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One Sharp Cat: Nick Etwell

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Being bandleader of jazz band The Filthy Six and horn man for Mumford & Sons keeps Nick Etwell busy. Jason Holmes caught up with him in London

Shoreditch in east London. It's in the Bricklayer's Arms that Nick Etwell greets me with a grin, a paisley scarf knotted around his throat.

So, why a career playing jazz? 'My dad ran a swing band in the 1960s,' says Nick. 'He loved all the Sinatra, Count Basie and Glenn Miller Big Band stuff. As a teenager I got into his record collection and fell into everything from Fats Waller to Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald to Aretha Franklin and, being a trumpet player, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. I heard Jimmy Smith's The Cat on the radio and fell in love with the Hammond organ. I checked out that album and it introduced me to Lalo Schifrin [The Cat's composer/arranger] and he got me interested in film music scores like Isaac Hayes' Shaft and Roy Budd's Get Carter, which are just brilliant.'

Life in music
Nick grew up in Derby but has been a denizen of Fulham for the past 15 years. 'I was at the Royal College of Music in South Kensington studying classical music, but it was jazz that I was really into. I was going home after playing in symphony orchestra all day and listening to Blue Note records by night. I was really into the organ groups of Lou Donaldson, Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, as well as my trumpet heroes Lee Morgan and Donald Byrd.

'After college, I decided to start my own band in the style of the music I most loved.' And what a name the band has. 'The Filthy Six is basically a play on the The Dirty Dozen,' he says. 'The sound I'm after is that 1966-70 soul-jazz period. Funky, but without the wah-wah pedal. I told Nigel [Price, TFS's guitarist] when he joined it had to be "George Benson and Melvin Sparks all the way!" Our LPs The Filthy Six and The Fox [Acid Jazz Records] are our tributes to that era of music.'

Being a freelance musician and combining session work with musical creativity can be tricky. 'If someone needs a player they ring around and if you're at the top of that fixers list, you get offered the gig,' says Nick. 'It can be advert jingles or a three-week tour around Europe. It's a fun and varied life. I made the decision about six years ago that, where possible, I was only going to do gigs that I wanted to do; to be humble and work with whomever, as long as I was into the music. I don't want to be bitter and twisted in 20 years' time, moaning about all the things I wished I'd done.' So it's about fulfilling your heart's desire? 'Absolutely.'

How did he get the gig with Mumford & Sons? 'I used to teach Ben Lovett [of Mumford & Sons] jazz piano at King's College School in Wimbledon. I taught him all the tunes I was into. We've been friends ever since,' he says.

On the trail
This summer, Nick will be on the festival trail with Mumford & Sons in Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in July, then on to the US in August, while also trying to find windows of opportunity for gigging with The Filthy Six in Europe because he feels audiences there are more receptive to soul, jazz and funk. 'In terms of career highlights so far, backing Tom Jones on a TV show a few years ago is definitely top of the tree. He's an incredible performer. Many of my favourite shows have been in the US with the Mumford boys in LA, Nashville and New Orleans. New Orleans Jazz Fest was superb, the vibe there overwhelming. I also played there with The New Mastersounds at the House of Blues.

'But one of the most exciting gigs I've ever played was with Duran Duran at the Coachella Festival in Nevada last year. Dave Williamson, who plays trombone for Mumford, plays in a horn section with Simon Willescroft, Duran's sax player. As we were there with Mumford, Simon asked if we'd like to join him on the Duran gig for Notorious and A View To A Kill. It was in front of 80,000 people and there was no rehearsal. As we began at dusk with a blood-red sky, a desert wind picked up and started blowing the sheet music everywhere. I was having to memorise the music one passage at a time as the wind flapped the pages around. It was nerve-wracking but a phenomenal buzz.' Did he catch the eye of any of Simon Le Bon's female fans? 'Sadly, I didn't have groupies throwing themselves at me, but I need more of those!' he laughs.

Band of brothers
Nick is one of a growing band of brothers who make up a vibrant musical scene which is at odds with the UK's televisual musical fodder. 'Live music has boomed in recent years,' he says, 'and it's a backlash against the throwaway nature of synthetic music that's pedalled to the mainstream.

'New trends will always have their influence rooted in the past and the glamour of dressing up has returned. If you're offered something you feel is inferior, you'll always find an alternative. By pushing good music to the peripheries, you only make it more exotic and if a big retailer like HMV goes under, people will simply resort back to independent record stores which is where my, and a lot of people's musical education, really began.'

Nick hoists his trumpet into view, the horn's case covered in AAA stickers. 'I'm off later to a regular Wednesday night jam session that my friend runs at Roadtrip in Old Street,' he says. 'Wanna come?'

Yeah, why not? I say. But not before we've watched the Germans beat the Dutch on the pub TV, of course.

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

www.thefilthysix.com
www.facebook.com/nicketwell
www.acidjazz.co.uk
www.nola.com/jazzfest