Brian Morton, Jazz Journal feature
"Keith Jarrett was a huge influence - partly because I'd been listening to Oscar Peterson before him and it expanded so profoundly my understanding of what jazz could be"
He was ticked off in college for not learning his standards - "the late Jeff Clyne used to say 'You've got to take this more seriously!" - but it doesn't seem to have done any harm. Peter James's second CD Soul Story was widely mentioned in despatches a couple of years back (reviewed JJ February 2012). He's an impressive enough pianist, with a big, capacious style that often implies something larger hiding behind the chords and, indeed, there is a strong spiritual underpinning. "I believe music has its origins in God's creative design and at its best can inspire, console or invigorate the soul. I'm not setting out to write 'religiously themed' music - if I have any objective, it's simply to write 'honest music' - digging out the music that I hear and trying not to add or subtract from it."
He was born in Scarborough in 1973 and came to music through a parental record collection, "everything from Monk to Messiaen". He played violin at school but went to the Royal Academy to study piano and took the jazz course with the late Graham Collier and Michael Garrick. It was at the academy that he met Jeremy Brown and Thomas Hooper, the other two legs of the trio which made its debut in 2008 with Visions and Vistas (Mulberry Tree). He has worked in music education and as an MD in a church. He's appeared with Christian Garrick on a number of occasions and wrote Passion Suite (also on Mulberry Tree) for the Kairos Ensemble. The market is saturated with piano trios, which makes it all the more remarkable that this one stands out. "It was a weighty step, moving on from being a sideman but I felt I had something to say and might as well get on with it. The dialogue is probably kept more immediate with just the three of us but it can work within a bigger canvas too. In fact one of my favourite albums is Vince Mendoza's Epiphany - it's a great example of weaving improvising musicians together with an orchestra."
It's not immediately obvious where James's piano playing roots lie. More Paul Bley than Bill Evans, though? "Funnily enough I've just listened for the first time to Paul Bley's. Open To Love (1973) and been absolutely blown away by it. There are various pianists that have definitely impacted me en route - including Bill Evans and Herbie. Keith Jarrett was also a huge influence - partly because I'd been listening to Oscar Peterson before him and it expanded so profoundly my understanding of what jazz could be. Dollar Brand, Monk, Esbjorn Svensson, our own John Taylor, or more recently guys like Tord Gustavsen, Marcin Wasilewski or Jef Neve I would cite as compass points. "I really appreciated Mike Garrick's input at college. He was very affirming of whatever I brought to the table. We'd exchange compositions and simply play through them for an hour or so. I'm grateful to him - as are many - for his musical legacy.
"I love hearing music that at the same time destroys and rebuilds your musical universe - that may or may not be jazz, of course. Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose compositions are full of blood and guts, expresses a kind of spirituality which per-haps emphasises 'earthy incarnation' more than 'transcendence'. My own music sounds nothing like his, but his attitude towards the role of music and music making certainly resonates with mine." Peter James certainly doesn't trade in blood and guts, but there's nothing perfumed and aery-faery about his music, either. It's music grounded in the tradition, but which doesn't treat music history as a prison. You don't have to lick an altar rail to enjoy this music. It works at whatever level you're at.
Brian Morton, Jazz Journal Magazine, April 2014