Ed Cawthorne, aka Tenderlonious, is a man on a journey. After we find a relatively quiet table in The Falcon, a heaving pub round the corner from Clapham Junction, he’s relaxed, affable and chatty, but he is also someone who speaks with purpose and focus. Although he spends time in various places around the capital, today he’s come to meet me from his home in Woking.
“I’m just driven I suppose. The other day my missus says to me, the thing with you is, in the nicest way, you’ve got an obsessive personality,” he tells me with a chuckle. “When I get something in my head, I need to fulfil it.”
That’s a determination that’s seen him travel from his time as a teenage raver in the 90s, to a hip-hop, grime and drum n bass producer at the turn of the century, to his position now – band leader of Ruby Rushton, a six (formerly four) man jazz outfit. The current line-up of Nick Walters on trumpet, Aidan Shepherd on keys, bass-player Fergus Ireland, Joseph Deenmamode on percussion, Eddie Hick on drums and himself playing sax and flute is a group he regards as some of “the best musicians in the world”.
It’s a path he sees as continuous, rather than necessarily transformational. “I was schooled on drum 'n' bass and grime. Grime had that gruffness, that roughness, but the beats were inspired from garage and jungle. That was a really British thing. D Double, Riko Dan and all that. Equinox, I met him in 2001, and he was in the drum 'n' bass scene and schooled me. That was the shit I was really into then. It was UK, it was exciting… it was edgy.”
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I’ve borrowed music from these guys and now I can return something...
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His transition from sampling to making jazz was a gradual one, and a move that came as much through a combination of personal, private experiences as well as a particular musical awakening.
“Yusef Lateef is the reason I started playing the saxophone. He’s one of the guys whose records I sampled really early on. I would lift off a little saxophone lick or flute lick and put it on some instrumental hip-hop or a grime version. I’d been making beats; I’d sample jazz to make hip-hop and to make grime and drum 'n' bass. I made a bit of house, just experimenting, but always enjoying the search for some good records in London, then going back to Woking or whatever.”
It was at the age of 23, round 2007, that he decided to investigate jazz more thoroughly. “I was working a job real early in the morning and I was walking past a music shop every day. I saw a soprano sax, and I was thinking about Yusef Lateef playing soprano sax and I thought that it would be kind of cool. It would be respectful in that I’ve borrowed music from these guys and now I can return something just by continuing their efforts.”
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He signed up to some popular music evening classes at Goldsmiths University, in New Cross, South London, but by his own admission it wasn’t for him. In fact, besides some initial tuition, he is almost entirely self-taught.
“What [Goldsmiths] did bring me was the opportunity to play with other musicians. I started this little freaky offshoot thing with a piano player, who was like 50, a guy called Paul, really lovely guy, but he had AIDS and shit. He had his own deal with life, but he was playing piano and he was a don. He was maintaining. And then we had a drummer who was over from Paris, and a cello player as well. We had the facility at Goldsmiths so we could tap it out. And that was the seed. The band changed, the music changed, the lineup changed – but the name stayed.”
The reason the band name, Ruby Rushton, never changed, was because of its very personal meaning. “Trudi is my mother and Ruby Rushton is my grandmother – my mother’s mother. So 'Trudi’s Songbook' [the title of the new album] is a tribute to my mother, and the band name Ruby Rushton is because of my grandmother. It was not exactly like she’s the kind of grandmother who you go round and she’s cooking you some dinner. It wasn’t like that at all.”
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The band changed, the music changed, the lineup changed...
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“She was in Birmingham – I didn’t really see her all that much. She was a very heavy smoker and she was quite, sort of… she was a very stubborn character. She was great, but she wanted to be a creative person – an artist, an actress, a musician. She played some piano and also she acted as extras in EastEnders and Crossroads years and years ago, probably not even credited, just in the crowds – that’s as close as she got.”
“I wouldn’t say it was tragic, but it was maybe not what she envisioned for her life, the way it turned out. She never really realised her dream – through her own fault as much as anything else. So there’s that connection, continuing the legacy.”
It’s obvious how much family means to Cawthorne, both in the literal sense and in the wider sense of his close friends. The label on which Ruby Rushton release, 22a, is named after his house number, and is a tight knit crew of collaborators. “I only work with my friends,” he says. “I don’t sign artists that I don’t know.”
One of the newest artists to join the roster is Parisian Neue Grafik, who will play a live set at their album release party in May. “He’s been sending me music for a couple of years, just via Soundcloud links. We had some brief contact but not really to the extent I’d want, so we jumped on a phone call ‘cause I wanted to actually get to know him as best I could, without actually going there.”
“I could tell when we talked on the phone that we vibed, and he said a lot of nice things about how he approaches music, which is similar to how we approach music in the 22a crew. Since then he’s been over and I said lets do this record, but I needed to hear him speak first. I needed to hear what he’s saying.”
This sense of moving as a unit, of having a shared ethos, is a philosophy that he may have inherited from his father. “He was in the Special Forces. He was a colonel in the Ghurkhas for many, many years. He’s an old boy now. It’s leadership.”
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I always say to my missus I’ve got bad fucking karma.
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In fact, it was a combination of music and family that lifted Cawthorne from his darkest moments and gave him the resolve to pursue his music career further. “If someone slips then we all have to fucking support. And I’m the one who’s slipped the most, where I’ve been looking at serious consequences, and they supported me. And that was music too, that was saxophone: that was what gave me the strength.”
This goes some way to explain the passion he has for his musicianship, a passion which now has him teaching himself the flute. “A lot of saxophone players, especially in the jazz era, doubled on flute as well. So Yusef Lateef, Eric Dolphy, later on Coltrane – although I don’t think there’s any recordings.”
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Similarly to Lateef, who spent time in Africa learning native instruments, Cawthorne is intrigued by the muscularity of non-western music. “I play Bansuri flute. It’s the bamboo one, which is different because it’s diatonic, and the distance between the holes and length of the wood determines the keys. Western instruments are quite dainty.”
As for the new Ruby Rushton album, that will be delivered in two parts over this year – on vinyl, CD and digital. The initial instalment, ‘Trudi’s Songbook Volume One’, was put together over just two days. It was on the first of those two days that ‘Prayer For Yusef’, a nine minute tribute to his “guiding star” was recorded. “He’s the one who led me into the excursion, as it were. He took me by the hand, just through his records.”
Throughout our chat, the intersection of spirituality and music comes up regularly and, while Cawthorne is not religious, his connection to his artform is certainly something which, in his words, can alleviate “deep depression” and help maintain a focus. “The mind can wander. I’ve seen it happen in my own family. That’s why some of them are dead, because things spiral out of control. I always say to my missus I’ve got bad fucking karma.”
So is making music about redemption, I ask? “It’s confession.”
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Words: Alexander McFadyen
Ruby Rushton will be playing at The Jazz Café in Camden on (May 5th) - pre-order 'Trudi's Songbook' HERE.
For tickets to the latest Ruby Rushton shows click HERE.