Q&A with Kate Shortt & Shirley Smart

Our penultimate gig of the season features two genre-defying cellists taking us on a journey through the many and varied voices of the instrument. Kate Shortt will be bringing her unique style of cabaret to the club, whilst Shirley Smart will be teaming up with accordionist Tommie Black-Roff for a free-wheeling set packed with a diverse range of influences. We caught up with them both ahead of the gig to chat about the incredible versatility of the cello and their own eclectic music-making.

Thursday’s gig is going to be a really interesting look at the different voices of the cello – what do you think it is about the instrument that makes it so versatile and that lends itself to so many different contexts?

Kate: The key thing is the vast range of octaves it has – larger than the human voice – plus the variety of string thickness making it easier to access differing textures and timbres. I do believe it is the closest sound to the human voice in certain areas. The possibilities seem endless.

Shirley: I think one of the reasons the cello is so versatile is actually its range – it can play well into the range of the violin, but also switch into bass roles fluidly and easily, so there is a lot of possibilities in terms of using it that way. Also, I think it has such a rich tone quality that has wide appeal. I think its versatiity and full expressive possibilities are still very underdeveloped, however – and often it gets used simply as a lyrical instrument, which obviously it does very well – but its can also be incredibly rhythmic, groovy, dramatic and many other things. One of the things I think I try to do with the instrument is to get past those sterotypes of it and explore all its possibilities.

Both of you work across a number of styles and genres – when you’re on the look out for new music or new ideas, what is it that draws you to a piece and makes you want to play it/play around with it?

Shirley: I think music that has a strong melody appeals to me and also a strong rhythmic feel. I encountered music from a variety of traditions when I lived in Jerusalem – North African, Turkish, Classical Arabic, and Balkan as well as jazz and I sort of developed with a mixture of them all. I think this informs my approach to the music I work with now, as I encountered all of them in a very interlinked and overlapping way, and through accidents of life, rather than any intentional study of a given area or tradition. Obviously I also studied them historically and through recordings, but I have always related back to my work with practicing bands and musicians, rather than academic study, or what might be termed an ‘ethnomusicological’ approach to the music. I think this also makes me slightly less reverent to a conventional notion of ‘authenticity’ than I might be had I come into the music a different way.

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Shirley Smart

I’ve always seen jazz as a melting pot – and in Jerusalem, the relationship between what in the UK would be termed the ‘world music’ scene and the jazz scene is very different – much more integrated, and because a lot of the musicians are of dual heritage – people like Omer Avital for example, they explore that background through jazz. I like this also, as it is an extension of the improvisational melting pot that jazz has always been, to my mind. So I suppose that also informs my approach to many tunes, which can be quite free in terms of improvisation – some of the arrangements that I have with my band have evolved through playing together a lot – but they have a tendency to change from gig to gig, becasue we know the tunes so well and we know each other’s playing so we can be flexible on stage and not tied always to a fixed arrangement ( sometimes…but not always). I like this also, as I think it keeps the music fresh and alive.

Kate: I tend to be drawn towards rhythmical repetitive, gritty music or sparse, cold or atmospheric pieces. I just love the influence a second or two of silence can have on the notes/sounds either side. On the flip side, I’m a hopeless sucker for a cheesy tune particularly if there’s that clinch chord pinning a whole song down to the tingle factor.

I guess what draws me in are the actual vibrations in chords or note patterns that reverberate for some reason with my own internal ‘chords’ and that combined with rhythmical patterns is basically heaven sent!

In my non-classical hat, I straddle between free improvisation situations learning still where the cello can go, involving varying influences from Jazz/classical/contemporary to other situations; then sometimes using these influences within my comedy songs/sketches.

And finally, what are the two of you most looking forward to about working with Peter Wiegold and Notes Inégales?

Shirley: The whole idea of Club Inégales looks fascinating – and some of the evenings have involved some great and unusual looking collaborations. I’ve heard some of Peter’s music that he has writted for the evenings, so I’m really looking forward to see what he comes up with for this event, and to playing it!

Kate: I’m excited about performing in that unique atmosphere where musical lines are blurred in a gorgeously creative setting. Shirley’s set is always thrilling and I love what she does with those unique folk tunes (and her completely incredible solos!) I’m also very much looking forward to playing with the band! I’m a regular punter and love their work. Peter was my improvisation/creative mentor/freedom provider as a young post-grad student at Guildhall (a few moons ago!) so it means a lot to me to be invited to perform with them.

Kate & Shirley perform at the club along with accordion player Tommie Black-Roff on Thursday 8 December – more info and tickets available here.