Keith Ball
Zak Barrett

Rated young jazz saxophonist from Chelmsford.


Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Kenny Baxter

Zak Barrett

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So Zak what made you take up an instrument in the first place? You are a tenor sax player aren’t you? 


Yes, principally. Most of work and playing work is based around tenor saxophone. I started out not really with the intention of playing Jazz. Mum and Dad brought a clarinet when I was young and my brothers played and they thought I should have an opportunity. 


So it’s a musical family?


Kind of. My Aunt was a concert pianist actually, based in Germany, and Uncle was a concert cellist, so they encouraged my parents to put some instruments in my hand for a long time. For a good while I only had clarinet lessons. I wanted to play the saxophone and my Dad eventually got me one. He wouldn’t give me any saxophone lessons until I had done the clarinet. As it turned out I never really had any saxophone lessons and I just did the classical thing right through college. 


Oh what College was that?


The Royal Northern up in Manchester.


Oh so are you not local then?


I am local. I started off down here.


Were you born and bred in Chelmsford?


I was born in Jamaica actually. Raised from the age of 1 through mid-teens and went to school up in Derbyshire but my family were always based down here. I went to college in Manchester and as soon as I finished I came back down here. I wanted to settle myself here with the intention of being a music teacher. Then everyone was telling me how the music scene was a bit of a tricky one, especially my family, and being protective..... and then my heart was still really in the saxophone and by that point I’d heard enough Michael Brecker records and enough Joshua Redmond stuff at the time to really kind of....... that was my listening in the car, say for instance, and I just kind of went to this jam at The Basement in Chelmsford my brother had told me about it. I was coming down to visit him and then told about this guitarist who was quite handy, a guy called Guthrie Govan. They put us on the stage together and I just saw what he was doing and thought I want some of that.


So had you being playing Jazz at that point?


Kind of. To be honest, I had been a bedroom Jazz musician in the sense that I think everybody who I knew that played Jazz who was of my age at the point had been pushed through the NYJO route and things like that, and maybe a little bit of intimidation set in in the fact that I wasn’t the most confident of people, so I just did it for myself and I did it because I loved the sound of these people that I were listening to. I hadn’t really performed at that point, all my performance had been classically-based and watching these people, especially Guthrie, as soon as I got up and played I felt at that point I have got so much to learn. But I really want to learn it; it’s a voyage of discovery in a way. That’s kind of the start really, I was 19 at the time I think, and from that point we got asked to set up a residency by The Basement venue and was supposed to last maybe a month, because most of things don’t last, but 12 and a half years later we’d been doing it every Thursday night and it had been a lot of fun you know.


I still think of you as being in your early twenties funny enough. It’s surprising me today that you’re in your early 30's. I forget how long it’s been going.


I still like to consider myself young for a Jazz musician. 


Well you are yes, of course (laugh) 


Well you don’t really know too much about Jazz until you’ve had some pain in your life, that’s what people say. But fortunately I have been spared that so far. 


Well that was the silly thing in the 80's, that you wouldn’t have known about, but when Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson first came out they were calling them the 'new Coltrane' and they had only been playing for two years and three years, and you think, probably in their own admittance too, they didn’t know anything at that point. They probably knew how to play some fast speed licks and stuff but they didn’t know. You just physically cannot learn that amount in just a few years. 


No there’s a whole process that you kind of only know by living and experiencing, and especially, it’s also just the range of people that you play with and the characters you will meet I think really. That’s what it’s been for me. I mean I’ve met a few characters, and some really extraordinary ones and then some other ones that I would rather not meet again. I’ve been lucky in the fact I have met a lot of diverse people. You know, without meaning to sound pretentious, I often feel that they play like they are if they are a Jazz musician. Let’s just say, a musician, they won’t act when they play, they will be themselves.


Yes the personality comes through the instrument. 


Indeed yes, and I really like that with the people I listen to, my heroes my gurus and people that have lead me to try and play the way that I do, you know, and so that’s a good thing. 


Your original listening you were saying was Brecker and Joshua Redmond. Obviously they are very modern and contemporary styles. Did it occur to you to go back into the kind of Coleman Hawkins era and stuff, to go back. 


Yes I think admittedly was via hearing those guys speak really, because I didn’t just...... I like to listen to them but then I also like to hear them speak to find out why they played that way and when you hear Brecker when he was around and he was speaking to people he’d say “If you want play the way I play don’t listen to me, listen to Joe Henderson, listen to people that influence me and it goes back, and Joe Henderson and people like Wayne Shorter and obviously back to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and all of those guys, and Sonny Stitt and great alto players as well”. That did take me back to those guys as well, you know. 


It gives you a reason for why you are playing and what you're playing, because it’s the background of how you got to where you are now.


For sure. I think, originally, I made the mistake of only going back to John Coltrane. I kind of saw this natural thing with Charlie Parker, and then it was John Coltrane then Michael Brecker, he was going to be next. And actually I think it’s an acquired taste as well. John Coltrane doing what he was doing when he was doing it there was also Sonny Rollins doing what he was doing and they were quiet different but they needed each other to compliment them. They both played the way they did because they had this other thing going on.


And then you had all the great Blues saxophonists at the time and the Rhythm and Blues players, that was a big influence.


Yes for sure. 


Yes it was quiet incredible, because a lot of Jazz players, a lot of them do come from a Rhythm and Blues background don’t they. 


Yes. I mean I was a big fan of Stanley Turrentine and things like that, again it was a new sound a different kind of 70's real kind of edgy...... almost modern, you could release it today and people would think “Wow, what’s that? That’s really cool”. I was really into that stuff as well. It definitely influenced. 


So you said before we started the interview that that it wasn’t natural for you to be on stage as a performer. 


No it didn’t feel that way, but I think one of the things that got me by, my kind of salvation I suppose when I was a kid was that I used my instruments to relax and chill out. I never really got nervous when I play. While I didn’t feel I was a natural performer I didn’t get nervous. It didn’t stop me for wanting to get up and play. 


Oh great. 


It was more the thing of playing with other people and playing with great musicians and seeing peoples reaction to it, it wasn’t always a good reaction don’t get me wrong, but it was just the fact that people actually reacted to something that I was doing. I'd never been the type of person to tell jokes or be a laugh so actually when I was doing something and people were actually watching me it was actually “Oh this is quiet cool. I can listen to this for a bit”, so that’s kind of how that developed I suppose really. I am still learning how to perform. I don’t go and jump up onto stage.


You've got to get your jokes sorted though you know Zak. You’ll never be Ronnie Scott. 




Yes, my stand-up routine leaves a lot to be desired at the moment. 


So you started at the Basement 12 and a half years ago, so really that is still, to this day been your base hasn’t it? Quiet incredible. 


Yes, unfortunately the residency stopped about a year ago. The band still exists, The Fellowship band, that’s what were called. 


Is it Zak Barrett’s Fellowship?


That’s what it was originally, because me and Guthrie kind of got the band together. I think it was because there were no saxophone players in Chelmsford at the time, they had all gone or something, but a few of the guitarists looked up to Guthrie and he was like this mythical figure, but I got the band together and I arranged the gig and stuff. We did the dealings for the venue and everything. I made the phone calls and suggested the tunes, so originally it was called the Zak Barrett and the Fellowship Of Funk. But after a while we decided just to call it The Fellowship.


Fellowship Of Funk?


Fellowship Of Funk, but then we decided what we were playing wasn’t really all Funk, it was more kind of a Fusion thing, so as opposed to add more words to the title we just thought we’d call it The Fellowship. We had Peter Riley on drums on board from day one because he and Guthrie knew each other and obviously Guthrie’s brother, Seth, was the bass player so that was an easy one, and we also had John Dutton on keyboards as well.


Oh yes.


It was great because again it introduced me to loads of great musicians like one week Pete was expecting his second child and he brought Neil Robinson into the gig on drums and I thought “Right who is this guy?” and half way through the gig they swapped round because Pete’s wife went into labour and Neil got up onto drums and I thought “Wow this is great, this is awesome”. It opened me up to this network of nice guys and good musicians and it kept on going every week. It was a good gig and nobody got bored of it, and I think even to now, we don’t see each other as much, we’ve got a gig coming up and Guthrie's career has taken of quiet well now so, as well, and even though he is still based in Chelmsford when he comes back we organise a gig and we get together and play its always a good thing. 


And what have you been doing outside of The Basement?


Well I do a lot of freelance work with people, the odd gig comes up, things like The Foundations gig I have done a couple of those gigs recently. I have been doing some work with Reg Webb, and that’s been great fun actually. He is just such a fantastic character to work with as well as being a great musician. He is very current with everything. While everything he does obviously has background and has legacy he still wants to hear new stuff. He nails it every time he plays it and it’s a great thing to play with him. So I have been doing a lot of that and just freelancing around, do a lot of teaching as well, private teaching. Sometimes teaching in class is frustrating when you have a pupil in the room that doesn’t want to learn you still have to try and teach them, but I have got some great pupils who have really kind of developed. I have got one guy who is graduating from Leeds College of music this year. I have been teaching him for the past three years and he went there. He is a guy to keep an ear out for, Robin Porter, and he is a great tenor player as well. He’s going to go far. So it’s always nice I try and mix it up and as well as the playing I do a lot of teaching as well. 


Have you had much opportunity to play with many Jazz players from out of the area at all?


I suppose my existence has been a little isolated. I mean out of the area I haven’t really done a great deal with other musicians as such. To my own detriment I am not the most outgoing of people everything that I have done. I have been presented with great musicians to play with and maybe settled at bit with the comforts of home, but it’s something that I really need to now do because I have got a bit more time on my hands with not doing The Fellowship every week for 12 years and the luxury of that gig, so it’s something that I am going to aspire to do from this point onwards. I am currently writing some stuff and I want to try and get some people in and maybe invite some people who I have not played with before to offer some input of what I do.


Is that recording?


Yes, I write quite a bit of stuff as well, and again I am a little bit shy about showing it to people, but I need to break out of that. I need to grow up (laughs) 


Tell me about some of the high points of your careers as a saxophonist so far?


I suppose early high points were, one great gig in Manchester just after I met Guthrie I went back finishing my degree and one of the last gigs I did out there was a gig with Mick Hucknall, which was a great gig, which again I had just started performing and I played to this massive audience of people. It was just a one off gig but it was a great experience and that was cool. It maybe briefly broadened my ambitions a little bit. I’ve done a couple of festivals which have been great with Guthrie, played in LA.


So what’s the current scene like in Chelmsford Jazz-wise as we talk in 2013?


Currently it’s not great to be honest, and it’s not through want of trying. I mean for a long time The Basement was up and running as a live venue then that kind of stopped, we were kind of the main act that played there. There aren’t any venues in Chelmsford that I can think of at this point in time that offer an opportunity to go and see new music. There is a new venue called Evoke which is open that doubles as a night club, but at the same time they are not bringing any local acts as such. No art music or anything like that, for music students, for people that are interested in the actual workings of music to actually go along and see. Graeme Culham runs a great monthly Jazz night at the Woolpack. It’s a little pub but it’s a great little Jazz gig and it’s the beginnings of a scene. I mean people like Graeme really push Jazz to a great extent and also encourage, I mean he gives me an opportunity to play for people. Bits kind of spring up. There was a great venue which unfortunately has shut down, sods law, called Hooga. It was a great venue, very friendly atmosphere, it was run by two local management team, John Bored, and they have actually opened up another place called The Loop. They're young guys, they want to get live music and Jazz going and Jazz Funk and Fusion and things they are into; that kind of thing. While there are not many venues there are some great musicians. Some really good Jazz musicians, who base themselves in Chelmsford.


Like who?


Guthrie is placed in Chelmsford but unfortunately most of his work now is around the world and I think this area missed a trick really because he was playing at The Basement every week for 12 and a half years, but a lot of the local people who would say they promote Jazz never even went down and saw us play.


Is that the people connected with the Chelmsford Jazz Club?


Yes, and at no point did we have any contact with them and there wasn’t necessary bad feeling because we had a great gig, but looking back there was a nice venue, the Cramphorn Theatre, a stone’s throw from The Basement where we were playing, but I got the impression there was a barrier, they weren’t really into the new kind of sounds of Jazz and Fusion.


And also the programming looked excellent on it but you don’t see any local people on there do you?


No, there are plenty of great Jazz musicians that come down who have to travel and I’m sure they have a great gig, but I think, again, I think the management are missing a trick. I would say there are probably three or four outfits that could quiet happily go in there and play. Not all based in Chelmsford, there are people in Billericay, Brentwood I know. We wouldn’t offend people; we wouldn’t bring louts into the place. It is still our music and is a progression of what they already have on there, but it is a progression and something a bit more current and it would bring younger people. There is a university, Anglian university; there are lots of students in this area that don’t even know about the Cramphorn as a venue for live music. I think that’s where we could potentially help them because we play current music and a lot of them used to come and see us at The Basement and I think they want to see us again locally. It would be nice to make some sort of contact with those people. All those venues are 300 yards from each other. We were rubbish at advertising, we were Jazz musicians, it would get to Thursday and we would be like “Oh its Thursday, we have a gig tonight”. Over the years we did get people come down and I spoke to maybe some people who would be affiliated with the other venue and come down and say it’s a bit loud and fast and modern and you think “Well give it a chance, because the music that you listen to, when it first came out Jazz music, even the stuff that we think it old hat, well not old hat because it’s all credible and it’s all great”. Charlie Parker - that was seen to be kind of crazy for us. Ridiculous music. But now it’s actually what a lot of the older generation want to hear. Well some people still think that’s too modern. 


I know I’ve encountered that (laugh)


What age are people living in?


Which is why it was important to talk to you Zak for this project because of exactly that, because you’re a young person with a young vision. 


I’m partly to blame because I am not the most ambitious of people. Because of my personality I am a quiet guy but I love playing and I will always entertain peoples desires for when I go and play. I am never going to rebel, if somebody requests a ballad, I love playing ballads. That’s another thing, because people used to see me playing with The Fellowship band it was a blessing and a curse in a way because we always used to play Fusion tunes, ambitious tunes and I had a lot of people saying “You’re not really a ballad player are you?” and I’m thinking just because you haven’t heard me call one tonight doesn’t mean I don’t like playing them. I really like playing ballads, the art of playing ballads is something that I will always be working on till the day I die. I don’t think I’ll ever know how to do it, but I like playing them. I think people type cast you by the type of music that you play, but if people approach me I am actually quiet amenable with what they want me to play. So I think there’s a lot of the older generation feel like the newer generation isn’t as versatile, whereas actually we are a lot more versatile, we actually appreciate that we have to play everything now. John Coltrane is one of my favourite saxophone players of the 20th century but he didn’t really need to be versatile because of who he was, and he was introducing something new and people accepted that. I think as a current musician in order to keep a living because there are so many great musicians who aren’t name players who haven’t made that break through, but who have to make a living out of music, so they have to be able to play everything, so if they are seen playing one thing it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing they can play. Have a conversation with them, find out what there influences are what their inspiration is and you might actually be surprised. That’s a chance I don’t think I have necessarily always been given by the people that have approached me to play. 


You young upstart you!


Yes, I know (laughs), Cocky, that’s what I am. (laughs)