It was the end of two very intense days in the studio, recording music for harp that my wife, Lauren, and I had written. I was co-producing and planning to play and record a recently written work for tenor saxophone and a short arrangement for harp & tenor saxophone with Lauren, but we had just about run out of time.
My great friend Tim Redpath was engineering and co-producing these sessions, and Alex Armstrong-Holding filming, and with only ten minutes left I thought that I would quickly get my saxophone set up and improvise - an improvisation for Barbara Thompson.
We were in Temple Studio, based in the home of Barbara and her daughter Ana. There is a pair of worn black gloves hanging up on one of the big speakers in the control room, these belonged to Jon Hiseman, and no-one has touched or moved them since his untimely passing in June 2018.
Jon designed the studio, it was his home within home. Jon and Barbara are a unique couple, and I count it as an absolute privilege to have known and worked with them for the last 20-plus years.
The friendship with Jon & Barbara started via the Apollo Saxophone Quartet (with Tim Redpath at that time playing soprano sax in the group). Barbara wrote us an album of fantastic music which we recorded with Jon producing, ‘Three Quartets’ (Celestial Harmonies).
In 2015 at the World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg, Jon out of nowhere said “Andy, I think that you should bring your ensemble Group S in our studio and record an album”. I couldn’t believe my luck, and the generosity of Jon & Barbara. Sure enough, the album ‘Ruby & All Things Purple’ (Basho Records) was recorded with Jon, Rob Buckland & I mixing over a fortnight during 2016.
Jon came and guested on drums with Group S in November 2017 when we played at the Royal Northern College of Music (what a privilege, Jon Hiseman of Colosseum fame!) and the last time that I saw him was in February 2018 when the two of us were in the studio editing some videos for promotional use from that gig, including the track that Jon played on, ‘La Grande Image’.
Throughout the time that I have known her, Barbara has valiantly battled with Parkinson’s Disease, she simply is incredible, and has developed a musical imagination and style that is very much her own. ‘La Grande Image’ was written for Barbara & Jon to guest on, Jon telling me that he would record Barbara on a day where her medication was working and she wouldn’t be shaking too much when playing her saxophone. He said that he set up a semicircle of microphones to account for any movement when she recorded, then he went through each mic when mixing for the final result - her playing on that track is stunning.
There are details about our collaborations in both Jon’s autobiography ‘Playing the Band’ and Barbara’s recently released autobiography ‘Journey to a Destination Unknown’, both of which are a fascinating and inspiring read.
The clock is ticking, so with ten minutes of the session remaining I wanted to improvise for Barbara, and Ana would play her the video.
I had my Selmer S80III tenor saxophone on this occasion, and my more ‘classical’ set up (for the pieces that I would have recorded had there been more time), a Selmer S90 170 mouthpiece, with Vandoren Optimum ligature and Vandoren Traditional strength 3 reed. When improvising I would usually be playing my Selmer Mk6 tenor sax with jazz mouthpiece and reeds, so mentally I was attempting to mould and manipulate the sound within a set up that I usually associate with more notated and dynamically contained music.
Improvisation is a constant fascination for me, and the words ‘free improvisation’ I think are sometimes misleading. Over 25 years (especially with Duo partner Dave Hassell) I have developed an approach to improvisation that works for me.
As soon as I start playing, with nothing or very little pre-planned, I try and remain in the present whilst also remembering what I have played. This is the composer in me, trying to be aware of the architecture and form of a piece of music. Whilst being led by instinct and concentration, I’m hoping that my ears and technique are good enough to follow (which neither is). It’s a lot to cope with mentally, with improvisation constantly being one of the biggest musical challenges that I have faced, great when it does work out, and not the end of the world when it doesn’t simply as the challenges for me are so huge.
Whilst producing in Temple Studio for two days with wonderful friends and musicians, many memories went through my mind of great times spent with Jon and Barbara, which I didn’t have time to think about when improvising, but which must have affected the approach I imagine? I took the musical notes B & A from Barbara as my starting point, one take only.
‘….. for Barbara’ an improvisation
30th December 2020
news items and blog posts by Andy Scott