SHOL: ‘We couldn’t picture a life without jazz in it’

SHOL‘s debut album was one of my absolutely favourites a few years ago, with its original take on world and modal jazz. In the time that passed, the band continued to perform around Melbourne, blending these jazz traditions along with hard bop, avant grade and a wide range of other musical references. Now trumpeterChristopher Skepper, saxophonistChris Pappas, bassistJohn O’ Hagan and drummerChris Lewis – joined by guitaristNashua Lee – are back with a new album, Amygdala Hijack, and a new, electric and electrified sound. This time around the arrangements are tighter, giving the tunes a refreshing sense of urgency. Here’s how Chris Pappas describes the album and the band’s new sound.

Chris Pappas and Christopher Skepper

What would you say to a complete stranger to make them buy Amygdala Hijack?

Here is some new music. It’s new, fresh and different. All original compositions with a range of influences from hard bop jazz to world music, soul and contemporary improvised music.

How did this album come to be?

All members of SHOL compose. There were a couple of songs that didn’t make it on the first album and were re-invented when Nashua Lee joined the band on guitar in 2016. Then from 2016 onwards we wrote compositions, rehearsed them and played them on gigs and the songs evolved through this process until we were ready to record them in 2018. We agreed on the songs we liked in terms of representing our current musical journey and ensemble sound.

If Amygdala Hijack was the soundtrack for a film, what kind of film would that be?

Hard to say, as the album has a wide range of feels and moods. If anything, it would probably be some sort of film noir style movie.

There have been some changes in the band between the first album and this one; how has this affected the sound?

The main change since the first album is that we have a guitar instead of piano in the band. Also it is a little less free and more in the hard bop style for this album. The guitar gives a whole new concept of sound that takes the band to new and different places during collective and individual improvisation – e.g. ‘Requiem’ was written with a piano in mind whereas ‘Amygdala Hijack’ was written with a guitar in mind. So ‘Requiem’ has changed in timbre. Also our pianist Andrew Harrison had definite concepts in mind which started to leave the band when he left.

How would you describe the SHOL sound?

SHOL at present sounds like a modern jazz quintet influenced by Miles Davis, Dave Douglas, Lester Bowie, Sonny Rollins, The Cookers, John Scofield and also by many great Australian jazz musicians that have constantly influenced our approach and philosophy of this music. There is also a bit of a Cuban and Latin jazz influence in there from our drummer and a soul r&b influence too, as we all grew up playing that style of music in our earlier years and still do now.

SHOL presenting ‘Amygdala Hijack’ at the Jazz Lab in Melbourne.

What is your take on the Australian Jazz scene?

The Australian jazz scene is as good as any in the world. We are producing new and cutting edge improvised music with a range of styles from trad and dixieland to avant garde by talented musicians that can hold their own anywhere in the world. I believe there is a definite edge and concept to the Australian sound and any discerning listener can pick it up.

How do you see your place in this ecosystem?

We see SHOL as a band with many overseas and Australian influences that strives to develop a unique ensemble sound that can identify our style and approach to our compositions. Each musician brings their own influence and over a period of time these influences ultimately come together and evolve. We are lucky we all get along and genuinely respect each other’s musical vision and performing live over a long period of time has helped to develop a unique communication between band members. Four out of five members of SHOL have been performing together since 2012 and we really are a band to hear live and are seriously considering our next album to be live.

If you could invite anyone in the world to sit in with the band, who would that be?

We would love Billy Harper or Christian Scott to sit in. What about John Scofield or Brian Blade?

What does jazz mean to you?

We all got into jazz via different avenues. Some of us have been playing music since the 1970s – Christopher Skepper, for example, has played with jazz musicians such as Ted Vining, Bob Sedergreen – and collectively we have performed with Paul Grabowsky, Mark Fitzgibbon, Jamie Oehlers, Scott Tinkler, Julian Wilson, Philip Rex, Ben Robertson and the list goes on. [We have also played with] Australian and overseas soul, funk and blues bands from the 1980s to now. We have all been involved in many styles of music and we are all still performing in bands with varied styles of music. But this band and this music is definitely one of our favorite projects and that’s why we have stuck together for such a long time.

Is improvisation a life skill?

We are all constantly improvising in life be it with work or play. I believe it plays an important role in anyone’s life and it’s definitely an indispensable skill to have and to continue developing. It is part of the human condition.