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All the jazz

Sean Khan.

Saxophone player Sean Khan told David Hennessy about his new album with a folk theme, why he would not be playing music if it was not for his late mother from Belcoo and when he turned down Jay Kay of Jamiroquai.

Trail blazing London jazz musician Sean Khan explore his Irish roots in his latest album with The Modern Jazz and Folk Ensemble.

The eponymous album is a special blend of jazz and folk, paying homage to the late 60s and early 70s folk revival. Featuring guest vocalists like Jacqui McShee, Rosie Frater-Taylor, and Kindelan, the album breathes new life into classics by Pentangle, Sandy Denny, John Martyn, and Nick Drake.

Although Sean was born in London, as a child he spent a lot of time in his mother’s native village of Belcoo in Fermanagh.

It is his Fermanagh heritage that he has reconnected with and is celebrating through the new album.

The idea for the album came about when Sean was approached by music industry figure Colm Carty.

Sean told The Irish World: “He liked a record I did called Supreme Love: A Journey Through Coltrane that I put out with BBE Records looking at Coltrane from my own personal perspective.

“Colm liked that record and he contacted me and asked me did I know this music?

“I said I knew a bit of it.

“It was a real pleasure and he gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted.

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“He just said, ‘Do these arrangements of your own’, and then he would make suggestions.

“You’ve got to listen to Colm because he’s really been an industry figure for years.”

Your love of music goes back to your childhood and time spent in Ireland, doesn’t it?

“My mum was a huge music lover, I was brought up really Irish to be honest with you.

“I don’t sound it anymore.

“My old man’s from South America/ Caribbean but they split and she brought up me and my sister.

“My sister’s name is Geraldine so we’ve got all Irish names.

“Music in Ireland is very, very strong.

“It’s very, very strong the whole love, it’s a communal thing.

“I was going from the age of about six or seven spending my summers there and then what happened was my parents split and I went to live there for about over a year a year and a half.

“I was going to school there for at least a year and a bit.

“And then I don’t know what happened.

“I ended up getting dragged back to London.

“I much preferred Ireland.

“I’m a bit of an insular kind of guy.

“I really liked living with my grandmother and my mum and me, that was it.

“When it was just me in Ireland with my mum, my grandmother, it was heaven for me.

“It was very tranquil considering I’d come not a particularly nice home environment in London.

“And London with all its issues and stuff, it was a nice escape and it was also the countryside.

“It’s amazing. It’s just pure green.

“Pure, pure green and the smell of it. I can still remember the smells now of grass and burnt wood and all that kind of stuff.

“And digging up peat with friends.

“A different vibe for a kid that’s really grown up in inner city London.

“It had a big impact on me, being there and knowing how nice the people are.”

Would you say your love of music is very firmly rooted in your time in Ireland?

“Of course, my grandmother had a coal fire. People would come up to the house and they would talk about all these kind of legendary people, these myths.

“It was funny and dark at the same time.

“My mum absolutely adored folk and country music, she absolutely adored it.

“It was her way of escaping drudgery, so to speak.

“I wouldn’t be playing music if it wasn’t for my mum.

“Would not be playing, 100%.

“She’s the reason why I play music, 100%.

“She always said it makes you a better person and she’s right in a way.”

Do you get back there much these days?

“No, not really. Once my grandmother died, that was  basically it but I’ve still got family there.

“When my mum passed away a few years ago, a whole contingent came over from Fermanagh.

“We had an Irish wake and I should go back because I had a little piece in the Fermanagh Herald and it’s really perked people’s ears up actually, because it’s such a small community.

“Everyone knew my grandmother and my mum so they’ve reached out to my sister and stuff.

“They remember me.

“They’re always asking after me because my sister has kept in touch more than me so they’re all asking about me now that this record’s come out and it’s folk.

“The nearest I got was Dublin.

“I did a gig with a quite famous Brazilian bossa nova legend (Marcus Valle) in Dublin at a place called The Sugar Club.

“I did a little tour with him.

“That was the last time I was over there and that was about eight years ago.”

Did it mean a lot to you and your Irish roots to be including She Moves Through the Fair on this album?

“Yeah, of course.

“With my mum it was, ‘You’re always Irish, you’re not English’.

“She was Protestant but I had family members on the other side that were Catholic.

“There was always that conflict but she never considered herself as English, it was always Irish and that was pushed into me and my sister constantly, me more so because I would go over there two, three times a year with her when I was a kid: Easter, summer and maybe another little break. Constantly going back.

“It’s quite natural for me to make that record.

“I think it sounds pretty natural.

“I do have that in me.

“It’s part of my culture.

“From my dad, I’ve got that Caribbean/ South American thing which is not so strong if I’m honest with you.

“The Irish thing is very strong for me.”

You consider yourself more Irish than South American/ Caribbean?

“That’s a whole can of worms of being brought up in a one parent family and not really having a positive image of that side of myself.

“Whereas just going over to Ireland, just being with my grandmother and my mum, it felt safe and that kind of thing stayed with me and going to school there, the kids were lovely.

“I didn’t really get on with my cousins because they were English but the Irish kids, I just felt one of them.

“I’m a bit dark skinned but I never felt any animosity at all, nothing at all.

“It felt great running around with them just being a bit wild playing football.

“I played a bit of Gaelic football, all that stuff.

“I was over for one school year and then there was a problem.

“Obviously I don’t know what happened. My mum went back to my dad but I stayed a bit longer because she was unsure.

“I remember my grandmother trying to persuade her to stay.

“It was very confusing, I didn’t quite know what was going on.

“I went back but then I would always go back for the summer.

“Then it all stopped.

“My mum didn’t really go back so much.

“The last time I was back to see my grandmother was a year before she passed and then that was it, and then I haven’t been back for many a year.”

Would you like to get over to play this music in Ireland?

“I’d love to.

“I’d love to do it with this project if we could.

“I definitely would love to get over there to do a gig with this folk project if we could make it work somehow.”

Was it an honour to have Jacqui McShee on the record?

“It was, she’s so down to earth.

“Pentangle were this huge cult band in the 1970s.

“They sold out the Royal Albert Hall a few times in the 70s and she was on the record.

“I have worked with a lot of quite famous people and a few of them are a bit weird. The attitude of some of them could be terrible but a lot of the ones that are involved in jazz, because jazz is a very difficult music to get involved with, it’s a hard task to master and that really humbles you.

“The guys who are more serious are much humbler and she’s a very humble person.

“I thought she was a very, very humble person.

“It was a great thrill for me.

“You see all the YouTube clips of them back in the late 60s and 70s, it’s amazing and she’s still doing it.”

You have played with some high profile people, what leaps out as a highlight?

“I think there’s been a couple: Working with Hermetto Pascoal.

“He was Miles Davis’ favourite musician.

“Miles said about him he was the best musician he’d ever worked with and the best musician in the world at the time.

“This is in the 1970s.

“When I tell people about Lisa Stansfield, it’s not so inspiring if you know what I mean because I wasn’t really into that music so much.

“I wasn’t really into that.

“I ended up getting a chance to play with Jamiroquai.

“Jay Kay actually came to see me play for months and then asked me to play, and I didn’t know who he was.

“I thought he was an imposter who was dressing like Jamiroquai, dancing like Jamiroquai.

“I was doing a gig for four weeks and he came down to see me for four weeks and he was beelined on me, and I thought it was like a Michael Jackson impersonator.

“I said no and he got really pissed off with me, really pissed off.

“My mate just went white as a sheet.

“He said, ‘You f**king know who that was?’

“I said, ‘No, he looks like jay K but he’s obviously not Jay K’.

“He said, ‘It is Jay K and he’s just asked you to join the band’.

“I didn’t know who it was.

“I really didn’t.

“I suppose if you met Michael Jackson in the flesh, you wouldn’t know who he was.

“You’d think, ‘That guy looks like Michael Jackson’.
“These are some of the little crazy stories of my life in music.”

When did you know it was gonna be the music for you? Or specifically jazz music? Do you remember knowing that was what you were going to pursue?

“I sort of fell into it if I’m being honest with you.

“It was my mum who got me playing instruments.

“I went to an inner city school but there was a very well funded music department because the head of the school believed music was a tool of enrichment.

“My mum forced me into learning an instrument and I just picked up the clarinet actually first.

“I didn’t enjoy it so much but she wouldn’t let me give up.

“The discipline was very difficult and the teacher wasn’t very good.

“I mean, I teach music as well and I know what it is to have a good teacher and what it is to have a bad teacher.

“My school music teacher wasn’t very good but we were doing a lot of concerts.

“We were playing quite difficult music for our age group.

“But once I did my A levels, I gave up.

“I got a job and I hated it, got a normal paperwork job: Bureaucracy, doing office work.

“My friend used to go back to the school that I’d gone to.

“There was an after school jazz band.

“I just went down to watch and then spoke to another teacher, a very respected musician called Pat Hicks who died about ten years ago actually.

“I told him I was having a tough time at work because it was really boring and I didn’t like it, and he gave me a saxophone.

“And that was when I realised, ‘This is for me’.

“But then I also had another moment where I wanted to be a pop producer.

“I learned a lot about studio techniques but jazz always pulled me back because that’s what I really am mainly.

“My talent is really playing saxophone if I’m going to say I’ve got a talent.

“I do find playing jazz a very straightforward thing.

“A lot of people, especially when a lot of classical friends speak to me, say I’m a very natural player.

“I don’t want to show off because the Irish guy in me says, ‘Irish people don’t show off’.

“If you show off, you’ll get put down and I don’t show off but it’s very natural for me to play the saxophone.

“It just feels very natural and it always did if I’m being honest with you.”

It was She Moves Through the Fair on this record but I was wondering would you take on another traditional number? Could you explore this sort of territory again?

“Yeah, 100%.

“I spoke to Colm already, Colm’s really up for it.

“Colm really enjoyed the process of making the record and I did too.

“He was a pleasure to work with, Colm and it got me back in touch with my Irish side.
“It’s such a personal thing, being Irish.

“Every Irish person I have ever met,  I immediately have a little bond with.

“I did bond pretty well with Colm, I didn’t know him before this record.

“It was very easy to make the record. Very, very easy to make the record.

“I’d be really up for doing another one.”

You say she’s passed away now but did you feel your mother’s presence when working on this album?

“Yeah, especially She Moves Through The Fair.

“I was thinking about mum constantly on this record.

“That was almost a dedication to my mum, my mum’s roots.

“That’s the way I approached that.”

Sean Khan presents the Modern Jazz and Folk Ensemble is out now.

The Modern Jazz and Folk Ensemble play Ronnie Scott’s in London on 5 July.


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