Interview: Alison Rayner steps out of the shadows

Award-winning Bassist and composer Alison Rayner has been an integral part of the Jazz scene since the mid-70s. She has toured all the major international jazz venues and festivals with the acclaimed Latin-Jazz group ‘The Guest Stars‘, and she is also a founding member of the inspirational ‘Blow the Fuse’ who play a vital role in supporting and raising awareness of female Jazz musicians. Alison released her ‘Short stories’ Album in October 2019 through Blow the Fuse Records and has just recently won the Ivor Novello Composer Awards 2019 for ‘There is a Crack in Everything’ from that album. It was an absolute pleasure to talk to her.

You released your first album under the ARQ (Alison Rayner Quintet) title in 2014 and John Fordham of the Guardian stated that ‘It’s taken a while for Alison Rayner the composer to step all the way out of the shadows…she might have to get used to the spotlight’ You have worked extensively for many years as a key member of various bands, so what led you to take centre stage?

AR: I did lead a group myself in the early 90s for a couple of years, but apart from that, I’ve always been in other people’s bands or collective groups. In the 80s for example, I played in the Guest Stars and it was that kind of period where was a lot happening in London. There had been quite a big influence of African music and there was a lot of Latin stuff and there was sort of an interest in a new Jazz. We were probably one of the three main bands that were doing a lot of work in the UK, but we also toured abroad a lot – for about 5 years – all over the place, Middle East, US, Europe etc. It was great. I’d been in a couple of bands in the 70s, but I really started writing when I was in the Guest Stars and then I just carried on writing for the bands I was in. For example, I played in several Deirdre Cartwright’s groups (she was the guitarist in the Guest Stars but also plays in ARQ) She wrote most of the stuff, but I wrote one or two pieces. I played with Chris Hodgkin’s and I wrote the odd piece for him. So, I wrote for different people, but I did keep thinking I would like to have my own group and record some pieces. I kept putting it off and off and then I had a very large and significant birthday coming up – I was going to be 60 – and I thought when am I going to do this album?! It was kind of getting ridiculous. So, I thought, right, well this is it, I need to get on with this.

And get on with it she did. The album is wonderful. Supported by the PRS Women Make Music and the Arts Council, Alison brings us eight tracks with an incredible array of influences, grooves and warmth, which are reminiscent of her life long influences. We talked about the process.

AR: We recorded the first album live at the Vortex in London, and it is really a collection of my pieces, some of which were written for that album and some of which were written for other people but rerecorded for this particular line up. When you’re writing, it’s so personal, it’s hard to know where things are coming from. I sometimes hear later, after I’ve written it or after we’ve recorded them, maybe a reference. I love melodies and I’ve always loved melodies. When I was tiny, I used to whistle all the time, which was unusual for a girl in the 50s I can tell you, more boys were expected to whistle. My Dad was an amateur musician and he loved singing. My Uncle was a professional piano player, so I think music was a big part and my Dad was very encouraging. We learned piano, singing and stuff when we were young, but I tended to learn everything by ear. I could read a bit, but I didn’t like it. And I just loved tunes, so I used to sing, and whistle tunes all the time. My Mother was Scottish and there are one or two melodies have a slightly Celtic inspired medley. On this new album, I wrote a ballad for my great nephew who died very suddenly 2 years ago, and he worked out at sea; so I wrote a melody thinking a lot about Scotland, and the kind of music that comes out of Scotland, thinking about the sea, the kind of landscapes and stuff that he saw……So, I think some melodies are a little bit more Celtic, but I also hear stuff in my writing that has a strong classical influence at times, in terms of the melody or the construction and some of the phrases.

As I have often discussed in this Women in Jazz series, there has always been a lack of ‘known’ female instrumentalists, certainly when you look through the history of Jazz. Whenever I discuss this, we always all agree that although gender should not be relevant, there is a need to highlight women until we reach a state of equality. We discussed this, why Alison picked up the Bass and how/if the lack of female bass players had an impact or her.

AR: I played bass because the band I was in needed a bass player. But it was that kind of thing when you go, oh, mm, maybe I could do that. I played the guitar and I sang but actually, I thought, I think this could be me. I’d never thought of it before. I was in my very early 20s, but I thought I think this could be my place. And I think it suited me very well because it is an instrument that you play as part of the group, as part of a rhythm section but if you play Jazz there are opportunities to come out and maybe do a solo or play a melody. There was a female bass player, but I didn’t know who she was. It was Carol Kaye and I discovered years later that she played on loads of stuff, but I didn’t know about her at the time. I didn’t know of any women instrumentalists at all when I started playing and certainly not when I was young. It’s funny isn’t it, you kind of look back and think well why did I think I could play? I can’t tell you really, I just thought I could. And probably my biggest influence, when I started playing bass in 1976, was Jaco Pastorius. I was just completely swept away with. When I first heard his first album, which was probably about two months after I started playing, I thought oh my God, this is just something else. The most beautiful, beautiful melodic playing. Amazing technique, just ooh…he was a huge influence for years. Female bassists, well, I could name you a few, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to men.

Recently I’ve been offered a couple of gigs that have been part of a women’s in jazz series and I think, well that’s very nice and I’m glad they’re doing it, but I just want to be part of the Jazz series. I don’t want to be picked out as something special. I just want women to be integrated and part of it and not be a big deal. I guess we’re not quite there yet.

Alison, along with Blow the Fuse, are huge advocates and supporters of young musicians wanting to get into the industry and play. They are an inspiration to many – although I suspect Alison is unaware of how inspirational she is. They recently played a gig in London with the incredible J Frisco as the support act.

AR: The J Frisco gig was fun. I got introduced to them about three or four years ago. I think they were just finishing university at Leeds College of Music. Deirdre Cartwright and I with Blow the fuse, do a double bill and try to put on some younger and emerging artists. Deirdre told me that J Frisco was great, let’s put them on! They had discovered the Guest Stars after coming across a video and they said they just couldn’t believe there were women in the 80s who were doing the sort of stuff – improvising, talking about stuff, you know getting into things – they just couldn’t believe it and thought it was fantastic. We chose them for this gig, and it was just perfect. They absolutely get what we were doing, and they are part of our future. They are extraordinary.

An important link between J Frisco and Alison Rayner’s new album is mental health. Both are passionate about mental health awareness and have been impacted in different ways. We talked briefly, about how hard this industry is.

AR: It’s very tough, very tough. You have to try and remain positive and confident and just appreciate what you’ve got. I mean there is a decent about of people in this country that are interested in Jazz, broadly, but public funding is negligible compared to let’s say opera, which has a similar number of people interested in it. It’s not commercial music in the sense that pop music is. So, it doesn’t get taken seriously enough. It’s a shame as it makes it very hard for people. People are juggling being in loads and loads of bands or doing massive amounts of teaching or theatre pits or whatever they’re doing – it’s hard work. We feel very passionate about music. We’re passionate about women being part of it all without there having to be a bloody big deal made of it all the time – you know what I mean?

Alison’s ‘Short Stories’ has some very moving celebratory tracks, inspired by her experiences of some suicides and deaths in a short period.

AR: The reason I called the album ‘Short Stories‘ was partly because I think of my pieces as stories and they are relatively short pieces, so ha, they are actually short stories. But also, the other part of that is the past couple of years they have been a lot of losses, deaths of family and friends. It started with my neighbour’s son, three years ago and then the following year my great-nephew, and then the following summer, which was last summer, my niece died. I hadn’t experienced suicide close hand before, so apart from obviously the grief, it’s also a shocking thing. There are 3/4 pieces on the album that deal with that theme. It’s more about the celebration of that person’s life.

It has long been known that many musicians suffer from mental health conditions in varying degrees, but it is now being discussed more openly, although like women in Jazz, still a long way to go. Action is needed, but what action?

AR: I suspect the main thing, and I’m no expert, the most important thing is to make it something that can be talked about. I think when we were young and I can always remember people saying ‘oh, she does suffer from her nerves’ and I didn’t know what they were talking about and I realized later that I think they were talking about depression. No one wanted to talk about it. I do think things are changing, but you’re right, I suspect a lot of it is about talking about it and the stigma, possibly. I don’t know how it can get better – I wish I did, but I think even just opening things up so that other people can talk about it a bit more. I think a lot of people suffer from depression on different levels and there’s a real reluctance to talk about it. I know that J Frisco has been trying to do some work around this too.

Music surely has a role to play here. There has been a wide range of discussions about the ‘new jazz’ scene and it’s almost second coming. At a time in the world where there is so much discontentment, inequality and injustice, Jazz seems to be on the rise. Is it possible that Jazz is almost the perfect genre to do so? It represents freedom, a lack of boundaries and space.

AR: You actually might be right, and I know what you mean. It’s a funny thing. There are tricky things around media, the way things are reported and what the media picks up on and obviously we see it in politics a lot – very little investigative work going on these days, I think. And it’s also perhaps mixed up with social media, and I’m not an expert in this but I feel like there can be a lot of hype. I think it’s wonderful that there are younger people appearing to play Jazz and that includes quite a number of women coming forward and playing. It’s appealing to a younger audience, which is great because we need a younger audience. Traditionally the Jazz audience has been quite old and ha, they’re all going to drop off and we do need more people. Ha, sorry, that sounds a bit coarse, but you know what I’m saying. I sometimes feel, when I listen to some of the music the young people are playing, apart from things like Hip Hop and those related genres which have been a newer kind of music, some young people are playing music influenced by the music we were influenced by. The African influence on Jazz, the Coltrane era and some of the Afrobeat stuff, well there was a lot of that influence earlier 70s/80s/90s. I think it’s generally very positive and your probably right that it might be good for the times that we’ve got something dynamic and exciting happening when a lot of things are actually quite grim.

Jazz has always been about being inspired by and drawing from influences, wherever they come from. Jazz has the space and freedom we want. A safe space to be whatever we want to be, to address anything we want to address.

AR: Jazz is the music I am most interested in. I like a lot of music but in terms of playing, I seem to be drawn to it. I suppose it’s the way that you can almost mix in anything and it feels to me that it’s almost boundaryless. It seems to encapsulate anything. And I suppose there’s no doubt that improvisation is an amazing thing. We rehearse but what happens on the night, is completely up for grabs and that’s the amazing thing; you take these risks, you make yourself very vulnerable and there is always the risk of failure and falling flat on your face, but there is nothing like that feeling when things work well – it’s just fantastic. And to be doing that with a group of people who are right there with you, the way we can work together and make it happen for each other is just wonderful.

Alison exudes incredible warmth and passion for her art, and it was an absolute pleasure to talk to her. The impact she has had on musicians should not be understated. Although there may not have been many female bass player role models when she was developing her art, she has now become, without a doubt, one for new players to aspire to.

I highly recommend her recent award-winning album ‘Short Stories’. The official album launch is at The Pizza Express, London, at the end of Feb, which has already sold out but there are some more touring dates in the spring.

Artists website: Alison Rayner

Senior writer: Fiona Ross 

Photo credits: Jane C. Reid – and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s).

Last modified: May 3, 2021