Pete Lee-1006 copy.jpg

Course Studied: BA Jazz

Year of Graduation: 2009

Top Career Highlights:

  • Leading my 10 piece band at The Manchester Jazz Festival in 2017
  • Touring Japan with Gabrielle Aplin in 2017
  • Signing to “Ubuntu Records” in 2018

London-based pianist, composer and bandleader Pete Lee has toured with notable artists including Gabrielle Aplin, Tom Walker and Alice Zawadzki. In April 2017, he launched a highly successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, raising over £5,000 in support of his new album ‘The Velvet Rage’. The subsequent release will showcase some of Pete’s highly intricate compositions, arranged for 10-piece ensemble, including a string quintet.

We spoke to Pete to find out more about the album’s concept, musical direction and his encounters with Leeds Conservatoire graduates in his career to date.

Can you describe how you split your time working as a pianist?

I work as pop session keyboard player, lead a band under my name, work as sideman for Alice Zawadzki & Matt Anderson (jazz artists) and teach piano at Middlesex University. Since graduating from Leeds Conservatoire, I’ve worked in a band called “The White Keys”, which is compromised solely of Leeds Conservatoire graduates, led by Amy Syed (Popular Music 2009). This has been home for me for 8 years. I’m extremely thankful for the security it’s given me whilst I’ve developed other aspects of my musical career.

Your Kickstarter for ‘The Velvet Rage’ was highly successful. How did you ensure that this project was well supported? What did this support enable you to do that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to achieve?

Kickstarter is a particularly strong platform. It’s ‘all or nothing’, so backers know that if the artist doesn’t reach their target, they won’t receive a penny. This creates a real sense of urgency! One of my favourite memories was about a week into the campaign, when I decided to ‘go live’ by playing duos with each member of the band, live on social media. We used a little mixing desk that went straight into an ‘iRig’, which plugs straight into your phone! People loved the casualness of seeing us busk on our balconies or in our bedrooms, and I used the opportunity to thank people for their backing so far, and as a reminder to spread the word. It was a great way to ensure I was bringing fresh content to the campaign. I received pledges of hundreds of pounds from complete strangers, who claimed rewards such as solo piano performances in their own homes. These ‘strangers’ quickly became close friends.

I raised £5300 towards the production of the album, which paid for the recording studio, the mixing, mastering, CD production, PR and the album art work. Since then I’ve had to supplement the album with thousands of pounds, raised simply by working as a piano player. Albums are extremely expensive, but undoubtedly a worthwhile investment.

What was the concept behind the name for the album?

My debut album certainly has a highly personal concept and title. ‘The Velvet Rage’ refers to an observational book of the same name (by Alan Downs), which comments on the difficulties faced by so many homosexual men and women in our mostly straight society. It gives some tips on seeking authentic personal validation.

My journey has been anything but easy, but I see my album most importantly as a celebration of all the wonderful progress we’ve seen for the LGBT community in the last few years. At the Manchester Jazz Festival, Steve Mead, the festival director turned up in a bright pink suit to present our gig, and together we celebrated 50 years of legal gay sex!

It’s important to me that music has a strong political standpoint. As artists we have a responsibility to change the world for the better. Part of me feels that those who identify themselves as gay haven’t had a particularly large voice in jazz! I remember meeting a gay female vocalist on a course for those retiring. She was an outstanding musician, but she remembered feeling totally rejected in the 80s by a misogynist jazz scene. I, however, am surrounded by open minded lefties and I think now is the right time for my big gay album.

What are the advantages and challenges of working with 10 professional musicians at a time? What does the addition of the ‘Amika Strings’ allow you to create musically?

I met the Amika Strings whilst preparing for a gig at the Manchester Jazz Festival with Alice Zawadzki in 2015. I was inspired by their playing, and knew that I wanted my existing group “Narcissus” to incorporate strings, including composing new music with them in mind.

Using strings lends a completely different aesthetic. You can use them in ballads to create a really classical aesthetic that pulls on the heart strings. They can also be punchy - think of the “disco” strings you hear in Sister Sledge or Jamiroquai!

Finally, as a jazz pianist, they free me up from a technical point of view. I don’t need to constantly fill out the harmony, and so I can focus on improv and interpreting the melody.

Organising a tour with all 10 musicians is near on impossible!! I’m hoping to do a small tour with just piano and strings in acoustic venues such as churches, and then a standard jazz tour with the band, with a few big gigs at the end with all 10 of us. 

How did the live performance, featuring the full ensemble, go at Manchester Jazz Festival earlier this year?

It was fantastic. We rehearsed thoroughly enough that the gig just flowed. We had the whole gig recorded and videoed professionally. We’ll be releasing those videos gradually as we prepare for our album launch in June 2018.

A lot of your projects (including The Velvet Rage/Narcissus) have included fellow Leeds Conservatoire graduates across multiple genres. You’ve also worked on other graduate’s projects (e.g. Matt Anderson’s Quartet album – ‘Rambling’). How did the connections and friendships you made at Leeds Conservatoire continue after your studies?

I am extremely busy with my work as a pianist in London, be it working with pop artists, jazz artists or working in education. In all of these areas, I honestly can’t get over how constantly surrounded I am by Leeds Conservatoire alumni. When we finished college, around 15 of us moved down to London at the same time. We shared living spaces, gave each other work and before long we were a force to be reckoned with in a new city. Leeds Conservatoire undoubtedly put out a group of highly versatile musicians. I’ve also lived with Matt Anderson, and over the years we’ve done lots of playing together. He’s a really brilliant musician; extremely accomplished with a unique compositional voice. It was such a pleasure to record piano on his album.

How has the tour been with Gabrielle Aplin and Tom Walker? How did that particular opportunity come about?

New pop work has come in entirely by chance; by word of mouth. I was recommended for Gabrielle Aplin’s gig by a friend who worked for another artist on the same label. There’s really not a lot you can do to control whether you get the call or not! 

When you do get the call, you should already have these things under your belt. It’s essential that you are proficient on your instrument. Having the correct gear (in my case, keyboards) and knowing how to use new music tech. You are capable of spending large amounts of time with new people, and approaching that from a friendly place. Most of the time touring is spent travelling or waiting in green rooms. I’ve flown to many countries, spending days travelling, all for 40 mins on stage. So you simply need to be nice! You need to be able to learn new music quickly by memory and you also need to be organised with you correspondence. 

Gabrielle is a brilliant musician. She is open to suggestions in terms of arrangements which makes the band feel like they can make a creative contribution. Together we played all the major music festivals, including Glastonbury 2017.

Tom Walker is a relatively new gig for me. I’ve spent a lot of time doing promo events (TV, radio etc) with him, but I’m looking forward to touring UK and Europe in 2018.

What advice would you give to a prospective student, wanting to study Jazz?

Be open minded: ‘music is just music’ and genres are manmade! Say yes to every opportunity! Practice and transcribe lots of people on your instrument. 

What attracted you to studying in Leeds, and how did it differ from growing up in Cardiff and London - where you live now?

I love Leeds. It has such a unique live music scene. The jazz course has an incredible reputation and with good reason. The tutors are passionate and incredibly warm and supportive.

From a personal perspective, flying the nest was vital, and at Leeds I met people from all over the UK. People made fun of my Welsh accent, so I made sure to accentuate it. 

I would also say that the city provides students with a ‘real student experience’. It’s so important for young adults to develop themselves, and Leeds is full of students from half a dozen different institutions, creating a real buzz. 

I love the funk and soul scene and I really really miss the curries (nothing in London comes close!)

Find out more about Pete via his website.

Learn more about our BA (Hons) Music (Jazz) – here.

Find out more about what our successful graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

Are you a Leeds Conservatoire graduate? Reconnect with us here

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