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Matthew Halsall 1 credit Emily Dennison
Emily Dennison

Matthew Halsall Open to All Possibilities

The acclaimed jazz trumpeter and Gondwana Records label founder answers our questions about COVID gigs, scouting for musicians, and mental health and wellbeing.

You may know Matthew Halsall for his virtuoso trumpeting performances; you may know him for his work creating a platform for some of the finest jazz and ambient music you'll hear via Gondwana Records; you may even know him for his turns to DJing on Gilles Peterson's Worldwide FM. Whichever hat he's wearing, it always fits snugly.

Six months have passed since Halsall released Salute to the Sun, his latest album whose tracks navigate the subtle glistens of meditative stillness and warmly shared musical tales, setting welcoming scenes for the imagination to explore. It's that same imagination that saw his band performing in an otherwise empty Halle St Peter's venue to stream to viewers around the world in lieu of a physical tour, and which saw the potential in GoGo Penguin many moons ago - a band who've since signed with jazz label Blue Note and now command headline shows at the likes of Manchester's Albert Hall.

The time between has seen records for the likes of Phil France, Mammal Hands, and Portico Quartet, together with strings added to Halsall's own bow through Gondwana Orchestra collaborations including vocalists Josephine Oniyama and Bryony Jarman-Pinto on 2015's Into Forever.

With Caoilfhionn Rose's Truly LP and a first on the imprint for Hania Rani due in June, 2021 looks as fertile as ever for the label. Matthew Halsall took the time to answer our questions about the current climate and the journey so far.

You recently performed at the Halle St Peter’s venue and streamed it across different time zones. How did it feel to be ‘gigging’ again, even if not with an audience there in person? Could you see this type of show replacing ‘touring’ to some of the more distant destinations in the future?

It felt really good to perform live again with the band, but it was definitely strange to perform without an audience (we miss you!) and it did take us a little while to adjust, but when we listened back to the recordings and watched the footage we all felt pretty good about it.

I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing more live streams in the future. One of the things I liked most about doing this type of show was that it connected our fanbase across the world.

In addition being able to perform and re-connect with our fans, we raised quite a lot of money for the charity Mind, which is probably the thing I’m most proud of, as mental health and wellbeing is really important to myself and the band and we really wanted to try and help people in these challenging times.

Matthew Halsall 8 credit Emily Dennison2

The Gondwana Records label founder, Matthew Halsall

Emily Dennison

What are your other plans for the return to live music? Can we expect a series of local shows similar to the Yes residency when events are permitted again?

We’re planning to do some (local) socially distanced (COVID-safe) gigs at YES in Manchester in June, July and August, and we also have a similar type of gig in Leeds at The Wardrobe at the end of June, which we’re really looking forward to. Hopefully we’ll also be able to play at some festivals in August and beyond such as Houghtons and We Out Here.

Then in November, we’re planning to tour the new album with shows at the Barbican - London, Trinity - Bristol, Hare and Hounds - Birmingham, Stoller Hall - Manchester, Metronome - Nottingham and Wylam Brewery - Newcastle.

Your band is never short of talented musicians. What does your scouting process involve? How has this changed over the course of your time making music?

I think I’ve always enjoyed working with local musicians and being part of the Manchester music community both from an artist/band leader perspective and as the A&R [Artists and Repertoire] for our record label, Gondwana Records, so I’m constantly searching for interesting gigs and jam sessions to attend and I’m always asking my friends who are musicians / DJs / recording engineers what local stuff they’ve been listening to. I also listen to a lot of new music online via platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, plus I like to tune into lots of independent radio stations such as Reform Radio in Manchester and NTS and Worldwide FM in London.

Salute to the Sun was released last November. How has the pandemic affected the process of bringing the album together?

Luckily we had already recorded all the material on Salute to the Sun before the pandemic arrived, and we were able to mix and master remotely, so it was a narrow escape.

It was actually quite nice to be able to release this album during lockdown as it offered a welcome escape for our fans through these troubling times and we’ve had loads of lovely messages about it.

You’ve said in past interviews that you’re influenced by the natural world – has the fact so many others have reconnected with nature during lockdowns similarly affected your writing?

Yes, I love nature and the natural world. If I’m not outside in a beautiful park or green space I’m often dreaming of somewhere magical. When I was composing the music on Salute to the Sun, I wrote it whilst listening to ambient field recordings from jungles and rainforests, and that really inspired me to make something a little more exotic and tropical.

During lockdown I’ve spent a lot more time walking and cycling in local green spaces, and that’s actually been really nice, but I do miss being by the sea - especially Newborough Beach in Anglesey.

I don’t think lockdown has really affected the writing side of my music, as I’ve always been connected to nature, but it has been difficult to not be able to work so closely with the musicians in my band as our music is all about togetherness and we’ve been separated for quite some time.

Gondwana seems to have grown quite organically over the years. How have you gone about building the roster? Have you found yourself actively seeking out new musicians to work with or is it more a case of waiting for the spark of hearing a new sound when you’re least expecting it?

I think we’ve been really lucky over the years to be able to work with so many talented musicians. We don’t really have a set way of going about building our roster and we’re super open to all possibilities.

Some of the signings have come through my own creative projects. I remember working on an electronic trio project with pianist Taz Modi and drummer Rob Turner. We used to do covers of our favourite Warp Records tunes, which was super fun, and I remember Rob Turner showing me the track ‘Last Words’ that he’d been working on for a new trio project with pianist Chris Illingworth and I really liked it and offered to put it out on the label. That project was later named GoGo Penguin and they became one of our most successful bands on the label.

We signed Mammal Hands after hearing the track ‘Kandaiki’, which was recommended to us by the bassist from GoGo Penguin (Nick Blacka), who’d also performed in my band on a couple of gigs. He heard them when they performed before GoGo Penguin at Mostly Jazz Festival in Birmingham and sent me some links, which was super sweet.

I discovered Portico Quartet before I even had a record label, when they used to busk on the South Bank in London. I remember being totally blown away by their unique sound and saying to the band, I wish I had a record label as I’d love to sign you and support you on your musical journey – ten or so years later an opportunity came up where I was finally able to make this dream happen.

And most recently we signed Hania Rani through our demos page on the website, which was really nice, as she was already a fan of the label and in particular Portico Quartet, and when we listened to her music myself and the whole team were totally blown away.

Having set out with a local Manchester roster, you’re now putting out music by artists based across the world. What do the local roots mean to a label like Gondwana?

I’m very proud of our Manchester roots and will continue to try and support local talent whenever something comes up that we feel a connection to. It’s been such an honour to work with musicians like Nat Birchall, Chip Wickham, Jon Thorne, Luke Flowers and Josephine Oniyama on my own music and to also be able to release music from other talented local musicians such as John Ellis, Phil France and Caoilfhionn Rose.

Learn more

Matthew Halsall's latest record, Salute to the Sun, is out now via Gondwana Records.

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