Interview/Music: Awen Ensemble

Today we’ve got the premiere of the ear-pleasing new track ‘Wrap (Live from The Green Room)’ by Leeds-based sextet Awen Ensemble.

‘Wrap'(Live from The Green Room)’ is a musical exploration of intricate hip-hop grooves and hooks contrasted with warming Brazilian melodies. Guitarist Ruari Graham delivers an accomplished and memorable solo, while in the final section, saxophonist Saul Duff and trumpeter Emyr Penry Dance trade heavy notes in a rock/jazz collision.

It’s a unique and colourful mixture of sounds that draws you in from the start right until the end. The song follows their debut single ‘Zorny’, which we featured a few weeks ago.

The band is made up of Emyr Dance (trumpet), Saul Duff (tenor saxophone), Samantha Binotti (vibraphone), Ruari Graham (guitar), Joe Wilkes (bass), and Eddie Bowes (drums).

Listen to the track here before anyone else, and make sure you head below as we catch up with bandmember Ruari to ask him a few questions about their creative process, musical influences and more.

Who are Awen Ensemble, and what’s the story behind your name?

Lovely to meet you! We are a 6 piece contemporary jazz collective based in Leeds – the beating heart of the North! We all met at Leeds College of Music (now known as Leeds Conservatoire), and the band began initially as a creative outlet for the compositions of myself, Ruari Graham, and Emyr Penry Dance, our trumpeter. We handpicked a load of killer musicians and individuals from our great musical network, got playing some of our tunes, and here we are a couple of years later, finally releasing some of them! The band consists of Emyr Penry Dance (Trumpet), Saul Duff (Saxophone), Samantha Binotti (Vibraphone), Joe Wilkes (Bass), Eddie Bowes (Drums), and myself, Ruari Graham (Guitar). Our name is a nod to the shared Celtic heritage of a number of our bandmates. Awen is an old Druidic Welsh word which means ‘poetic inspiration’. In Welsh mythology, Awen is the inspiration of the poets and bards of the land – it is often translated in meaning to ‘flowing spirit’. Being as this band is the shared creative output of a number of musicians, we thought it a fitting name.

Tell us about the trilogy of singles? Are they new tracks, or have those songs been in the works for a while?

It’s actually a mixture – the second two singles, Caio and Warp, have been in our repertoire since our very first gig and both took a lot of creative time and energy to pull together. This is perhaps due to them being some of our first compositions for this project and not really having a clear idea what direction we wanted to take the music in (or how on earth to compose for jazz vibraphone). In contrast, our first single Zorny was knocked out and orchestrated in about half an hour for a uni assignment due in the following day. It certainly wasn’t expected to be our first single, that’s for sure!

Talk us through the creative process for the latest track, Wrap?

The initial ‘seed’ idea for Warp was the very first idea that I brought to the band. In fact, I believe I brought it to Emyr before we even finalised the band’s lineup. I’d recently been introduced to a number of modal and post-bop jazz musicians/composers such as Sam Rivers, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver and had really begun developing a love of their use of harmony. As a result, the tune’s harmony is largely inspired by these artists. The second defining element of the composition is the use of the double harmonic scale or ‘Hijaz Kar’, which exists in many cultures in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. I encountered this scale a number of times when studying Byzantine music and again when studying Arabic music. Using the same scale, and a lot of work shopping with Emyr, a melody was created and set to the backdrop of a Brazilian bossa nova groove creating the B section of the tune. Given the number of different musical influences we’ve incorporated in this tune, perhaps now it makes sense why it was so long in the making. I’m happy to accept the accusation of being a touch overambitious with this one, but it was worth every second for the amount of enjoyment we get as a band every time we perform the song.

Your sound covers many different genres; if you had to choose your five biggest influences, who
would they be and why?

That’s an impossible question to answer, but I’ll try! Influence number one has to be Yazz Ahmed. Her work is really one of a kind – she has to be our number one simply for the distinctiveness of her music. This has much to do with her merger of Arabic and Western influences in her compositions. Secondly, we would need to give the nod to the great composer Wayne Shorter. He’s such an unstoppable creative power and we have a huge respect for that. Also, modal jazz owes so much to this guy, and as a result, so do we! Thirdly, Nelson Veras. An absolute must! His compositions are very raw and direct, and he is a big inspiration for us. Check out his album Preludio. Fourth, we really dig Matthew Halsall. The guy manages to create such distilled such pure musical ideas, and we think that is a real art. Being able to write direct, impactful melodies is very important. Fifth, we need to throw in James Francies – he is also such a raw composer, and that’s something that really resonates with us.

What are you working on right now? Do you have any plans to release an EP or album soon?

Coincidentally, we are actually recording a number of studio singles at the moment which is due to be released in the New Year, leading into an EP. Keep those ears peeled!

As a new band breaking through, what other up-and-coming artists or bands should we be checking out from the Leeds scene?

There are so many that we love and take influence from. A personal favourite of mine is a local band called Yaatri who incorporate a wonderful blend of styles such as jazz, classical Indian and Scandinavian folk music. Producer and bandleader APLTN is also a must if you’re seeking a more up-tempo funk and Afrobeat vibe. To name a few more of our favourites, definitely check out type groove-based ensembles like Plantfood, 222, and the all-female Goddess collective.

What’s been the favourite or most memorable Awen Ensemble experience so far?

For me personally, this would have to be performing in the big top tent at the We Out Here Festival.
Playing alongside so many of our influences and favourite contemporary acts was truly an honour, and the energy of the crowd was electric. Moments like that are exactly what we set out to grab with this project!

Any final words for the Twistedsoul community?

Well, firstly, a huge word of thanks to anyone reading this and checking out our music – without your contribution and interest, we wouldn’t be able to keep doing what we’re doing. Secondly, an equally huge thank you to Twistedsoul for featuring us in this interview – so much time, energy and craft goes into creating our music and it’s so lovely to be asked to share some of those processes and be listened to. We’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to where we are now, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of communities like this one – it just shows that if we stick together and support each other, can continue to create, nurture and enjoy the art that we love.

Many thanks to Awen Ensemble! If you want to stay updated on the latest from the band, give them a follow on Instagram, Facebook and check out their website.

CF Smith

Write for Music Is My Sanctuary & Stereofox.

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