The under-rated UK fusionist has another fine collection of downtempo grooves for your delectation and listening pleasure...
Time to take another step into the unique world of London groove fusioneer Ash Walker. It’s a world where jazz, funk, soul, roots and beats all melt into a warm and woozy brew. A world which ranges from having a smell wizard in his band, to winning trophies for classic car restoration and many things in-between… like turning his trio into a seven-piece band and releasing his most accomplished body of work to date.
We’ve stepped into Ash Walker’s world before, of course, in spring 2017. At the time he was riding the wave of his second album Echo Chamber, he’d just formed said trio and was preparing to make his debut in London’s Jazz Café. He also told us how he was brought up in a vibrant musical extended family involving dancehall deejays like MC Champion and members of The Specials.
Back to the future, and in July 2019 he’s just dropped his third LP, Aquamarine. A serious enchantment under the sea dance, while his previous albums felt like a tightly weaved blend of short stories, this is one long narrative trip. Sucking you right into its bluesy melancholy soul and hurling you back out with a few precision-placed surprises, at points the album’s beguiling, at others it’s soothing; at all times it’s considered, measured and oozes those perfect hazy vibes your summer has been asking for.
Welcome to Ash Walker’s unique world. This is where he’s at...
A lot has happened since we last spoke…
"Let me bring you up to speed! The trio quickly became a four when [vocalist] Laville, who I’d done a few tunes with before and had become friends with, joined the band. Then we became a five when Yazz Ahmed joined on trumpet and flugel horn. Then shortly after that we became six when Ezra joined us with his reactive visuals and fragrances."
You mentioned him last time. He’d just started to collaborate with you. Would one call him a smellist?
"He’s a smell wizard! He works in a laboratory of a perfume company where they come up with scents and fragrances. We’ve been experimenting with different fragrances that enhance the show, and he also does some incredible visuals that he codes live to react to the live music. He’s the sixth element and now we have Alex, this young guitarist who’s really hot. So now there are seven of us including visuals and fragrances."
What effect do the fragrances have?
"I like to try and make the show more immersive than your average gig. It’s more to set the tone and take people to a certain place, maybe try and jog your memory and make you feel a certain way. When that happens with the visuals and music it’s a multi-sensory experience that people of different abilities – blind or deaf people, for example – can access, too. It becomes accessible for people who want to experience something different than a bunch of guys on stage smashing out their guitars.
"I love that, by the way, but I just want to try something different. That’s my vision. I’m channelling my inner hippie a bit and asking myself, ‘What can I add to make it different but also make it engaging, and have people leave thinking it was something they’d never experienced before?'."
I’m still stuck on the fragrance thing and trying to think of the best smells that conjure up feelings and memories. The smell of the sea certainly does. Perhaps you use it for Aquamarine?
"We’re touching on things like that. We’re using plant-based things like maybe sage, sandalwood, rosehip, eucalyptus. Together, they gives a feeling of fresh cut grass. It’s really interesting, it’s been a big experiment trying it in different shapes and sizes of venues. We’ve narrowed it down to a high, middle and low fragrance that gradually changes as the show progresses. It starts as a high note, a light refreshing draw-you-in fragrance, then the middle one is more scented take-you-to-a-place fragrance, and then it ends up down lower. It sounds a bit bonkers but there’s a method to the madness."
Amazing, I can’t wait to experience that live. So, let’s go onto the album. I heard an early version of it year ago, and it was quite a different beast…
"It was. That was pre-signing to Night Time Stories. I was taking my time and looking for a label who I felt I could work with and had the right community of artists and people who I could complement or they could complement or inspire me. I met the guys at a gig of Yazz’s and sent them that version of the album plus a lot of other stuff bubbling in the pot. They loved it and we got on like a house on fire. It was having their input which was helpful.
"We changed around the tracklist. They got in this guy called Cheeky Paul who’s another wizard, and we went through the album and worked out a beautiful running order I don’t think I’d be able to work out. We went through the tracks and really considered which ones belonged on there. Originally I had about 16 tracks but it’s been whittled down to 11.
"Before, I wanted to get all my music out, all the time, but I’ve come to learn it’s not about throwing as much music out as I can. It’s about taking a step back, looking at it and doing a Marie Kondo on it. Which tunes spark joy in my life, which ones make me happy?"
And also, quite simply, not every tune ever made needs to be released!
"Exactly. I sat on the album for a while, I wanted to focus on it becoming the best possible body of work I’ve ever done. It was great to work with other people on it, too. The label and my managers. There were more musical minds involved in the process, offering their perspective and helping me make it the best album it can be."
Yeah, this definitely feels like a proper body of work: there’s a sound that runs through it. Laville brings it together a lot, doesn’t he?
"Yeah, I think so. He’s got a subtle tone, it’s not in your face and taking over the whole record, it just sort of blends into everything and works as an instrument. That’s why I love working with him. We met at a mutual friend’s birthday. She dragged us together and was like, ‘He’s a soul singer, you’re a jazz musician – you should talk.' One of those ones! But we clicked. He was in the studio a couple of days later and we had a tune, Thunder, down in a few hours. It was meant to be. Then I asked him to be in the band and we’ve been doing stuff ever since."
Does having the band influence how you approach or produce the music?
"Yeah, I think so to a certain extent. My ethos and the way I go about things is the same but the live thing influences how I might think about how I put things together or how things transcend for performing. But how I record and go about all my things are the same as they’ve always been. I don’t quite live in the studio as much as I did. I go out to other friends’ studios for example. I’m much more relaxed approaching this one. I had more time and more freedom and more input from good places.
And more experience. This is your third album, you’re a dab hand at this now!
"Yeah, I’ve been doing it long enough I got no excuse. Enough to hope people spend at least five minutes listening to the album, anyway!"
I hope they listen to the end. That penultimate track Ain’t Got You… the way you create such a deep melancholy throughout the album, a vibe that sucks you deep into the soul of the album then BOOM. Have some early house music right in the kisser!!
"Yeah! That track was inspired by Masters At Work, all those proper old house legends. The Kerri Chandlers and Kenny Dopes, the originators. That wasn’t on the early version of the album, you heard, was it? I made it quite recently and when we were whittling down tracks on the album and they asked if I had anything else so I played them this and they all agreed it should go on.
"I’m glad you’ve mentioned that: it was put right there to have that effect. But it’s still got that melancholy. Those words have still got the blues, they’re juxtaposed with the positivity with the track."
True. But you don’t seem like a melancholy fellow. The press blurb explains how the album was inspired by everyone close and dear to you. I find it interesting how beautiful influences can create quite poignant or melancholic soul in tracks…
"Yeah, you’re right. I guess the other influence is the music I love. What I draw from. I’m more of a fan of Bill Evans on piano or Coltrane on sax. It’s the way they play. It’s moody and that’s what I love listening to. I’m drawn to the melancholy and darker sounds as a music lover, so that must manifest in me somewhere."
There’s more level of emotional articulation perhaps? Uplifting is generally uplifting and positive and major chords but there’s more shades or levels to melancholy. Like bittersweet or hope or sorrow.
"That’s exactly it. I really couldn’t put it any better."
I read you were also inspired by design and architecture on this album, so tell us about that. Is that a product of living in London?
"It’s everything. It’s the aesthetic I like and love. I’m a big petrolhead and have a few classic cars, and I help my friend restore these incredible Ford Thunderbirds from 1955 and 1963. We take them to American car shows and have won a few trophies, too."
Wow. That surprised me for a second, but then you'd made a dub siren last time we spoken, so perhaps you’re just a tinkerer at heart?
"Most definitely! I like trying to fix things, I’m into maintaining old stuff. Old music, old instruments. Where cars and engineering come in is how they feel and look and how everything is brought together on the inside andoutside. It’s the same with how a building makes you feel when you look at it from outside and how you feel when you’re inside it.
"There’s an amazing psychology behind all that. And that transcends into the music. Where it’s written, where it’s performed, where I spend my time. I like to be in nice spaces and surround myself with the visions of what I want to project.
That’s a lovely loop back to the live show and the immersive experience. Nothing is two-dimensional.
"Exactly man. There’s so many more layers. It’s trying to dig into those layers, understand how they work together, make them stronger and start tidying up the building."
Words: Dave Jenkins Pics: Dan Medhurst
Aquamarine is out now on Night Time Stories: buy it here