Meet the Makers: Callum Passells

23 April 2021

A composer and performer based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Callum Passells has toured with the likes of Aldous Harding and Hans Pucket. For the 2021 Wellington Jazz Festival, he'll be bringing his group LCR (Left/Centre/Right) to the capital to perform a brand-new commissioned work inspired by protest marches.

What can audiences expect from your performance at Wellington Jazz Festival this year?

Expect to see three groups of musicians, arranged on the left, centre and right of the stage. Expect these groups sometimes to play together in beautiful harmony, and sometimes battle with each other and fight for your attention.

Audiences at previous outings with this group have called us 'a sensory overload' and also 'surprisingly easy to follow', so expect both of those things too I guess!

Your new composition was inspired by your experiences marching with the Black Lives Matter movement. What was it about this process that inspired you to create this work?

Playing within a protest situation is a beautiful experience. You are there to bring energy, and often a sense of joy that might seem at odds with the feeling of the crowd. But music is woven into protest in the form of chant and rhythm, and building an ad-hoc supporting texture for the various chants while marching makes for a musical experience that is fulfilling and fascinating.

Hearing a chant, building a groove around it, raising the energy to a peak while another chant emerges in the distance to claim that energy – it's spontaneous, ecstatic music-making, something I felt was missing in my work and my attitude towards composition. I wanted to create a performance inspired by the energy, the sense of purpose, and the sensory experience of marching and protesting. Of course, the reason for the protest weighs heavily on my mind too – as a person engaging in a Black American art form I wanted to create work in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, as well as in support of our own struggle with systemic racism here at home.

How have you found melding protest with music in your composition process?

From a 'nuts and bolts' perspective, the things I wanted to represent from my experiences were to do with the way we improvise and hear music while moving. For example, the distance between a group of musicians as they stretch back over a city block creates an incredible phasing effect – each person hears themselves as the centre of the group, yet sometimes the groove will arrive half a second late from the drummer on the other side of the crowd.

This constantly fluctuating sound is hypnotic to me, and I've spent a lot of time translating that into a performance that works in a room. Luckily, my band LCR lends itself to this sound. We are able to sound loose and decentralised, then snap back into lockstep with ease. I love the people in this group and trust them to bring the joy and energy that a piece like this needs – it's my responsibility to give them the tools to make it happen. I am working on it!

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You play across multiple genres – what do you love most about jazz?

I love jazz in part because it's a minefield. Its philosophy emphasises freedom but its process involves unspoken rules, social cues, and technical challenges. Great jazz is created through negotiating these two opposing forces – sometimes deftly, sometimes with wild audacity. Improvising in this idiom is the closest I get to the feeling of real risk and vulnerability onstage, and the feeling when I (occasionally) get the balance right is unlike any other.

You’ve toured internationally with Aldous Harding and Hans Pucket. Is there a difference performing overseas versus at home?

I think performing is about establishing trust with an audience. With Aldous, the audience usually arrives expecting an enigmatic stage presence, and are ready to be challenged – the trust has been built to some degree already. Touring with Hans Pucket, we were a completely unknown opening act on the other side of the world, and our attitude was 'we have one set to win this room over, to get these people on our side.'

I have taken the latter approach more to audiences here in Aotearoa, especially with this music; jazz is a big tent, and even an audience familiar with the genre can sometimes feel alienated by a navel-gazing performance. Improvised music can sometimes be difficult, but people across the world are generally open to it if they are invited into the space. I hope my music is more inviting than alienating.

What have you listened to recently that has had a big impact on you and why?

A couple of years ago Kit Downes released a solo record called Obsidian on ECM. It's a collection of pieces written for various church organs around the UK, taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of these huge and very old instruments. It's often gorgeous, and reminds me of the value of writing music that celebrates the unique sounds of the individuals performing.

Callum Passells with LCR at the Wellington Jazz Festival is on sale now.