Trumpeter Matthew Halsall on Life-Changing Records and Meditation

One of the brightest jazz talents in the UK opens up about the foundations of his sound

Matthew Halsall emerged rather unannounced from Manchester in 2008 to become one of the most talked about names in British jazz. A trumpeter and bandleader, Halsall draws from a love of spiritual and modal jazz for his own sweeping compositions, in particular the works of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.

After releasing four albums in five years, Halsall decided to focus on composition and created the Gondwana Orchestra, a collective of musicians with whom he has released another two albums since. Halsall’s fans include Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum and he has collaborated with fellow Mancunian Mr. Scruff as well as DJ Shadow.

Independent from the start, Halsall has opened up his Gondwana label in recent years to include ex-Cinematic Orchestra member John Ellis and local bands GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Stephan Szillus on RBMA Radio, Halsall discusses the key moments that have shaped his sound, from discovering Alice Coltrane to the Manchester scene he came up in.

Simon Hunt


The starting point for me with music was my parents’ record collection. They used to let me rummage through it as a child, look at the artwork, and they would help me put the records on the player. We had an amazing hi-fi my parents had saved up a long time for. It had crazy touch-sensitive pads on it, the volume and everything would light up. As a child that was one of the most futuristic things I’d ever seen.

The record collection was quite eclectic. It had Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, loads of Beatles records. There was Jimi Hendrix. Classical stuff as well, like Debussy and Ravel. And we always had a family piano in the house, everyone in my family likes to try and have a go on the piano. My parents had a friend who was an artist and worked at a jazz club. Once a month on a Sunday there was a gig and he would paint the performers that came over and sell those paintings. We went down to one of the concerts and there was a jazz big band playing. They were playing Milestones by Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie’s In Tunisia and Duke Ellington tracks.

I immediately fell in love with the whole concept of jazz and the energy of big band music: big drum solos; quiet, intimate parts; beautiful trumpet solos – some of them mellow, some of them screaming like crazy. That got me into the trumpet although I was six at the time and couldn’t hold one, so I had to start on a cornet and then progress to trumpet as soon as I could hold it. Pretty much for the rest of my life I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in.

Matthew Halsall - On the Other Side of the World


I’ve been studying meditation since I was about 14. My mom’s quite spiritual in general, she’s a bit of a hippie, which I love about her. My education was actually a difficult rocky road because I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life and everything else was just slowing me down. I pretty much hated education. The only things I liked were art, music and design, building things. I got in a lot of trouble and left school. Then my parents found The Maharishi School, which incorporates meditation. You study lots of philosophies of meditation and ways of life as well as doing normal academia. I went to that school for the last two years of my high school years and got heavily into transcendental meditation.

From that I became interested in Buddhism and read loads of books on it. I think, for me, as much as the meditation, I like the reading of books about mediation. It makes me feel relaxed. There were always words that were really special. Mudita was one of those and samatha. Those were really nice ones. “The End of Dukkha,” a track from On the Go, is the end of anxiety and stress. There was this big battle in my life going on at that point, so I was trying to bring in different ways of talking about the different moods in my life and put a bit of my own life experience in there as well.

Discovering Alice Coltrane

When I was really young I got into John Coltrane through Miles. But I had no idea about his later spiritual stuff. I kind of knew all his Blue Train, A Love Supreme, but not the heavier stuff.

With Alice Coltrane, I knew nothing about her, I didn’t know she existed until I was about 16. I went to a Mr. Scruff DJ gig and he played Pharoah Sanders’ “You’ve Got to Have Freedom.” I didn’t know who Pharaoh Sanders was either. I immediately went out and bought everything by Pharaoh Sanders because it felt exactly like what I wanted to do with jazz music, and music in general. He was a kindred spirit in my mind. I loved his music. Then I started seeing what else he’d played on the outside of his music and discovered Alice.

Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra - Tribute To Alice Coltrane

I remember lying in my mom’s conservatory with the sun beaming down on me listening to Alice Coltrane. It was such a deep thing for me and I connected to it completely. I really love that music. It captures a lot of who I am. It’s got meditation, it’s got creativity, it’s quite ego-less as well. It’s about a collective sound. Alice Coltrane doesn’t just dominate at all. She’s quite fluid and open with her compositions. Everything was just right about it for me.

The Manchester Scene

When I was still relatively unknown my friend started working at Matt and Fred’s Jazz Club and I would go down and watch. They had music seven nights a week, about two-and-a-half hours every night. It was like the melting pot of the jazz scene in Manchester. You got to see everyone who was good enough play there. I then started going to the local jam sessions and meeting all the musicians.

There was a competition at one of the jam sessions and I won best jazz musician. I got to play on a Saturday night with the all-star band. It was John Thorne on bass – he’s played with Mr. Scruff – Luke Flowers from Cinematic Orchestra on drums, who is still working with me, John Ellis on piano, also from Cinematic Orchestra at the time, and Matt Nixon on saxophone, who owns the venue. They were pushing the music in such modern directions and I had a great time. The Manchester scene has continued with this attitude of everyone being really open. And people don’t just listen to old jazz music. They listen to folk, soul, reggae, dub, Afrobeat. You had so many different crossover covers in the club, it was really fun. It was a really vibrant scene and it still is now.

Choosing to Be Independent

I started the record label with, I think, about 1,000 pounds I’d saved working at Ticketmaster. So I had that amount of money and a bunch of musicians who I really respected. We started making recordings, doing it the best we could, and when we’d finished I started thinking about which record label might be interested. I didn’t have a direct idea of where it would fit or where to go and I didn’t want to change the music, so I decided to release it myself.

My mother is quite an entrepreneur, she’s always had her own businesses and been independent, and I always respected that. When I was younger I had a bike business, buying old bikes, fixing them and selling them, so I just decided I would continue doing independent business the way I’d always done it in my life.

I did the label with my brother. We got someone to take the photos, my brother did the graphic design, and then we put the CD out. We found a local distributor, Baked Goods from Manchester. That was something that was quite important to me, trying to work as closely as possible with the community I live in.

By Matthew Halsall on January 13, 2017

On a different note