Jason Henson is a professional guitarist based in Brighton, UK. He has been playing the guitar for over 25 years.
Some of his heroes and influences on the guitar are Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Freddie Green, Charlie Christian, Lenny Breau, Billy Bean, Louis Stewart and Russell Malone to name only a few.
UK music festivals he has performed at include Love Supreme, South Coast Jazz & Blues Festival, Beachdown Festival, Marlborough Jazz Festival, Ealing Jazz Festival, Swanage Jazz Festival, Bestival, North Devon Jazz Festival, Hayling Island Jazz Festival, Glasgow Jazz Festival, and Teignmouth Jazz Festival.
Sam Carelse is a Brighton-based jazz vocalist and voice-over artist.
In the last two years, she has performed close to 300 shows, in venues such as The Grand, Brighton Pavilion and Brighton Dome, and at some of the UK’s most prestigious festivals including Love Supreme Jazz Festival and Brighton Fringe.
She credits much of her sound to time spent listening to the greats, drawing particular inspiration from Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Annie Ross. Her understanding of harmony comes from her abilities as a pianist, which she continues to study in her spare time.
I was lucky to meet with Sam and Jason in Brighton. During corona days, they perform online. I thought it would be a good idea to introduce you to each other.
Tell us a bit about your instrument. How did you decide to choose it?
Jason: I play jazz and gypsy jazz guitar these days. When I first started learning, it was on an electric guitar that I got for my 15th birthday. At the time I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Beatles, The Doors, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd etc. and the guitar seemed like a good idea. Also, my dad had a guitar hanging up on the wall (he didn’t play) when I was growing up, and I used to play on that, I don’t know how to tune it, so I used to play on one string.
Sam: My music teacher throughout primary school was the great Cyrilla Rowsell, and she was and is an exponent of what I now know is the Kodály method. She encouraged us to sing and get involved with her choirs, putting us forward for choir competitions from an early age. It always felt fun; it was never high-pressure. I have had so many great music teachers during and since then, but I don’t think I would have had quite the same relationship to music and singing if it wasn’t for Cyrilla right at the start. We also performed and took lots of solos (not the jazz meaning of solo) which really helped with stage fright and similar anxieties. I’m not a natural-born singer—I don’t have the confidence! I just love the act of singing as it’s so personal, expressive and flexible, and the music itself. I also absolutely adore playing the piano, but I’m not quite ready to take that to the stage yet!
When did you start playing jazz professionally?
Jason: I started getting a full-time income in about ‘96, but I had already done some paid work before that.
Sam: Since 2016…
What was the first tune(s) you learned?
Jason: The very first thing I learned was the baseline to ‘A Forest’ by The Cure. The first jazz I played was modal stuff like Miles Davis, and my introduction to lots of chord/key changes was ‘Confirmation’ by Charlie Parker.
Sam: I can’t remember, but I can tell you the first tune I performed at the Brunswick jam—‘Love Me Or Leave Me.’
What would you want to be if you weren’t a musician?
Jason: I left a degree in pure mathematics to become a professional musician, and I’ve never really had a plan B.
Sam: I really enjoy my current side-hustles which are necessary in this lockdown climate: copywriting and voice-over work, which is new for me. But the most fun I’ve had was when I was working as a marketing officer for Brighton Dome and Festival. My colleagues were not only hardworking and creative; they were fun too. I don’t think what I do really matters; it’s all about the people. Although having said that, it would be nice to work for a vegan charity or animal welfare campaigning organisation.
If you could only own one album, what would it be?
Jason: Probably something like ‘Bitches Brew’ by Miles Davis, you always find something new when you listen again. I guess we don’t really own music in the same way these days, it would be terrible only to have one album to listen to.
Sam: ‘Aja’ by Steely Dan…
What’s your favourite jazz tune?
Jason: It constantly changes but at the moment it’s ‘Rhythm Future’ by Django Reinhardt.
Sam: The answer to this changes so much over time! Probably ‘How Long Has This Been Going On’ by George Gershwin… That song never gets old for me, and its meaning has been interpreted in so many different ways. Shirley Horn’s version is gorgeous. Judy Garland’s version live at Carnegie Hall is my favourite. I am a sucker for a torch song.
Sam Carelse & Jason Henson (Photo: Hande Çayır)What’s your favourite non-jazz tune?
Jason: That’s a really hard question and probably changes all the time as well. For today I’m going to say ‘Echoes’ by Pink Floyd.
Sam: ‘Peg’ by Steely Dan!
When you solo, how do you feel? Do you have a special technique?
Jason: When it’s going well, I’m completely inside the music and feel incredible other times, it can be very frustrating, and I feel terrible.
Sam: Before last year, I rarely took solos. Perhaps only on blues. ‘Lost’ and ‘scared’ were the main overriding feelings! Now, if I’m in the zone, it’s almost like I see the whole phrases formed before me and then I just sing them. It’s fairly satisfying. Or it’s experimental, and it’s like a scary ride -scary but thrilling- you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m at such an early stage of being an improviser, but my current techniques are to learn great musicians’ solos, including horn lines so that they are completely internalised. I make sure I can get to the point where I can sing them and play the chords on the piano at the same time, rather than singing along to the actual track.
Also, I find it useful to remember Chick Corea’s advice, “Only play what you hear. If you don’t hear anything, don’t play anything.” I don’t want to soullessly noodle over patterns. I want to internalise bebop language in particular as best as possible and express it in a meaningful way—that’s my lifetime goal. It’s also so important to know the changes under the melody and to understand good voice leading. I think if any vocalist is serious about improvisation, they should study an instrument too; I’d recommend the piano, but I’m biased. Another fun thing to do on stage is trade 4s or 8s, particularly with the drummer. You get plenty of good rhythmic ideas, and a chance to develop them. It’s a conversation! I must stress, I am still at the very start of the improvisation journey… I should also mention that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to pursue this without the help of my improvisation teacher Olivia Chindamo, a brilliant young jazz singer based in NYC/Australia.
Do you practice every day? What kind of a routine do you have?
Jason: I play most days but not really practice. I’ve never really had a structured routine, but I’m sure it’s a great way to improve.
Sam: I don’t stick to a strict routine, but I find myself practising most days. In line with the book ‘Effortless Mastery’ by Kenny Werner, I try to commit to just 5 minutes practising a day, as you can find yourself in the zone for hours. A little every day is better than nothing. I try to do breathing and vocal flexibility exercises every day. The lockdown has changed things. The dark cloud of doubt and worry can descend and wreak havoc with any kind of structure. Also, we live in a tiny flat and have no alone time. I need to be mindful that I’m not disturbing Jason’s peace and quiet too much, which I do a lot when I get carried away. I now have a nice set up when I’m transcribing—I put earbuds from my phone in and put my bigger headphones from my keyboard over the top!
Do you tape yourself and analyse your performance?
Jason: I used to do this a lot but these days not so much. It can be hard listening to yourself play.
Sam: I don’t do this strictly speaking, but I understand the importance of it. If other people have recorded my performance, I’ll listen back with a critical ear. I also record stuff for social media, so I’ll look back on that too. A wise man once said to me “Watching yourself back is like a bitter pill you have to take every now and then.” Yep! Ghastly but essential!
What is your experience with a metronome?
Jason: I haven’t done loads of metronome practice, but it’s great to put it on beats 2 and 4 or even just beat 4 or less and practice to that.
Sam: I’ve used a metronome for piano playing. I don’t tend to use one for singing, which is probably naughty of me. In my view, it’s an absolute must for serious rhythm players unless they are blessed with perfect time.
What are the pros and cons of online performances during corona days?
Jason: I’ve made videos and recordings during this time which have had some success and Sam, and I have done some live performances. Playing live over the internet is pretty much impossible, unfortunately, because of the internet limitations, speed of light etc.
Sam: Pros—potential to reach a wider audience than you usually would. The sky’s the limit! Cons—you don’t see audience reactions, you don’t have that live vibe. It’s all about the people watching and what they bring to the communal experience.
What are the pros and cons of being a couple while producing your music together?
Jason: It’s great living with other musicians full stop. I guess we are able to support each other in all sorts of ways because we have a deeper understanding of what it’s all about. I guess the only con is arranging individual practice time at home as we have limited space.
Sam: Pros—In the normal world, music hours are quite anti-social, so it’s a chance to spend more time together. It’s also nice to have something in common that you both understand on a technical level. Jason is much more than me, of course! We’ve also started jamming together with me on the piano, which is really fun. My solos are… interesting, to say the least! Also, being in lockdown together means we can do live gigs, and we don’t have to worry about latency issues. Cons—See what I said before about trying to practice… This also goes for the type of music we want to listen to!
Who are you inspired by?
Jason: There are so many amazing young musicians coming through these days. I think it’s partly because of the internet, YouTube and so on. Things have changed since I started, transcribing from vinyl and having to lift the needle every two seconds.
Sam: So many people to mention… Anita O’Day was my first jazz singing inspiration, Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall are my main current inspirations. I’m really getting into early Miles Davis in a deep way at the moment. More generally, I’m really inspired by the work ethic of young jazz singers across the pond in America, who are transcribing, transcribing, transcribing, and then sharing their progress. It’s shown me that anyone can be a jazz musician if they’re willing to put in a ton of work.
Would you believe formal study such as going to a music conservatory?
Jason: I think everyone has found their own unique way to the bandstand. It can certainly help, but it is also not a necessity.
Sam: It’s obviously not necessary to do what I’m doing in particular, as I didn’t go to one. And it’s so expensive! But I know so many people who did, and I would have liked to be a part of that. Not only do you get to eat, sleep and breathe music, you have that camaraderie: People at similar levels learning together. The networking is obviously amazing for career reasons, but the most valuable thing I see is people inspiring each other artistically, forming groups and friendships that last way beyond their time at the conservatory, lifting each other up. I probably have a romantic view. But yes, it’s a shame that this route is not really open to all groups of people. On that note, the Tomorrow’s Warriors (https://tomorrowswarriors.org/) programme is a wonderful thing! I would have loved to be involved in something like that.
Who else is in your band?
Jason: I’m in many bands, so it would be a long list.
Sam: The jazz scene here is a rotating cast of brilliant musicians. It’s impractical to play with the same group all the time for many reasons, and the joy of jazz is mixing it up every now and then. In my most recent project, Jason and I performed a Pink Martini song ‘Hang On Little Tomato’ with bassist Oz Dechaine and clarinettist/saxophonist Alex Bondonno remotely. I also have a gypsy jazz trio Amuse Manouche which is Jason and I plus another great gypsy jazz guitarist, Elis Davies.
Do you think gender matters when it comes to performing on stage?
Jason: Unfortunately I think it probably does. I’ll let Sam answer that one properly.
Sam: It shouldn’t, but it does. Ha, I could write a whole column on this subject, but it would probably ruffle too many feathers! In brief, I would say it’s not an issue amongst decent audience members and musicians. What upsets me the most is toxic environments forming that put women and girls off of going to spaces such as jam sessions. I’d love to see a women + LGBTQ jam session in town. I was considering starting one, but I had to abandon that project due to spreading myself a bit thinly. If anyone interested in reading this, please carry the torch on. After lockdown, of course!
What do you think about movements in jazz such as the hard bop period, soul/funk reaction, modal jazz with Miles, and Ornette Coleman?
Jason: I love pretty much all of it. Music and jazz should move with the times to get young people inspired and listening to jazz and improvisation. Jazz has influenced pop music a lot over the years.
Sam: To be honest, I haven’t spent a huge amount of time listening to what you’ve mentioned outside of hard bop and modal jazz. What I’ve heard I like, but on a superficial level, and not enough to listen to over and over at the moment. I think that will change as my relationship with jazz deepens.
What do you see as the future of the music?
Jason: Who knows? That’s the beauty of it really… I think the new generation jazz movement is recruiting lots of listeners these days, which is great.
Sam: Ha, if you’d interviewed me two months ago I might have given the kind of answer you might be expecting. For now, I’m just praying live music, and live jazz exists full stop. We’re facing what might possibly be a year or more of no live gigs. I know of at least one person in the Brighton jazz fold who is abandoning their music career completely, and I really hope this isn’t a trend. I’m also really worried about the venues. I’d recommend anyone reading this who cares about music to look up their favourite venues and performers online and find out how they can offer support during the lockdown. I know some pubs such as The Better Half are doing deliveries.
How can we follow you and your (online) gigs?
Jason: I probably update my personal FB page most often.
I have a YouTube Channel for videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/jasonhensonguitar
And a website: jasonhensonmusic.com
Sam: Here’s a clip of us performing together at home: