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In The Spotlight: Sammy Stein Talks To Charlotte Keeffe

Charlotte Keeffe is one of the most intriguing and interesting improvisers on the music scene. A hugely respected musician, she has an extraordinary ability to take a lungful of air, blow it through a tiny hole in a mouthpiece and create extraordinary music. This year, alongside a kaleidoscope of colourful and talented fellow musicians, Charlotte will appear, with her Right Here, Right Now quartet, at Cheltenham where they will take their rightful place alongside stars of the jazz scene, including Dione Warwick, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jo Harrop, Brad Mehldau Trio, Sam Eastmond Orchestra, Niki Yeoh, Courtney Pine and so many more. They will bring their unique take on improvised music alongside these gifted musicians. Sammy caught up with Charlotte for Platinum Mind.     

Sammy Stein : Tell us about your journey in music

Charlotte Keeffe: I started having piano lessons when I was just four years old. I spent hours in my bedroom improvising all sorts of melodies on my keyboard to various rhythms and beats. Then I’d record everything on my Mum’s old cassette tape player! I created abstract collages, cutting up paper for the cassette covers, and then proudly presented them as Christmas presents to my family! 

Growing up, listening to my Grandma’s, Grandpa’s, Mum’s and Dad’s music was captivating. My younger brothers and I would come up with dance routines and shows inspired by orchestral extravaganzas like Dukas’ ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and also lighter music by Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper, but it was always swing music and jazz sounds like Ellington’s/Strayhorn’s, ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’, that made me feel happy and warm inside. I remember how important it felt to be turning double-digits (ten). My Mum sweetly asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I knew immediately I wanted a trumpet. I didn’t even know what a trumpet looked like, but I knew it contributed to that happy sound and feeling that I felt when I listened to jazz! 

As a teenager, I was (and still am) mesmerised and inspired by anyone who played the trumpet. I would write poems and dream about meeting and playing with Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Louis Armstrong. I am hypnotised by the sound of the trumpet, and seriously impressed and evoked, particularly by improvised jazz trumpet solos. 

I was very lucky and grateful to receive a fantastic music education growing up in South Lincolnshire. I had more of a ‘straight’/classical music upbringing but quickly focused on wanting to study jazz trumpet music. I was super proud to finish school and go straight on to study jazz trumpet at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales. I continued my education with a master’s degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Over the course of six years studying at these two awesome music conservatoires, I received lessons from many heroes including Keith Tippett, Sarah Gail Brand and Noel Langley to name a few. Towards the end of my master’s degree, during Martin Hathaway’s History of Jazz Improvisation lessons, I experienced an overwhelmingly liberating feeling when freely improvising or playing free music. I felt like I was finally playing music!

Your list of recordings is growing. Are you releasing music soon? Do you have any live gigs coming up?

My debut album as band leader is called ‘Right Here, Right Now’, and was released in 2021 on the Discus Music record label. It features some of my live solo, duo, quartet, and large ensemble (London Improvisers Orchestra) works. My 2nd album is called ‘RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW (Quartet) ALIVE! in the studio’ and was released in 2023, also on Discus Music. This album features my Right Here, Right Now Quartet (Ashley John Long on double bass, Ben Handysides on drums and Moss Freed on guitar).’ RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW ALIVE! in the studio’ was featured in Reader’s Digest’s Top Albums/releases of 2023, with big thanks to the wonderful Sammy Stein! (SS – blush). 

I’m a Discus Music artist involved in several exciting albums and projects on the label – leading, performing, composing and recording regularly with the likes of Pat Thomas, Paul Dunmall, Orphy Robinson MBE, Julie Tippetts, Matthew Bourne, Carla Diratz and many more. I’m also the Assistant Musical Director of Anthropology Band and Hi-Res Heart alongside Martin Archer and Martin Pyne. I’m also delighted to be part of Sam Eastmond’s (John Zorn’s) Bagatelles Ensemble, part of an epic box set release, alongside complete superstars and (trumpet) legends Noel Langley, Peter Evans and more. Wahoo! 

I also want to mention the mega Alex Ward. Being part of his Item projects and playing his music is beautiful; such angular, dense, but open music, it’s most inspiring. We’re fresh from playing Saarbrücken’s Free Jazz Festival in Germany. I also want to mention playing with Ben Higham’s (The) Brass Monkeys (with the ever-so-inspirational Annie Whitehead (trombone)). Catch us at Soho’s Pizza Express on April 28th.

How is it promoting your music? Do you find you have positives and negatives? 

I use social media to promote my music-making. At the moment, most of my listeners and kindred spirits are on Facebook, so I tend to share and post there the most (Charlotte Keeffe Music). Social media has become my online scrapbook. I have a backlog of posts that I want to share, but it takes me quite a while to compose a post because I overthink and quickly feel overwhelmed, so frustratingly I don’t share as much as I’d like to. I want to jump in more and let go of this holding-back behaviour – any thoughts/tips would be greatly appreciated!

How is it, as a female artist? Do you feel there is any prejudice or expectations of women that male performers do not have, or do you feel the field is even now? 

I’m ok and happy to travel alone, but more and more now, I’m sad to say that I don’t always feel safe when I do so, particularly when I’m travelling alone late at night. It can be quite tiresome not trusting some folks and keeping my distance. I can’t help wondering if I was male, would I feel this anxious? I don’t know.  Another thing is, I envy some of my male musician friends who seem to get away with travelling very lightly when on the road, ‘bung a few t-shirts in a bag and go and be on the road for weeks’. I believe if I were to do the same, I’m not sure I would be taken seriously or booked again. This is all in my head and my drama. Perhaps I should try it – surely folks have other things to think about than me smelling badly in an unwashed shirt haha! 

I’m not sure the field will ever be even. I’m much more into ‘Be the change you want to see’: being and bringing your precious full self to the moment has the potential to connect with folks and inspire! 

If you were to advise a young performer are there any lessons you might pass on? 

I would say if music truly makes your heart sing, and you can’t imagine doing anything else then stick with it. Stick-with-it. Trust that you will meet your kindred spirits and find and do what feels natural and comfortable for you musically, (and creatively). Trust yourself and trust life. You/we all have a song to sing! Watch out for those late nights, and don’t eat too many fried foods too late at night! 

Get that you matter and that you are enough as you are right now and always. You can’t please everyone! Also, you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything and exhaust yourself! Don’t be shy about thinking of yourself as a business

Looking ahead ~ what would you like to have achieved in five or ten years’ time music-wise?

I would LOVE to establish a U.K. Improvisers Orchestra, and/or a Right Here, Right Now Orchestra plus a festival and live concert series. Of course, I want to play more internationally too! I’m looking forward to playing in Switzerland and Vienna this summer. I also have plans for a duo album with bassist and composer Ashley John Long, playing (more) with Lara de Belder, Peter Evans, Evan Parker, Ingrid Laubrock, Alex Paxton, Matana Roberts, Alex Hawkins, Alya Al-Sultani and Angel Bat Dawid. I shall be writing music and melodies for dancer Petra Haller too, and perhaps doing a PhD along the way! And making Phil Minton’s Feral Trumpet Choir a happening thing!  

Is it difficult to fit music in with other aspects of your life? Music has, is and will always be my life.

 For me, music is everywhere, everyone and everything! Even mundane things, like taking out the bins, can be rhythmically and musically inspiring for me, so music, life, it all comes together and is one! My beautiful fiancée, Lara de Belder, is also a musician. She’s an incredibly talented being! I’m full of gratitude that we share and understand each other’s dreams. That really matters to us! 

How have you found supportive critics, editors, and people who appreciate your music? Have you targeted audiences or put it out and hoped for the best? 

I trust that the music will reach and connect with folk. Free music is not necessarily an easy listen for some. It can be raw and very abstract, but also powerfully present, intuitive and transformative! I’m so grateful for the supportive folks out there. People like you, Sammy (SS: blush again), Ivor Kallin of Resonance FM, Peter Freeman, Café OTO’s team, the late great John Russell and Mopomoso, BBC Radio 3’s Freeness team, Corey Mwamba, Silvia Malnati, Philip Smith, Tony Dudley-Evans, Alex Carr, Manchester, Lancaster and London Jazz Festivals, London Improvisers Orchestra, Serious London Jazz Festival team, Chris Searle, Bill Shoemaker, Faradena Afifi and Noisy Women, Caroline Kraabel and Orchestra New, I also cannot thank Martin Archer (who’s behind Discus Music) enough. Of course, there are loads more folks I want to shout out about, but the point I’m getting at is that I’m so proud to be part of such a loving community. So many folks are kindly and excitedly spreading the word and music, supporting each other, and spreading love! It’s moving, connecting and seriously inspiring, the music’s alive!

How do you find people to work with, producing, playing alongside, etc? 

Go to their gigs, email, and message folks. If you want something to happen, make it happen. Don’t wait, or assume it’s going to happen, but have patience. I appreciate the oxymoron there, but I mean it, there’s a difference between trusting and being patient rather than fighting and pushing and exhausting yourself to force something to happen! I trust life and I’ve always been a sucker for ‘if it’s meant to be, it’ll be’. Sometimes just ‘being’ is the hardest, but simplest thing to do; for me, like many, just being present is where and when the music (life) thrives. Right Here, Right Now!

Other thoughts?

To me, the trumpet is such an evocative vocal and percussive instrument. I’m so in love with it. Sound is everything. It’s of course what people hear and notice first. It blows my mind that each sound I make on my trumpet has its unique position – the difference between each of these positions (sounds) is very subtle. I love the feeling of the notes surfing on the air! Practising is an essential and meditative process for me. I’m currently focusing on being as relaxed as possible when I play and practise passionately. Blowing everything through the small hole in the mouthpiece can sometimes feel intense for me! Trumpet sounds and notes have become moving, colourful, 3D shapes in my mind’s eye, like a graphic score, particularly when I’m playing freely, experimentally, and abstractly. I’ve become obsessed with exploring the space in these shapes and sounds, playing them this way, and that way, upwards, sideways, downwards, diagonally, backwards– desperately getting inside the sound and pulling it around! My trumpet and flugelhorn have become my sound (paint) brushes. I cannot get enough of exploring what seems like endless possibilities through improvising, composing, and conducting. I say to everyone, please get in touch for plays, commissions, lessons, or workshops. 

S.S.’s thoughts: Watching Charlotte play live is an experience I recommend. What you get is free improvisation, music created in her head, that passes through the tiny hole in the trumpet mouthpiece and emerges as a river of colour, sound, and percussive rhythms. Charlotte also listens to those playing around her, which is key to being a successful musician. She knows the value of the pause, the silences and also when to let rip.  

Links for getting in touch and more information:

Website: https://www.charlottekeeffe.com

Facebook: Charlotte Keeffe Music

Instagram: @CharlotteKeeffeMusic 

X (Twitter): @CharlotteKeeffe

https://discusmusic.bandcamp.com/album/right-here-right-now-107cd-2021 

https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz/whats-on/2024/charlotte-keeffe-right-here-right-now-quartet 

https://discusmusic.bandcamp.com/album/alive-in-the-studio-160cd-2023

https://charlottekeeffe.bandcamp.com

 

 

 

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