As one of the music business’s nicest guys within the world of brass players, Winston Rollins has an enviable CV, having been in bands like Aswad, Courtney Pine, Jamiroquai, The Brand New Heavies and Incognito. Not one to keep still, Winston is also a trombonist in Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, whilst running his own studio and his own big band.
We can’t blame this one on technology. It would seem even after exchanging many emails arranging this interview, neither Winston or myself had actually exchanged phone contacts! Luckily Winston checked his emails. “Yes, I was getting worried,” he laughs, “but I put the time to good use to maintain my RedRoom Studios based here in West London.
I started the studio a few years ago when I had a musical project called Real, and for a while it was fully commercial, but I’ve now dedicated it to close friends who have recording projects and myself. I’m just going over some of the musical arrangements for my big band, ingeniously called The Winston Rollins Big Band, which is a large side project from my work within West End musicals and being part of the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues band.
I’ve always had a love for the big band sound. Back in my college days I had my own outfit, playing trombone and taking on the role as musical arranger. This was long before computers, so I was up all hours arranging all the parts for the instruments which were very tiring.
If we skip several decades and come bang up to date, I am delighted to say I’ll be conducting The Winston Rollins Band at the BBC Prom ‘The Battle Of The Big Bands’ at London’s Albert Hall in August, alongside Guy Barker and his band. It’ll be an evening of ‘all things swing’ presented by jazz singer, Clare Teal.”
Winston certainly has a very impressive CV and is regarded by many in the music business as their first choice go-to trombonist.
“I’m certainly busy”, he explains, “Apart from touring and theatre performances, I work a lot here in the studio with Japanese record company. They send me their artist’s files over the internet, and I arrange and record the horn sections and ping them back. I can usually turn it all around in a week, that’ll be sitting down listening to the track, writing and arranging the horns, and if I need other brass players, I can call my brass team and say we have another session in the house. Then it’s down to editing and sending the final mix back, they’re real quick to turn it all around and get the songs on the radio and into the charts over there.
It’s amazing what can be done in this day and age, but I’m pleased to say that my part is all analogue. It’s me huffing and puffing down a trombone, rather than adding digitally sampled horns or stabby brass effects from a keyboard. A piano lives here in the studio which I use for writing on, but I don’t go live with a keyboard. I also have the need for a bass guitar in the studio of course and I can still be called up for live bass duties if required.”
Like a lot of professional musicians, Winston has certainly risen through the ranks to his high and well respected status in the industry.
“When I was about 8, l lived in Bentley, Doncaster and I can distinctly remember one morning assembly in the middle school having a dramatic effect on me. Instead of the usual sing-along hymn, a brass band marched on the stage. I was in awe of all the big shiny brass instruments, I’d never seen anything like it before.
A couple of years later at the ripe old age of 10, I was having a scrap in the school corridor, when we got separated by a music teacher who took us to a classroom, threw us both a trombone and said “Fight that instead.” I was amazed as this was one of the instruments that I wanted to play.
I’ll always remember it, I ran home with this old Boosey and Hawkes trombone in a hopeless case made out of denim, it was actually one of the legs from a pair of jeans. It wasn’t the easiest brass instrument for a youngster to learn, but I was honking away in no time.”
Most parents would flinch at the thought of their child learning the trombone at home, as luck would have it, the home of little Winston was indeed ‘a rockin’!
“I have to laugh when I think back, I was actually one of eight children who at one point, all played and rehearsed an instrument at home, it was noisy to say the least. I’ve never been sure what to say when asked if I came from a musical family. I mentioned this to my dad, and out of the blue he said it was his side of the family. They were all Jamaicans and musicians, I was blown away that he had never mentioned it before.
Reggae music ruled the roost most of the time, so a trombone was a little alien, but I started listening to jazz trombonists like J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Wesley and Jim Pugh. It didn’t stop me getting shaken out of bed daily by my brother’s enormous sound system as he practiced to be a DJ.
I was astonished with Jim Pugh’s work, especially when he played with Chick Korea. I learnt some of his material by listening over and over on this little mono cassette player as I walked back and forth to school, I think some kids thought I was a bit cranky.”
Even at this stage of the game, Winston religiously rehearses every day.
“I’ve talked to some brass players who say they don’t practice that much, they pick up their instrument just before a gig, and what comes out comes out. I have a ritual warm up routine I have to do before I go on stage. Even before that, I’ll do breathing exercises in the car on the way to a gig, if I’m warmed up I can play all day.
Professional brass blowers will always tell you that if you don’t practice, the facial muscles will revert back to their natural shape. It’s the embouchure muscles around the lips that are the important ones, especially for trombone players. They allow you to tense and relax to form the shape for the mouth piece, especially for trombone players. It’s like an athlete who has to train to keep the muscles flexible. I also play the euphonium as well as the trombone, both of which require some oomph. In comparison, the lighter blowers in the woodwind section for example, can take three weeks off and come straight back in and play without a problem.
In my job I have to be able to play all styles, I like them all but I don’t think you can beat a cool funky groove. I enjoyed being in Aswad and Jamiroquai who in the 90’s, were the biggest band of its kind in the world selling around 60 million albums and as we were so young, it was quite an experience.
If you listen carefully to some of my recordings, you can hear who has influenced me over the years, especially all the artists I’ve worked and recorded with in Jools Holland’s band, the list is endless. It’s here where a lot of my training back at the Trinity college of music has certainly paid off, taking the professional road. On the BBC TV show ‘Later With Jools Holland’ and his radio shows, there’s always a diverse selections of artist, and we often get one trial run, then it’s the red light, and the cameras are running. Whilst I’m quite fanatical about perfection, other side projects l have running with sax player Derek Nash and Chris Storr on trumpet, enter the improvisation genre of jazz and blues. Our monthly slot at Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion night in London for example, is always a great night.”
To hear Winston play is certainly a treat whatever band he’s with and he’s always recognisable, as he explains,
“Ah yes, the bandana. It’s become a bit of a trade mark now although it’s there for a reason. I’m involved with the production of High Society at the Old Vic theatre in London, and the costume designer asked me to take my hat off, as it would look so much better during the show. I had to explain that if I take it off, my dreads will get caught in the slide of my trombone, and it’s a bandana not a hat,” he laughs.
“Many years ago I was in a band called The Pasadena’s, I had my hair at the back shaved, but I had this large quiff at the front. I went through college with it and even joined Jamariqua with this rather large raised forelock. Then one day I decided I needed a change, so I shaved half of it off, why half I’ll never know, it was bad, so I took it all off. I started to grow a big funky afro but it grew unevenly and looked a mess.
The girl backing vocalists in the band at the time said they were going to sort it out by twisting the ends, which eventually grew into dreads, which then became so long, the only way out was to wear the bandana.”
So tell us what you think about your Premium Trombone Case Fusion gig bag Winston.
“Yes the Fusion gig bag. I’ve had several soft cases in the past, but I must say without prejudice, this one is the best I’ve ever had. It comes under the soft-case banner, but it’s really solid and robust and light on the shoulder. It’s absolutely amazing, the quality is superb.
My trombone is a snug fit, and the bell is well secured and protected and it’s great to have a separate compartment for the slide. I’m more than happy, thank you so much Fusion. It’s a vast improvement and a far cry from the original denim jean leg effort I had at the start. Ha Ha.”
Interview by Lars Mullen