'Fill the room with love': the stress-busting jazz of Alabaster dePlume

The Mancunian has had the jazz breakthrough of 2020 with an album inspired by work in mental health support – and his gentle, open music can ease all our minds mid-pandemic

Uncertainty has been the only constant of this strange year. For Gus Fairbairn, AKA multi-instrumentalist Alabaster dePlume, the anxiety bred by that feeling is the lifeblood of his work. “There’s lots of fear in our society – we are encouraged to be afraid of each other and afraid of ourselves,” he says in his soft Mancunian accent. “But you can’t make courage without fear. Next time you get some fear, you will have nearly everything you need. I want to create using those qualities.”

Speaking to Fairbairn is an exercise in disarming earnestness. He is stick-thin and effusively gestural. Each sentence is gently considered and peppered with mentions of “love”, “encouragement” and “empowerment”, yet this is no life-coaching session. Fairbairn offers up his credos with self-assuredness while also welcoming challenging perspectives. “The more of your personality we can have in the piece, the better,” he tells me when we first speak by phone, before later meeting in person.

Alabaster dePlume and friends perform at Total Refreshment Centre in Stoke Newington.
Tight-knit … Alabaster dePlume and friends perform at Total Refreshment Centre in Stoke Newington. Photograph: Rosie Reed Gold

Fairbairn’s work ethic is characterised by this curiosity. He started out making “jagged, noisy music” with his brothers in Manchester, then in 2007 taught himself the saxophone. Five years ago, he moved to London “to become a new person” – Alabaster dePlume. He soon founded a tight-knit collaborative community in the east London recording complex Total Refreshment Centre, staging monthly improvisational gigs with a haphazard roster of musicians under the name Peach. He became a catalytic presence in the burgeoning London jazz scene, collaborating with drummer Sarathy Korwar and synthesiser aficionado Danalogue, among others.

In February 2020, Fairbairn released a beautifully tender suite of instrumentals, To Cy & Lee. Eleven tracks of Fairbairn’s tentative, breathy sax melodies laid over downtempo, atmospheric chord voicings, the album is now in its third pressing, the biggest commercial success of his career. “I was not expecting that with this piece of work,” he says. “I made them not thinking that anyone would want to listen to them. It all goes to show that no one will give you permission to make the great things that you can create. You have to do it yourself.”

The album is named after two adults with whom Fairbairn worked when he was a mental health support worker in Manchester; many of the songs stemmed from melodies they would sing together to relax. “I wanted to celebrate Cy and Lee,” he says. “These were peaceful tunes that really helped me at the time, and, when I decided to release them, I knew that we would need calm. Of course, I had no idea that there would be a global pandemic, but this record speaks to our general need for comfort. There was a lot of beautiful feeling and love that went into this.”

Fairbairn’s latest project, Gold, continues that emotional ethos. Recorded over two weeks at the Total Refreshment Centre and employing Fairbairn’s usual practice of having different bands for each session, the resulting tracks are being mixed by different producers who are free to chop up the recordings, taking cues from Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven’s use of self-sampling. It is the perfect recorded expression of Fairbairn’s unpredictable improvisatory methods. “When you bring musicians together who don’t know the music and they don’t know each other, it demands that you fill the room with love in order to make them comfortable,” he says. “When you fill the room with love, people can feel that this is a place of encouragement and it empowers them to do the same thing for each other.”

One overcast evening in late September, Fairbairn is in the control room for the final recording session, less holding court than, he says with his typical shamanic spirit, remaining “open and vulnerable” to allow “the music to be what it wants to be” in order for the listener to “complete” it later. Before long, the musicians step into the unknown territory of improvisation and the room acquires a magnetic charge. The earthy lamentations of vocalist Donna Thompson reverberate over Fairbairn’s yearning tenor sax, and a speak-singing melody morphs from player to player before meeting the hissing silence of the tape reel reaching its end.

It is a bittersweet reminder of the power of live music – and one suggestion of how to process the challenges of life in 2020. “There is an invitation for me to respond to this pandemic with frustration,” says Fairbairn, “but it has allowed me the time to not spend all summer playing festivals and actually focus on my own creativity. It’s all gold. Go forth in the courage of your love as there is great magic there and I have no doubt that whatever we are faced with, people will continue to create. That is all we need.”

• Gold will be released in 2021. Alabaster dePlume’s albums To Cy & Lee and The Corner of a Sphere are available here.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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