"I’m going to choose Kind of Blue, if it’s not too much of a cliché! It’s from my fairly recent past, because jazz has been a new, and wonderful, discovery for me.
I first heard it about four years ago. It was introduced to me by Sami Bishay, my co-composer and producer. Like me, he is half-English, half-Egyptian; but, unlike me, he grew up with jazz, so it’s his foundation. Whereas I’d been into punk and Arabic stuff! Having said which, when I was about 12, my mum used to like big band things like Glenn Miller and Fred Waring; so I did know that, but I never took to it and I went on a different path. When I met Sami, and we started working together, he said, ‘You know jazz is really a very varied thing?’. Over time, he introduced me to a lot of albums, including some amazing traditional stuff.
But, first of all, he sat down with me to change my perception that jazz was only furious bebop or elevator music. Acting as my educator, he said, ‘Let’s start with something you can relate to’. He put on a CD of Kind of Blue, saying, ‘A lot of this is modal, so you’ll be able to find a connection with how you can improvise in your own way.’ He told me what to listen out for; and talked through aspects of it – like that lovely introduction to ‘Blue in Green’; and the beautiful voicings of Bill Evans on ‘Flamenco Sketches’, the block chords. That was in itself, of course, inspired by Ravel and early 20th century composers. You can hear how that influence makes it dreamy and perfect for some of the ornamentations that I do. Anyway, the modal stuff appealed to me instantly, and I was a convert! At some point, I realised that I had actually heard bits of the album not knowing that it was Miles Davis, because it’s been used for samples and remixes.
I’ve actually heard that learning a jazz solo can prevent and even heal Alzheimer’sNatacha Atlas
It was also my introduction to Coltrane, of course. Since then I’ve loved him, too. I would love to do a version of ‘Equinox’ in Arabic! Maybe his estate will give clearance to record it, because I’ve heard they’re tough. Otherwise, I’ll only do it live. I’m not ready yet, anyway… Before then, Sami’s told me I’ve got to tackle changes! Which is a whole other thing! We’ve tried it on my album on a couple of tunes, like ‘Minbaad’, a ballad. When I first started singing that song, I had to really listen to where the changes are, which is really difficult as an Arabic singer. Arabic music is modal, we’ve got quarter tones and the like – but harmonies and changes are not the traditional thing. A few newer composers have tried it, the ones that are into jazz; but it’s not common. When you’re improvising above changes, you can’t just stay on the same thing and fly off into the ether like I like to! You have to be able to flow and improvise, but you’ve got to move when the changes come. It’s a good exercise for me – and great for my brain. I’ve actually heard that learning a jazz solo can prevent and even heal Alzheimer’s. I can see why engaging with a complex jazz solo might do that.
And, of course, recording is one thing; but doing it live is harder. I’ve got to be really on it, which is great. I think I’d gone through the stages of a rebellious phase, then traditional acoustic Arabic music; and was ready for something new. Jazz has really opened things up for me, exploring what’s possible. Every day I’m learning, which I love.
It’s not just Sami now – there’s my piano player, Alcyona Mick. One of her biggest influences is Lennie Tristano – who is just stunning. I’ve studied music for years, but all these different types of jazz widen my field enormously. Also, in this epoch, I feel that jazz is having a renaissance – lots of young budding musicians are playing variations of it now and it’s nice to be part of that.
So, I don’t think I’m going to look back now; and it all began with Miles! I have to say, I love Sketches Of Spain, too; but the one that changed my musical direction was Kind of Blue."
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!
Look out for Natacha Atlas' track, 'Maktoub' (taken from her recent album Strange Days), on the forthcoming Whirlwind Recordings covermount CD, coming free with the March 2020 issue of Jazzwise