It makes sense to draw parallels between the artfully quiet and thoughtful music of protean Scottish drummer/composer Sebastian Rochford and the gentle conversation he makes regarding his recorded work. Like his elegant ECM album with pianist Kit Downes, A Short Diary–written to celebrate the drummer’s father, acclaimed poet Gerard Rochford (1932–2019)–Sebastian speaks slowly and somnolently about what brought his compositional pen to his “sonic memory” of family.
Though the elder’s poetry is ruminative and warmly academic, it is not the wordsmith Gerard Rochford that inspired his son to write the spare, languid melodies of A Short Diary and welcome Downes to interpret songs such as “This Tune Your Ears Will Never Hear.” Instead, it is the family man Gerard Rochford, a music lover (“He was fond of Keith Jarrett and Jan Gabarek as well as Tina Turner”) with a piano at home and a tender embrace of his children, that inspired Sebastian.
“My father’s words were one thing; his wonderful spirit quite another,” says Rochford, recalling how his father composed “Even Now I Think of Her,” the centerpiece of A Short Diary, by singing into his phone.
Embodying the fullness of his father’s humanity was essential for the son. So undistilled is that process, so raw and naked, that often on A Short Diary, Downes is playing alone (the Satie-like “Night of Quiet”), highlighted by light cymbal brushes (the wistfully autumnal “Even Now I Think of Her”), or touched with a finale’s dramatic tapping (“Ten Of Us”).
For an album by one of present-day jazz’s greatest young percussionists, its sparsity of drumming is daring, an act of pure instinct. “This is what I wanted the album to be…. I had great trust in Kit to begin with,” says the drummer about asking another artist to live within his family’s lyricism. “This is the sound of my journey, how I heard these songs.”
That the hallowed quiet of A Short Diary was produced by ECM’s CEO Manfred Eicher, the man behind much Jarrett-Gabarek music, is not lost on Rochford. “I did think about that after the fact, that Manfred was behind the music my father loved, and that he was further intensifying the melodies that I had brought to him,” notes the drummer.
Fond of diverse collaboration, Rochford has drummed with the likes of David Byrne and Brian Eno (on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today) and chart-topping vocalist Adele (on 19) along with being a member of saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s Quartet (on Romaria and Surrounded by Sea). Even Rochford’s leader albums—Ouch Evil Slow Hop with Pamelia Kurstin, and Good Friday with David Coulter—are shared affairs. “I love playing with other people as I grew up in a house with 10 brothers and sisters,” says Rochford. “It’s natural for me to reach out to others as I am curious and always love learning something new. And I am lucky that so many different musicians ask me to play with them.”
When it came to A Short Diary, the drummer-composer felt it was Downes who could best execute the “deeply personal” melodies that Rochford had initially sketched out on piano. “It was a very intense situation to bring somebody into,” says Rochford about welcoming Downes into his music, his memories, and his old house. The album was recorded at Rochford’s childhood home in Aberdeen, Scotland, on the same piano that his grandfather played, that Gerard’s brother gifted him, and that Sebastian’s mother and siblings had enjoyed. “Kit was as supportive as he was passionate throughout all of this,” says the drummer.
Rochford sought to create a dynamic of healing and empathy for the recording. He asked engineer Alex Bonney to record the duo with a mixture of vintage ribbon mics, an ex-BBC six-channel desk, and Bonney’s more modern and precise mics and preamps. The team also used room miking for reverb, the soundboard of an old unplayable square piano in the Rochford family home, and a barless piano for a sound rich with melancholy. “There are more strings crossing over the top of each other on a barless piano so you can achieve a sympathetic string effect when using the pedal,” notes Rochford.
“In the writing of its music, the process of playing on that piano what I was hearing inside me was a great comfort during this time, and also a way to sense physically what I was feeling,” he says. “When Kit and I began playing the pieces together, I realized that if the piano was played beyond a certain dynamic, it took me out of the feeling I was trying to express. Without wanting to limit Kit, we spoke about those dynamic ranges and being explorative whilst maintaining that feeling. And that was achieved, mostly, by making the quiet dynamics quieter as a starting point.”
With Downes and Rochford playing together at the family homestead, live and without headphones to enhance the sensitivity and interaction between them, it was as if the pair were playing directly to the drummer’s dad.
“In the last months of his life, my father was less able to go out and see things,” says Rochford. “As he loved the way Andy (Sheppard) and Michel (Benita) played on our Trio Libero record, I emailed to ask if they would be willing to come to Aberdeen to play in the house, which they so kindly agreed to. Unfortunately, however, my dad was taken into hospital before we were able. After that, in the last week or so, he spoke to me of how he loved the piano being played in our old house, so this was also a motivation for me to record the music of A Short Diary in tribute to him there. In a way this album was also for me, fulfilling that of which my father had spoken.”