Interview: Vels Trio – Shaping New Jazz Forms (January 2019)

We left Vels Trio a few months ago, after an electrifying set during Ealing Jazz Festival, and we’ll meet them again in a few days’ time at another jazz festival in the British capital. This time, the prog and electro-jazz trio from Brighton will perform in North East London during North East London during Walthamstow Jazz Festival on 16th February.on 16th February.

In between these two appointments, the musicians are playing shows all over Europe and are carrying on with their (possibly) never-ending search for a sound identity.

We also had a chat with Jack (Stephenson-Oliver, keys), Cameron (Dawson, bass) and Dougal (Taylor, drum) about the UK jazz scene, the character and direction of their music and the band dynamics.

Rhythm Passport: The first time we met you was almost three years ago at the Battersea Arts Centre. You were opening the Shabaka Hutching and Sons of Kemet show. Can you tell us what has happened to Vels Trio in the last three years?

Jack Stephenson-Oliver: “We have been focusing on our composition and looking at finding our sound. We feel that it’s a sort of never-ending process. It’s been about practising together.”

Cameron Dawson: “We are developing slowly, spending more time together, doing more shows and more recordings at the same time, and always developing at whatever pace, whenever we’ve got time for it or we feel creative. I feel like we are always refining what we do, working on who we are as musicians and how that fits together with each other and the people around us.”

RP: Despite being born and bred in Brighton, you all recently moved to London. How do you relate yourselves and your project with the thriving London jazz scene and its musicians? 

JSO: “I don’t think we are necessarily part of the London jazz scene, but at the same time, it’s nice that people tell us that we are. We are a bit on the outskirts. We play a lot with London-based artists and bands, and we also all live in London now. But a lot of the people in the scene grew up together as friends, so we are kind of external; we didn’t know those guys from a young age.”

CD: “It’s an exciting time to make music. As much as being in the young London scene, and as much as the general population seems more open to listening to something a bit more jazz-related, I’d say that it’s a great time to make music in general. So, we don’t think so much about being part of something in particular, but we care more about the bigger picture. When you’ve got Kamasi [Washington] playing at festivals that aren’t jazz festivals, Badbadnotgood making records with Ghostface Killah, or Kendrik Lamar making jazz records, I mean, it’s definitely a good time to make the things we are doing! We didn’t start doing them because of what was going on, but we started because this is what we love, and we are lucky to have ended up in this sort of cool wave.”

RP: Regarding Vels Trio’s genesis and development… how was the project debuted and where is it heading?

JSO: “Vels Trio started off, I suppose, like a prog band. Even if I met Doug a few years before, we only played our first gig together five years ago. We also had Cam with us for the first time that night. He was replacing another bass player who couldn’t make it… I remember, I was playing guitar and was supposed to be singing at the time. So yes, it was so different from what it is now. It’s crazy how different our sound is now compared to how it was when we started.”

CD: “I think we are finally finding our sound. We cut onto something. It’s just a matter of developing it. We are planning to release a new EP in the next few months, and we are working on our full album too. Our first album! But we don’t know when it’s going to be ready.”

JSO: “To be honest, we probably have only one song ready for it.”

RP: Is there any musician or album that you are listening to at the moment that is influencing your songwriting?

JSO:I never feel there’s one artist or band that stands out for me.”

CD: “I don’t know, streaming and music platforms like Spotify are diluting album listening. We hardly buy any CDs or records today. By the way, we are digging on the psych and dream pop stuff, like Jerry Paper, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard or Dirty Projectors. Not necessarily so much jazz, I suppose.”

Dougal Taylor: Maybe the reason is because we’ve all listened to so much jazz in the past, that now we tend to listen to more singer/songwriter stuff, but we still have our listening history that comes through.”

RP: About that topical creative spark, how does it usually work for Vels Trio? Do you sit down at the table and rack your brains or meet in the studio and mess around improvising with sounds?

JSO: It’s always different. For example, for our most recent tune, which is titled ‘Celestial Greens’, I got the bulk of it and then the guys worked on it. That was a tune I composed for an album called London on Key. It was like a piano compilation album made by Waellas Choice. So, I wrote that song for that, and I was playing it once when we were rehearsing together. That’s when Dougal said, ‘that’s cool, what is it?’ Then he added his own section and made it more epic, and yes, that’s the story. But then, in another song, we might be just jamming and something will happen when we think, ‘that’s sick’, and we will all be chopping ideas.

In the last years, we have started working really well together, like a songwriting team. There’s no ego in the rehearsal room, so when someone gets an idea, we try it, we try stuff out, being open. Then, yes, we all bring stuff to the table separately and work on them.”

CD:It’s a very organic process. There’s not only one way of letting things work.”

RP: To close our chat, we were wondering if you ever thought about a way to describe the result of that organic process? How would you introduce your music to someone who has never listened to it?

JSO:It’s kind of like loud, fun, adrenaline music. In terms of genre, you can hear where it’s coming from. There’s some prog, hip-hop, some electronic music and obviously some jazz music. Also, some funk. But, yes, basically it’s instrumental music. It’s loud and we just mess about, and it’s kind of funny to make tunes out of it!


No need to say that if you’re looking to have some fun listening to well-played music, join Vels Trio at Walthamstow Jazz Festival on Thursday 16th February. However, if you’re not in the area on that day, catch them performing during The Shape Of Sound To Come music series in Manchester (on 3rd March at Band on the Wall), in London (the following night on the Village Underground stage) and in Bristol (1st May at Fiddler), and welcome the new wave of UK jazz musicians.

Photo ©: Marco Vinagre