corto.alto in Q&A Corner: The Future is Bright
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
Hip-hop inspired Jazz brilliance from Scotland
Liam Shortall is a gentleman with a vociferous talent that belies his modest demeanour. A graduate of The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Liam plies his trade near and far from his native Scotland to Japan and beyond. Across a schedule that is jam packed and so widely diverse, it is nothing short of dizzying trying to keep up with his growing body of work and association with many projects including Graham Costello’s STRATA, Harry Weir’s AKU, Tom McGuire + The Brassholes, Fat Suit, and Escape Roots. Most recently we were introduced to his latest project – and dare we say his baby -, corto.alto, which comprises a collective of skilled musicians who craft aurally nourishing music paired with visually rich video content.
Though only in their infancy, corto.alto deliver accomplished compositions that hint at a very promising future. To say that we’re honoured for this opportunity to chat with the man himself behind this evolving force of nature is a huge understatement.
Intros and inspo…
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
Hi Liam, thanks for taking the time out of what we can only imagine to be a hectic schedule to do this Q&A with us, how are you getting on?
Liam – Yo ! I’m well thanks, just about surviving the midst of festival season. Keeping busy and feeling good.
We understand that you’re a well-established figure in what is cited as the New Wave of Scottish Jazz. How does it feel to be part of the new blood in not only Scottish jazz but a burgeoning British scene that is reaching out to a wider, younger audience?
Liam – Aye! Great I suppose. I’ve grown up playing music here, so it’s something I’m at this point kind of a custom to. Glasgow’s brilliant though, such an incredible crew of young musicians from so many diverse genres. There’s cheap rent/pints, hundreds of live music venues, an amazing Conservatoire of music and arts schools, loads of cross pollination going on between various arts, all that together kind of guarantees you a buzzing music scene.
There are so many great projects starting up here as well, that most of London and the rest of the world are yet to take notice of, and I feel like we are developing our own sound up here too. Saying this, way too many people are still sleeping on the Scottish jazz scene. It’s also worth me mentioning how great it is to see so many young people getting onboard with this new resurgence of ‘Jazz’ influenced music, it’s mad to see people out dancing to that stuff 2am on a Friday night.
Can you give us a bit of an insight into your musical beginnings?
Liam – So I started playing guitar when I was about 9 years old, my first guitar teacher was an old guy named Karl, I thought he was the coolest dude I’d ever met. He really taught me the importance of music theory and being able to read sheet music from day 1, as well as a heavy focus on improvising and ‘ear playing’. I used to sit and learn all the solos from that one decent Dire Straits album.
I then got into playing trombone in the last couple years of primary school, I really hated trombone at first, it felt so uncool and was so heavy to lug around, especially since I was so wee, but my dad wouldn’t let me quit. I got interested in jazz through the Dumfries Youth Jazz Group, which is where I grew up by the way. Eventually I was playing with different youth jazz orchestras and ended up moving to Glasgow to major in Jazz trombone at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland when I was 16, studying under Tommy Smith & my killin’ trombone teach Chris Greive.
Fast forward 6 years, I’m now working full time playing ‘bone in Glasgow, and it’s good. There’s not too many Jazz trombonists around Glasgow, probably because of how uncool it seems when you’re 12. Thanks, Dad!
What kind of music inspired you growing up and made you go, ‘yeah, music is the one for me’?
Liam – I’m a total 90’s hip-hop fanatic. I love A Tribe Called Quest, listened to them throughout high school relentlessly, as well as De La Soul, The Pharcyde, J Dilla, Jeru the Damaja, Guru Jazzmatazz, etc.
Growing up I also listened to a lot of two-tone and Ska music such as The Specials, my dad was quite into that. My mother is really into her big-band and Motown/Soul music too, so she kind of got me into listening to Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam Cook etc. I love all that stuff too, Tower of Power, Average White Band, Funkadelic.
I’m in love with so much jazz too, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Hank Mobley, Michael Brecker, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, Carl Fontana, Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, all that good stuff. That and so many modern jazz musicians too, including many trombonists; Elliot Mason, Michael Dease, Bill Watrous… I could go on for days.
Are there any current artists who are commanding your attention?
Liam – So, so many. I listen to so much great new music. There’s the obvious influences that someone who writes music like I do would be into; Christian Scott, Alfa-Mist, Hiatus Kiayote, badbadnotgood etc. I can’t stop listening to Anderson Paak at the moment, he is my absolute dream collaboration, such an unbelievable musician and artist. One of my favourite albums ever is an album he made with producer Knxwledge, entitled ‘Yes Lawd’, I’m massively into sampled hip-hop, and Knxwledge is one of my favourite producers, I actually have a beat album coming out at the end of this year, under alias ‘quim.ticke’. Another producer everyone should check out is a guy called Monte Booker. Jon Bap is another artist who really interests me right now, his music is crazy unique and breaks so many genre boundaries.
There’s also so many amazing Scottish artists that I’m always encouraging people to go listen to – Vanives, Kitti, Fergus McCreadie, Matthew Carmichael, Graham Costello’s STRATA, Sugarwork, Mezcla, The Hoojamamas, Young Fathers, AKU, Megan Airlie. A Glaswegian soul singer called ‘Joesef’ is surely going to blow up over the next few years, his song writing is unbelievable.
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
It’s fair to say that you’re a prolific performer who doesn’t shy away from mixing things up, as can be heard/seen through your work with many an artist. However, you’ve also flexed your skills as a composer too, showcasing original music previously with the Liam Shortall Quintet. What was your inspiration behind starting corto.alto?
Liam – Honestly, just had a bunch of tunes and seen myself surrounded by amazing talent, who also happened to be my friends. Really just like I had to document it in some way. That and the fact I’d been working on other people’s projects for so long, I finally felt like I gained the confidence to put my own stuff out there, which was a thing that had daunted me, and held me back a fair amount in previous years. ‘corto.alto’ has really been a long time coming, I’m happy I’ve finally got around to making it happen, and it’s great to see people are digging it.
As you’ve noted in previous interviews, corto.alto is more a collective than a band. How have you cultivated such a talented collective of musicians to work with?
Liam – I assume luck. Like I said, I’m just surrounded by the most lovely, open-minded and talented people in the world. They are all up for playing and have a passion for making music and creating something cool.
What advice would you have for others who’re struggling to find like-minded individuals to play/write with?
Liam – Go to jam sessions! I get asked this question quite a lot from people I grew up in Dumfries with – “There’s so many musicians in Glasgow, how can I move up there and actually sustain myself and make a career of it?”. I genuinely think it’s about 2 things, showing face at jam sessions and getting up and playing, and being a nice guy/girl to work/play with. Leaving your ego out of music is always super important I think, that’s really what I aim in my group.
Gushing compliment first followed by a series of related questions. Not only are the tunes by corto.alto absolutely perfect for kicking back and relaxing to, but the videos combine flawless musicianship with a playful take on intimate live performances. I spotted in the description under each video on YouTube it even state that each video was recorded live in a “Sauchiehall Street flat in Glasgow”. What made you decide to shoot the videos in such a way rather than do traditional music videos in a studio or on a stage?
Liam – I live in a flat on Sauchiehall Street. It’s kind of known as the ‘strip’ of Glasgow, we live directly above some of the busiest clubs too. This meant it was pretty easy to make a lot of noise and not get too many complaints from the neighbours, who also happen to mostly be musicians and producers too, so I suppose a lot of the decision to record at home was that. But also, the fact that recording in the same place where I write, rehearse and mix the music makes it a really comfortable and enjoyable space to record. I’ve recorded a lot in studios and never quite felt as confident or ‘at home’ with my playing as I do when I’m actually well, at home. Corto.alto sessions are always very chilled out with a lot of hanging out and coffee breaks, the space provides that.
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
The plan is to get a track out every three weeks. Roughly how long does it take from track composition to the finished video hitting YouTube and what is the process from start to finish?
Liam – So we record 4 tracks every 12 weeks, releasing each one tri-weekly. I’m a huge procrastinator, so it’s usually week 11 where I transfer the tune ideas that are in my head onto paper, not leaving much time for rehearsal. Me and a super legendary dude called Stevie, our sound engineer and all-round uncle of the band, mix each tune as they come out. And our videographers Justyna and Cara edit the video ibn the same way. It’s usually all put together a night before release and then we smash it up on the digital abyss, and hope people dig it.
It’s obviously a nod to the next-level abilities of everyone involved but you all seem to make flow through each performance with remarkable ease. Have you experienced any stumbling blocks or has the process generally run smoothly from the outset?
Liam – All the guys in the group are ridiculous. The process is pretty much stress free; we’re just having fun recording music together. My music is in no way the most difficult or technically challenging stuff to play, and that’s why I think it comes across as quite fun and laid back. The process goes like this; I write some sh*t, send everyone their sheet music, they probably don’t look at them, we rehearse for an hour, then we hit the record button. Usually quite a lot of magic comes out the other side, I love the under rehearsed risky approach to doing this kind of thing, each take is a completely different vibe and something cool always happens.
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
Though other articles and interviews we’ve read allude to your abilities as a trombonist, it is clear to see from the videos that you’re a dab hand at laying down some nifty guitar licks too. What was the first instrument that you picked up as a kid?
Liam – Guitar! It’s really my first love. I adore playing guitar now, there’s zero pressure for me to get better. Unlike trombone where my career relies on me constantly improving, I can kind of just sit in my boxers and play guitar and feel no guilt at playing neo-soul clichés and Money for Nothing with bad technique and rusty strings, it’s great.
From experience what are the challenges you’ve faced when honing your skills on the different instruments that you play?
Liam – Trombone is a real b*tch sometimes, I definitely have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s that kind of instrument that if you don’t play for a few days, you are back a few weeks in terms of technical advancement, I’ve had to learn discipline and it’s really still an ongoing struggle. Juggling practising, composing, producing, mixing, as well as the admin side of music can be a real challenge for me sometimes. But I suppose that’s what makes me feel alive and excited in my life.
Are there any instruments that you’ve attempted to learn and struggled with? If so, how did you – or do you – overcome any battles?
Liam – Ha! Ohh yes. I started playing bagpipes once, but my teacher thought I was sh*te. I was only 10 or something. Maybe I would have stuck with it if Mr. Whatshisname wasn’t so off-putting, or maybe I was just genuinely sh*te. Either way I now see the importance of an encouraging and supportive teacher.
What advice do you have for others in pushing through those times when you plateau when developing your technical ability?
Liam – Apart from ‘keep going’, I’d have to recommend taking a break and applying that same creativity to something else; whether that’s another instrument or something completely different. I’ve been in the mindset where I hate even the thought of playing trombone, and usually I’ll just focus on practising some guitar or piano, or creating some visual art. It always feels fresh coming back to playing trombone afterwards, and then I’m usually good for another few months.
In terms of the instruments that you play: Do you have any go-to brands or models that you’ll always favour?
Liam – Trombone wise: King 3b, or Rath. Guitar: Fender Strat, mostly because I’ve never been able to afford, or been too bothered about exploring different options. I’m not really too gear-mad.
Do the instruments that you play differ in terms of what you’ll turn to during a recording session or playing live?
Liam – No, I always just stick to what I’m comfortable with and used to, regardless of the situation.
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
In terms of touring and writing, it can be tricky to maintain a level of consistency of output when one is not keeping a fixed schedule: How do you keep the creative juices flowing when you’re on the road?
Liam – When I’m away playing gigs, I’m always listen to as much new music as possible. It’s such an important part of maturing as a musician and artist to me. I leave the writing to when I’m in my flat. I love being in my own space with all my instruments there.
Do you have a favoured way of capturing ideas when you’re travelling?
Liam – I have a phone filled with voice memos of me horrifically singing melodies and trying to communicate different mad ideas to my future self. Usually I listen back to it and either can’t figure out where the ‘1’ is, or just think they’re terrible ideas.
Do you prefer to write compositions solo and have an idea of what the finished article is like? Or, do you thrive in a more collaborative setting by bouncing ideas off others?
Liam – I write all the corto.alto stuff myself and haven’t really explored too much into collaboration on the compositional side of things in this project. Saying that, the music always takes form and changes during the rehearsals anyway, and most of the time end up sounding much better than I had imagined previous to hearing live. I work in a few different projects where collaboration is as standard in the writing process, and I definitely love that approach too.
When it comes to the future, what are your hopes for corto.alto and is a tour further afield in the works?
Liam – Well after we release a video/single every 3 weeks for a year, I hope we’ll be able to record a fully-fledged, produced studio album. Also, we have a UK tour in the pipeline for 2020, but we’re still trying to figure that out. I want to further explore collaborating with different artists, not just musical ones too… And hopefully play a few festivals with the band next year. But for now, I’m pretty focused on releases and writing new stuff.
What are your aspirations as an artist and composer?
Liam – It really does vary from project to project. Sometimes I love writing and playing really challenging music, but for this project my main focus is writing music people can just vibe too and trying to sneak some Jazz into the ears of people who don’t really listen to that genre of music. It’s important for me to try to have a positive effect on my listeners for this, it can often feel selfish and almost pointless playing music that’s on the fringe, if nobody’s listening or being helped in some way. I also love playing my friends music, in their various projects. Graham Costello and Tom McGuire’s music is some of the most joyous and amazing stuff I am lucky enough to be involved with playing, and they’re on two polar opposite ends of the spectrum, but both satisfy my musicality in unique ways.
Photo Credit: Gyan Panesar
Some off the cuff questions now so see what you make of these, if you could curate your own dream festival with artists/bands/composers from any and every musical style, who would you get involved and why? Also, where would it be held?
Liam – My dream festival almost already exists. Kelburn Garden Party in Largs is such an amazing music and arts festival here in Scotland set in the most ridiculous landscape, and it’s an annual pilgrimage for me. If I was the booker for Kelburn, and was a millionaire, and had the powers of resurrection, I’d have Anderson Paak, Elliot Mason, Freddie Hubbard, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Queen, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Coltrane, Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamar & Hiatus Kaiyote come and play Kelburn. Hiatus Kaiyote actually played there in 2015, and it was the best gig I’ve ever seen.
If money was no object, what instrument would you go for?
Liam – I’d love a Steinway grand piano. Only to be able to record Fergy McCreadie, our keys player on it. He’s absolutely one of the best musicians in the world in my eyes. And he sounds incredible on a Steinway, feel free to lend us one for the next session, if it fits in my room.
If there is one single piece of advice (not necessarily music-related) that you could go back and tell your younger self, what would it be?
Liam – Probably practice more, but everyone apart from Fergus McCreadie probably says that. Actually, it would probably be to let go of other people’s expectation of you as a creative. I used to really care about what other people (mostly other Jazz musicians) thought of my music, but now I really couldn’t care less, genuinely. I’m just happy to be in a position where I can create alongside other like-minded people, and grateful to be surrounded by my family and friends, who are all supportive of me and what I am doing.
Thank you for chatting with us Liam, we look forward to blasting future corto.alto tunes out around the office and hope to catch you again very soon. All the best!
Liam – Cheers!
Get on it!
Listen to “Live from 435, Vol. 1”
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