“Where I feel the most joy is being part of the performance; directing a band, and conducting it, rather than just being on the sidelines. When I conduct my jazz orchestra, hearing that music back at you, being in control, people’s eyes up looking at you as the piece takes off… that’s just as important to me.” -Olivia Murphy
Olivia Murphy is a multi-award-winning composer, conductor, and multi-instrumentalist based in south-east London. After studying jazz saxophone at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Olivia has found composition as her main focus, writing for ensembles such as the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Olivia Murphy Trio, and her 21-piece Olivia Murphy Jazz Orchestra, with whom she is releasing her debut EP Somewhere, Not So Far Away on 28 October. Olivia is recipient of the Help Musicians’ Peter Whittingham Jazz Award, Jazzlife Alliance Young Composer Award, and the only two-time winner of the RBC Jazz Composition Award. Olivia spoke to PRXLUDES about the compositional process of her latest record, her experiences and perspectives organising a jazz orchestra, writing for voice in jazz contexts, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Olivia! You’ve got an incredibly exciting EP coming out with the Olivia Murphy Jazz Orchestra, for which you’ve recently released the debut single ‘Morpeth’ — run me through the compositional process and inspirations behind the piece…
Olivia Murphy: So ‘Morpeth’… I started writing this one at the very beginning. I [write] different things from different points, but ‘Morpeth’ was very much “I started at the start” — from a simple samba rhythm in the piano. The whole piece is about childhood; memories with my sisters, and reflecting on those memories… Worries about those nice memories and nostalgia fading away, and losing touch with family. But I wanted the beginning to be super simplistic, happy, and positive — that sort of thing where you listen to it and feel very centred… Very simple lyrics, almost nursery-rhyme like.
It riffs on two chords for a bit after that. It goes from this major bit — which is the vocal solo — and there’s this saxophone idea, [that] feels a bit cheeky, and childish. I was imagining that feeling of when you [were] younger, and your siblings might have teased you, or something. It’s just that line [between] those two chords; I wanted it to be almost like a rocking horse.
I can definitely hear that in the piece.
Then it branches into [something] minor instead, with a vocal solo; a bit edgy, a bit darker. Becca [Wilkins] — the vocalist — is someone I work with loads, on pretty much every one of my projects since about third or fourth year of college. She’s amazing. I really like vocals — particularly in large ensembles — and it’s really nice hearing her voice particularly, because voice is such a personal thing, and she’s got such a great voice. It’s great having a vocal solo so early on, as well; it happens very much in big band jazz for vocals to be singing the head, and then getting out of there, and coming back for the head at the end. But [Becca] is a great improviser, and I think it’s very personal having a vocal solo.
I also love how lush of a sound quality the piece has in the middle section — particularly when you’re using the full forces of the band.
For that whole section — I’m really proud of this middle section, where it’s the big chordal layered brass — it moves around two chords, and it builds more when the voicings build up. That’s when having a twenty-one-piece band really helps, because you’ve got your french horn, four trombones, four trumpets, six woodwinds, plus vocals and rhythm section… I just want it to be that big smack of sound. I really like layers in music, harmonic layers.
How did you approach writing for so many layers?
When I write, I write at the piano, and I usually sing over the top — even though I’m not a singer at all. I like to play something, and then sing the lines I can hear over the top. In this chordal bit, I was doing that a lot; lots of layers, lots of fifths… Trying to be impactful and strong. It ends on the childlike riff from before, but even bigger at the end. I wanted it to go through all these sections of reflections, memories, nostalgia, worry, and coming back to being at peace with it.
I think it wrote itself, relatively. I remember it sort of falling out of me. I always write my ideas on big bits of paper — different ideas splattered out, and then linking them together on Sibelius [for] the final bit. I was really happy with it; it felt quite honest. It felt very personal. Even though there were very simplistic parts to it, that was the point to me.
Let’s talk about the EP as a whole, Somewhere, Not So Far Away — would you say that it’s a personal record for you?
Yeah. It was recorded live at Birmingham Symphony Hall [back] in February. I booked the gig around this time last year, so it’s been a long time in the making. We did seven compositions overall, and all of them are about people, or memories, that are important [to me]. It was all very personal. I think that’s also why the EP is called Somewhere, Not So Far Away… It’s storybook-sounding. Something that’s personal, but you can place yourself in it (but not quite); something mysterious, that’s also fictional-sounding.
‘Morpeth’ and the second [track] — ‘Patricia’ — were both the first two tunes we performed on the gig. Which is why it was exciting, as well. We only had an hour or set up, and soundcheck. It was all a bit stressful on the day, and then that was the first thing we were able to play — and it was [on] the gig. That’s what opens the EP. I think that’s what helps the honesty and energy on it, because it’s like “ah, this is the first tune, everyone’s going for it, it’s the first thing everyone’s playing!”
How does the record channel this kind of personal honesty as you go through it?
‘Patricia’ is my nan’s name. It means a few different things; it uses a lot of duo ideas throughout the piece — so it starts with tenor saxophone and bass, there’s a big section in the middle with an alto solo [alongside] piano, some other bits of duo throughout. When I was writing it, it was more emotion-wise, rather than story [based]. It was based off of a melody I wrote ages and ages ago — I wrote that melody in second year of college. I liked it, but nothing really happened with it. But I completely changed it; I reharmonised all the chords, and changed the melody, and turned it into a jazz orchestra piece. It became something completely different. It doesn’t sound anything like the original thing now. I wouldn’t call it a ballad, because it moves through different times — but it’s a bit more slow, a bit more mellow, all the way through.
Then there’s ‘Clockwork and Water’. I actually wrote those two ideas for my sextet in my final year at college. But they were really short miniatures — they were just melody and rhythm section — so it was really nice exploring them, and putting them together. It became a 12-minute piece, because it really uses free improvisation in the band. There’s an about three minute, four minute piano solo in it — [played] by Olly Chalk — and two-thirds of the way in, there’s a whole band improvisation for around three minutes. It’s really special; for that bit, I was just stepping away [and] listening. It’s just this whole band of really amazing improvisers playing together.
Is there any particular structure you have within the band when you allow your musicians to improvise freely?
The only thing that’s given is the chord. That’s the transition between the ‘Clockwork’ piece and the ‘Water’ piece: I gave them the key, [I told them] I wanted it to sound like waves of sound, washing over. That’s when it’s great when you’re working with jazz musicians, because you can say “here it is, have a go at improvising.” I started by saying “let’s lead it [from] the tenor player — Jonny Chung — with the rhythm section” — he can lead it — and then lots of other people around came in and out. Pretty much everyone in the band was contributing, adding things at different moments, building, coming back down, and building [again].
Those two pieces are about grief, and moving on, and feeling acceptance. So it felt nice having those big moments where you could give the music to the improvisers, as well; take it in certain directions I never would have been able to write. It was them writing the music, at that point in time — which is why I really enjoy jazz composition, as well. The improvisation is so integral to the music. Everything I write I’m happy with, and feel is very personal, but I then can’t predict what the improvisers do. I can tell them what vibe I’m going for, what sound I like, but the actual notes they play are so personal to them. It adds such a wonderful melting pot of sound, that can’t be a one-person thing.
[The record] ends with ‘The Pond’, which is a shorter one that we ended the concert on. It’s a reflection on: “Hey, you’re doing this gig [at] Birmingham Symphony Hall, this is pretty cool… If you told yourself like, three, four, five years ago at college and having a rough time that you’d be doing this, you’d be pretty amazed, you know?” It’s that thing of: it’s not always good, but it can be good. You’ve got to take the wins. -laughs- It’s about 36 minutes in total, so it’s quite a long EP. But I didn’t want to call it an album, because it is only four tracks, and it’s a live thing. I’m hoping at some point over the next couple of years, I’ll be able to record a studio album.
Would that album be with the orchestra, as well?
Yeah, yeah. So it’d be like, a debut jazz orchestra album… Which would be nice. -laughs-
Tell me about the Olivia Murphy Jazz Orchestra — how did the ensemble come about? How do you go about organising such a large group of improvisers?
I’m quite an organised person. So the organisation element I wasn’t necessarily scared of. Most of the people in the band — probably 80-90% of the people in the band — I was friends, if not close friends with, from Birmingham or London circuits. People I’ve studied with from different years, have done gigs with, or I’m friends with. There are a few people in the band who I hadn’t met yet in person, [but] had listened to their music and thought they were really great — or had Instagram interactions and then dropped them a message. But all of the band have links to either Birmingham or London.
I was like, I’m not gonna do the Facebook message shit. I can’t deal with anything like that It’s twenty-one people. From the offset, I wanted this to be a professional, organised orchestra, that is very clear and doesn’t waste anyone’s time. So they treat the project with respect. I’ve been in projects — and lots of people have been in projects — where the bandleader is completely unorganised and doesn’t treat their own music with respect, or people’s time with respect. It makes people then not want to respect the music. So once I’d asked everyone to do it, [I] sent an official email — everything’s in one email — and since it’s a thing where I was organising two, three months in advance, luckily the majority of people were free to do the rehearsals. So I didn’t have to then do a Doodle Poll situation — which I know is a bit of a nightmare. I was lucky with that.
How do you find leading rehearsals with such a large group of people?
It’s one thing leading a trio, or quartet. You can kind of be a bit more mate-y in rehearsals then, more relaxed. When you’re running a rehearsal with 21 other people in the room, you need to have a different hat on. It’s still not being a dictator, you know — but you need to be like “now is the rehearsal time, I’m a bandleader, I need to be very clear with how I want.” And this is where me liking organisation, and feeling most comfortable when I am organised, really comes in handy. You have to be; if you’re gonna do this music seriously, you have to treat all your music with respect, because no-one’s gonna respect your music more than you. I think it sets a bad precedent if you come to the rehearsal and your parts are a mess, [or] you’re late… Little things like that are really important. You can be the best musician in the world, the best composer in the world, but if you’re really unorganised or don’t treat other people with respect, people are gonna book other people. That’s the same with me, booking 21 people: I’m gonna book my friends, and people that I trust and respect.
People who are gonna give it the time of day, basically.
Yeah. People I know are amazing musicians primarily, but — more importantly — people I know who respect me as a human being, and are not gonna waste my time. This music is completely all of my being, essentially — and I cannot take someone, an hour before a rehearsal or gig starts, saying “sorry I can’t make it, another thing’s come up.” I get that people have a hierarchy of gigs they want to be doing, but at the end of the day, I want someone that’s gonna be respecting my music now — even if it’s early on in my career. Working with people who are [respectful] is more important to me than working with the best musicians in the world. -laughs- It’s much more fun and enjoyable working with those people.
In that sense, though, you feel like the dynamics change when you’re working with people you’re close with in such a large-scale environment?
It’s a different atmosphere. I have to put a slightly different hat on, running that rehearsal. But it’s still booking friends and nice people. It’s not a symphony orchestra; it’s 21 people, at the end of the day. It’s not an intimidating amount of people.
Olly was three years above me at college. I’ve known him for ages and it helps when your boyfriend’s a really good pianist… -laughs- Becca studied at UoB [University of Birmingham], but she came to a lot of jazz things, she was interested in it. From early on, I knew that I liked vocals in jazz; I really like things like Norma Winstone, a lot of the Kenny Wheeler projects, or with Nikki Iles… I’ve always liked that kind of stuff. I knew I wanted to work with vocals. We’ve been doing that for four years now, maybe a little bit longer. It’s worked really well now.
What draws you to working with vocals in jazz — particularly those that aren’t your own?
When you’re working with a vocalist, as well, it’s not like working with another frontline [instrument]. There’s a tone and tuning thing where you need to be quite in sync: you, as a saxophonist, can be the most perfect in tune, but it doesn’t mean it’s gonna blend with the vocals, because [voice] has a lot more freedom that way. To be honest, Becca’s more likely to be in tune than I am on saxophone… -laughs- But because we’ve worked together so much, I find it fun and really interesting for us to sit together, and sonically, we’re used to that.
It’s really fun playing clarinet on the new record — Moonrise — as well. I’ve played clarinet for longer than I’ve played saxophone, but that’s the first record I’ve done on clarinet. Us finding that blend of clarinet and vocals, over saxophone, was really nice. She [Becca] always brings a lot of freshness.
Speaking of records, you’ve released two projects with this trio — Tomorrow Songs and Moonrise — how did the trio’s approach differ between these two records?
The first record — Tomorrow Songs — was recorded in isolation, during lockdown. Becca was at home in Kent, and me and Olly were at his parents’ in Suffolk. But we still recorded each part in isolation, because we only had one microphone. -laughs- That was interesting, because we were mixing it all at home, trying to work that out, and I hadn’t really done any of that before. That was part of an online festival commission. And it was nice developing that a bit on Moonrise, as well — a year and a bit later. Being in a studio where we can do takes, and play together. It’s very acoustic, simple songs.
How do you find the organisational aspects of the trio in comparison to your orchestra?
It’s really nice, in comparison to the jazz orchestra, having a trio alongside it. With the trio, there’s a lot more freedom; we can do a few tunes which are just free improvisation, we can have the rehearsal the day before the gig, I can finish writing a part the night before and be like “here you go”… -laughs- I don’t need to be as strict with myself. It’s nice exploring that side, I think. For me, as well, it’s really nice playing: with the jazz orchestra, I like directing, I like conducting, I like leading from the front. But I still have a degree in saxophone — so it is nice playing on a smaller scale, as well.
When you’re writing songs, specifically, do you usually write with Becca in mind?
Yeah. Also, range-wise, she’s got this incredible two-and-a-half-octave range, so it’s nice knowing how particular things are gonna sound. But I do work with other singers: I did a tour with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, with Lucy-Anne Daniels, who’s incredible. She’s a vocalist studying jazz in Birmingham; she’s a really beautiful singer. She’s completely different, tone-wise. Because I work so much with Becca, I think it’s easy to hear that texturally, as well — how it blends with the band. I think with the [whole] jazz orchestra, I had people in mind I was gonna ask — particularly when it came to solos, and things like that: knowing “oh, I know this person’s gonna sound great on this thing”, or “this will be great for her solo, or his solo”…
Tell me a bit about your musical background — how did you get involved with jazz composition?
I started doing piano lessons when I was around seven or so — around primary school — and then clarinet around the same time. I started learning clarinet through school in year four. I always thought saxophone was really cool, but I didn’t start learning that until year ten, year eleven. The transition from clarinet to saxophone is quite an easy one; it’s hard the other way around, but clarinet to saxophone links up, fingering-wise [and] embrochure-wise. It’s quite a nice connection. When I was in Sixth Form, my tutor had good jazz knowledge — he studied jazz at Middlesex. I started doing [some] junior jazz bands, and summer schools, and really enjoyed doing that.
I always wanted to do music. When I was in primary school, and early secondary school, I thought I [was] gonna study classical piano. I’m glad I didn’t do that. -laughs- I think around year eleven, I started realising there was a jazz course, so I got more and more into that — helped me get enough to get into Birmingham. It was a bit of a steep learning curve, but it was nice starting out by feeling [like there’s] lots to learn.
Was there a specific moment or project that drew you towards composition rather than performance?
I mean, I still do both. I don’t feel like the things are too different, in my view. Especially because I really enjoy conducting and directing my compositions… I don’t necessarily want to exclusively be a composer that predominantly sits at the side and watches, and then does the awkward little stand-up and round of applause at the end of a performance. Where I feel the most enjoy is being part of the performance; directing a band, and conducting it, rather than just being on the sidelines. When I conduct my jazz orchestra, hearing that music back at you, being in control, people’s eyes up looking at you as the piece takes off… that’s just as important to me. That’s performance. It’s very interlinked — that’s the point where I’m feeling the most joy [because] I’m performing my composition, not just watching someone perform it.
When did you realise they were interlinked?
I think I always felt like I could do my own stuff. Even when I was learning clarinet and piano, I was still writing little tunes; [I] was always exploring my own sound. When I was in third and fourth year of college, I really started developing [that] more. That’s when I felt the most comfortable — when I was playing my own music. I don’t know if there was a transition, it’s more it was always there: I knew I could write my own music so I was going to. There wasn’t a barrier that I felt like I needed to transition to be able to be allowed to do that.
There are a lot of jazz musicians I know who say “I don’t write, I can’t write, I just play.” But everyone can compose. Maybe some people are better practiced at it, but everyone has the ability to compose something, and have their own voice — especially if they’re already a musician. There’s a lot more of a link [in] jazz with composition, and playing your compositions — [rather] than learning the repertoire, and playing the repertoire. At least when I was at college, there were classical musicians who would never [compose] — because you don’t do as much composition on the classical course — whereas on the jazz course, there’s more of a blend.
It would be interesting to think about how much of an effect that has on what we perceive as “jazz” composition, and what we perceive as “contemporary classical” — particularly as composition is its own separate course.
Yeah. It’s interesting hearing about what makes it “one way”, and what makes it another, you know? It can be very different, but it can be similar, as well.
So what do you see as jazz — as opposed to contemporary classical music?
Jazz can be anything it wants to be. Jazz is quite hard to pin down to a particular thing — as is contemporary classical — because I think they can be the same thing. I mean, what jazz is — that maybe sometimes contemporary classical music isn’t — is Black American music; there’s an element of respect and understanding of that. That, in itself, links with improvisation, and blues; that’s where it comes from and stems from. But there’s so many links with jazz forming being influenced by classical composition of the time, as well. Jazz composition doesn’t need to be “oh, here’s a melody, and then they do improvisation”, and classical composition is this crazy world of colour, and harmony — because jazz can be exactly the same.
There’s so many artists and composers whose work straddles the line, as well — or who trained as one but work in the other. So in a sense, I wonder if the boundaries matter.
No, it doesn’t matter. That’s what it needs to be — they’re composer, and this is their style, but you’re looking at their music as a composer. There can be a lot of separation putting people in boxes. It’s also hard, as an artist, to be able to develop and explore different things if you feel in a box yourself.
So what’s next for the jazz orchestra? Do you have plans for a studio album in the future?
I’ll need funding for that. That’s the long and short of it. In an ideal dream situation, [we] would be recording next winter — but that depends on so many factors. Especially a studio recording, with that many people… It’s not like I can hire a small studio. I want to get together some spring [or] summer dates — even just two or three dates would be nice. It would be nice to do something, but it’s a bit more long game with it. I got Help Musicians funding for the performance of ‘Somewhere, Not So Far Away’ — but everything else is self-funded. It’s tricky; I’m doing it myself, and I’m doing my best, so that’s the most I can do at the moment.
What projects do you have coming up?
The next performance I’m doing is at The Vortex, for London Jazz Festival on Friday 11th November. It’s the Calum Gourlay Big Band, he’s this great bass player — he used to have his own residency at Vortex, but he does regular gigs with his big band, around 15-16 people. The first set is his arrangements of Mingus’ music, and I’m playing in that — and [in] the second set, I’m directing the band with my music. Becca’s gonna be sitting in and singing for that, as well. It’s really exciting; he’s organising the band, and [there’s] a lot of people who’ve been on the scene a long time. It should be really fun.
The Olivia Murphy Jazz Orchestra’s debut EP Somewhere, Not So Far Away releases on Friday 28 October – pre-order and stream the record at:
Olivia’s next performance is at EFG London Jazz Festival with the Calum Gourlay Big Band – find out more information below:
Check out more of Olivia’s work at:
- Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor & Maritime Jazz Orchestra – ‘Siren’s Song’ (1997)
- Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra, performing at Vortex Jazz Club, London (2019)