“It was completely about ‘let’s play how we feel’, that’s what it was all about — communicating with each other, expressing our emotions to an audience — beyond that, it didn’t really matter what it sounded like.” -Lara Jones
Lara Jones is an award-winning saxophonist, improviser, composer, producer, and collaborator. Lara’s practice spans across a variety of disciplines and communities; she is a member of avant-garde trio J Frisco, as well as a prolific solo artist, contrasting high energy pulsating electronics and meditative soundscapes. Lara is currently the recipient of the Help Musicians UK Peter Whittingham Jazz Award and Jerwood Arts Jazz Encounter fellowship, and also plays an active role in Women in Jazz Media. Lara spoke to PRXLUDES about her collaborative work with J Frisco, her solo albums Ensō and Lara, A Piano at Night, her relationship with the saxophone, and her upcoming work with Manchester Jazz Festival.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Lara! Tell me a bit about your musical background — was your initial training in jazz?
Lara Jones: I’d never studied jazz at all — I started playing the clarinet when I was nine, when I lived in Scotland. I just did the classical thing until I was eighteen, and then I picked up the saxophone, and played it for like a year. I had an amazing teacher called Roger Wilson — who’s now one of the people behind Black Lives in Music — and he’s just incredible, and he encouraged me to go to college to study [music]. I was just really lucky; we only had lessons for eight months, and in that time he got me playing the saxophone well.
I went to Leeds College of Music to study classical saxophone; I did a year of studying saxophone, and during that year I met a lot of people on the jazz course. [I] was being asked like, “oh, you play saxophone, come and have a jam”, and I was like “how do you jam? Where’s the dots on the page?” -laughs- I really [needed] to learn how to do this, I was really interested by the idea of improvisation — so I picked up some jazz lessons on the side with someone called Jim Corry, who teaches on the jazz course there, and we decided to get me onto the jazz course. I just loved it. So I did a full year of classical, and then started again on the jazz course. I ended up combining jazz and classical — I melded the two together, which was really fun — but it wasn’t until I went to college that I really discovered jazz, or what it was or what it sounds like.
It’s very weird — how new entire worlds can open up to you like that.
Definitely. I suppose those things are quite intellectual, [in] the way they’re presented to you. Prior to that, I’d been in a couple of orchestras — Berkshire Maestros — and a concert band; but the most I’d done is play some knockoff Glenn Miller jazz suites or something. -laughs- I’d definitely never improvised. And during my time in studying jazz, I realised that the side of it that I really enjoyed [the most] was improv; and I started to discover free improv, and that’s what I love, much more so than the standard jazz thing. So I fell into that.
I was actually very well supported at Leeds College of Music — Leeds Conservatoire now — they were really good to me, really supported me. There were various tutors that supported me in doing the free thing, there was a guy called Paul Abbott who really supported me in learning electronics, and started to develop all of that. I was a bit of an oddball on the jazz course; I engaged in the “real jazz” thing for like a year, and then I was quickly like “what’s this free thing? How can I make lots of noise with guitar pedals and saxophones?”
How did J Frisco form in the midst of developing your practice? Was the initial collaboration natural?
Yeah, it was interesting with J Frisco. Megs [Megan Roe] and Jemma [Freese] were doing this podcast called Girls That Gig, and they interviewed me on the podcast, and we all got on really well. We kept saying “oh, let’s have a jam”, and it didn’t happen. We kept bumping into each other all the time, and one day Megs just books the room — “we keep saying we’re gonna jam, and we never do” — we didn’t really know each other that well, and we painted all these graphic scores, chatted loads, played, and it was this amazing experience. It was all very free. We wouldn’t discuss what we were gonna play, we would just play, and that was the first time I’d really done that; and we quickly realised it was the only time we’d played just with other women. So there was a real energy, and a real spark there.
That’s absolutely fantastic — there’s nothing like the spark you feel when you’re in a room with like-minded musicians.
I remember Matthew Bourne, one of the tutors at college, was running these gigs, and he asked me “Lara, you have a band, do you wanna play this gig?” — and I was like “yeah yeah, I’ve got a band”. So I went to J Frisco — we’d been playing together for ten days [at] this time — and was like “right, guys, I’ve got us a gig”. -laughs- He [needed] some recordings and a name, so we built this whole band in two weeks, and went and did our first gig — and just didn’t stop after that. People either absolutely loved it, and thought it was brilliant, or people absolutely hated it, and they were like “that’s not jazz! What are you doing, just making a racket” — didn’t like that there were some women making some noise, disrupting the status quo. But it was amazing, absolutely amazing.
We spent a year doing all of these weird and wonderful gigs — I used it for my final recital, [as] did Megs. The funny thing was, I was on the jazz and classical course, Jemma was on jazz and songwriting, and Megs was on pop guitar — and we all came together and made this free jazz thing. So people didn’t like that either, because it wasn’t three people that come from the jazz course. But the head of jazz — Jamil Sheriff — he was like “cool, use [the] music for your final recital”. It went down really well in that recital, and people didn’t like that either! -laughs-
It’s interesting you mention working with creators from different musical backgrounds with J Frisco — do you feel like your practice was able to occupy that “boundary between genres”?
I think it really did. What I loved about working with Jemma and Megs is that we all felt so liberated. We weren’t trying to live up to these genre expectations; it was completely about “let’s play how we feel”, that’s what it was all about — communicating with each other, expressing our emotions to an audience — beyond that, it didn’t really matter what it sounded like. It was more about the feeling, the vibe (for want of a better word) between us. We kind of combined it with other art forms, it was very conceptual. When we started, we would do some performance art; one night, we booked out a room at Leeds College of Music, and we put a tent up in the room and filled it with loads of stuff — a chair, a shoe, all these things — and played to the tent. We set up this event page and were like “come along” — we livestreamed it back when livestreaming wasn’t so much of a thing as it is now — people kept asking “where’s the gig?” and we kept saying “if you have to ask, you’ll never know”… It was a bit wanky, to be honest, but it was really fun because we felt there were no boundaries there.
Working with Jemma and Megs was more about having different backgrounds in music, and having different influences; we all listen to totally different music. A big part of our practice would be sitting down and listening to music together. I think that’s really influenced what I’ve gone on to do. They lifted me out of this thing of “things have to sound a certain way”; just make what you wanna make, and if you feel good making it, then that’s what matters. Which I think can be said for anyone that plays in a genre, within a particular [convention] — but for me, I could never find that freedom in playing more of a standard jazz way.
All these worlds suit different kinds of people.
Yeah, I really respect the tradition and I think it’s important. I love listening to it sometimes. But I love the performance aspect of it, the live element; who you play with is really important to me. I’ve never had that same feeling as I do when I with J Frisco — we’ve all said that, as well — there’s this magic energy there, I can’t really describe it. We were definitely meant to be in a band together, for sure.
Was the scene outside of the conservatoire environment supportive of your work? How did the wider community react to J Frisco?
Really, we’re grateful to the community [in Leeds]; there is a real beautiful [scene], and we’ve done our best to give back as well. A big thing we did when we started the band was make sure we were promoting other people, of music that we loved; engaging that idea of listening to what other people are doing. There’s been a lot of bands and organisations that have really helped us out and supported us, and that was a really beautiful thing to find as we were leaving university, as well. It felt like we were quite quickly embraced in that community, which was really nice. Having had an experience at college where, definitely, the three of us experienced a lot of sexism, and as we left it felt like there [was] this whole scene out there that was really kind to us, and really supportive. So I hope we add something to that, and we give back to that, also. I think the longer we’re involved, the more we’ll be able to do that. Megs in particular in very invested in teaching, and passing things on the younger generations; I hope we’re able to give to people what we were given when we were starting out.
It’s really interesting to see so many different facets of your practice, from J Frisco, to your most recent record ‘Lara, A Piano at Night’ — which is an absolutely fantastic record, by the way!
It’s interesting, the ‘Piano at Night’ thing — I actually didn’t expect it to be heard to be heard by anyone. -laughs- I did this collaboration with the wonderful Jack Simpson from Hyde Park Book Club and Eiger Studios; we put this gig on at 2am, I played the music and [we] recorded it. A few people came to the gig, but I kind of expected it to stay there; [but] when we recorded it, and we were like “oh, we should release this, we should put this out”. So I made the short film that we streamed, and it’s now released, [and] it got played on the radio — thanks to Corey [Mwamba] who played it on Freeness! — I think with that project in particular, I just wanted to do this thing. If I lived a different life, I would’ve wanted to be a pianist. So this was an opportunity to re-engage with the piano again… it was always my go-to instrument. When I was studying, if I would get overwhelmed with all [of] these various things I had to learn, I would go and play piano in the night, and that would make me feel better.
There’s something to be said for playing something that’s “outside” of your current discipline, it can be very therapeutic. Where would you say it comes from?
I suppose a lot of it comes from my classical influence. I very much feel like that’s how I trained, that’s how I was brought up — and everything else has been added on top. I suppose it all keeps expanding. My most recent thing is that I’ve learned to use Ableton. I’ve been trying to learn it like you learn an instrument in the past year, and it’s just incredible; all of the things you can do with it, it’s absolutely incredible. So I’ve now switched out my guitar pedals for using Ableton. And I like this idea of my set changing — particularly in my solo stuff.
Do you see these different facets of your discipline developing and influencing each other?
The sound of [my] new album, that I’m releasing in October, is so different to what I did with ‘Ensō’ — I like the idea that your sound can change and grow. J Frisco are like that, too; Megs has always been on guitar, but the last time we got together [for] the London Jazz [Festival] gig, she was like “I’m gonna play drums”, and [it was] great. Jemma’s doing a lot more on vocals at the moment. We’re just changing our setup and our sound; it keeps you on your toes, keeps it exciting, it helps you write new music, as well. I couldn’t just be a sax player; I was never gonna be that type of musician. Someone said the other day about my saxophone playing, that the saxophone is used as a tool — as another voice — but I don’t really play [like] a saxophonist. I just use these things to create different soundscapes, different worlds; it doesn’t matter what I do it with.
It’s interesting to think of the saxophone as a conduit, for sure.
I think it’s interesting, because I’m so focused on electronic music at the moment, but something always pulls me back to the saxophone every time. I think even when I’m composing electronically, I still hear a lot of it through the saxophone. When you study, it’s such an intense experience — I spent so much time with my saxophone that it’s just embedded, so much of that is totally part of who I am. I definitely always come back to it; nothing [else] gives me that feeling of improvising on the saxophone. I think there’s something about instruments that use your [lungs] — putting air into something… It feels like an extension of your voice. I’m not a great singer, so it’s like a way of letting things out. It feels very connected to the body.
So from there, tell me a bit about your practice in your solo records — how do you see your work with electronics developing in the future?
The next thing I’m doing is releasing in October, which has been constructed in a different way to ‘Ensō’ — but is an expansion of what I did with that. With ‘Ensō’, I collected field recordings for a long time, and those field recordings build the structure of my pieces; it’s kind of similar with this one, but I’ve been really delving into production and electronics more than I ever have done, which has been really exciting and mind-boggling. -laughs- This [next] one is much more rhythmical. There’s some fun dance beats in there; because of the nature of the times, I really missed hearing live music — like we all did — and feeling music through decent speakers; I have some monitors and they’re okay, but I miss feeling the bass, the drum kit… I totally took [that] for granted, and I think that’s really influenced where my music has gone. My last stuff is much more still, and built from my meditation practice… more about telling a story; I think this music does still tell a story, but it’s [in a] very different [way].
I don’t know where I’ll go after that, yet. I was thinking about this the other day, and my partner asked me “oh, have you thought about your album after this one?”, and I haven’t really. Right now, I do feel wrapped up in this electronic world; I love how large you can make sounds sound. -laughs- I love taking a field recording, and [splitting] it down into three seconds — and what can you do with that? Using Ableton, there’s just so much you can do with these tiny clips. Converting audio into MIDI is one of my favourite things. But I think at some point, I’m gonna come back to the saxophone… All of this stuff that I’ve been intensely learning on [my] computer is gonna feed into the saxophone. I feel a little bit disconnected from my saxophone at the moment, [but] at some point, I think I’ll come back to it.
Speaking of which, I heard J Frisco were writing a new record, as well?
Yeah. J Frisco are doing an album, which I can’t stay much about yet. It’s being recorded in a very interesting and fun space — that’s gonna be more of a site-specific project, it’s about the space and what we add to it. I can’t say where yet, but I’m very excited for [it]. It’s being recorded in August, and [it’ll] probably be a year’s time for that one.
To wrap things up; tell me one large-scale project you’re doing that you’re really excited about…
I should mention that I’m building a geodesic dome — funded by Jerwood Arts and Cheltenham Jazz Festival — that’s being presented at Manchester Jazz Festival. The geodesic dome [is] gonna be placed in a train station, and that’s where ‘Ensō’ is gonna be played. I’m creating black and white visuals that connect with the sound; so you come into the dome, lie down if you can, and all of the visuals are happening overhead, on the roof of the dome. I’m building it during the winter, and it will be installed in May for a period of time during the festival. It was meant to happen this year, but covid delayed it so it’s happening next year.
So another thing I’m working on is making visuals [for the dome]; my partner’s filming them, it’s all film from train stations [which are] manipulated to work in the triangles that build up the dome. It’s all mathematical, which my brain doesn’t do well with… -laughs- But I’m learning a lot from that, and I’m really excited. The idea is that people reconnect with the sounds around them; there’ll be the sounds from the album, but there’ll also be the sounds of the train station. It’s a space to come in, and stop, listen, and be aware of these sounds and how they impact physically what happens to your body.
That’s so exciting! I definitely can see how the visuals would add an extra layer to ‘Ensō’…
It’s really cool — I can’t believe I’m building a dome! -laughs- There’s something really special about [it]… The album is all very circular, the music is circular, it’s all built on this circular nature of journeys, and in sound, [and] of everything. So [to] put it in a circular space in a train station, which is where most of the music was recorded, and mixed — I mixed most of the album in train stations, and on trains — it’s going to be really special. I was always interested in mapping that album with these black and white visuals, that was always there — and now I’ve been given the opportunity to put it into a real life space. That’s what [Ensō] is about; it was not designed to be experienced just as an album. I think it’ll make more and more sense when people experience it in this way.
Lara’s work can be found at:
Check out more by J Frisco at:
Listen to ‘Lara, A Piano At Night’ at: