RECRUITING an array of musicians to record an album of nursery rhymes was child’s play for Bill Wells
TALKING to Bill Wells is like falling into a musical encyclopedia. He speaks with such authority and affection about a range of musicians and albums he has loved – most groundbreaking rather than world-shattering – that at the end of our two-hour conversation, I have a mental list of recommendations to see me through to next year.
In years to come, Wells’ hardly household name could be the one tripping off the tongue of a next generation enthusiast, so prolific and experimental is this bandleader and serial collaborator. He is the Falkirk-born jazz arranger who found acceptance and no end of unlikely artistic bedfellows on the Glasgow indie scene, most notably forging a Scottish Album of the Year award-winning collaboration with his fellow Falkirk musician Aidan Moffat.
His latest release, credited to Bill Wells and Friends, is a mellow jazz album interpreting popular nursery rhymes with the same revisionist spirit as the album of Christmas carols and songs he recorded with his National Jazz Trio of Scotland a few years ago. The initial suggestion came from his Trio colleague Aby Vulliamy, who works as a music therapist, and the concept was partly inspired by Hal Willner’s offbeat tribute albums to the likes of Charlie Mingus, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk and Walt Disney.
As for marshalling those Friends… Wells received some Creative Scotland funding to work in New York with jazz musician Karen Mantler, the daughter of pianist Carla Bley and trumpeter Michael Mantler, so the pair arranged an introductory meeting at London’s Barbican where Mantler was performing in a Willner tribute to composer Nino Rota.
“We got stuck in a lift,” says Wells of their first encounter. “It was almost like Curb Your Enthusiasm and I was Larry David. She was scowling at me. It was late at night and there was no one else left in the place. We ended up running up and down the stairs, trying all the locked doors. We started off so badly, I thought, ‘It has to get better’.”
It did. Through Mantler’s connections and some of his own, Wells ended up recording Nursery Rhymes with the cream of the New York jazz scene as well as collaborators including former Belle and Sebastian siren Isobel Campbell, Greg Saunier and Satomi Matsuzaki from San Franciscan noise outfit Deerhoof, psych rockers Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub frontman Norman Blake, all of whom turn in sincere, soft and slightly surreal renditions of the likes of Humpty Dumpty, Three Blind Mice and Hickory Dickory Dock.
Wells is unfamiliar with the whole mini-pops industry of baby-friendly covers albums of disco, metal and indie favourites. “That kind of misses the point to do something that makes the meaning of the songs a bit darker, a bit sadder,” he says. “My idea was that you would make it so that adults could listen but so could children.”
Nursery Rhymes is not such a novelty when considered in the context of Wells’ extensive and idiosyncratic back catalogue of soothing yet melancholic music stretching back over 20 years. Wells was quite a late musical developer, who cut his teeth as a clubland bassist, making a patchy living round the same central Scotland cabaret circuit as The Associates in their earliest incarnation.
“Even though you were sometimes playing dreadful music in dreadful bands, it was good because you were getting out in front of people and it forced you to learn really quickly,” says Wells. “You’d have to play for three hours with no music. It was a very steep learning curve, as seat of the pants as you could get. I’ve tried to use that knowledge to inform what I do now.”
Wells still considers himself better on bass. Piano came later, along with an interest in arranging but, by his own admission, there wasn’t much call for his skills around Falkirk in the 1980s. Existing big bands weren’t interested in his work, considering it too quirky, so he realised he would have to start his own band instead, and the Bill Wells Octet were born.
“If I’d really thought about it,” he says now, “it was a daft thing to try to get seven, eight people together with no money and no funding to play original material. But having started it, I thought ‘I’ve got this far…’”
Having never quite fitted in, Wells developed an unlikely fanbase for his unconventional style among the indie bands of Glasgow, which led to collaborations with musicians from The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian and, most idiosyncratically of all, former Arab Strap man Moffat.
“I was quite struck by the way they would cut to the chase a bit quicker than jazz players,” says Wells. “Aidan can just zone in on what is good about something and what makes it work. They haven’t got the theory, sometimes not the technique, all they’ve got is this instinct which is highly developed, so there’s definitely a feeling there which I could identify with much more. Jazz is not the be-all and end-all. There’s not much that passes for modern jazz that really works for me. An awful lot of that stuff sounds dated.”
Cocking a snook at that attitude, Wells playfully called his next band the National Jazz Trio of Scotland – they are certainly not a trio and not that jazzy either. “I still kind of think of it as a jazz band,” says Wells. “I’m all for people being what they are. It took me a while to learn because I used to be a control freak when I started off, but that’s the overall shape of things – give people freedom within my arrangements to do what they do best.”
A GUIDE TO WHO’S WHO ON NURSERY RHYMES
The Nursery Rhymes cast list boasts some serious players from the jazz and indie spheres and beyond. Here are Wells’ thoughts on some of his cult collaborators:
Karen Mantler: jazz singer, pianist and harmonica player at the heart of the project
“She’s best known for her albums My Cat Arnold, Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold Get The Flu, Farewell – you can guess what that one was about – and Karen Mantler’s Pet Project. So she got four albums out of this cat.”
Bridget St John: English folk singer/songwriter and John Peel favourite, now living in New York
“I could hear her singing Ding Dong Bell in my head months before and I knew it would be brilliant.”
Annette Peacock: experimental composer
“She’s the biggest coup to get on the record. She got one of the earliest Moog synthesisers and combined it with her voice in a way I’ve never heard before or since, totally revolutionary, too much so for mainstream acceptance. There was a story that David Bowie had asked her to play on Aladdin Sane and she knocked him back. That seems pretty impressive to me.”
Charlie Burnham: style-straddling violin virtuoso
“Just one of the best violin players I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Michael Cerveris: Tony Award-winning performer and TV actor (Fringe, The Good Wife)
“He’s been friends with Norman [Blake, Teenage Fanclub] for years and used to play in a band with Bob Mould [Husker Du] but he really knows his Sondheim too.”
• Nursery Rhymes is released by Karaoke Kalk on Friday