Travellin’ Light

Alexander Hawkins
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Alexander Hawkins                                                              Edu Hawkins©2011

The London-based pianist, organist, composer and bandleader Alexander Hawkins has been internationally recognized as one of the more striking voices in improvised music to emerge from the UK in recent years. His activities center around three going concerns: his 6-piece Ensemble, whose no now is so (FMR), was one of the more touted debut recordings of 2009; The Convergence Quartet, a regularly acclaimed co-op with Taylor Ho Bynum, Harris Eisenstadt and Dominic Lash; and the genre-redefining Decoy, a trio with John Edwards and Steve Noble that features Hawkins on Hammond C3 – their third album, Oto (Babel) was voted album of the year by PoD publisher Bill Shoemaker in the 2010 Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll. Hawkins is also the pianist for Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke; he can also be occasionally heard in the Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit, as well as groups led by Evan Parker and others. All There, Ever Out, the second album by Hawkins’ Ensemble, has just been issued by Babel. The Convergence Quartet will tour the UK in November, including a performance at the London Jazz Festival. Decoy and Oto guest artist Joe McPhee will then reunite at London’s Café Oto for a two-night stand. For more information about Alexander Hawkins, visit: 

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What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

I’m lucky as a pianist – I don’t have to fight these particular fights. However, speaking for friends – I’ll have to call out Ryanair here.

Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

Following a flight to Portugal a couple of weeks ago, I have no hesitation on the seating part of this question… Monarch. I’m a fairly average size, and their seats were ‘snug’, to say the least.

Food – depends how long you’ve got.

Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

I’m lucky here – since the London airports are my closest, I can get almost anywhere in Europe non-stop, so rarely have the pleasure.

What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

Oh goodness. I’m tempting fate now… but as of today (I’m off to the airport at the crack of dawn tomorrow, so the first shocker is potentially only around the corner), I haven’t had a real disaster. To be sure, if I played a horn, I’d have forgotten a mouthpiece, or something similarly vital… but thus far, I’ve done OK.

What is your worst lost baggage story?

Again, I’ve been leading a charmed existence here, although for sure, on my flight tomorrow, I’ll now be doing strictly hand luggage.

What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

Well, Europe, mercifully, is dead easy. Of course, being on this side of the water – I wish it were easier to get into the US and Canada.

Which city has the worst cab drivers?

The drivers in Rome and Milan take some beating.

What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

I recently had a great hotel in Athens, but best for me was in Bergen, Norway, a while back. Being the youngster in the party, I let everyone else check in first, to receive many apologies when I finally reached the desk, on account that all the rooms were taken. No problem, they said, and checked me into the penthouse suite. The kicker to this is that we got off stage at around 12:30 or 1:00am, got back to the hotel at 2:00-ish, and had a 4:00am lobby call. So I didn’t exactly get to lap up all that luxury.

Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

Not my laptop if I can help it, but I often feel behind enough with various jobs that I do end up taking it, and to be sure it can be a good way to kill time at the airport… I usually make do with my iPhone, which at least lets me stay more or less on top of emails. Not sure how often I check emails… I do try to be as prompt a communicator as possible, but travelling, you’re often at the mercy of wifi availability… and I can never really bring myself to pay for wifi in hotels.

Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I do, a great deal, on my iPod. However (don’t worry – it’s not just you – I’m boring anyone who asks about them at the moment!), a real revelation to me recently has been some nice noise-cancelling headphones I coughed-up for… such a luxury to be able to hear all the parts in the music, including the bass, even on the aeroplane. And to get rid of all that engine noise is bliss!

Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Not if I can help it – I just carry enough clothes to avoid the issue!

What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

I’m travelling a lot at the moment with Mulatu Astatke’s band... we play all sorts of venues – concerts halls, festivals, clubs, whatever. But when we’re in a club, and we’re playing a very “plugged-in” set (e.g. if I’m on keyboard rather than acoustic piano), it can be a long, long process… a couple of hours isn’t unusual. And this is with an incredible sound technician who travels with us… it’s just that sometimes, the sound systems in those clubs are – er – somewhat “idiosyncratic.”

What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Can’t think of anything offhand. Again, I’m now slightly worried that I’ve tempted fate.

What are your three favorite venues?

This is a really hard one. For me, it’s all so contingent on who you’re with, the audience, the instrument, and so many other things. That said, I love two venues in London: The Vortex, where I’ve had so many formative experiences, and Café Oto, which has such a fantastic vibe, especially when it’s really full. A third? Hmmm…La Bellevilloise in Paris probably had the most electric crowd I’ve experienced… I loved the Salaõ Brazil in Coimbra, Portugal… the new Lantaren Venster in Rotterdam is pretty wonderful… I could go on. Thinking about it, I’m easily pleased. Give me a good piano, and chances are I’ll love the venue.

Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

The three which come to mind immediately are Sao Paolo, Athens, and Istanbul. Anywhere Mediterranean is typically great – so nice to be able to sit outdoors and relax after a concert.

Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I suppose it varies – it’s so contingent on the players who are around at any given time. What I would say is this – there’s apparently a nice one in Haarlem (in the Netherlands), where I was a couple of months back. I don’t actually know, since it seemed to have wrapped up by the time we got there, but the owner did give us free beer because he liked musicians, and was running towards the bottom of the barrel. That worked for me.

What is the best city that closes down too early?

London. Finish the gig, and then clear off home – not a lot else to do!

What is the best locale to have a day off?

I’m actually a big fan of Belgium. I had two days off there back in March, and had a great time: lovely to wander around, plenty to do, great food and beer. On another tip, I played in Crete a fortnight or so ago, where they hit so late that you practically have a day off beforehand, even taking into account sound checks. Swimming in the Mediterranean with a couple of hours on the beach was a nice way to prepare. But essentially, we’re lucky – so many gigs are in wonderful places that with often only a day or part of a day somewhere, it’s easy to have a great time, bearing in mind the answer to the following question…

What is your cure for jet lag?

…which is that mercifully, being in the UK, flight times and time zones are such that jet-lag isn’t such an issue. There’s still basic tiredness, in which case: if I’ve had a crazily early airport call one morning, I’ll try to nap for an hour or so in the hotel, then check out the local espresso. That usually sorts me out.

What is your best tip for the novice?

Oh, I’m not sure I can advise anyone – I think by most measures I’m a novice too! Certainly, always be gracious to the many amazing people around the place you get to meet who dedicate themselves to making the music happen and keeping it alive. Practical advice? Don’t keep the band waiting on an early lobby call…

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