Tony Bevan

'Improvisation is a life choice,' says the saxophone virtuoso and genre-bender as he embarks on a loose London residency

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 25 Jul 2014
  • min read
Saxophonist Tony Bevan is an improvising virtuoso and founder of the super-charged quintet Bruise, a loose outfit that takes no-holds-barred live interplay to a new level.

Together with Orphy Robinson (percussion, electronics), John Edwards (bass), Mark Sanders (drums) and Ashley Wales (electronics), Tony’s musical abstractions mess with the preconceived ideas of jazz and bust out of any pigeonhole they’ve ever been shoved into.

From dub to house, jazz to rock, Bruise are unafraid to explore the fringes of outsider sound. And, with years of musical experience and proficiency under their belts, they are a formidable live proposition.

On Tuesday (29 July) they start a monthly residency at Red Gallery, a multi-purpose arts centre based in east London, which promises to bring plenty of aural treats and unplanned delights to the capital. For more information and tickets, see

As one of Britain’s leading improvisors, Tony doesn’t just fill his time with Bruise. He’s also a member of the Sunny Murray Trio, runs a record label, has played extensively with late guitar virtuoso Derek Bailey and worked with Spiritualized on their last album Sweet Heart Sweet Light.

We spent some time with the genre-bender and Foghorn Records boss to learn more about the world of improvisation, hear his thoughts on the state of jazz in Britain and find out why he’d really like to work with Radiohead…

In Aylesbury, the nearest town to us, there lived a guy called Lol Coxhill who played the soprano saxophone. He was a real inspiration for me. I started listening to the sort of music he played and that was it: I was hooked from a very early age.

Did you start off by copying others and learning scores or did you just pick up the saxophone and have a go?
Lol gave me my first lesson, which was – ‘Do you know where your fingers go and which end to blow into?’ I said, ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘Great, that’ll do for now! Let’s listen to some Bessie Smith’. And that was my lesson from Lol.

What happened next?
I played with loads of people of my own age in various rock and improvisation groups. I listened to so many records and copied them, before realising it probably wasn’t a good idea to copy others. By the time I was 19 I decided I should try to sound like myself, which I’ve been trying to do ever since.

You’re a fan of Captain Beefheart and Terry Riley – interesting choices for a jazz head. How diverse are your musical tastes and how does that influence your own sound?
Right now I’m looking at a picture I have hanging on the wall which is a portrait of me interviewing Captain Beefheart, drawn by Captain Beefheart himself. He was a huge influence on me. When I was about 11 or 12 my brother bought his first Captain Beefheart record and it went from there.

In terms of what I listened to back then, it was primarily rock music. Then I started listening to improvised music when I began playing the saxophone. Since then, I’ve listened to allsorts. Now, Bruise is an improvising group but it doesn’t sound like one because we have such wide CVs and broad musical taste.

The one that has influenced me the most has been the guitarist Derek Bailey, who was a brilliant musician. I became really good friends with him. Another one was Sunny Murray, the free jazz drummer who lives in Paris. I’ve been in his group for about 10 years now and we’ve made a lot of records together. He’s a fantastic inspiration, an amazing musician who’s also hilarious. You don’t forget an afternoon spent with Sunny Murray.

Is there anyone else you’d really love to work with?
I’d like to work with Radiohead but I don’t think they’d have me! They live near me and their music is really interesting. Strangely enough, it’s not unlike what we do in Bruise. We’ve got a lot of electronics, which Ashley Wales and Orphy Robinson bring.

Can you tell me a little more about that electronic element?
The thing about the group is that we will play so many different kinds of music. Ash comes from a punk tradition, but he’s also done a lot of drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep. Orphy started off playing reggae and then moved onto vibraphone and was part of the jazz funk explosion of the eighties. His influences cover everything, from electronic music to steel bands, and he still plays jazz and reggae and makes commercial music when he’s not teaching. It’s the same for all of us really.

How did Bruise get together?
It was kind of by accident. I was putting together a quartet with Orphy, John and Mark, and we got a gig. I asked Ash to open for us with an electronic set. For some reason Mark couldn’t come along so I asked Ash to play with us as a quartet. It sounded absolutely fantastic. That was the beginning of the band and we’re still going after 10 years and four albums.

What musical kicks do you get from Bruise?
It’s a joy to play in. It’s really not like any other group I’ve ever heard. Because of the range of influences we’ve got, it all comes in. The electronics are a big part of that. You get these strange dub moments when Orphy turns the reverb up on his mics and all of a sudden we sound like Augustus Pablo. Then at other times, drum ‘n’ bass and house influences creep in. It’s a pleasure to play in Bruise.

What’s your creative process – is any of it rehearsed?
No, we’re an improvising group. The main preparation is done by Ash, because he builds up samples. But we never know what he’s going to play. There’s one track we do that opens with a sample from Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and a little harp motif, and that sets all the music up. It’s almost symphonic in its melodic developments, which is wonderful.

What’s the thrill in improvisation, and is it a skill that you can pick up or is it innate?
Certainly you learn it. I’ve just been involved in a film about British free improvised music, and we filmed about 50 interviews conducted by the comedian Stewart Lee with musicians to find out what they get out of it. It’s a life choice almost. You decide you want to make music in a very particular way, that is, to try to make it fresh every time. We were talking to John Butcher, who’s a fantastic saxophone player, and he said it’s one of those things you learn by doing it. You can stay at home and practice by working things out, but when you’re playing with other people and you don’t know what they’re going to do and they don’t know what you’re going to do, you have to work together to create a single body of music. You learn how to make that work. It’s a phenomenal process.

How do you think improvised music and musicians have evolved over the years?
Some strands stay the same, but others move forward. Take Bruise, we’re an improvising group but it doesn’t sound like it because of the music we make. We don’t really want to be seen as a jazz group, even though we play improvised music, because we just don’t sound like that.

What do you make of the ‘jazz’ label and what do think about the current British jazz scene?
I wouldn’t say that I’m part of the jazz scene. There are some young groups coming through now that are very interesting and they’re doing new stuff, taking influence from the likes of John Zorn with bits of thrash metal in there. If you go to see Trio 3D you wouldn’t say they were a jazz group, but they get written about by jazz magazines, often quite disparagingly. Then there are bands like Led Bib, who are making more rocky music and a lot of the jazz press don’t like them.

In the eighties, in the supposed jazz boom, when Courtney Pine first emerged along with Loose Tubes and Andy Sheppard, and Orphy was part of the Jazz Warriors thing – a lot of those players had fixed ideas about what they wanted to do. It wasn’t really until the last few years that there has been a group of younger musicians who were interested in jazz but have been playing different kinds of music.

You’ve still got the old players, people like Bobby Wellins, who’s fantastic, but now there are more young players who are doing something different and channelling the influences they grew up with, like rock music. A lot of them were born in the eighties and are listening to different stuff than their elders. It’d be weird to make music that sounded like old time Chicago when you’re a young white man living in London, right?

Times changes and I think it’s very healthy that younger musicians are basing their music on something beyond just copying what happened in America or what happened in Munich with the ECM label, which is really rather dull.

One of the problems with jazz is that there are lots of players who pretty much know what they want it to sound like – I guess I’m talking about the people who came up in the eighties. But now that doesn’t seem to be happening so much – which is a great thing.