One of the few pleasures of lockdown is that it has afforded me time to conduct long-form interviews. But while I had the time, the subject of this interview was back touring again and his hectic schedule meant that dates and time zones had to be navigated with precision. Consequently, our pre-interview messaging often occurred during gig breaks. Guitarist Rob Luft is a significant presence on the UK and European Jazz scene. He is articulate and a good storyteller and so transcribing our zoom call has been a pleasure. We talked for nearly two hours.
It was basically a long-distance hang, and when Jazz people are interviewed they tend to intersperse the geeky stuff with funny asides. This was no exception. For my part, I couldn’t wait to hear about his ECM experience with Manfred Eicher, but the unexpected foray into the joys of Arab music and being alone with Tutankhamun were the icing on the cake. It was never in doubt that Luft’s star would rise and it has risen on the back of sound judgement and hard work. And in aligning himself with astonishing vocalists like Alina Duni he has broadened his horizons. It is unusual to hear a young guitarist embracing thoughtful minimalism but in doing this he has shown real maturity. Under his fingers, less is invariably more.
JL32: Hi Rob, nice to see you again man and thanks for agreeing to an interview when you are so busy gigging. I know that you had a gig in Oxford last night and were at Ronnie Scotts much of last week, before that on tour in Europe.
Luft: Hi John, good to see you too after a long strange few years. It’s been a while since we last met up.
JL32. Yes, after your trip to New Zealand in 2016 (see review) we got together in London, first at the Barnes Jazz Club for the launch of Luna Cohens ‘November Skies’ album and then, a year later at Ronnie Scotts where you were playing with Kit Downes.
Luft: And I have played with both since, with Luna on my recent album and with Kit on a gig recently.
JL32: According to your discography you have been very busy since we last spoke. There was your Riser album with Joe Wright (sax), Joe Webb (keys), Tom McCredie (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), and then, a follow-up album with the same lineup adding vocalist Luna Cohan and on ‘Flumpit’ Byron Wallen. And over that same period, you were sideman on around eight albums.
Luft: Yes and other projects, but, 2020 was almost completely dry of gigs because of COVID. We had the inverse experience to New Zealand because the UK was hit early and we were not open like your country. Especially gig wise.
JL32: The last time we spoke you told me that you and the Albanian Jazz vocalist Elina Duni had an ECM album under discussion, and of course that came to pass with the beautiful ‘Lost Ships’. Looking at the release date, that must have coincided with the arrival of restrictions in the UK.
Luft: Well in the rest of Europe, after the initial lockdown, there were still gigs happening, I was able to play gigs in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland throughout the summer. In the UK it was very different.
JL32: I’d like to come back to that, but before we proceed further, a few biographical details if you don’t mind. I know that you were born in the London area and that you went to the Royal Academy of Music where you won the Kenny Wheeler Prize.
Luft: Yes, and I had a bizarre sort of experience at the Academy. The class groups for the Jazz Studies Bachelor’s course were very small and in my year there were only five, then later four of us. And in my group was Jacob Collier, so for the best part of four years, I was there with Jacob who was obviously a multi-instrumentalist. We had no drummer in our year and so usually you would have a full group playing with you, and so Jacob would play a different instrument when each guest artist came to visit us. There was John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzman and so on, and Jacob would be there playing a different instrument for each ensemble. There was no sense of continuity or band sensibility because Jacob was fulfilling so many roles, quite bizarre actually.
JL32: So in some ways your studies forced you to forge your own path.
Luft: I guess because the Academy only took in pupils who had advanced abilities at the outset. Less teaching and a more autodidactic approach, they encouraged that. They would get these great artists like Jerry Bergonzi to come in and play with us rather than teach us in the traditional sense. It was amazing to have people like John Abercombie come in and I’d be with him for a couple of days at a time.
JL32: That must have been especially good for you as a guitarist.
Luft: For me it was optimal. And obviously, the people coming in with Kenny Wheeler, like John Taylor, Norma Winstone and that class of musicians.
JL32: Abercrombie, Wheeler, Taylor, they are no longer with us.
Luft: Yes, back then Kenny Wheeler’s Big Band would come in and rehearse, imagine, you’re eighteen years old and you watch these legendary Jazz figures come in and rehearse in your music hall, it was amazing. Kenny had a huge influence on me, on my harmonic and textural approach. And Stan (Sulzman), a lovely player, and Ray Warleigh, they were all in that band, Ray was originally from Australia I think (Sadly Warleigh is also no longer with us).
JL32: Kenny was across every style huh.
Luft: He was eclectic, as was Stan, across everything from playing alongside English folk guitarist Nick Drake to playing free alongside Evan Parker. And I love that open eclecticism, the Academy was like that, never dictatorial or saying, you have to play like this.
JL32; The UK scene historically, appears to have possessed enough confidence to do its own thing, not thinking that they had to sound exactly like American players. It appears to have an original voice, much as the Scandinavian scene does. What do you think?
Luft: Yeah it’s very similar to the Scandinavian Jazz scene. You will understand, because we meet up in London, that it’s a melting pot, with influences coming from all over Europe and everywhere else. Afro Caribean musicians because of the connections formed way back in colonial times. Or the Indian community in North London creating a hub of South Indian music and by the same token, there is a huge West African community bringing their traditional music, Ghanain, Congolese for example.
JL32: Like Shabaka Hutchings?
Luft: Exactly, Shabaka comes from a Barbadian background and is influenced by Calypso music.
JL32: And earlier, Joe Harriot from Jamaica, who was world-leading in his free and world fusion explorations.
Luft: Yes, and that’s the melting pot of London. So many forms of music around and played at a high level. And you came to see us in Barnes with the Brazillian vocalist Luna Cohen and her band features Brazillian musicians. I played with them again recently and Luna is on one of my recent albums.
JL32: She sung wordless vocal lines, I love that.
Luft: I especially love that as a guitarist, the Pat Metheney group of the eighties, and Kenny with Norma Winstone, I can’t get away from it in my head, the vocalese. And the psychedelic jazz of the seventies, Mahavishnu and Alan Holdsworth. One of the first gigs I ever saw was Holdsworth with Jimmy Haslip and Gary Husband (Gary playing the drums and not keyboards). For better or worse, seeing that trio changed my life.
JL32: Is Gary Husband English (Luft nods) I had no idea?
Luft: A few months after my New Zealand trip I met McLoughlin at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and he adjudicated in a competition I had entered. Then his band played with the two winning bands, I got second place, all of us jamming a blues together and doing solos. I had to pinch myself and say, is this happening (laughs). He’s lovely, just lovely, and he speaks incredibly good French, but I was slightly dismayed that his North Yorkshire accent has all but disappeared.
JL32: So moving to 2020 and your album ‘Life as a Dancer’, did you record that before or after the ECM album ‘Lost Ships’?
Luft: That was recorded six months before. I remember that session well because Byron had been held up. He needed to pick up his Flumpet which had a sticky valve. It sounds like a comedy sketch now (laughs), very Monty Python, me on the phone saying we need your Flumpet. We were recording and only had the studio booked for a limited time. When he arrived we only had time left for one take and he nailed it.
JL32: I admire openness in writing, even after adding two extra voices (after Riser), that album still sounds spacious, and the palette creates a nice textural balance.
Luft: I think you could say that the quintet was more inspired by textual, ambient ideas, perhaps Eno, more open and a washier sound, more open to explorations. We laid down a very simple progression and let the music go where it wanted to.
JL32: Are you drawn to open, model or spiritual jazz?
Luft: Yes, that new Coltrane album exemplified that, it blew me away. I am always inspired by that modal era, and when you add the electric guitar, electronics, which touches on those psychedelic influences, Eno, Byrne, then that whole world of sonic exploration opens.
JL32: Jon Hassell?
Luft: Oh yeah, a huge loss. In 2019 I was on tour with Arve Hendrikson (Norwegian Trumpeter associated with Hassell), and I discovered Hassell after I had heard Arve, and I said to him, ‘hang on, there is so much in your playing that comes from Jon Hassell and I had no idea’.
JL32: And guitarist Eivind Aaset, electronics improviser Jan Bang?
Luft: ‘Dream Logic’ is one of my favourite albums. The Norwegians are masters, they are like folk musicians. I met Eivind and Arild Anderson recently when I played at the Molde Jazz Festival, and I came to the realisation that these are deep folk musicians. Masters of sound, it’s about sound and the local roots. And Sidsel Endresen who is the biggest influence on Elina is astonishing.
JL32: And last year, there was another album that was released. A trio with Norwegian bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, You on guitar and Jon Falt on drums (Falt is the long time drummer with the ECM Bobo Stenson Trio).
Luft: I’m a huge fan of Jon Falt and I love Bobo Stenson, a big influence across Europe, Here, he has an almost Jarrett-like status.
JL32: Again that open airy free sound – like the American pianist, Marilyn Crispell, minimalism and depth.
Luft: The trumpet player who appears on ‘Life is a Dancer’, Byron Wallen, has an album. I’m on tour with him at present. He plays trumpet, Flugel, Flumpet, piano, conch and reads poems. He’s of Belizian Descent and has this gorgeous dulcet voice, and while he reads a poem I play minimalistic triadic chords. A beautiful conversation, voice above the texture.
JL32: Obviously, the thing I am keen to explore is your co-led album ‘Lost Ships’ and your impressions of recording with ECM. ‘Lost ships’ is the album that I am most likely to recommend to friends and your playing is a great example of less being more. You are understated, not all over the vocalist, but it feels so expansive. And all of you, relatively sparse instrumentation, Flugel, piano, guitar, vocals and not always at the same time, but a big sound.
Luft: I can tell you an amazing story about that recording. At that point, some countries like Italy were beginning to experience COVID but for us, it was a vague awareness of distant storm clouds gathering. We were there in the south of France and the days were mild. The studio Manfred had hired was in Avignon and the Israeli pianist Shai Maestro had just finished recording. And Manfred was there setting up the mics and desk levels, and then he had to return to Munich unexpectedly. So the set-up was complete and we had the engineer, but we were suddenly self-producing.
I was initially gutted, but Alina who had recorded with Manfred before, said, this is an opportunity. His presence is everywhere in the studio, so we should draw on that and record as if he were here guiding us. We should play as though he were sitting on the other side of the glass. And we would do a take and listen and say to ourselves, how would Manfred view this, and it was kind of liberating because we had unexpected freedom and as a young guitarist, I might have been intimidated otherwise.
JL32: Tell me more about the vibe.
Luft: I mean Manfred has produced some of my favourite albums like Metheney’s ‘Bright Sized Life’, John Abercrombie’s ‘Timeless’ with De Johnette/Hammer and many of my favourite guitar albums, so it took some of the weight off my shoulders to be imagining his presence. And as you pointed out, I felt able to play in a minimalist spacious way and I didn’t deploy all of my usual tricks and language. I just told myself, be an ECM guitarist and it worked. I’ve been told that Manfred loves the album and that he plays it at dinner parties, so it’s a good sign.
JL32: I would like to touch on the arranging, the writing, configuration etc.
Luft: I did a fair bit of the arranging and we were lucky to bring onboard other musicians, Matthieu Michel on Flugelhorn, they call him the Kenny Wheeler of Switzerland, a mellifluous tone reminiscent of the Northern Europeans. Manfreds a fan of his playing and he’s featured on a few ECM albums, with artists like Susanne Abbuehl. And Fred Thomas who is a multi-instrumentalist. He went to the Academy about ten years before me, in the same year as Kit Downes (also an ECM artist). What I’m trying to say is that it is all very incestuous (laughs). It’s a beautiful thing that the entire Jazz world is so connected.
Getting back to ‘lost Ships’, it came out in November 2020, during the month that Europe called a circuit-breaker lockdown. So right on release after the promise of clubs finally opening up again, lockdown. It was like a switch being turned off. We were gutted that we could not promote our album and only one concert survived. We had a big release tour locked down and suddenly in my diary, everything had to be crossed out.
The one remaining concert was the Cairo Jazz festival, Egypt! So in the middle of a lockdown, I showed up at Heathrow, guitar in tow, and boarded an Egyptian Airlines flight, without Matthieu. We were a trio with just Alina and Fred. But there was one gig on the way in Galicia Spain which was streamed and from there we flew directly to Cairo. (clip shown)
As we exited the Cairo terminal, the wafts of heat just swept over us, in stark contrast to wintery London. Taxi touts everywhere, shouting, and obviously no lockdown. We had two gigs at the festival and instead of live-streaming with no audience, we had a gorgeous venue and a full capacity audience. The Cairo Jazz Festival is amazing and we learnt an Arabic song for it, an ancient maqam from the 14th century.
We met loads of great musicians and the director of the festival, Amr Salah said, why are you getting on a plane to fly into a lockdown? What will you do when there are no gigs? Why don’t you just miss the flight and stay in Egypt? It was a wine-fueled evening and we decided on the spot to do just that. We soon found ourselves exploring the wonders of upper and lower Egypt. There were no tourists and we had the ancient sites virtually to ourselves. I must be one of the few people to stand beside Tutankhamun without company. And it was just us inside the anti-chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. And one thing led to another and I stayed there seven months.
JL32: Did I hear you correctly, seven months?
Luft: I was there living my life as normal, learning a bit of Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. And for whatever reason, the desert or perhaps a lack of testing, but very few cases of the virus appeared.
JL32: And are there any projects underway, ECM or otherwise?
Luft: Well three months ago Alina and I received an email from Manfred asking us to do another record. The finer details of which are under discussion right now and we might be recording in March 2022. And although we suffered through missing the lockdown release gigs, all of those bookings are suddenly active again, with promoters wanting us to appear all over. Strangely, I am busier with gigs now than I have ever been. In a few days, we head for Paris for a week of gigs, then around France. And another factor is that Elina and I work perfectly well as a duo and promotors find that easier to plan for. (some European countries have numbers restrictions again).
JL32: And how is the album doing?
Luft: By modern standards well and the sales are constant with gigs opening up again. Loads of Radio Play in Germany and Italy especially. ECM is essentially an old fashioned business and what they do is remarkably successful. Manfred is across it all and he uses only a small number of studios and a handful of trusted engineers. There’s one in the South of France where we recorded, there’s one in Lugano south Switzerland. Even the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo is not used anymore because the room is different. He values spaces and forms high trust relationships with certain engineers, and he probably delegates more than people think. Including delegating to the musicians. I have been told by other ECM musicians that his presence is felt, but not inserted into the project. Not insisting, I want you to do this now.
JL32: Any plans for a down-under tour in future?
Luft: The Melbourne scene is an important Jazz hub and the Melbourne diaspora (of jazz musicians) is felt throughout the world. We have a good friend in Melbourne who keeps threatening to organise a tour. If we were to go to Melbourne we would certainly try to facilitate a trip to New Zealand. And I would tour with Alina, it’s just a question of time. My mentality now, since we started touring again is, every concert is a blessing, a gift. Even if it’s stressful to get there with quarantine or with testing, we brush that aside and give the concert our all. I don’t want to lose that.
JL32: And I want to mention another name, someone you know. James Copus the Flugel player. I reviewed the recent Scottish National Jazz Orchestra album where they honour some free-jazz titans and James was playing in the orchestra. I loved his ‘Dusk’ recording.
Luft: Yes, James is one of my oldest friends, we shared a flat in North London, we drank too much, jammed too loudly and annoyed the neighbours. We would rehearse in our room with Balkan brass ensembles and the poor neighbours were incensed. We have known each other since we were fifteen as we were both in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And in the Royal Academy, we were in the same year with Jacob Collier. James and I are going to record together next year.
JL32: I see that you recorded as guest guitarist with the SNJO.
Luft: Yes one album. Tommy Smith is amazing, the UK Michael Brecker.
JL32: A few final questions. On ‘Lost Ships’ there is no bass player and minimal drums. How did you approach that?
Luft: Yes, it freed up space, but it also put a lot of responsibility onto my shoulders as a guitarist. So that’s why I used the electronics to give me an octave below and to fill out that space a bit more. And if there is a drummer they needed to be very aware. Play more with the lower toms and bass drum. I played bass lines sometimes while comping, it’s a flavour. You can’t talk about bassless jazz without thinking, Paul Motian Trio. In my head, that’s the textbook on how to do it.
JL32: Current influences?
Luft: I try to listen to new stuff all the time. Actually, Egypt was amazing for that. Being immersed in a whole world of Egyptian singers and musicians was great, I had no idea it existed. And now I hear that and it touches me deeply. It’s incredible the way the Oud players, singers and violinists improvise within a mode and often microtonally. No pianos anywhere. I’m a huge fan of Anouar Brahem, so to walk into a cafe, drink a really strong coffee and hear musicians doing what he does, magic, all of that drone-based modal music.
It’s lament music. Alina often points out to audiences, that once you cross the Bosphorus and arrive in the Middle East, something fundamental in the music changes. So in the West, a major key song is a happy song and a minor key song is a sad song. Once you cross the Bosphorus, the minor key becomes the happy song. And Jazz gets that as it understands dancing the sadness away.
JL32: So with Alina, you will have been exploring this type of music.
Luft: Because she’s from Albania, an ancient cultural melting pot, the Ottoman Turkish influence is strong, but it’s also a Mediterranean country with Italian and other influences. So Turkish microtonality blended with an Italian folky balladesque. And touches of Rock and Pop. The Balkans region influences me more and more. So I have an Oud now and I am beginning to explore that. The Oud shops of Cairo are the Tin Pan Alley of the Middle East. We have to innovate to keep moving.
JL32: And the recent album by Norwegian bass player Ellen Andrea Wang that you featured on. That is a prime example of the forward-momentum of improvised music. I get quite a few albums from that region for review, and many are similar to ‘Closeness’ in that they blend pop sensibilities with hardcore Jazz. Like folksy ballads alongside tunes like Ornette’s Lonely Woman or some Americana like Wayfaring Stranger.
Luft: All over London there are Jazz gigs in small venues featuring this exact type of music, so you get teenagers coming along in droves, and sometimes I do gigs like that. We will throw in a Radiohead or a Nick Drake number with Jazz harmonies. I love the excitement on the faces of new audiences as they hear that mix but also relate to the straight Jazz content. Brad Mehldau led the way. Many young Londoners are becoming tired of shallow formulaic pop music and they are searching. And they discover new stars like Shabaka Hutchings who is very popular. Myele Manzanza from Wellington is also very successful in London, he has real crossover appeal.
JL32: I am interested in your work as an accompanist, your sensitivity and awareness of the vocalist. Not every guitarist gets that, many overplay, miss the nuances when comping. Although you have a number of instrumental albums, you also gravitate towards vocalists. Are you drawn to them or do they seek you out?
Luft: I’ve always been drawn to singers because I love the spoken word. A number of years ago I studied at University College London, a degree course in the science of language. Along the way, I managed to pick up two additional languages, with a degree of proficiency, French and Italian, and I’m fascinated with the connection between poetry and melody. Voice and guitar, that extra layer that can be added. So I am drawn to them, but maybe it works both ways as they call me back for more gigs.
JL32: It appears that we’ve been talking for nearly two hours so I’d better wrap up and let you get some sleep (it’s Midnight in the UK). Thanks, for giving me so much time man, it’s been a really interesting and fun catch-up.
Luft: And you too John. Let’s hope that our paths will cross sometime in the new year or very soon after.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.