the bass end of the bass clarinet, I felt it was something magical. If you play the bass clarinet or the bass flute meditatively, exploring the lowest frequencies and the upper partials, something in you changes by the time you finish the performance. I felt I was getting into the frequency of the planet itself with those low notes. When we finally played the tune on the session in the studio, it stretched out to about ten minutes long, and you can sense some of that exploration. I like to concentrate on one instrument at a time, so after focusing on the soprano saxophone for a couple of years, now I’m back to the bass clarinet. Sonny Rollins said to me that you can spend a lifetime exploring just the one instrument, and the biggest challenge for me is to come back from playing House of Legends on soprano in Japan, and pick up the bass clarinet again for this tour. It’s a huge jump.”
‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’ is, as many Jazzwise readers will know, a song that’s been a staple of Sonny Rollins’ many London concerts over the years. So was Courtney tempted to return to the tenor saxophone to play it?
“I haven’t really played the tenor for 11 years now,” he replies. “I am fortunate in that the turn my career has taken allows me to spend a couple of years exploring one instrument. It’s up to me to decide what stories to tell and how to tell them. I’ve got seven octaves available on the bass clarinet, which gives me enormous scope, and a real challenge to find the boundaries of what is possible on the instrument. Who knows, maybe I’ll turn to the bass flute next? I have had calls to do another tenor saxophone album, but I don’t know…”
I remind him of a Radio 3 broadcast I once presented from St. Paul’s Cathedral where he played unaccompanied tenor saxophone under the dome, relishing all the sonority and space of the great nave.
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“I want to stand up and make the point about what the people who have come here from the Commonwealth have contributed. My dad – a carpenter – helped to build the Britain we have today. The Labour Party stands up for that.”
“That was a really spiritual experience,” he remembers, “and those experiences lead you on in your life and playing. It is remarkable playing in that amount, that volume, of space.