Jazz musician Steve Saunders was selected by the B:Music Jazzlines Commission to write a set of new music to be performed at Symphony Hall. We caught up with him during the rehearsal stage
The unique talent development programme, the B:Music Jazzlines Commission, is in its third year and gives two Birmingham-based jazz musicians an opportunity to produce new projects showcasing their work. This year, it’s baritone saxophonist Alicia Gardener-Trejo and guitarist Steve Saunders along with their chosen collaborators. We had a chat with Steve a couple of weeks before his work premiered.
Steve’s chosen collaborator is Asger Nissen, a Danish alto saxophonist based in Berlin, which is where they met. In the third year of his course at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Steve spent a life-changing four months at the Jazz Insitut Berlin. He says: “I went through the Erasmus scheme and it was such a special place. The standard at the school was really high and students had such strong identities and voices.”
He adds: “I was so much younger than the musicians in Berlin and felt a bit out of my depth. European players tend to start studying when they’re older – they’re not in any rush and find their voice grows at a different rate. Here it’s easy to get swept along with the A-level then university route potentially robbing people of self-discovery. It was the most transformative year of my life.” Steve and Asger kept in touch and the commission seemed a great opportunity to reconnect.
The project will be a bass-less trio featuring the great Jeff Williams on drums. Steve explains: “This project is a chance for us to explore bringing contemporary classical influences into an improvised context while being firmly rooted in the jazz tradition, with a master drummer who couldn’t be more connected to the history of jazz. I’m incredibly excited to be able to create this project and bring it to Symphony Hall. Everything sounds massive at Symphony Hall. For the audience the music sounds like it’s right next to them and crystal clear.”
Steve’s route to jazz was fairly lengthy and came about because he really relishes a challenge. Surrounded by music at home – his dad played organ and his older brother played piano – when Steve’s year 3 teacher asked pupils if they wanted to play guitar he jumped at the chance. “I loved it and got really obsessed. I got an electric guitar at one stage and a small battery powered amp. I used to walk around the house playing. My brother was the same.”
Steve’s brother had a radio in his room which was firmly tuned into Kerrang and the duo listened to a lot of rock. Steve started playing drums as well as guitar and worked his way through the grades. Steve liked to challenge himself and wanted to find the hardest thing to learn. When studying for grade 8 guitar he found the scales hard and asked the teacher when you might use these scales. His teacher said jazz which was like laying down the gauntlet to Steve. “I hated jazz at first. I was used to rock music so big bands from the forties just felt like old music. Then I found things I liked. John Schofield for example who plays jazz but from a rock background and that was my gateway in.”
When Steve’s school in Redditch announced they wouldn’t be running an A-level music course because he was the only student who had signed up, he had to find an alternative. He stayed at his sixth form but studied A-level music on a Wednesday evening at the Conservatoire. “It was amazing. The class was me and two other musicians who are still friends.” The teacher was world class and ‘blew Steve’s mind’.
He regularly found himself running for the last train home to Redditch because the class had run over by hours as they were just talking and playing. Steve started doing the Saturday jazz classes at B:Music too which sealed the deal. “The freedom of the music responding to each other was the perfect balance. It’s a serious discipline which I suppose fit the desire to be challenged. It was hard work but super fun.” Teachers such as Percy Pursglove meant the Saturday jazz ensemble was like getting a world class education.
Beyond the Jazzlines Commission which is his focus right now, Steve plans to stay in Birmingham writing, composing and playing as well as leading large projects. “I like the pace of Birmingham – the space and time that the city offers plus the community is so strong here.”