Tenderlonious: In Conversation

“The origin of 22a is family. Everyone on the label I break bread with.”

Throughout our interview Ed Cawthone alludes to family. Since his first release as Tenderlonious on his label, 22a (a split 12” with Al Dobson Jr), he and wider label mates, including Henry Wu, Mo Kolours and Jeen Bassa, have risen to the forefront of the the UK Jazz, broken beat and electronica. I spoke to Ed about his new record, 22a, and upcoming projects in the run up to the release of The Shakedown and his European tour.

The Shakedown is, almost ceremonially, the 22nd release on 22a. Recorded at Abbey Road, it is both confident and volcanic: Expansions is heroically improvised, the sun splattered bass motifs on The Shakedown and You Decide are infectious, and the musical expression is so vast across the track list, you have to consider the possibility that the septet is actually on constant rotation between recordings.

Those going to see the 22archestra live will be greeted with a nine-piece. But the Shakedown was recorded as a septet. “You’ve got Yussef Dayes on drums, Hamish Balfour on keys, Fergus Ireland on bass […] And then I had three percussionists: Jean Bassa, a guy called Konrad who is another 22a affiliate, and then Reginald Omas Mamode”.

The link to Abbey Road came about by chance. Engineer, Matt Mysko, approached Mo Kolours at a gig after attending a 22a showcase at the Jazz Cafe, who later linked him with Ed. After showing the pair around the studio Matt offered Ed a Sunday recording session in studio 3 a few weeks later. “Studio 3 is the new one, The Beatles did their album in 2. Studio 2 and 3 are big spaces so [Studio 3] was far more suited to what we needed.” The notice given was short and prevented the assembly of Ruby Rushton, the response from Ed resulted in the birth of 22archestra.

In comparing recording The Shakedown to other records, you can hear the recording woes of all musicians rush out of Ed. Lengthy set up times, broken kit and time constraints squeezed the recording of the latest Ruby Rushton record into one day; an experience that was non-existent at Abbey Road. “[For Trudi’s Songbook Vol 2] we got in at 10am, and were setting up until about 5pm, just setting up mics and drums and fannying around … in the evening my flute broke so i had to call off the session. So all the music was recorded on the second day. With Abbey Road you just walk in and within an hour we were playing.”

The nature of the opportunity meant an album of material wasn’t lined up. While Ed and others were sitting on tunes, about half the album was improvised and relied heavily on musicianship and mutual understanding of each other. “Expansions was actually our soundcheck … it had the purpose of getting the mikes and headphone levels sounding right. Matt the engineer was like pick a tune and I said to the guys, right, B minor and we just expanded on that scale and it became Expansions, the introductory tune.”

In parts of the record, on the fly instrumentation switches up the arrangement, tempo and key. Ed is quick to point out that this is not guided by an interest in theoretical experimentation but more an attempt at capturing a certain mood. “Every musician wants to be challenged… I’m a vibes man, I’ve always been a vibes man, I’m not really an academic, full stop, whether it be numbers or words. For me, my intelligence is more aligned with emotional intelligence and understanding and connecting with people.”

That said, Ed earnt a distinction in grade 1 and 4 sax within 6 months. He can circular breathe on the sax. And he picked up the flute in 3 years. These feats are impressive and are explained, in part, by his practice routines which he speaks about with a certain level of obsession, and a need to feel musically uncomfortable. “I would bring my flute out at gigs but I could barely play for more than two minutes. But when you’ve got an audience in front of you or a rehearsal with other musicians and the groove is moving you’ve got pressure, you need to pull it out the bag. That’s how I learn best.” Ed is adamant that practice grounded in scales gave him the confidence to explore new ideas and get going with new music. “Because I’ve got different scales knowledge that allows me to explore and play around. You know I’m big into improvisation, its my main interest and it’s easy when you have the foundations. There is so much to fuck around with once you understand the structure of it.”

He’s also done the leg work when it comes to influences, nodding to the work of Steve Coleman, Yusef Lateef, Thelonious Monk and others throughout the interview. As an example, Ed brings up Prayer for Yuseef, (on the first Ruby Rushton record). “Its appreciation you know, its respect. It’s an offering to Yusef Lateef because he was probably the biggest influence especially in the early days. When I first started playing I started buying his records and he was a great place to start because his work is really varied”.

Away from the studio, 22a has by and large been a UK phonomenon. While familiar London gigs excite Ed, Ruby Rushton, The Shakedown and his solo work have helped him land shows in mainland europe, with Paris and Berlin providing particular reception. “XJAZZ Fest 2018 at Privatclub [Berlin] was a great audience. The audience were really on it… When you connect and they feel the music, you all become one. That’s the thing with gigs… When you play quiet and go right down and you don’t hear a voice in the venue that’s when you know you’re all on the same boat together… It’s what I look for in gigs. It’s how I play best when I know that the music is appreciated and people are looking for something from me.”

Switching to his Paris experience, “I played a solo Tenderlonious show at the [Mona Bismarck] American Centre, overlooking the Eiffel tower in the boozy part of Paris. It was an embassy style building with book cases where you pulled the book and a door would open. I was cracking up. It was boozy as fuck but it was hilarious. We had the champagne out, the cheese”.

He puts the recent wave of young jazz interest down to new musicians having instant access to their friends and wider communities. After doing workshops in a few sixth forms, with little interest in the music expressed by students, this decrease in punter age at his gigs seemed to bemuse Ed. “People are usually my age [30s] or late 20s. I was surprised”.

After weighing up the likely competing factors, Ed seems convinced increased liberal attitudes to notions of identity are the main driver of youth interest. In contrast to his own experiences growing up, he suggests those in younger generations feel more comfortable exploring their identities openly without the pressure of social conformity. “When I grew up, you could be you, but you always had to be mindful of everyone around you whereas now a kid can put a fur coat on or wear whatever… Jazz is so heavily associated with liberating the soul and liberating the mind through the music. I guess that appeal of freedom is attractive to the younger generation.”

Ed was candid when the business of 22a came up in the conversation. The original objective was simple. Put out his own music, and that of his mates’, on vinyl. Now that has been achieved, Ed is much more conscious of the public reception of releases and is investing more time and effort into understanding how the label can reach a more diverse base. In effect, he is beginning to think more about legacy.

That said, he is overtly aware of fad culture in music consumption. I ask him if the transition from bedroom label to profitable enterprise has changed how label decisions are made. And while it’s true the label has become more conscious of itself and its commercial direction, I get the sense the jazzman family ethos has been, and always will be, the same. “Putting out jazz records now is not me cashing in, thats me doing me. Doing what I would be doing in 5 years and 10 years… And that’s not going to change. I’m not gonna jump on dubstep, that’s not for me. Even now there is hype around the jazz thing now, we were putting out jazz records anyway”.

In any case, solid label sales has been conducive in the label developing an increasingly visual identity, with newer releases adorned with artwork symbolising family, most of which is commissioned to 22a artists themselves. The Shakedown is also the first record to be accompanied with a music video.

This doesn’t distract from the waveforms cut to plastic. “Quality control is what I’ve always been super conscious of. Even when we started it, I would not have put out some bullshit. I was putting out stuff that I knew needed to be heard because it was groundbreaking. I dont mean its setting a standard or changing the way people think. I just mean its vibing and when you put it on people will connect to it.”

The focus on family identity and quality underpins everything 22a is about – expression and cultivating an understanding of emotion. He got into music because he needed “a safe place to shout”. And while he talked in depth about various issues and altercations he got into growing up, it was clear that learning to articulate himself musically has helped him develop personally. “I’ve chilled out a lot [since I started to play]. You know a kid might have spat in my face and I’ll be feeling pretty wild about it so I might play some Thelonious inspired hard hitting dissonant chords to outlay the anger. But other days I’m chilled and feel appreciation for life and I’ll play something more mellow” As an example, Ed was completely lost in his own description of the foundations of Red Sky at Night which explores his own peace in nature.

Effective communication was a theme throughout the interview. A skill first picked up working with children with a range of learning and development needs is now used to read musicians, groupthink a groove and vibe off punters at gigs. Ed is clear that The Shakedown is not a manifesto. Rather than set a political precedent, it conveys everyday human experience, in a way that’s relatable, not directional.

As we begin to wrap up, talk turns to horizons. Ed is currently finishing an album by polish outfit EABS. Next on the list, Ruby Ruston trumpet player, Nick Walters, is releasing a record on the label with his band, Paradox Ensemble. Personally, Ed laments a lack of studio time in his own studio to focus more on his own production rather than live recordings. A theatre production might materialise too, which would likely be developed for different spaces other than clubs and music halls and have an educational narrative.

Much further down the line, Ed talks of providing music therapy services to kids with specific learning needs, drawing on his social care experience. Quite rightly, he is conscious that any service needs to address an actual gap and complement existing support. “There is quite a lot [youth support] already so I want it to be unique and needs to be something that’s going to make it special for children who want to get involved. It wouldn’t just be a jam space. It would have to have a purpose and the right people around.”

The Shakedown featuring the 22archestra is out now on 22a Music. 

More info here

Catch Tenderlonious at Oslo In Hackney on June 22. Tickets available here.

Words: Nick Moore

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