Jess Gillam, saxophonist

Who or what inspired you to take up the saxophone and pursue a career in music? 

When I was 7 years old, I went to the Barracudas Carnival Arts Centre with my Dad as he was teaching drums and percussion. In the room next door to him, there happened to be a saxophone workshop and I decided to try it. I picked it up, made a sound and immediately fell in love with the instrument. I haven’t looked back since!

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

I take inspiration from many different saxophonists (and musicians) from hugely different genres. My saxophone role models are Barbara Thompson, Rob Buckland, John Harle and I love the music of King Curtis and Snake Davis’ solos. A family friend first introduced me to the music of Barbara Thompson when I was about 12 and ever since then I have really looked up to Barbara. As well as being such a fantastic musician, she is also such a determined and creative person and this has had a influenced me very much.

Whenever I am in need of musical inspiration, I listen to Pee Wee Ellis’ solo on the live version Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey. The way he combines rhythm, melody, harmony and feeling is something I greatly aspire to.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

It has taken me a long time to realise that I am never going to be able to give a performance that I am completely happy with and that this is part of the beauty of exploring music.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my performance of Michael Nyman’s ‘Where the Bee Dances’ in the BBC Young Musician Final 2016. I had never before been quite as focussed and immersed in the music and that feeling is unforgettable.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I love the versatility and dynamism of the saxophone. It can convey so many different emotions, just like the voice can, and one minute you can be making a hugely powerful, aggressive sound and the next you can be floating the sound and singing out a beautiful, delicate melody, and I try to reflect this as much as possible when choosing repertoire. I try and include repertoire that I can really connect with so that hopefully audiences can enjoy it as much as I do.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I don’t have a particular favourite concert venue; I love performing and would perform anywhere! However, the first stage I ever performed on was the Coronation Hall in Ulverston when I was 9 years old. Since then, I have had so many unforgettable performance experiences on that stage and it always feels like home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

One of my favourite pieces to perform just has to be ‘Where the Bee Dances’, the concerto I performed in the BBC Young Musician Final. The piece begins with the most beautiful chords and the perfectly paced build to the very last note is something that requires my whole being to concentrate and be completely consumed by the music.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Creative musicians who manage to convey intense emotion to an audience hugely inspire me. David Bowie is one of my all time favourite musicians as is John Harle. They are both such artistic people who have written music that resonates with so many people.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of my most memorable concert experiences is making a guest appearance with Jools Holland and his R+B Orchestra. I had absolutely no idea what we were going to play until 5minutes before stepping on stage. This made me quite anxious but once we had started playing, I couldn’t have been happier.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I think to enjoy music is the most important piece of advice I have been given. It makes the hours of practice an absolute joy if you are enjoying being inquisitive, determined and passionate about attempting to master an instrument! Aiming to convey a personal interpretation of a piece of music is also important I think. Music is one of the most powerful forms of communication and can be used to say an incredible amount.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

I would love to be regularly performing across the world!

What is your most treasured possession? 

Most definitely my saxophones – I don’t know what I would do without them!

18 year old saxophonist Jess Gillam from Ulverston, Cumbria, began playing saxophone 11 years ago, aged 7.

Jess made history as the first ever saxophonist to win the Woodwind Final of BBC Young Musician of the Year and after competing in the Semi Final, she reached the Grand Final where she performed a concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at London’s Barbican to critical acclaim.

Jess was also recently awarded Musician of the Year at the Cumbria Culture Awards presented by Melvyn Bragg. She has a busy performance schedule and has made a guest appearance with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and has performed as a concerto soloist with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra (in the same series as Nicola Benedetti, Emma Johnson and Julian Bliss). Upcoming concerto highlights include performances with the Southbank Sinfonia and the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Recently, Jess was the youngest of 2,600 delegates to perform at the World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg. She performed a recital consisting entirely of world premieres by some of the world’s leading saxophonists: Barbara Thompson, John Harle and Rob Buckland as well as one of her own compositions.

Read more about Jess on her website

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