meantime, Costello is hopeful that the interest in jazz will continue to grow as more young musicians are given opportunities on major stages and in mainstream circles.
'There are a lot of parts of my music and other contemporary jazz music that I'd consider universal as far as the content and feeling goes.' Costello says. 'It's not just crazy time signatures; there's emotion, there's melody. Really, you just want someone to feel something and at the end of the day, that's a universal element in music.'
Graham Costello's STRATA / OBELISK album launch, CCA, Glasgow, Sun 10 Feb, 7.30pm.