In 2019, multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer Liam Shortall aka corto.alto set himself a challenge: to release a new track every three weeks for a whole year. Mostly he was on top of things, but sometimes he’d find himself a few days out with the clock ticking. “I’d write the track on Wednesday night, record it on Thursday, mix it, master it and release it on Friday,” he remembers with a cheeky smile. “Whether I wanted to write or not, having that time pressure forced me into finding out what kind of genre of music I wanted to write.”
Limitation can be a creative force in a world where anything is possible, and for a young Liam Shortall, that pool of influence and opportunity was as diverse as any. Born in Glasgow and surrounded by music from a young age, he gravitated initially towards instrumental music, picking up the trombone, learning his jazz chops in a traditional context, and listening to the big band, blues, and ska sounds of his family home.
While Shortall would never call himself a prodigy, it quickly became clear that he was a highly talented young musician. Enrolled at 16, he became the youngest ever graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s undergraduate jazz programme, ultimately earning a spot playing trombone in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and as an instrumentalist with musicians across the UK. As a composer though, there was always something missing.
Balancing a classical jazz education with long nights making beats, he schooled himself in dub, reggae and hip-hop, devouring the sample-heavy sound of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Notorious B.I.G. and developing an ear for the improvised electronics of West Coast label Brainfeeder.
To find an outlet for the music he was making, Shortall alighted on corto.alto, which literally means ‘short.tall’ in Spanish (a nod of solidarity towards his Spanish grandmother for having to adopt his Irish grandfather’s surname). And just as his name was his own, so did his sound quickly become his own too. Flying Lotus and Thundercat may have been touchstones, but he wasn’t going to let them define him. “I never hear a track and go, ‘oh I want to write something like that’,” he explains. “If you do that you’re always going to be second best, but if you write something that you hear in your head, you’re the best at doing what you do.”
It’s this mindset which so clearly underpins the twenty tracks (released individually and as five EPs called Live From 435) Shortall recorded in those 12 months between 2019 and 2020. Living in a cheap flat above a club on Glasgow’s infamous party strip Sauchiehall Street with friends from across the city’s music scenes, Shortall let the vibrancy of the street life outside his window fuel what became a journey of musical self-discovery. Latin, punk and hip-hop all danced under the arc of a jazz sensibility, which he describes as less of a genre than a whole musical language. Ultimately released as a 5-track 12” on Worm Discs, 435 received widespread radio support from BBC 6 Music’s Gilles Peterson and won corto.alto the Scottish Jazz Band and Album Of The Year awards in 2020.
The final track of the series, ‘Is That it?’, featured MC and saxophonist Soweto Kinch. The answer came a year later in the form of ‘Not For Now’ - a new five-track EP also released on Worm Discs, through which Shortall continued to search for a balance between “over intellectualised” and “over commercialised” jazz music. It’s an approach that can be traced back to the city that Shortall calls home.
“The way Glasgow has shaped my music is through the people and their attitude to making music,” he explains, buoyed by the supportive, uncomplicated nature of his surroundings. “It’s also an economic thing,” he continues, pointing to the lack of jazz-specific infrastructure in the city, which in turn created the space for him to explore new forms. “There’s not been a tried and tested way of making improvised jazz music.”
A tendency to self-deprecation is another way that Glasgow has impressed itself on Shortall, albeit one which has at times tipped over into self-criticism. Nowhere is that struggle and vulnerability more present than on his debut album Bad With Names (given the wordplay that has dotted his career so far, you’d think the opposite). Described as an exercise in self-forgiveness following the regrets of difficult years, it’s a record that deals head on with the losses of misspent youth, making mistakes and how resilience leads to hope for better times ahead.
And Shortall’s attitude towards the album is as generous as that of his contemporaries. Featuring friends of many years, some of whom are now award-winning musicians, he sees the record less as his own, and more of “a timestamp in the history of Glasgow jazz” that celebrates the people and community around him who make the city what it is.
And yet, as much as Bad With Names showcases some of Glasgow’s finest, it is also the most complete and sophisticated statement of the corto.alto sound to date – a riptide demonstration of his multi-instrumental abilities (read: trombone, guitar, bass, synths, programming, tuba, percussion), punchy improvisation and subtle electronic production that has stitched it all back together again.
“This album is exactly what I wanted to write,” he says, with maybe a hint of pride, thinking back to those formative 12 months above the club at Sauchiehall 435. “Without that process, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he concludes. The result is a sound that is truly both his own and that of his city.