Sean Foran: “In the studio recording for ‘Frame of Reference’ we played the whole thing completely live”

Sean Foran at the sound check for his group Trichotomy whilst performing at the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, England
Sean Foran at the sound check for his group Trichotomy whilst performing at the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, England

To say that Sean Foran is a prolific musician would be an understatement. During the past couple of years, the pianist has been active in three very different projects; his main venture, Trichotomy, his trio with Kristin Berardi and Rafael Karlen, and his first solo album, ‘Frame of Reference’. Recorded in the UK, the album features Julian Arguelles (sax), Stuart McCallum (guitar), Ben Davis (cello) and Joost Hendrickx (drums), creating a cinematic, dreamlike, ‘chamber jazz sound’. For the pianist, it is also a return to his time in the UK, where he was a Masters student at the Leeds College of Music; having just returned from a tour there, he is currently touring Australia, performing his new work in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Here’s what he had to say about his experience. How was your UK tour?

Sean Foran: The tour was excellent. I had seven gigs around the country, all over the place from up in Newcastle right down to Southampton. It was actually the first time we’d played most of the tunes live, as they were written for the recording, so it was quite enjoyable to see how they developed in the live context. And of course it was cool to play with the band, as I don’t really get to work with those guys very often!

AJN: Any highlights?

SF: Tough to choose! The opening show of the tour at Pizza Express in London was great. There’s something special about that club vibe, where everything is really close, you’re right in the heart of Soho, and everything feels alive. But we also had a fantastic gig at Turner Sims hall in Southampton, where we had a great audience, amazing sound and by this point on the tour the band were really cookin’.

AJN: What is the story behind ‘Frame of Reference’?

SF: I’d really wanted to create a project where I would work with some selected musicians. Some of them I knew from my time in Leeds, some I just knew their music. All of them have a quite specific sound though, which I was very drawn to. So basically, I thought that the combination of their sounds and styles would be interesting for me, as an improviser and composer – and also I was keen on writing and recording some music with a different lineup to what I usually write for, which is a piano trio. Additionally, I thought that a more unusual instrumentation – specifically the use of cello instead of double bass – would yield some creative results. I spent a bit of time developing work, and actually had a focused creative writing time where I had some lessons and did some writing; that was very useful, as I tried to write music that would give space to each instrument and player. After the initial writing, the production was a more intense process. I recorded it in London over two days with the band coming together for the first time at the session. I’d never really worked in that way before, so it certainly brought some new pressures to the whole thing, but also gave the recording a great intensity and focus.

AJN: In what way is this music different to what you do with Trichotomy?

SF: There’s some more complexity in the textures, with more lines to work with. In this group I’ve got piano, guitar, cello and saxophone all presenting melodic parts, so there’s more scope in how these lines can combine. It also really frees me up, so often the piano is not the main instrument and the harmony/melody is shared around other players. It’s also more relaxed I think, a little more mellow and calm, whereas in Trichotomy we’re often working with intricate intense rhythmic pieces and shift and change dramatically. ‘Frame of Reference’ is more subtle.

AJN: One of the most striking tunes in the album is ‘Une Fille‘ (‘One Girl’); who is that girl?

SF: Ah yes, that’s my daughter, Estelle. That track is for her, to capture her joyful spirit and general excitedness for everything. We spent some time in Paris a couple of years ago – I had some lessons and did some writing – and the family came along. I wrote that piece while we were there and she would often sit with me at the piano. There’s another track on the album called ‘Mish Mash‘ which is for my other daughter Mischa. It’s a little more mischievous, much like she is.

AJN: You wrote these tunes, with the specific musicians in mind; now that you’re touring with other musicians, how does this affect the outcome?

SF: It’s different, that’s for sure! I always knew it would be near impossible to tour it with the same lineup – even in the UK! So I then thought, well this could actually be a really great process! I’ve got a UK touring band, then three different bands for each Australian show. The music shifts significantly through these lineups, but still remains true to its core aesthetic. I think I’ve chosen musicians for the gigs that can do it justice and play in a way that suits the style of what I’ve written.

AJN: In general, what is the main challenge you’re facing when you are performing a new album?

SF: I think you’re certainly trying to give the audience a taste of what the album sounds like… and you want to do the album justice in playing it live in the ‘same’ way. But as we know, it’s never really going to be the same as the recording – and that’s actually a good thing! I suppose I just make sure the music prepared for the musicians is clear so all the core elements – melodies, harmonies etc – is clear, but then give everyone scope to improvise and play the way they play. Each gig has its own character which I love. I think the performances do recreate the mood of the album, but also have their own mood alongside that.

AJN: Is jazz and improvised music meant to be performed live, rather than recorded?

SF: Both! I love both… I really couldn’t choose one. Recording is fun because you get to shape the sound in a really clear and precise way; you can hear things that you miss in the live situation. Plus you can take your time to make sure the detail is represented in the best way possible.

Live, however, always has a sense of energy that is very hard to reproduce in the studio… it has it’s own challenges – usually sound related, or the instruments, the vibe of the venue, the audience, but as it often happens, you go further than you would in the studio, try new things, and unexpected results happen.

In the studio recording for ‘Frame of Reference’ we played the whole thing completely live… plus each track recorded was done in only a few takes without much rehearsal. To me it has a certain ‘live energy’ in there which I love.

AJN: What did you gain in Leeds that you could never have learned/ achieved in Australia?

SF: It was great to be part of a completely new scene, meeting and playing with musicians who have different perspective to mine. Also, from a logistical perspective, I was studying and getting some lessons with people that I admired and wouldn’t have been able to meet in Australia. Being in the UK really helped me start to develop a network in that region, and was quite critical in assisting Trichotomy get setup as a touring group in the UK.

Maybe all of that could have been achieved from Australia, but I enjoyed the challenge and stimulation of a new place.

AJN: If you could fulfil any kind of artistic fantasy, what would it be?

SF: Argh! Playing with Trichotomy at some major jazz festivals in Europe; recording piano at Rainbow studios in Oslo; having my music performed by an artist I admire, such as Kurt Elling or Pat Metheny…. So many things!

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

SF: Gee, I have no idea. But I am listening to the new Gregory Porter album, ‘Take me to the Alley‘which is excellent.

*Sean Foran will play ‘Frame of Reference’ at JMI Live in Brisbane (Exhibition St Bowen Hills), on Friday 28th October, at 7:30pm, accompanied by Trichotomy members John Parker (drums), Sam Vincent (bass), plus Toby Wren (guitar) and Rafael Karlen (saxophones)

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