Matthew Halsall is a trumpeter, producer and composer who is redefining spiritual jazz for the next generation. Over the course of nine albums, numerous accolades and his taste-making label, Gondwana Records, he’s become a vital voice in UK music with his lithe, limitless blend of jazz and deeply meditative influences that’s in tune with the natural world. His thoughtful and refined style draws on the foundations laid by greats like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but adds the sample-fuelled electronica that he first heard in clubs, as well as global percussive influences and his signature – what you might call – sparkle.
Born and based in Manchester, Halsall is known for being one of the leading lights of the UK jazz renaissance. With Gondwana Records he has cultivated a worldwide outlook and roster, and the label’s celebrated artists include Portico Quartet, Hania Rani, GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands, as well as 2023 newcomers like Danish duo Svaneborg Kardyb and Leeds- based saxophonist and composer Jasmine Myra. Halsall’s own distinct sound draws on his unique foundation in meditative music. He started playing trumpet in his early teens and was the youngest member of a local big band but he never truly felt at home in that world. He didn’t feel comfortable in traditional education either and began attending a consciousness-based school in the northwest of England, where he learned yoga and Transcendental Meditation. At the same time in the late-90s, crate-digging DJ culture was exploding in the UK, with producers on record labels like Warp and Ninja Tune exploring the possibilities of sample-based electronica. One memorable DJ set changed everything: when Halsall witnessed Mr Scruff play Pharaoh Sanders’ ‘You’ve Got To Have Freedom’, its themes spoke to his schooling and kickstarted a lifelong appreciation of spiritual jazz.
By the mid-2000s, Manchester had become a hotbed of jazz talent and Halsall, then in his twenties, was in his element. It revolved around the Matt & Phreds Jazz Club, which, in its Matt Nickson-run heyday, is where local legends like flautist Chip Wickham, saxophonist Nat Birchall, double bassists Jon Thorne and Phil France and legendary drummer Luke Flowers would regularly play. Gondwana Records was born in 2008 as Halsall’s way to document this scene, with his brother Daniel creating the artwork. His first album, Sending My Love, was released under his name but was a collective effort and a tribute to the communal power of jazz. It’s an ethos that’s guided him ever since, and the label has now put out over 60 releases. Three more Halsall albums followed, Colour Yes (2009), On The Go (2011) and Fletcher Moss Park (2012), while a crossover moment arrived when Bonobo selected the track ‘Sailing Out To Sea’ for his seminal Late Night Tales compilation in 2013. Then Halsall switched it up with his project the Gondwana Orchestra, adding strings and guest vocals to his cerebral creations.
Their two offerings, When the World Was One (2014) and Into Forever (2015) – as well as their coveted split single of Alice Coltrane interpretations, ‘Journey In Satchidananda’/’Blue Nile’ – arrived at a time when jazz in the UK was starting to be appreciated on a much wider scale, and by a new wave of young heads who, like Halsall, came to it through club culture and DJ eclecticism.
In 2020, after five years focused on his label, Halsall returned with Salute To The Sun and a new band of talented young instrumentalists from his home city. The record’s earthy, soulful music landed like a balm during a tempestuous time globally and earned scores of new admirers who’d never before seen themselves as jazz fans. Its followup, 2023’s An Ever Changing View, continues the thread of lambent percussion, lush ambient textures and acoustic electronica but its process sees Halsall at his most experimental yet. He pulls percussion (kalimba, glockenspiel, bells, custom-made chimes and celeste) from his box of tricks and loops them to create his own meditative tapestries of samples and beats. The result is a sound that is rooted both past and present, straddling different worlds and continuing to weave genres into dizzying new shapes.
In September 2023, to celebrate the release of his ninth album, Halsall and his band will headline London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, a huge moment 15 years in the making. It’s the manifestation of a career spent blurring boundaries and always bringing a singular, and yet ever changing, perspective.