Playing in the Present - An Interview with Phoenician Blinds

For anyone engaged in a creative endeavour, distraction is the devil. The constant urge to procrastinate and remove yourself from the moment plagues the present-tense of creation itself. A thousand things occurring at once in our minds, we focus on none and instead watch them all whir by.

For jazz quartet Phoenician Blinds, their latest LP A Second of Silence is an antidote to the constant distraction and hectic nature of the world around us. A moment’s pause, a breath stretched into eight tracks of luscious downbeat compositions and delicate melody.

Co-founder and pianist Tom Sochas explains that “we called this record A Second of Silence because we wanted to write something that would reflect this lack of and need for quiet and meditation amongst the frantic pace of the world. There are a lot of tunes that are bi-polar in a way; they’ll be calm and spacious at the beginning and then move into a hectic second phase because we wanted to reflect that duality.” This manifests in the languorous opening of first track 'Guenevere Pt.1', lulling the listener into a false sense of security before segueing into a propulsive groove and forceful solo from saxophonist Julian Knapp.

“We also wanted to create really loose and quiet sections like in Guenevere Pt. 2”, Sochas continues, “to invite people to listen and do nothing else for a while. Surely it should be okay for someone to sit in a chair and listen without the constant need for distraction?”. As Sochas says this to me, I nod readily, agreeing entirely – especially since the basement coffee shop we’re sitting in is currently blasting out Mumford and Sons and the grating banjo is most of what I will be able to decipher through my tape recording.

The quietude of numbers like Spinning Wheel on Phoenician Blinds’ first album, Elephantine, similarly causes the listener to lean in, attentive yet receptive in their state of calm. Silence informs the music as much as instrumentation itself, as Sochas says how “jazz is all about listening and moments of silence. Even with fast-bop and hard-hitting swing, the hardest and most interesting parts of solos are the beginning where you have to say everything with not much to go on at all. You have to get your bearings as to what the vibe is at the time, hear everyone and try to bounce off of them, allowing it to flourish. Having the confidence to breathe then is very important.”

Citing influences as varied as virtuosic French pianist Michel Petrucciani, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Biggie Smalls, and Esbjorn Svensson, Phoenician Blinds exemplify the hybridity and open capacity of the jazz genre. On the surface, these inspirations might not be readily apparent, yet there’s the hip-hop swing of Glasper and Chris Dave on Flight, the intense, coarsing tone of Kamasi Washington on Kudu, and the twinkling melodies of Esbjorn Svensson on Total Absence of Uninterrupted Time.

When I first saw them play live, it was in a tiny basement in Soho, London, accompanied by the abstract live painting of James Jolly. As the group dug deeper and deeper into each track and solo, expanding the soft compositions of the record into raucous improvisations, Jolly would synaesthetically apply colour to his canvas, finishing on a work of vibrant hues – a face, or landscape, or both. Explaining the impetus behind this unusual choice of gig, Sochas says how “we always try to make our gigs interesting and unique for the people who want to come, collaborating with visual artists like James Jolly, or even staging shows in barbershops and churches. We want to bring a sense of presence and nowness to the experience, creating something new every time.”

Their very name – a concatenation of inspiration from Hannibal and his travels through Phoenicia, to its present-day status as war-torn Syria, and a pun on ‘venetian blinds’ – exemplifies the level of (over)intellectualisation that goes into the group’s work. For instance, the track Total Absence of Uninterrupted Time in fact doesn’t refer to the movement away from distraction referenced by the record’s title but embracing it instead.

“On the whole, it’s a hopeful and joyful record,” Sochas says, “Julian [Knapp, saxophonist] wrote it in relation to becoming a parent for the first time. The total absence of uninterrupted time is then the experience you go through as a new parent. Even while you’re being distracted and interrupted by this little thing that needs so much, you’re being really present and dealing with a real life.”

This sense of inhabiting the present moment is what drives the band, especially during the live shows – painting or not. “I always leave gigs on another level, not really being able to speak well and just processing,” Sochas says, “you have to be listening so intently through them and if you don’t it becomes forced. The ideal goal is to be in the moment and that’s what makes jazz music so unique – you have to find that fine balance of being loose and listening but also being very aware of what’s happening musically in order to embellish it. It’s like putting two opposites together but creating magic when they click. That makes it all worthwhile.”

Having dropped out of studying music at Royal Holloway University to move to London and try his hand at playing in the jazz scene there, Sochas is a perpetual student of his craft. “When I first started playing jazz, I felt quite alone and thought no one else would really care,” he says, “I needed to leave formal training to find my own way and that move to do my own thing was really important to me. Then I started discovering the scene and realised that there are loads of people doing it – I almost feel like there are more jazz bands in London than indie bands at this point!”

This could well be true but Sochas believes there’s still work to be done. “There’s always been a huge and extremely talented UK jazz scene and I still see a lot of incredible musicians who have never really gotten the recognition they should have,” he explains, “now it’s great that there’s recognition for the younger cats but there’s more that could be done in terms of shining a light on other players.”

Reluctant to name any of these unsung heroes, Sochas recommends going out and supporting live music instead – opening your ears to the breadth of playing that exists. “There’s been a broadening of the scope of what works,” he says, “including different venues other than just places like Ronnie Scott’s. Now you could also play in a tiny cellar to 20 people and that could be the best thing in town that night. It keeps everyone humble and encourages younger and more diverse audiences to come through.”

With A Second of Silence scheduled for release early next month and a European tour being planned for the Autumn, Phoenician Blinds will be reaching audiences far and wide, capturing them away from the daily distractions. “When we play, it’s unexpected and happening now, it’s great because there are so many flavours of jazz now and people are starting to pay attention.”

[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 27/04/18]