CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE ALTO KIND

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A recent gig with GREG ABATE (an annual visitor from the States) has prompted this musing.

My first love is the tenor saxophone (Lester Young, Bobby Wellins) but there is something very special about the lighter Eflat horn which has its own charm. 

I discovered Johnny Hodges at school (we had a very amateurish band which tried to ape an Ellington small group) and was blown away when I first heard a Charlie Parker record. And then there was Jackie McLean, Sonny Red, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Garrett……………

As for playing with alto saxophonists, I have so many (with one exception) fond reminiscences. I cannot include, or think of, them all.

At university, I had a great initiation from PAT CRUMLY (who was exclusively on alto those days). I also had the chance to accompany JOE HARRIOTT (as the music page will attest). In the vacations, I played at the Troubadour café in Earl's Court with PETE BURDEN and PAUL ZEC.

GREG ABATE, from Rhode Island, is a passionate player, overflowing with ideas, enthusiasm and good humour. It is always a delight to do the odd gig with him on his UK tours. A few years back, the Alan Barnes quartet made a live recording with Greg called Birds of a feather.

 

Greg Abate

Greg Abate

Which brings me to ALAN BARNES himself.  The go-to compere for British jazz festivals with his impish wit, Alan has constantly re-invented himself with different line-ups and projects. His stage costumes have ranged from Sherlock Holmes to a fisherman in a sou'wester but his playing is consistently compelling. He says he is primarily inspired by Art Pepper and Jackie McLean, an odd combination on the face of it, but his own style is instantly recognizable in any context. I loved playing in his no-frills modern quartet with John Donaldson and Andy Cleyndert (check out the album Blessing in disguise).

Alan Barnes at the Fleece, Boxford

Alan Barnes at the Fleece, Boxford

An American who settled in this country (although now In France I believe) is the very individualistic BOB MARTIN (not of dog food fame). His quirky, hip style always excited me. Unfortunately, he developed emphysema with which I have also been diagnosed. OK for a drummer but not for the lungs of a saxophonist and his energy, though not his inventiveness, was thereby curtailed. Check him out on the music page.

Bob Martin

Bob Martin

Another American, a big name who did not live in the UK, was SONNY STITT. He was undoubtedly a major talent but he wasn't half hard work, both in his drinking days and when he had switched to black coffee. One example will suffice. Playing Billie's bounce on a gig at the Half Moon, Putney, he called the band to a grinding and embarrassing halt in the middle of the theme statement and shouted that he hadn't asked for any snare drum phrasing of the tune.

One or two bruising encounters at the Bull's Head with our legendary PETE KING in alto jousting competitions led Sonny to warn his New York confreres who might be visiting these isles: "Watch out for that Pete King - he'll cut your ass!"

PETE KING is a national treasure. His fire and fluency and sheer expertise are a wonder to hear. I was so honoured to play regularly in his quartet and quintet in the mid 1980s.

Pete King in full flow

Pete King in full flow

 Which puts me in mind of another American visitor of a few years back, CHARLES MACPHERSON. A Bird devotee, perhaps wilder and less schooled than Pete King, he was a challenge - in a wholly positive sense - to work with. Once he realised you were a match for him, he respected you and the music began to cook. Dig his Parker's mood which has been on the music page for a while.

 A maverick Englishman with a huge, searing sound and free-wheeling musical ideas was  MIKE OSBORNE. I was never part of the Peanuts club scene but I did gig a lot with Mike in a pianoless quartet with Dave Holdsworth (tpt) and Chris Laurence or Harvey Weston(bs). I have hours of this band on tape and will be giving Mike's idiosyncratic genius an airing on the music page before long. The gigs were very open and unpredictable. Pints would flow and Mike never left a pub venue without securing from the bar a "quarter bottle of Teachers" to see him home. His daytime manner on the phone was curiously crisp and businesslike. He would politely request my wife to communicate to me the offer of an engagement on such and such a date at such and such a place. 

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I've rambled on for long enough. However, let me not forget to pay tribute to four other home grown talents.

To RAY WARLEIGH, housemate at Sinclair Road and fellow musician in the Ronnie Scott sextet and other groups. Ray had simply one of the most beautiful sounds on alto that I've ever heard.

Also to CHRISTIAN BREWER and SAM MAYNE , two amazing players of a younger generation. It is always a thrill to play with Christian and I really enjoyed participating in John Horler's album Not a cloud in the sky on which Sam Mayne was outstanding.

Finally to the erstwhile wunderkind and now mature master NIGEL HITCHCOCK, the naked power of whose playing knocked me for six when I first got on a bandstand with him.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spike Wells