Q&A with exciting talent Tom Bell - expected to establish a reputation as the UK’s No.1 Blues/Boogie Pianist

"If you look at any blues lyrics, the themes are always the same - the expression of tribulation and hardship, which originates from the slave trade in Africa and debatably the very place human life began."

Tom Bell: The Face of Classical Blues

Tom Bell is one of the UK’s most exciting young talents. Although only in his twenties, he has already made a name for himself as an outstanding pianist and is often described as “a young Jools Holland”. His music reflects influences of Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Horowitz and Keith Emerson, through to more modern artists such Jools Holland and Axel Zwingenberger. Tom combines dazzling, virtuoso classical with thundering, foot stomping boogie woogie. Formidable technically, his intense and creative approach to music is demonstrated in his ability to produce inspired works across the whole of the Blues/Classical spectrum. Whether performing a Chopin Ballade or some of his excellent original material, his command over both genres demonstrates a unique spin on the traditional concert experience, setting him apart as an exceptional performer and boogie pianist without parallel. Over the coming years, Tom is expected to establish a reputation as the UK’s No.1 Blues/Boogie Pianist.

Tom grew up in Southwell, Nottinghamshire and began playing the piano at the age of 7 but showed little interest in piano practice to begin with. However, at 13, he took up lessons with Simon Freeman who went on to introduce him to the music of Jools Holland and The Daniel Smith Blues Band, amongst others. Tom very quickly developed a keen interest in this type of music and went away and discovered he was able to learn the tracks from their CDs, note perfect, purely by ear/listening. At age 15, Tom was listed on the National Register for the Gifted and Talented and was already playing beyond Grade 8 performance standard. After a brief phonecall, he was invited to play for Daniel Smith during his Nottingham tour and several tracks from his album. He described Tom as a teenage prodigy and “the future”, inviting him back to perform a support act during one of his concerts. He then went on to play duets with Daniel in concert on several other occassions during his teenage years. Despite all this, in 2008, Tom then moved to Loughborough and gave up music altogether for 4 years in order to pursue his athletic ambitions in the Triple Jump, having competed at National Standard as a junior. During this time, he studied English Literature at Loughborough University and received a BA (Hons) degree. Two years after graduating, unable to resist his desire to play the piano again for any longer, Tom studied classical piano, to supplement his boogie playing, with Simon Freeman and in London with Royal College of Music’s, Graham Fitch. With an equal love for both classical and blues/boogie woogie he made a bold decision to include both contrasting genres in his concert programme. At this moment in time, he is the only UK Pianist to do this. In August 2016, Tom released his debut album, Face To Face; the CD featuring this unique combination of genres.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the classical and Blues/Boogie music? What does the blues mean to you?

The Blues is definitely a spiritual home for me. I will never forget the first time I heard it played on the piano - there was an awakening inside of me that kick started my career as a pianist. I spent hours practicing during my teenage years and it never seemed like grinding work because I loved it so much! I like playing classical just as much now though. In fact, both genres have helped me to discover my own pianistic voice in different ways. On the blues/ boogie side of things, the genre is much more improvisational and spontaneous than others and also gives me the opportunity to be the creator. I compose all my own works - even if I do a cover, I'll still re-arrange the version.

For the classical stuff, you have the same score to work from as every other concert pianist, then it's up to you to go away and forge your own interpretation of the material. There's definitely a magic to this. In fact, mathematically, it's impossible for two pianists to play a piece exactly the same and create an identical sound as there's an infinite amount of possibilities than could occur between just two notes! That's where the magic lies - we all have a unique voice, but it's up to us to discover what that is and convey it to an audience effectively. When I learn or compose a new piece, I always ask myself, "What do I have to say about this? What am I trying to communicate?" There's a much deeper meaning than just playing all the right notes in the right order.

How do you describe Tom Bell sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I like to think my sound and pianistic voice empathises with the experience of the human condition. Within my own music, I try to explore a variety of human emotion and capture them in a performance or recording. In blues and boogie, the sound is bright, resonant and hypnotically rhythmic. Due to the nature of the 12 bar format, it's repetitive yet also contains variation and is so uplifting, it's hard not to find your foot tapping. Some of my own tracks that would reflect this would be: Bell's Boogie, "F" Boogie and Sunday Morning Blues. There's a real sense of joy that rises up inside of you as you listen to or play this style. I try to contrast this with a much more reflective state that contains deeper subtleties. My recent recording of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor is a good example of this, where the piece seems to contain a lifetime of experience. I think you can find this in blues/ boogie too - it's definitely not just power, but within the classical spectrum it presents itself in a different form - in a different musical colour. This probably explains why we all have different tastes in music, yet we can all have a universal experience within our own styles.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There's definitely two main acquaintances that were critical in my development. Firstly, meeting my piano teacher, Simon Freeman who not only taught me all the fundamentals on the piano, but introduced me to blues and boogie. Had he not given me the CDs he had, I have no idea what I'd be doing now. Secondly, two of my musical heroes growing up were Jools Holland and Daniel Smith. I haven't met Jools yet, but Daniel recognised my potential and really took me under his wing as a teenager - inviting me to play at his concerts as well as giving valuable advice. Incidentally, it was Daniel and Jools' CDs that my teacher gave to me. I found out that I could play all the tracks by ear and things just accelerated from there.

To answer your second question, my Dad always used to say: "If you fall off the bike, you get back on". There's been lots of times in my life where I feel like I've fallen, but I have always tried to bounce back. Now with my first album out, things are looking good!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I wish I had some kind of funny answer for this! But I think if you asked any professional sports person as well musicians regarding performance you'd find some similarities. I always find my best playing happens when I'm not thinking at all but am immersed in the moment. It always seems like someone else is playing and I am just an observer. My best advice to aspiring pianists would be to try and achieve this state as often as possible. It's great to think a lot during practice, but during performance, you just have to switch off and let things happen.

"The Blues is definitely a spiritual home for me. I will never forget the first time I heard it played on the piano - there was an awakening inside of me that kick started my career as a pianist."

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Sadly, the blues is a dying art form that some critics believe will never recover. If you switch on virtually any music channel now in the UK, it's all Rihanna and Jessie J. They are great artists by the way, but the blues just isn't mainstream any more. Neither is classical, but blues seems to be suffering far worse. It's upsetting, and I often think about why things have turned out the way they have, but it's hard to reach a conclusive answer. In the UK, I think Jools Holland has done a good job to keep things going. He used his TV status to propel his big band forward into concert halls and festivals across the country and beyond, but even now, if you see the artists he's working with, he seems to be moving further towards pop culture. He still features blues and boogie on his TV show, "Later with Jools Holland", though, which is good. Now, I think it's up to the younger generation of pianists, like me, to be the bearer of the torch and try to find a way to keep the blues alive and engage modern audiences. The strange thing is, 99% of people you speak to from all ages and backgrounds will say they like blues. Yet, the national and global concert statistics say otherwise.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

For me, the answer to this is wholehearted linked to your last question. I'd love for blues still to be as popular as it was - it's a powerfully moving art form and deserves far greater recognition. I believe it could enhance everyone's life in some way and I will do my best to find a way to keep it current.

What were the reasons that made the UK in 60s to be the center of Blues n’ Boogie researches and experiments?

Good question. I think a lot of it was to do with the rock and punk culture that was emerging at the time in the UK. They share a lot of similarities with the blues; they're energetic, experimental and heavily percussive. Naturally, it was the perfect breeding ground for fresh experimentation with the blues.

Make an account of the case of Blues n’ Boogie in UK. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

Probably in the 80s. I wasn't born then, so now you are testing my history knowledge! I think people found it much easier to engage with back then, mainly due to the similarities in what was going on with mainstream culture at the time, as I discussed in the last question. Although now, certainly in terms of the piano, the quality of the digital instrument is much better. A lot of blues musicians don't use acoustic instruments and the old digital pianos were pretty poor back then compared to what we have now! The improvement in technology in the last 20-30 years has just been insane.

What are the lines that connect the music from Chopin and Duke Ellington to Keith Emerson and Professor Longhair?

I think if we're looking for a direct comparison it would be good to look at someone like Beethoven. I actually think if he was born in today's era, he would have been a boogiest - of course, assuming he still played the piano. He might have even chosen a different instrument! If you have a listen to my recording of the 3rd Movement of the Moonlight Sonata you'll find it's actually quite percussive and full of syncopation. Those are two critical components of rock and blues and are clearly evident in his music if you look through his sonatas. I don't play any pure jazz, but I've heard jazz musicians say they're found aspects of it in his music. Obviously you can only be a product of your era, although Beethoven was ahead of his time, he was still limited by the constraints of his genre as it was only really classical music that was played back then. Jazz and blues certainly hadn't been discovered yet! The pianos back then were completely unsuitable for blues back then too. They were very dry and weren't resonant at all, so the fullness of tone required in a left hand blues pattern wouldn't be there, even if someone had revealed the blues back then. I definitely think Beethoven was on to something though - maybe this could be a talking point for my trip back in time for question 11!

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Since the beginning of human life, the age old questions have been, "why are we here?" and "how do we escape suffering?" No matter what your religious, racial, political or social statuses are, those fundamental questions drive us as human beings. The magic of the blues, I feel, is that it taps directly into those questions. If you look at any blues lyrics, the themes are always the same - the expression of tribulation and hardship, which originates from the slave trade in Africa and debatably the very place human life began. This form of self expression is a form of escapism from the heavy burdens of every day life; not just for the people of the slave trade, but for us. No matter where we are in the world, we can all relate to this in some way. Then we have the powerfully uplifting tonal colours of the blues. It is instantly mood changing and can catapult you into a new world of joy where human beings are really "one" and can share in this divine, universal experience with others from all backgrounds.

Like all good music, the blues brings people together. It's interesting to think about it like that and the power music has. It can be a powerful personal healer as well and people should listen to it more. The whole universe is held together by vibrations. Since music is also a natural series of vibrations, it only makes sense we should all have such a strong bond with sound. If we want to see world peace, it has to firstly start within each individual person and then flow outwards.

"I think a lot of it was to do with the rock and punk culture that was emerging at the time in the UK. They share a lot of similarities with the blues; they're energetic, experimental and heavily percussive. Naturally, it was the perfect breeding ground for fresh experimentation with the blues."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I'm really glad you asked this, as I always think the same thing to myself! The problem is, there are so many places to go I wouldn't have time for them all in one day! Okay, so after some thought, here is my answer…

9am: Dinosaurs - Since I was just a toddler, I've always been fascinated with the dinosaurs. I'd love to go back in time to the jurassic period and watch them for a while.

10.30am: Early Human Life - I think it would be really interesting to see how our ancestors managed and interacted. I often think about what life was like back then.

12pm: Lunch with Beethoven for half an hour and then fast forward with Chopin for half an hour - Yes that means I get to eat two lunches! Needless to say why I'd like to meet them, but only half an hour for each as I don't know how friendly they'd be given what was written about them in the historical records!

1pm: 50,000 years in the future - I am always amazed by where technology is heading and the latest scientific developments. I'd love to see if some of my crazy theories come true and just spend some time exploring what I assume will be like a new world!

6pm: Dinner with Plato - I'm really interested in philosophy so I think we would have a great discussion!

7pm: Concert with myself, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis - 4 pianos on stage and 8 hands! No explanation needed!

9pm: Back to 2016!

Tom Bell - official website

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