Brain Surgery Inspires Album From Star Drummer
Drummer Ollie Howell has been inspired to release his debut album after he underwent brain surgery after delaying seeking medical help.
Looking back now, he says he should have gone to see about it long before he did. But when you’re young and at college and everything that you’ve always wanted to do seems to be falling into place, you can delay things like going to a doctor. Add the arrival of two musical legends whose endorsement, support and encouragement would distract any young jazz musician and it’s easy to understand – if not condone – Howell’s neglect of his health.
“Over about a year and a half, this headache got worse and I tried to ignore it,” says Howell, who has been widely tipped as a drummer and bandleader to watch. “But eventually I realised I had to go and see about it and I was lucky because, when they did a scan, they called me back for surgery the next day. If they hadn’t caught it when they did, I could have become paralysed.”
The scan showed up a brain malfunction and two major operations were required before Howell was given the all-clear in January this year. A glass-half-full kind of chap, Howell even managed to create something positive from his illness: Sutures And Stitches, the debut album by the quintet he brings to Scotland next week for the first time.
“Being ill certainly seems to have been a catalyst,” Howell admits. “I’d always composed music, going back to my teenage years with rock bands. But when I went to the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Drama, I stopped writing and concentrated on studying harmony and arrangement. Then suddenly, these ideas started coming so I wrote them down and soon I had a whole album’s worth of material and more.”
Learning the piano from the age of six helped bring these new compositions to fruition. Howell had shown a musical ear from an early age, when he’d pick out tunes he’d heard on radio and TV, and the piano teacher that his parents sent him to noticed and encouraged an aptitude for blues and jazz phrasing.
It was the drums that Howell really wanted to play, though, and at the age of 11 he was given his first kit.
He wasn’t to know then that the great Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s multi-million selling Thriller album among hundreds of other achievements, would become an admirer, or that Jimmy Cobb, who played drums on Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue, would take him under his wing, although he knew who they were from an early age.
“My folks listened a lot to Frank Sinatra when I was growing up and I loved Quincy’s arrangements on Sinatra At The Sands especially,” says Howell. “Then I went to Cardiff and the college decided that, since Quincy is one-quarter Welsh, they should give him an honorary doctorate. I was delegated to fetch him from his hotel. We got on well immediately and, after he heard me play on this students’ concert that they put on for him, he said to me, ‘You can stick with me for the next few days.'”
There followed meals together, invitations to New York, to Jones’s house in Los Angeles and to Montreux Jazz Festival. All the while, to begin with, Howell was trying to cope with the aforementioned headache.
Then he met Jimmy Cobb at Hay on Wye Jazz Festival and a misunderstanding over a masterclass the great drummer had been invited to give meant that Howell’s band played to Cobb and his wife, rather than the 50 students that Cobb was expecting to address. Cobb, like Jones, was impressed by Howell’s drumming and Howell found himself hanging out in New York at Cobb’s invitation and giving a joint interview with him to Rhythm magazine.
“It’s been amazing meeting these guys,” says Howell. “And what makes it even more pleasing is that they saw me first about five years ago and I feel I’ve grown so much in that time. So they must have seen potential. They’ve been incredibly supportive and I still can’t believe that I’m going to Los Angeles to see Quincy Jones to discuss my next album in a few weeks.”
Other people have endorsed Howell’s talents. He won the prestigious Peter Whittingham Development Award in 2012 and is the first musical recipient of a Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, which will result in a television documentary being screened on the Sky Arts channel next year.
“I’ve had lows as well as highs and I do have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure the highs are real,” he says. “But having got the all-clear medically, my main focus is on my band, who are all good friends. That’s important because if you’re going to be stuck on a motorway for hours, as well as playing onstage together, you want it to be with people you get on with.”
Ollie Howell Quintet plays Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, on Wednesday, September 17; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen (18), Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (19), Lyth Arts Centre (20) and Jazz Bar, Edinburgh (21)