Colin Oxley Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“Having a life in music has led me to meet incredible people who are talented and passionate about what they do. Making music and improvising with these people has transformed my life.”

Colin Oxley

I first head Colin Oxley a few weeks ago as I was browsing through YouTube and came upon an album by saxophonist Jim Tomlinson titled Brazilian Sketches. The name rang a bell so I clicked on play and was instantly transported back to the mid 60’s and the Bossa craze. Of course my ear went straight to what the guitar player was doing and I loved it. Turns out it was this cat from the UK who I should have known about. I found a way to contact him and he readily agreed to an interview, so ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you all to Colin Oxley 🙂

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JGL: Thank you Colin for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?

CO: I am 54 years old.

JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?

CO: I live in Hertfordshire just outside of London.

JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Colin Oxley is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.

CO: I was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the north east of England, but have been working as a jazz guitarist, based in London for the past 31 years. I originally came to London to attend Guildhall School of music in 1990.

JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

CO: I began playing guitar when I was 14. It was the most accessible instrument and also affordable! There wasn’t a great deal of music tuition at my school and I was happy just to explore music on my own. I liked acoustic guitar, but would have equally liked to learn other instruments such as piano or trumpet. I found some jazz records and was immediately attracted to the music, much more so than the pop or rock music I had been exposed to.

JGL: Nice! When coming up as a young player did you attend a formal educational institution or are you self taught? Was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the flood gates so to speak as you went about learning this music?

CO: I didn’t have any formal lessons until I attended music college when I was 20. I was self taught and also didn’t have any experience of playing with other musicians. I was a genuine bedroom guitarist! I remember just enjoying finding records and trying to copy the sounds with the limited understanding I had.

JGL: Sounds like how a bunch of us learned this music! Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did back then to make this choice work for you?

CO: I remember it was my absolute dream to be a pro musician. I didn’t necessarily believe it would happen, but I was fairly determined to try my best to achieve this once I had found a music course in my home town. This was the way I was able to meet musicians and start to catch up on a more formal way of understanding music. It was also the first environment where I felt comfortable and motivated.

JGL: Speaking of musicians, who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?

CO: I heard contemporary players like Pat Metheny and John Scofield first, but I quickly discovered their heroes, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery. Jim and Wes are my two main inspirations I think. One of the first records I found by pure chance was Undercurrent by Bill Evans and Jim Hall. I didn’t know who either of them were, but I fell in love with the album. I’ve gone on to listen to the whole range of jazz music but I can’t say I’ve found an album I love more than that.

JGL: Nice! So who are you listening to today – guitarists or non-guitarists – and are they any UK players we, on the other side of the pond, should be aware of?

CO: I’ve been listening to Barry Harris and Bill Evans, two of my favourite pianists. I really love Peter Bernstein’s playing. He is my favourite guitar player on the current scene. I’ve also been checking out some Brazilian choro, which is such rich and sophisticated music. The players in the U.K that inspired me when I arrived in London were Louis Stewart, Dave Cliff and Jim Mullen. In the U.K there has been a real growth of young jazz guitar talent over the past 5-10 years. A lot of these players are steeped in bebop and swing music and are doing their own thing with it.

JGL: Wonderful! Is there a specific individual who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

CO: Jim Hall is my main influence. He seemed to both define and transcend the instrument. His music has a strong emotional effect on me and this is what I’m really looking for. His incredible feel and sound also made him the perfect accompanist, a skill which can be somewhat overlooked.

JGL: In the same vein Colin, has there been a major influence in your life who was not a guitarist and why?

CO: I’ve always tried to listen to and study all instruments in the music because I’m so curious as to why they sound so great. For example, I’ve been listening to Sonny Rollins a lot recently and besides his incredible lines and invention, his time feeling is just incredible. I want to try to absorb that stuff into my playing in any way possible. Also, I’ve been influenced massively by my fellow band members, rhythm section or front line.

JGL: As a long standing and popular member of the Jazz Guitar community, what are you most grateful for and on the other side of the coin, what irks you?

CO: Having a life in music has led me to meet incredible people who are talented and passionate about what they do. Making music and improvising with these people has transformed my life.

JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?

CO: There are players through jazz history too numerous to mention who I’d love to have played with! I was lucky enough to play with two of my favourite musicians over the past few years- pianist Bill Charlap and tenor sax player Grant Stewart. I can say that these experiences were thrilling as well as humbling.

JGL: I can imagine. Switching topics a tad, what was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes? When improvising, are you thinking chord/scale relationships or is there something else going on?

CO: When I was starting out, my practice revolved around copying from recordings and trying to figure out what was going on. I did use some books which helped me with scales, chords and fingering. These days I’ve got certain areas I try to cover as a general practice plan. Scales/fingering, chord/ inversion work, chord melody/repetoire and aural practice. I need to work on my technique more because keeping my fingers in shape gets harder as I get older. The key thing for me is always to feel connected with the instrument and connected to the music by listening. All repetitive practice helps you in the improvising process, but I hope that it’s deeply absorbed and not at the front of my mind. I want to hear the notes I play clearly and use my ear to guide me.

JGL: Nicely stated! Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

CO: I give private lessons on a less regular basis. Often a student will ask for a lesson after seeing me on a gig and they will usually be players with some experience of playing jazz. I tend to suggest a lot of things to practice and to have a follow up lesson when needed.

JGL: In the year 2000 or 2001 – depending on which website one lands on – you were voted Jazz Musician of the Year by the Worshipful Company of Musicians. Congratulations and is that group similar to the Musician’s Union in the US and Canada? What kind of cache does that bestow on a player? Do you get a pay hike or a fruit bowl at every gig? LOL 🙂

CO: The City of London organisation was created in the 1500’s (?) to promote and support musicians. They hire a band of young jazz players to do a gig each year and they choose their favourite! I can’t say the award has helped particularly, but it’s a nice thing to have on your C.V. I like the idea of it increasing my fee though, I’ll definitely try that.

JGL: Good luck…lol! You record and perform in a variety of musical situations (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) is there one that you prefer over the other and is there a particular situation you have yet to play in but would like to?

CO: I think I’ve recorded and performed in most situations now from solo guitar to orchestral. Small groups are my favourite. Guitar, piano, bass suits my playing as does guitar, bass, drums with a front line player. I really love accompanying a good horn player or singer.

JGL: Is there a particular style of music that touches your heart more than others?

CO: I probably would think more of the player than a particular style.

JGL: I get that and it makes perfect sense! Tell me Colin, what is your main guitar these days and how are you amplifying it? Do you switch guitars depending on mood or the gig and if so, what other guitars do you bring to the table?

CO: I play a 1978 Gibson L-5. I use it pretty much for all of my gigs. The only other guitar I’ve used a lot recently is a Gibson acoustic L-7 which I use for big band playing like Back To Basie and the John Wilson Orchestra. I also own an Ibanez super 70’s and D’aquisto New Yorker. I use a Henriksen amp which I really like.

JGL: In an online Bio from a record label* they list a bunch of players who you have performed or recorded with:

“He has also performed with American legends Scott Hamilton, Harry Allen, Hod O’Brien, John Bunch, Houston Person, Warren Vache, Jeff Hamilton and Bob Dorough, as well as many of Britain’s top players.”

Those are some well established names indeed! What led to these associations – or better yet – what were the opportunities or challenges provided – personality, skill, networking etc. – to be in the company of such named players?

CO: All of those American musicians were visiting the U.K and picking up a band of London players. As I established myself as a straight ahead jazz guitar player, my name was on the list of suitable accompanists. So largely it’s by reputation that you get the call. Obviously, having a nice personality and being supportive etc are good ways of maintaining a relationship. I learned a lot from working with top players like this. I noticed that American players are more direct in offering advice and I appreciated this as it makes the music better and helps you improve individually.

JGL: Speaking of named players, you have recorded and performed with one of my favorite contemporary singers, Stacey Kent. How did this association come to be and what if any, are the differences in being a successful sideman as opposed to being a successful leader?

CO: I met Stacey and her husband, Jim Tomlinson when I attended Guildhall School of Music in 1990. We were all on the same course and started playing together a lot. I knew straight away that Stacey had something special, but I didn’t expect the huge amount of success she would achieve. We grew together as musicians and it was a great experience for me. I toured all over the world, spent long spells in New York (her home town) and made many recordings. I’m a natural sideman so a gig like this was perfect for me to develop my skills. I only do a few gigs per year as a leader which I really enjoy. I also co-lead some groups.

JGL: When playing duo with a singer or another melody instrument – such as saxophonist Martin Speake –  how do you approach your role as both a harmonic and melodic instrument accompanist?

CO: This is a really big challenge for a jazz guitarist. Keeping the form and establishing a good feel are the key. Having a strong idea of jazz phrasing is so important in giving the music shape and giving your partner something to play off. I’ve worked a lot on harmonising melodies, knowing your inversions so that the music feels full. Also, keeping the bass register covered is important in solo/duo playing, whereas it’s often avoided when within a rhythm section.

JGL: Well now, speaking of the rhythm section, can you talk a little about your role in the Back to Basie Big Band? Are you channelling Freddie playing purely rhythmic and with his use of two note or sometimes one note “chords” throughout the show or do you have some space for melodic improvisation?

CO: Back To Basie is a fairly pure re-creation of the Basie band. So yes, I’m playing as truly to Freddie’s style as possible.

JGL: Nice! On the same note, are the charts the original Basie charts or have they been arranged for this band? Regardless, the band – at least the little I have heard – sounds wonderful and authentic!

CO: Yes we use the original charts and some that have been faithfully transcribed by members of the band. It is an incredible pleasure to play acoustic rhythm with these guys.

JGL: I can only imagine! To my knowledge you have recorded two albums as a leader and both in a Bass, Piano and Guitar format. What is it about this particular configuration that appeals to? Would drums get in the way of the responsiveness of the group and instrumentation?

CO: I started playing with the guitar, piano, bass lineup with Stacey Kent. I played a lot of rhythm guitar in that band and the trio decided to make an instrumental album when we were on tour in San Francisco. I recorded again with that lineup and I find it suits my playing. I like the dynamic without drums and how the two chordal instruments work together. I love playing with drums too, it’s just a different feeling, best exemplified by Oscar Peterson’s guitar based trio as opposed to his drum based one. Equally satisfying, but a different feeling.

JGL: Speaking of albums as a leader, I read something about you recording and/or producing some albums in Japan with your wife? What’s the deal on those? Or did I misread something?

CO: My wife is Eriko Ishihara, who is a fantastic Japanese jazz pianist and singer. She had a record deal with a Japanese label for a few years and they asked me to produce some of those albums. To be honest, it was very much Eriko’s project and I helped in some of the logistics of the sessions. Again, this sort of thing looks good on the C.V!

JGL: True! Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?

CO: The standard set by the greats of the music is so monumental, you can never afford to rest on your laurels. There’s always work to do and improvement to be made. But I’ve always been just as interested in the process itself as any notion of finished product. I work on my technique, ear, repetoire and conceptual approach and thoroughly enjoy each element. I’ve never felt fully comfortable at fast tempos, so I work on that. Sometimes I can put together a few nice choruses and sometimes not, but so much of this variation is driven by other factors such as my own mental state, who I’m playing with, the room etc. But to summarise, yes I have insecurities!

JGL: As do we all no doubt. Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar as a career?

CO: I think my main advice is to follow your true passion musically and stick with it. I really didn’t know whether I would make it playing the music I love, but I never gave up and ended up where I wanted to be. Having said that, I do feel that I had some good fortune along the way, meeting the right people at the right time. This is such an important thing to recognise and feel thankful for.

JGL: Agreed! And speaking of good fortune, you came out with a Jazz Guitar book titled Jazz Guitar Artistry alongside the great Martin Taylor. I cannot find much info on this particular publication so could you tell us a bit about it and is it still available?

CO: I did those Martin Taylor transcriptions when I was at college in Newcastle. Again, it was a lucky set of circumstances that led me to meet Maurice Summerfield who was a publisher in the North East and knew Martin well. I ended up meeting Martin, who was such a hero of mine and the book took shape. I don’t know for sure if it’s still in print, it came out 30 years ago.

JGL: Well hopefully there will be a reprint. As a performer of many miles – and I realize you probably get asked this a lot – do you find a difference with Jazz appreciation and Jazz audiences in your neck of the woods than in the US? Is there greater satisfaction playing to audiences in the rest of the world than in the US or is it about the same?

CO: I love playing to an appreciative audience wherever it may be. It varies so much from night to night and is hard to generalise in terms of location. I had some pretty intense audience experiences with Stacey in France (they love her there) and in the U.S. But a small gig in a pub can be just as intense if not more so than a major jazz festival.

JGL: Agreed! Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

CO: I’ve never had second thoughts. I really love what I do and appreciate what music and musicians have given me.

JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?

CO: Things have worked out for me so I don’t feel like I would want to go back and change very much. Possibly I sometimes wish I had more guidance at an earlier age, because I had to catch up later in my musical education. But I don’t spend much time worry about this kind of thing.

JGL: What does the future hold for Colin Oxley?

CO: The world is in such an uncertain state at the moment so it’s hard to think too far ahead, but I want to continue playing and improving musically.

JGL: I have no doubt that will happen! And on that note, thank you Colin for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life and all the best in all that you do!

CO: Thank you Lyle. I enjoyed doing it and want to thank you again for your interest and supportive words.

Please consider spreading the word about Colin and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We would love to hear from you 🙂

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