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How Matthew Halsall enticed new ears to Manchester's magical jazz scene

Jazz is thriving in Manchester and Matthew Halsall of Gondwana Records is a key figure. His new album looks to create a "musical sanctuary"

Matthew Halsall playing a trumpet in front of a coloured screen

Matthew Halsall began playing trumpet in his teens, before starting his own label to redefine jazz for a new generation. Image: Emily Dennison

The shape of British jazz has changed dramatically over the last 15 years; both in terms of its sound and the breadth of its appeal. This summer saw Ezra Collective pulling huge crowds at Glastonbury, for example, and Gilles Peterson’s We Out Here festival, with its usual jazz heavy line-up, has graduated to a bigger site this year to cope with demand. Myriad factors and many contributors are due credit for this swell in appreciation, among them the trumpeter, producer, composer and label boss Matthew Halsall. As the founder of Gondwana Records, operating since 2008, he has helped to encourage new ears to find the patience and imagination for a more spiritual, contemplative brand of jazz and soul. 

With a diverse back catalogue stretching from GoGo Penguin’s self-styled cinematic universes to the dreamy synth drenched soul of Noya Rao, not to mention Halsall’s own sonically nomadic music, Gondwana’s scope has always been ambitious, with a curiosity for what musicians can do when given the freedom to experiment.

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“We are often drawn to artists who combine multiple genres to create something super fresh and we love artists whose music is full of personality and character and rich in soul and honesty,” Halsall tells me. His fervour follows right through to the physical product. “We are deeply invested in the whole recording, mixing and mastering process and feel it’s super important that everything is made to the highest possible quality sonically. This is also true of our approach to the visual side of things as well. We basically love the whole creative process of making records.” 

Halsall was born in Manchester and has become a lynchpin of the city’s jazz scene, helping to foster and support talent close to home. “Over the many years we’ve been working in the city we’ve developed a beautiful network of creatives who live in and around Manchester and they are crucial to our evolution,” he says. “When I first started releasing records, I wanted to celebrate the amazing local talent I was hearing in and around Manchester and the North of England. I spent many hours listening to musicians at Matt & Phred’s Jazz Club Many of whom went on to release records on the label, such as Nat Birchall, Chip Wickham, John Ellis, Phil France and the guys from GoGo Penguin.” 

Image: Emily Dennison

Halsall’s own music has evolved as steadily as the scope of the label over the past 15 years. Gondwana has released eight of his albums altogether, charting his sonic development from modal jazz rooted in the UK tradition, through to a more open, spiritual sound, influenced by Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, pulling in contemporary instrumentation and trip-hop beats. His new record, An Ever Changing View, is breezy, meditative and full of summer.  

“I had a lot of fun playing around with lots of percussive instruments, such as chimes, seeds, shakers, bells, log drums, kalimbas, celestes, glockenspiels and other amazing custom-made things that I’ve commissioned people to make,” Halsall says of finding the right sound on the record. “Throughout the creative process I wanted to free myself from any rules and formulas and just have fun. I took a lot of inspiration from one of my favourite Picasso quotes: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up’, so I got all my musical toys out and just followed my instincts.” 

That spirit of play is evident through all 10 tracks, the music gently, eagerly guiding us through acres of sunny landscapes which are at once unfamiliar but never alienating, reminiscent of a holiday to a good friend’s home town. This is the magic of Halsall’s musical acumen, be it as a musician or as a label owner, and a testament to his role in making jazz a more accessible space, even to casual ears. He gives us access points to aural escapism, and everyone is welcome.  

Gondwana Records will be celebrating its 15th anniversary later in the year with a special concert featuring pianist Hania Rani, saxophonist Jasmine Myra, electronic jazz duo Svaneborg Kardyb and Halsall himself. He will also be touring his new album in the autumn, including a date at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But despite the scale of the live shows, Halsall’s primary focus is on maintaining a sense of intimacy with individual listeners. “I’d like to think I’ve created a magical space where people can put their headphones on, close their eyes and escape from the day-to-day stresses of life,” he says. “A sort of musical sanctuary.” 

An Ever Changing View is out on 8 September on Godwana Records

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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