Music interview: Pianist Paul Harrison on the controlled experiments of jazz quartet Sugarwork

There's nothing saccharine about Sugarwork. The quartet, formed by Glasgow-based pianist Paul Harrison, combines decidedly non-traditional avenues of improvisation and pre-composed music with a simmering reservoir of electronica, from industrial to psychedelic. Having just released their eponymously titled debut album, with an Edinburgh launch at the city's Jazz Bar on Thursday past and a Glasgow gig at the Blue Arrow in Sauchiehall Street tonight, the band assembles four of the Scottish jazz scene's most inventive and open-minded musicians '“ Harrison playing piano, keyboards and effects mixing, Stuart Brown on drums and percussion, tenor saxophonist Phil Bancroft and guitarist Graeme Stephen.

Paul Harrison
Paul Harrison

The album’s music, largely written by Harrison, veers from the grinding riffing of the opening Habit Control to moments of hanging stillness with sax, piano and chiming guitar in After the Forest the Sky, before Brown’s drums whip up a stormy undercurrent. Short Story Long, with its ruminative guitar and lingering, melancholy sax is reminiscent of one of Stephens’s silent film scores, while The Stairs features sax squalling over what sounds disquietingly like a rack being cranked ever tighter – Gothic or what?

Harrison’s playing credits encompass classic songbook jazz with singer Carol Kidd, US saxophonist Dave Liebman’s collaboration with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Brazilian flavoured Trio Mágico. He has, however, long nurtured an interest in electronic music: his first solo album, a few years ago, mainly featured jazz standards, with just a few subtle shimmers of electronica augmenting the Steinway; in contrast he and drummer Brown have an all-electronic duo, Herschel 36, which notably provided an atmospheric live score to the German proto-sci-fi Wunder Der Schöpfung at the 2016 Bo’ness Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film.

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Brown brings eclectic percussive experience to the group, not least his Twisted Toons project revivifying the classic cartoon music of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley, Bancroft’s similarly expansive CV includes the ebullient Trio AAB with brother Tom, collaborations with Scottish folk musicians and Indian music, while guitarist Stephen, who played with both Harrison and Bancroft in the organ trio Breach, also straddles folk and jazz and has established a wide reputation with his live scoring for silent film.

Such a line-up, says Harrison, could create problems for him, “because I want to write music which sounds a certain way but I’m also aware of just how much creativity these guys have between them.”

His vision was to try and combine jazz harmony, improvisation and electronica “without straying into jazz fusion”. Asked how he would differentiate what his quartet does from what’s generally referred to as jazz fusion, he concedes: “That can get a bit technical, and what we’re doing in Sugarwork is by no means unique, but I hear a lot of bands using keyboards and electronics and I hear certain tendencies – with jazz fusion there’s a certain cliché with guitar solos that go on for ten minutes and keyboard breaks with eight million notes and I wanted to steer away from that.

“A lot of my compositions, and Graeme’s, are more cyclical, something coiled quite tightly, in a way, reflecting my love of electronica.”

Some of Sugarwork’s electronic effects are central to certain compositions, he continues, so there will be an element of pre-prepared material: “Some compositions are written in the studio to an extent, knowing there will be an element of improvisation, but the concept of the tune might be around a bassline on a synthesiser or a slightly rhythmic effect from Stuart. I’m trying to make it more organic as we go along, because we are, after all, full jazz musicians and want it to be different to some degree each time.

“That creates a bit of tension in how you go about things. These are mainly my compositions so to my mind they should sound a certain way, but it can be joyful when things go off in a different direction.”

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