Courtney Pine CBE, chats with Kevin Cooper about his love of vinyl records, being smitten with Chaka Khan, his latest album and his current tour.

Courtney Pine CBE is an English jazz musician. At school he studied the clarinet, although he is known primarily for his saxophone playing. Pine is a multi-instrumentalist, also playing the flute, clarinet, bass clarinet and keyboards.

His recent music integrates modern British music like drum and bass and UK garage with contemporary jazz styles. He runs his own band and integrates many contemporary musicians in his performances. He also presented Jazz Crusade on BBC Radio 2.

Whilst busy touring the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Mr Pine good morning. How are you today?

Hi Kevin I’m good thanks. How is Nottingham today?

It is dull, wet and windy. Nothing more than we should expect for this time of year (laughter).

Exactly, but you’ve got to talk about Jazz init.

What could be better than talking Jazz with the one and only Mr Courtney Pine?

(Laughter) you are far too kind Kevin (laughter). So are you into Jazz?

The honest answer to that is not as much as I should be but who better to learn from.

Oh no Kevin that’s just like me (laughter). I have spent years talking to folks who don’t really know that much about Jazz together with playing concerts. I guess it is what I do; this is my living, and this is just what I do.

So firstly let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

It’s no problem Kevin.

And just how is life treating you?

Things at this moment in time are really, really busy Kevin. In fact it’s been busy since 1987 (laughter). I haven’t stopped touring around the world and I say this because there are a lot of guys who said that I shouldn’t play Jazz; they told me that there was no money in it and there is no work in it. I agree, there is no money but I have been working non-stop since 1987 as a solo artist. Jazz music is a weird thing because although it is not popular music it is still there you know. It is hard to explain but when you come to the concerts it all then makes sense because what you see is what you get. I have to keep my hands busy whether it is practising or running my own record label which I have been doing for ten years now. So life at the moment is simply busy, busy, busy.

It’s not like I have recorded my three albums and I can’t get a gig anymore; there is a Jazz gig in every city, in every town and I am available (laughter). So I have been really busy (laughter).

What a fantastic position to find yourself in.

It’s stressful, it is hard work and I have seen the music industry collapse and Jazz is only six percent of the music industry within the UK Kevin. So you can imagine the decay within the music industry and just how it has effected Jazz. However every now and again I still get calls to play at Glastonbury or things like that. Luckily for me I am around the world playing. The only thing that I can complain about is that there aren’t enough days in the week for me to practice (laughter). That’s what I will try to complain about.

And now thanks to Bono and the boys everyone expects you to give your work away free.

(Hysterical laughter) I just don’t know how they got the software to enable them to put their album on my iPad (laughter). It was unbelievable. The problem with U2 and what the music industry caused them to do is that the industry started rating albums due to the illegal download chart. So if your album was successful then a lot of people would download it for free. So U2 turned around and said if that’s the case we are going to give it to them for free and people still didn’t want it (hysterical laughter). I have to own up and tell you that I am a U2 fan by the way but it is just how we work within a capitalist world Kevin. We don’t want to be spoon-fed stuff; we want to go out and search for stuff that’s off the cuff. Just look at how vinyl has come back in vogue right now.

I personally think that it’s great just how vinyl is currently making a comeback.

A few weeks ago I released my House Of Legends album on vinyl as a limited run of 500 copies. It was such a nightmare getting it done. There were only three people who my manufacturer would rate to print them up, and then I had to test them and because we are now mastering well into the red, the volume that we are dealing with in this day and age it is unbelievably loud compared to what we did in the 80’s and 90’s. The Vinyl which came back to me wasn’t right so they had to redo it all over again and in the end it took them three times to get it right. But the good news is that within a month I have sold them all. I didn’t sell it for £20, I sold it for £10. I didn’t do the £30 madness which I should have done I guess. I kept two copies back which I am going to hold onto for my parents.

I did a gig the other day in East London and I stayed at the hotel right next door to the venue and I was amazed to see that my hotel room had a turntable in there and about five vinyl albums. Two doors away from the hotel was a record store so I treated myself to the James Bond Dr. No soundtrack (laughter). I have a vinyl collection of six thousand plus albums so I know what you are saying Kevin.

I have to tell you that I have always had a soft spot for the saxophone since seeing Jr. Walker here in Nottingham when I was fourteen years old.

Oh wow Kevin that’s awesome. You saw that and he went down on his knees whilst playing the saxophone. That was an unbelievable mixture where you could get a Jazz musician who was playing music to a wider audience, and finding a way to do. What an absolute legend. He was so inspirational and whether you want to talk about Smooth Jazz or any type of contemporary Jazz then Jr. Walker is an icon. And even in the world of popular music he is up there. He has got the living hits, yeah man.

Going back to your album, will you do a second run on vinyl?

No Kevin, that’s it, it’s gone (laughter). I have recently made a duets album and even now I am thinking shall I or shan’t I. At every gig that I do there is always someone who comes up to me and asks for a version on vinyl. At every single show that we have done, and we have been touring since March, someone always asks me for a vinyl copy. It was great because people as young as seventeen are asking for vinyl Kevin, it’s awesome. He came to the gig in order to pick up a vinyl copy of the album from me. It’s very encouraging that we still have youngsters who want to come out and support live music or hear and see what live music is like so if there are musicians out there reading this please don’t give up, there is still an audience out there.

I have always found vinyl to have a certain warmth which is sadly lacking from CD’s.

That’s right Kevin, you are so right. Unlike the CD a vinyl album forces you to appreciate the music much better. What you have to remember Kevin is that back in the day projects on vinyl could only be twenty-five minutes per side but then you get classic albums like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall where Quincy Jones was sending it to be cut and all of the time he was editing the music (laughter) there and then to make sure that he had got twenty-five minutes that sounded good. Nowadays you can put fifty-six tracks on an album but that doesn’t mean that it is better music it just means that you have got more tracks on there (laughter).

I suppose that we really should talk about your album Song (The Ballad Book) shouldn’t we?

That would be very nice Kevin (laughter).

Are you happy with how well it has been received?

To be perfectly honest with you Kevin I am really surprised. I have never done an album like this before and there aren’t many bass clarinet lead albums that have been put out in the public eye because the bass clarinet is seen as a backing instrument so to have it as a lead instrument, plus it being a duet album, and then ballads, it is a very unusual project, but I have been shocked with the response. It has been a 99.99% positive response to it. I have been working my butt off playing as hard as ever trying to get people to stand up and dance and then I do this little quiet thing which has got more positive reviews than anything else that I have ever done (laughter). It’s definitely a strange world that we are living in Kevin (laughter). You just never know.

Are you personally happy with the album or are there parts where you think that perhaps you could have done that a little better?

Out of all of my projects, I am never happy Kevin. Honestly, with all of my records I have never been totally happy with any of them. I am always thinking that I wish that I could have spent more time on that or I wish that I had played that differently, I am never happy but with this particular project because it’s so different to my repertoire I am so glad that I have done it, so much so that I would like to do another one. Who knows if I will get the chance to. With an album like this there are always songs that I could have done; there is always that other track that I could have had a go at (laughter).

I had a list of fifty-four tunes at first and we cut it down to what it is, but let me tell you Kevin, there is more (laughter). At the live shows we will play other songs that weren’t even on the list. So with an album like this, highlighting classic songs; songs which changed me by the time I had listened to the ending. Classic songs make you feel different Kevin and that is not just the vocal performance, it is the actual song, it is the way that it moves. There are songs that do that, and that is what I attempted to do with this record but there is so much more.

It is probably me oversimplifying things but music is memories isn’t it?

Without a shadow of a doubt Kevin, you are so right. And especially in the Jazz world. Whenever I meet some of the old-school guys they love Jazz because it reminds them of 1949 when they saw Dexter Gordon in Denmark. I have so many stories of elders telling me these things. You can have a song that doesn’t have any lyrics, for example Elton John’s Song For Guy and you listen to the song and you can hear the lyrics through it. That is the bit that I find most intriguing; when you hear an instrumental song and it is as though you are singing your own lyrics to it (Laughter). So there is that aspect to music.

I have to say that at this moment in time my favourite tracks on the album are Through The Fire and One Last Cry. I think that they are fantastic.

For me those two songs take me to moments in my life when I was in certain places. Chaka Khan is totally unbelievable and I was so made up at being able to sit next to her at a charity gig. I looked up and she was walking straight towards me, and my wife was sitting next to me laughing her head off because she knows that Chaka Khan is someone who does things to me (laughter). She pulled out the chair next to me and I am starting to melt; I was just turning to jelly. And as she pulled her chair out Mica Paris’s dad shouted out “no we are sitting over here” and that was it. Chaka Khan was gone (laughter).

A couple of years later I had a radio show and I had to interview Chaka at The North Sea Jazz Festival where she had just performed to thirty thousand people. I am sat waiting to interview her in her dressing room as nervous as hell and guess what, Chaka Khan lives in Hammersmith; she is local to me. I couldn’t believe it when she asked me to go round to her house the following day to see her. So when it came to recording Through The Fire it was no problem Kevin. If I could sing then that is how I would sound (laughter).

You have briefly mentioned Zoe (Rahman) what was it like working and recording with her?

It was great but Zoe is fighting her own battle as well in terms of being recognised as an artist in this world. Zoe is from Bangladesh so her music has another flavour. She is a major artist and she comes from a musical family. So for me when it came to working with a pianist who already knew about playing in a duet format she was the only person who I could think of. She has been brilliant at every single show. She has been a dream to work with.

Do you still enjoy being out on the road?

I’ve been doing it since 1987 Kevin, it is what I do and it is all that I know. Travelling and playing is a learning experience but I have to say that the travelling can be a pain especially when they want to take your instrument away from you and destroy it on a plane. Now I have a family it is not as easy being on the road as it was when I was twenty years old. However there must be something about it otherwise I would have given up a long time ago (laughter). I really do enjoy the people aspect of being out on the road, pleasing the audience. It is a buzz.

What do you think to our fair city here in Nottingham?

I think that Nottingham is beautiful Kevin. My saxophone repair man Peter has recently moved up to Nottingham so hopefully I will be able to get him to come down to the show. I love Nottingham and I really do need to be there a lot more. I have had some very good times up there in Nottingham (laughter).

I am going to take you back to the year 2000 if I may when you recorded Lady Day (And John Coltrane) with the late Lynden David Hall. What was it like working with Lynden?

You know of Lynden’s work then Kevin?

Yes I do and I thought that he had the most amazing voice.

I liked his voice and I had heard him singing something which he wouldn’t normally do and he sang on a drum and bass track which I thought was really brave of him. Then he came along and did some shows with us in Japan and he was simply a fantastic musician. Lynden didn’t wait for the music industry to find him; he set up his own label, and he did what he had to do whilst he was here and I miss him. He was open minded enough to work with Jazz musicians which not all R & B people are. Rebecca Ferguson and Annie Lennox have both had a go so who knows, it could work. But remember not all artists are going to be good at it (laughter). You don’t get it for free, you have to work at it.

Going back a little further, in 1986 you recorded your version of The Real Thing’s Children Of The Ghetto. Was it a song which you thought you simply had to record?

(Laughter) my mother-in-law would often say that she couldn’t tap her feet to my music and one day I suddenly realised that she was right. I like music that I can tap my feet to so I thought why shouldn’t I record just one tune that would sit nicely in my repertoire that people could tap their feet to. That song was the B Side to Can You Feel The Force; I know as I still have the 12” single (laughter). I was always touched by the lyrics and it just had to be done. Susaye Greene came in at the last minute and it was game over, she did a fantastic job. It just all worked really well.

I was speaking to Eddie Amoo a few weeks ago and I asked him who he thought had recorded the best version and without hesitation he said Courtney Pine.

That is high praise indeed Kevin especially coming from one of the co-writers and original recording artists of the song. Whenever you talk about British Soul you simply have to talk about The Real Thing. They were there right at the beginning and they have inspired so many people. I’m so glad that they did what they did.

At what point in your career did you feel most musically satisfied?

Oh gosh Kevin (laughter) tomorrow. For me it is always about achieving the next thing. However one moment which always stands out is when we played at Wembley Stadium at the Free Nelson Mandela concert which proved to me that Jazz could work. But for me it will always be tomorrow and the next project.

Who has inspired you?

That would have to be Osibisa. I was at school with the leader of the group, Mac Tontoh’s son so I was round at Osibisa’s house every day soaking up all of the atmosphere wondering if it were possible for me to become a musician and they answered the question. One of the band members in Osibisa was also playing in the group Hi Tension so I went along for an audition (laughter). I have been lucky in that I have always managed to meet the people who I have been inspired by.

What was the first record that you ever bought?

I was nine years old and my dad’s best friend took me to Kingston, Jamaica to pick up a copy of Ben by Michael Jackson. That was my first ever item.

Who did you first see perform live in concert?

I can remember being on my dad’s shoulders at the Notting Hill Carnival watching Aswad play. They were unbelievable Kevin.

Who do you listen to now?

There are so many different types of music that I like to listen to and I always get flummoxed whenever I get asked that question (laughter). I love the Soundgarden album from last year. There are so many good artists out there that are doing good work at the moment especially in the Jazz field.

In 2000 you were appointed Officer Of The Order Of The British Empire (OBE) and then Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire (CBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours for services to Jazz music. How did that make you feel?

That was weird Kevin because I hadn’t programmed that into this gig (laughter). When I first heard that they wanted to give me an OBE my first thought was have they got the right name because that sort of thing doesn’t really happen within the Jazz world. It was just unbelievable. When I received my OBE Her Majesty asked me if people still listened to Jazz; she knows what is going on. Prince Charles is really cool because he knows about the Jazz thing. I looked around and just thought that I shouldn’t be there. I am still expecting the doorbell to ring and for there be a man standing there who has come to take my OBE and CBE back to the Palace (laughter).

Mr Pine on that note let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me and wish you all the very best for the future.

No problem Kevin, it’s been a pleasure. You take care.