This year JazzAscona festival has bestowed many wonders upon its lovers: if you happened to be here throughout the festival's program and strolled in Ascona's colorful meandering streets, you would have probably stumbled upon extraordinary "Frog and Henry" band, unique of its kind. International in how it is formed, this band consists of musicians who come from different parts of the world and musical backgrounds, but are all driven by one passion: expressing their true inner self through the music they like, old traditional jazz, which they explored and studied thoroughly while living in the city known as the cradle of jazz, New Orleans, Louisiana. Compositions like "Si tu vois ma mère" by Sidney Bechet, "High Society" by Porter Steele, or "Song of the Wanderer: Where Shall I Go" by Neil Morét get magically revived by the spirit of youth and master musicianship when performed by "Frog and Henry": all of its members are multi-instrumentalists, but during the performance in Ascona we heard Ewan Bleach playing clarinets & singing, Coleman Akin on the violin and vocals, F.H. Henry on the guitar and also singing, David Neigh playing tuba, and Maxwell Poulos playing banjo. To my mind, "Frog and Henry" Band is there to amaze you by the freshness and enthusiasm of their approach to old-style jazz, by their originality and deep understanding of music as well as by their innate feeling of how this old style of music should sound, what the essence of such is, and how to perform it with brightness, vigour, with a respect to tradition and people around, and, probably most importantly, with soulfulness in every note and word.
After having discovered "Frog and Henry" by chance in Ascona (since it was not in the official program of the festival), we decided to conduct an interview with these gifted musicians in the series of our dialogues "Some Soulful Stories"... * T. K.: Guys, it has been a great joy to meet you all here in Ascona this year. First of all, we would like to ask where does your interest in "old style" jazz stem from? Ewan Bleach: We perform music from the pre-war era, old-time style music and ragtime, mostly of the 1920-30s; I suppose everybody has a different experience in getting interested in such style of music.... * T.K.: As it is stated on your official website, frogandhenry.com, you have discovered old recordings of dance jazz music and decided to perform it... It is really old music which has not been unveiled before... E.B.: That's true, we spend a lot of time sifting through the archives as they were, the modern day archives and the internet, of course. There is so much recorded music from that era so we just try to find something that we like... We tend to learn a lot of things from the recordings, not that much from people playing now. F.H. Henry: There are also some pieces that no longer exist in recordings, there is only sheet music. So we study it and try to play such with aesthetics of the tunes we heard from recordings of old jazz style... * T.K. Music that you perform has also a lot to do with an image that you build on stage, a strong identity, I believe. Is that image something natural to you, i.e. you feel that era's atmosphere as close to your inner selves, or is it something that you create on stage as actors do... Coleman Akin: I think stylistically it's all music. It can be either old or new, and it is really in the moment. I don't personally feel like I am living in the 1920s. I don't think anyone from us may actually do that. E. B.: No, not at all. I guess we are not trying to make a kind of museum music. My understanding is that the way they used to play, the kind of stuff I really like has a lot of details, which you don't find in the way people play now. As for me, I just discover things that I like in old way playing and learn those techniques and nuances.
Stylistically it's all music. It can be either old or new, and it is really in the moment. (Coleman Akin)
We are not trying to make a kind of museum music. (Ewan Bleach)
F.H. Henry: I think we may compare it with cars or architectural structures. It doesn't matter when it was built, it is just crafted very well. The same is with musical approaches. It doesn't matter when the music was recorded, when it was created in musical tradition and training. As far as it creates a great musical result, it is good. I think we would not bother looking for old recordings if this music was everywhere and of the same quality. But since it is not, we make such research. And we are not trying to recreate this music but to work with its aesthetics and approach it in the right way. Old time jazz started as popular and somewhat provocative and party music, it was not something accessible only to old people because it was performed by young people at that time. So it doesn't really matter what the songs are, we just love the aesthetics of such, and we do not recreate but rather approach that sound of the era.
Old time jazz started as popular and somewhat provocative and party music, it was not something accessible only to old people because it was performed mostly by young people at that time. (F.H.Henry)
* T.K.: Coming from different parts of the world, you all met in New Orleans. How has your international band, "Frog and Henry", been formed, guys?
E.B.: I think we all have had the pretty same experience - we wanted to experience New Orleans musically.
I came to New Orleans from England for three months with absolutely no plans, no place to stay, just my instrument. I had a couple of connections so I went there, joined several jam sessions and thus once ended up to be in a band with Henry who came to New Orleans to get exposed to its musical scene, get some understanding of it, just like me.
Maxwell Poulos: I come from California and I moved to New Orleans 5 years ago for the same reason.
* T.K: What about you, David? You come from Canada, don't you? So what brought you to New Orleans?
David Neigh: I came to New Orleans to get musical experience there too, to discover this city of such a great musical tradition.
* T.K.: Coleman, you were born in Tennessee, US, weren't you? Was it the same reason that brought you to New Orleans?
C.A: Yeah, I was traveling with a friend there. We were playing music throughout the South and South-East; we went to New Orleans, I met Henry one of the first days that we were there; we ended up staying there; sleeping on the floor, quite a while (laughing). That adventure sort of formed the band.
* T.K.: Before joining "Frog & Henry", you also performed country music and took part in competitions dedicated to old-time jazz. Could you tell more about that experience?
C.A.: Yeah, sure! East Tennessee and South-West Virginia, South of Kentucky and West-North Carolina are the places where they play bluegrass music, a particular style of it. And I grew up around that music. I guess it is a combination of Irish, Scottish, English, and African musical roots. Things like ragtime are influenced by them. I'd played this music basically until I went to New Orleans and became more interested in Jazz.
* T.K. Tennessee is known as a land of country music, blues, it is a Motherland of Tina Turner, as well, and has many sights linked with the theme of music...
C.A. Yeah, indeed. It's a very long state. The western part is on the Mississippi River and the Delta, the middle part is mostly plains and the eastern part is on the Appalachian mountains. So the state of Tennessee has diverse geographical regions, and a long musical tradition, too.
* T.K. What about your instruments, guys... I believe instruments are extensions of musicians' personalities...So let's speak a bit about your perception of such.
D.N.: I've never been into that actually. And I think no one from us has. (Laughing). But, I play tuba so...
* T.K. It is stated that you are even "operating tuba machine"?
D.N.: Oh, yeah! This machine has tuba, and banjo or guitar playing at once. It has two pedals and a knee strap. Tuba sits up on a stand and it has pedals hooked up to the pistons. So I can play tuba with my feet, and I can play banjo with my hands.
* T.K. (to David) How would you describe the sound of a tuba?
D.N.: It is a brass instrument and a big part of the rhythm section and there is an opportunity to play leads on it as well. It has that unique deep sound and it can do a lot of different things...
I came to New Orleans to get musical experience there..., to discover this city of such a great musical tradition. (David Neigh)
F.H. Henry.: Actually; each one of us plays more than one instrument. Whichever instrument anyone plays in this band, it is mostly functional. I play more than one instrument but I play guitar because no one else does. As for me, I prioritize not what it means to me personally, but just what it contributes to the band, in the ensemble setting. I think it is an idea of our band, and many early jazz groups like "King Oliver Band", for instance, were only ensembles. They played together all the time, it wasn't only one person featured as a soloist on stage. Theoretically, everyone in our band or in other jazz ensembles of this kind and each instrument is as important as the other one. So everyone and every instrument are there as a service to the ensemble.
I prioritize not what it means to me personally, but just what it contributes to the band... everyone and every instrument are there as a service to the ensemble. (F.H.Henry)
* T.K. Yeah, it is about producing music through different means, serving the band and society, indeed. Do you perform as a band of 5 member-musicians all the time? F.H. Henry: We can play as a brass band, or a string band, it depends on the situation. If we are playing on the streets for 100 people to enjoy music and to dance, with open space and cars going by, we have to extend our brass section and our band gets bigger. But here in Ascona, we have a smaller band. And since our band members are multi-instrumentalists it also allows us to minimize many expenses. * T.K.: Could you also extend more on the roles your instruments play in the ensemble? (addressing to Coleman and Ewan) Both violin and clarinet have a very classical touch in the sound they produce, I guess... C. A.: I think it is not such a common thing for the clarinet and violin to be there, carrying the melody. But I like how it goes in our band: the violin can have a role of the melody but also the clarinet can. And we can trade. Essentially either one of us, Ewan or me, can be doing that. Violin, clarinet, or saxophone can take a lead. E.B.: It can be actually confusing to play this music without trumpet because it is often there in a band to be the main leader. We always change with Coleman, trying to understand who is a leader. C.A.: Maxwell plays an important role in our band as well, filling out the sound... * T.K.: What is your vision of banjo as an instrument, Maxwell?
M.P.: For me, the banjo is a very interesting instrument, which provides syncopation and kind of percussive elements as well. It is also well tuned in a way when it can put little melodies here and there... * T.K. What are your sources of inspiration? Could you name some musicians you are listening to? M.P.: I am listening to ragtime music and Italian mandoline music at the moment.
For me, the banjo is a very interesting instrument, which provides syncopation and kind of percussive elements as well. It is also well-tuned in a way when it can put little melodies here and there... (Maxwell Poulos)
E.B.: Most of my time I am listening to 1910s recordings of Istanbul Ottoman classical music. It is from the actual Ottoman empire period, last recordings of such. You can say it has nothing to do with the music we have played here but music is all one thing. There are always parallels between different styles and you can always learn something. The thing I am fascinated about in this music is the nuances it has. It's hard to explain but I think it is the way you can make your instrument actually talk. What inspires me in old time recordings, be it New Orleans jazz, ragtime, old recordings of classical music or from other parts of the world, is in these nuances, it just feels as more detailed. It is the way those great musicians sculpt and bend the notes, all these actual things beyond a mere playing. I was always drawn to the old classical style of the violin; cello, predominantly. I've been playing classical clarinet where you are not allowed to bend notes. It is very cold. And I always wanted to play the cello. So now I am not playing classical music and I can play music I really like. I spend a lot of time trying to sound like a cello, actually. In terms of just how I bend the notes, trying to bring some more portamento. Me and Coleman, we spend a lot of time trying to sound in the same movement. The way in which note bend is very important. It takes a lot of care. Because you do not want it to sound like a caricature or comedy music, you know, playing notes around and carrying it randomly.
...you do not want it to sound like a caricature or comedy music... (Ewan Bleach)
* T.K. Leroy Jones, a great master musician, and trumpet player have once told us that he tries to play in a very delicate and articulated manner... So, as you've said, it's about taking care, having that conscious approach in jazz as well as in classical music... What is your vision of the link between classical heritage and jazz expressed also in performance?
C.A. One of my favourite violin players is Fritz Kreisler. I listen to his music a lot. I also like classical music. Articulating notes is essential, to my mind. Being able to speak through your instrument. I admire older players, closer to the music that we performed last night in Ascona. We are also all interested in New Orleans Jazz: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, they all have strong personal styles. There are particular articulation and almost vocal element to their playing. That's what keeps me going in this music.
Articulating notes is essential, to my mind. Being able to speak through your instrument....King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, they all have strong personal styles. There are particular articulation and almost vocal element to their playing. (Coleman Akin)
* T.K.: By vocal element, do you mean that there are strong melodic ideas?
C.A. Also it is about sounds these musicians produce - it is not just aesthetic beautiful classical music sounds but something like shouting, growling, they make these guttural tones... these musicians tell something with a kind of novelty, viewing music as an expressive tool.
E.B. For me, I try not to make it sound like a novelty. What is amazing about great New Orleans musicians, at least for me, is that they can do all those sounds and it still remains deep and meaningful... they can even do something like growling, can even play comically but it still has beauty. I think a lot of people try to play this kind of music but they do not really mean it.
I always thought of saxophone as of very interesting instrument to play. It is so easy to make saxophone sounds really ingenuine, sleazy, as people say. I always thought of the saxophone as of amplifier. It exaggerates. So, I think that the skill of playing the saxophone is learning how to stop saying too much. Oftentimes it wants to say too much and it is necessary to hold it back and kinda be quite gentle with it. That's what the title of the book by Sidney Bechet says, by the way: "Treat It Gentle..." (smiling);
...the skill of playing the saxophone is learning how to stop saying too much. Oftentimes it wants to say too much and it is necessary to hold it back and kinda be quite gentle with it... (Ewan Bleach)
I see it as a very important approach. Even when you are playing and trying to create an expression of anger, making it very dramatic and really hard, you still have to take real care not to exaggerate or overtone; to think of balance.
I think a lot of people try to play this kind of music but they do not really mean it. (Ewan Bleach)
* A. K.: Do you think that trumpet is somewhat close to that? Or any other instruments?
E.B. When I think of saxophone and how it can go too far, I think it is somewhat overdriven to electric guitar. It goes to the places where you can feel uncomfortable, for me at least. At times it may sound very sugary and sleazy. Trumpet as an instrument is slightly gentler for me.
* T.K. That's a very interesting perspective on the instruments, actually. Henry, do you draw inspiration from classical music as well?
F.H. Henry: I do not actually draw a big distinction between jazz and classical music. I think that the reality of many classical musicians like Haydn, for instance, who were hired by kings and played at some court parties is actually the same as it is for jazz musicians who are hired for such social events nowadays.
And the practice of performance for classical musicians was nearly the same as it is for jazz musicians today. Let's say you had to play for 10 hours. I don't think there was any way to bring that much sheet music to play for 10 hours straight. Same for us now. So at a certain point, those musicians had to improvise just as we do. I would guess it is a reality of classical musicians back at that time: Bach or Beethoven, for instance, also improvised while composing and expanded on some sections that they found good.
* T.K.: I was thinking about that as well: some people equal jazz to improvisation. But if we think of classical music times - improvisation could have existed at that time too, but it was not necessarily written down, right? There is even some documentation proving that Chopin, for instance, would once sit down and simply improvise on his own pieces, going off the melody...
C.A.: That's like "cadenza" in classical music, which is actually an improvisation...
E.B.: Yeah, often in concertos or sonatas, for instance, there is cadenza, when the soloist plays on his own. In recent times those all have been written out. But historically the cadenza was time for the soloist to improvise. I don't know why, but for some reason, this tradition has left classical music. There is still a tradition of classical organ improvisation. But for some reason, in general, cadenza disappeared in a way it was; and it actually meant exactly what we do in jazz - improvisation. We are using the same harmonic devices. And there are recordings of great classical improvising musicians. Coleman mentioned Fritz Kreisler who was able to elaborate on melody; he wasn't just playing music. And that's the beginning of improvisation, isn't it?
* T.K. Absolutely... When you are performing old-time jazz music, do you imagine that time? I mean, stylistically playing baroque music, for instance, presumes thinking of those times, traditions. That era prescribes a certain way of performance and behavior on stage. Some teachers tell students that they shouldn't move too much playing Bach or Scarlatti, for example, because the ambiance of that time was quite strict, it is not like Debussy or impressionistic music where you can allow yourself more movement...
E.B. Every moment I play this music, I am just trying to be me. As I said, it is not museum music or reenactment. We are drawn to this music.
C.A. But we still do emulate musicians we admire. I think it is the way of developing your own style. I do sometimes think about particular recordings and musicians that I've heard while I am playing a piece.
E.B. Yeah, I do agree actually. Sometimes when you play really well, you feel like you are channeling someone. When you are really in it, you kinda think of what would Sidney Bechet do at this moment. You feel like the spirit of that music is somehow with you a little bit. It might sound foolish but it feels like that at times when it is going well.
We still do emulate musicians we admire. I think it is the way of developing your own style. I do sometimes think about particular recordings and musicians that I've heard while I am playing a piece. (Coleman Akin)
Sometimes when you play really well, you feel like you are channeling someone...When you are really in it, you kinda think of what would Sidney Bechet do at this moment.(Ewan Bleach)
* T.K. Wow, that's cool. So we started from that very question of whether the style of music you perform is innate to your personality or is it something you build on purpose... I guess it is a combination of both: it comes naturally, you are yourselves, but there is also an element of conscious imitation, influence and thought of past tradition when creating music on stage.
* T.K. Since this interview is done in the series of dialogues "Some Soulful Stories", could you just share with our readers your relation to music, life, your mottos?
F.H. Henry: For me personally, I just love doing music. Even if I worked in other spheres, being occupied to earn money by some other means, I would be thinking about doing music anyway. So I decided just to do what I really like, what is enjoyable as a profession.
I also think that Ascona as a place is very connected with New Orleans music; we have been coming here for 4 years. JazzAscona has first started as New Orleans festival. Many people come here for this kind of music in that tradition. And we would be glad to support traditional New Orleans jazz in the framework of this festival as well since we studied in this city and want to convey its spirit somehow. Philosophically I respect all the styles, but we represent something that is quite underrepresented everywhere in the world; music of a specific era, and I think it is worthwhile for people to be exposed to it.
Philosophically I respect all the styles, but we represent something that is quite underrepresented everywhere in the world; music of a specific era, and I think it is worthwhile for people to be exposed to it. (F.H.Henry)
C.A: Swim every day! (Laughing) That's a good motto to share... I also think that music is definitely a spiritual thing, it could be a way to have some kind of body and soul experience.
E.B.: I think music is also about having a dialogue with something really really old. Art of music has been developing for a long time and everything you play is connected with thousands of years of tradition.
...Music is definitely a spiritual thing, it could be a way to have some kind of body and soul experience. (Coleman Akin)
...Music is...about having a dialogue with something really really old. Art of music has been developing for a long time and everything you play is connected with thousands of years of tradition. (Ewan Bleach)
So I suppose that in this human being program we somehow need meaning in life; we yearn for meaning and purpose. And at least for me, music is the closest thing I have, as a meaning that I can strive for and understand. Even though I am not a religious person at all, this is what I have as closest to religion - the practice of playing music, it is meditation and performance. It also has this necessity to tune in, to be in harmonic series; to be physically in sound. It is interaction with a special essence of which the Universe is made. It's meaning for all of us, I guess.
...In this human being program we somehow need meaning in life; we yearn for meaning and purpose. And at least for me, music is the closest thing I have, as a meaning that I can strive for and understand. It is interaction with a special essence of which the Universe is made. (Ewan Bleach)
Physically making vibrations that tune in with other vibrations, and syncope, and generate forms that exist in this dimension where literally the moment can be easily gone... It is a space which is hard to find sometimes, you can easily forget about the minute that passed... As musicians, we take that physical infinitesimal small place of the moment and try to fill it with something memorable...
* T K.: Do you have somehow to tune in that sort of atmosphere of a past era? To make your music as close as possible to the vibes of that era?
E.B.: I guess you always have to tune in. And for me, it has nothing to do with a specific era. Things that I like are just those that are done well; You remember them because they leave a strong impression on you, they are done right. And while playing you try to be respectful in how you are crafting the sound and in feelings that you are putting forward.
As musicians, we take that physical infinitesimal small place of the moment and try to fill it with something memorable... you try to be respectful in how you are crafting the sound and in feelings that you are putting forward. (Ewan Bleach)
* A.K.: It is great that you are playing it for people of today and it sounds fresh whilst being in tradition, it is really well done...
E.B.: Thank you. It is also what practice of improvisation contains. You respect old styles of playing but while improvising you produce a sequence of notes in a certain way that is very unlikely to have been played by someone before, and it probably will never happen again. While improvising you will be always interrupted by the present...
* T.K. That's true, being in a moment. Thank you very much, guys, for connecting the present with the great past, channeling the ideas and musical beauty into this world and sharing your insights into the realm of music with us today. We would be happy to hear from you again in Ascona and wish all the best to the great "Frog & Henry"!
F & H.: Thank you!
(Interview conducted by Taliya Khafizova & Almira Khafizova,
Photos by Almira Khafizova)
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