Work Money Death started in a basement bar, slap bang in Leeds city centre around 2010. We had a weekly residency on a Tuesday night. For “Sela Bar’, Tuesdays were not a night that paid the bills so we were free to play what we chose without too much interference from the management. It was there that we spent a good few years digging into tunes that we had never heard anyone else tackling. I have mentioned the influence of record-collector Fraser Hinchcliffe in these blogs before and many of the numbers we played came from tunes that he was introducing me to. At that time I did not come across many people who were into the type of jazz that we spent our time listening to. I often wondered why it was “the road less travelled” musically. It is refreshing that more people now appear to be into the kind of jazz we like.
On these Tuesday nights we would play the music of Roland Kirk, John Klemmer, Pharaoh Sanders, Gato Barbieri, to name a few. I loved those gigs. For a period we were a well-oiled machine meeting up a couple of hours before the gig to rehearse tunes. The audience would be an eclectic mix of students, professionals, passing foot traffic and barflies and mostly not people who had specifically come to see us, let alone fans of the music we were playing. At the front of the band was saxophonist Tony Burkhill who is difficult to miss in both sound and stature. Dressed from head to toe in black, like a jazz version of Johnny Cash, his sound is so large he would never require a mic. When he plays he plays to the heavens and when he is at rest he still moves and shouts along with what the rhythm section is doing. He is capable of great range and depth musically and when he takes something far out he often does it in a way that would take everyone with him regardless of their capacity for enjoying challenging music. This is what I often observed on those Tuesday nights. As a working bass player I would do many jazz gigs with different bands and players but I would rarely see the reaction that Tony would generate. There was something about what or how Tony played that spoke to most people. I asked him once how he managed to hold people’s attention on these gigs, including people who normally would not generally be interested in jazz. His reply, and it was said in all modesty was “I play from the heart. Every time I pick up my horn I play from the heart”. His way of playing jazz was somehow accessible to all and didn’t come with a high brow attitude that would turn people off.
One thing that I learned about Tony over the years is that he is devoted to a practice. What I mean by a practice is not so much making sure that you practise your scales every day but something much deeper. In his case it is a practice as a way of life, reaching deeply into ones inner self in a process of self development and spiritual development. Something that is closer to the practice of meditation or yoga - life long and never ending. The line between the man and the instrument is not outwardly apparent. The horn belongs to the practitioner and the practitioner belongs to the horn. His playing isn’t just a series of well practised exercises chosen to navigate a harmonic language; it goes beyond that to draw on life experiences and thus add a unique level of creativity.
It always struck me how dedicated Tony was to the horn when the majority of his gigs were wedding functions rather than a crowd of open and receptive jazz fans. Playing ‘Careless Whisper’ at a wedding will always be within Tony’s capabilities regardless of whether he practises, so why be so dedicated to “the practice”? For Tony I don’t believe it is about external adulation or recognition, it is just a way of life.
I didn’t feel like I quite had the vocabulary or articulacy to describe the difference between ‘practising’ and what a ‘practice’ is, so I consulted a friend who has spent a large part of his adult life studying meditation and philosophical practice. When I talked to my friend about Tony he responded with a quote from Siddhattha Gotama describing that type of dedication : “Love is not the goal, Love is the way, there is no goal.” For Tony the saxophone is the way and how far he can delve into that is never ending. Tony approaches the saxophone with a pureness that many musicians might start with but most lose along the way. Returning to the heart of the subject is the way and through dedication to the practice is where the strength and authenticity are found.
I think it is possible that one of the main reasons that you don’t find many people venturing into the territories of long form improvised music is the sheer dedication to a practice that is required to pull it off with authenticity. Improvisations don’t have the same framework from which one can hang a solo and without that you better have something to say or the performance is going to run out of steam pretty quickly. With a player such as Pharaoh Sanders, who is a big influence on our approach to Work Money Death, his playing often doesn’t impress people who value technique over substance but with one note he can impart a feeling and with a full performance he can reach inside and re-align you on a molecular level.
I have had this feeling with Tony. He can say so much with one note, tapping into something deeper than any scale. His Sound speaks volumes. On the first track of this new LP, “The Space In Which The Uncontrollable Unknown Resides Can Be The Place From Which Creation Arises”, he takes a simple phrase and turns it into a journey over 16 minutes, finding so many ways to reflect its beauty and emotion.
It’s a real privilege to play with a musician like Tony and from those early days back in ‘Sela Bar’ I was determined one day to get him on record so that more people could experience what he had been continuously and modestly developing over some thirty plus years.