Blog of Sessions

Students of global geography will of course be aware that the Former Colony of Barbados, like the eastern seaboard of the Former Colony of the United States, runs five hours behind us here in Blighty. Modern travel in a passenger aeroplane will bring on a phenomenon known as jet-lag, the side effects of which are pretty much known to all, and need no further explanation here. Most sources say that jet-lag can last up to a couple of days, so I guess that I have been specially blessed with some hideous form of Super Jet Lag DeLuxe. From the moment I stepped out onto the tarmac at Gatwick the Monday before last, I have been knackered. Gloopily spreading its gloomy way through the whole weeks proceedings in the same way that the Lib-Dem conference stuffs up an otherwise good week’s telly, my jet lag has made the last ten days or so feel like I have been wading uphill through treacle in an hideous French art house film about life in zero gravity shot in slow motion. It got so bad this afternoon that I even found myself nodding off in front of the Bank Holiday airing of Carry On Up The Khyber. I appreciate that I shouldn’t be immune from the laws of physics, but with all the stuff I’ve got on with researching Japanese seaplanes from the thirties, hoovering, attempting to play complicated modern jazz on the clarinet and sampling local Indian cuisine, there aren’t enough hours in the day as it is. I reckon the cosmic jet-lag apportioning thingy has gone out of whack, and somewhere there is someone bounding about, full of the joys of spring for whom I seem to have picked up the international fatigue bill.

Still, it could be worse. There have been no one-nighters in Carlisle, or horrendous early starts. In fact, I often find that work goes in phases, and this last two weeks I have been earning a crust as a session musician. This is quite a rarity for me. One of the endearing traits of our business is that you tend to get pigeonholed, and so what can start off as a jolly wheeze can sometimes end up as a bit of a straightjacket. In my case, the jolly wheeze involves standing in front of bands and shouting, with occasional bursts of operating woodwind instruments. Over the years, the woodwind aspect of this tends to be overlooked in favour of the shouting. Don’t get me wrong, the shouting has a crucial role in a live performance, as it serves to keep audience and musicians alike from drifting off to sleep, and therefore leads the show to be deemed by all to be a success. Shouting can also pay pretty well, and serves a secondary but equally crucial role in keeping the wheels of the Volvo turning. However, in dark moments, especially those dark moments which occur when the diary has consisted solely of a streak of shouting work, I can end up feeling that all I can do is shout. Therefore, a little run of recording work where all the shouting is done by others and all I have to do is twiddle is most welcome both as a change and as a bit of reassurance.

Session number one was the day after I got back. This was a good old fashioned big band thingy, assembled by Callum Au, who, if I had a Ministry Of Plong to organise, would get the triple job of being Head of Department of Trombone, Medium Swing and Eating. All three were strongly in evidence that day, as the recording went from 10 am-6pm, punctuated with a rather splendid inevitable curry for lunch at Bombay Spice in Paddington Street, off the Marylebone High Road, and then all off to the Gold Mine in Queensway for tea. A really nice thing about studio work is that you often knock off at the same time as most of the rest of Britain. Briefly, just briefly, you can kid yourself that you have a proper job. The music was good too. With old-school sounding tunes and a splash of contemporary zeitgeist in the arranging, it was all done by a dashing young man from the Golden City of Croydon by the name of Anthony Strong. Anthony, who has talent to burn, might sell enough copies for the record company to recover its costs and burp him out a small fee. It can’t hurt him that he sounds vocally a bit like Jamie Cullum, pianistically a bit like Oscar Peterson and looks a bit like Prince Harry either.

Session number two was on Monday, and was the stuff of dreams. It was the full rock and roll do. I had to report to the private home studio of a very heavy duty producer down in the wilds of Somerset to overdub clarinets and flutes onto an indie-jazz-folk project. We now live in an era where musicians are so easily replaceable by electronics, that virtually every time we go to work the budget imposes upon us a frenzied feast of clock-watching and bean-counting. Whatever the job is, money is often stretched so thin that we have to get in at the last minute, get whatever the job is as right as we can on the budget and then try and get back in the car as quickly as possible to enjoy the drive home. Not so last Monday. There I was, in a beautiful studio on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, playing microscopically different versions of the same two bar phrase until the producer, the engineer and the bearded young chap who was the songwriter felt I had given them what they were after. All very organic, slow and every aspect looked after. Over the magnificent and very organic lunch laid on by Mrs. Producer in the adjacent farmhouse, I got chatting to Mr. Producer, who has in the fairly recent past worked with Paul McCartney. Apparently, Sir Paul still plays the same two bass guitars he had when he hit the big time with that beat combo he got going in the early 1960’s. With the eBay value of those equalling thrice third world debt, it is no suprise that they have their own minder when they go out of the house. Emailing the invoice afterwards to Capitol Records in the Former Colony was exciting too. Being a huge multinational corporation, they even got my travel paid at the government rate of 40p per mile, just like a normal person. I managed to belt up the A303 back to the Gables that evening just in time for the vile and giant twenty foot warm swimming cap of Jet Lag to come and subsume me.

Session number three found your jaded scribe standing in for one of the regulars in Jools Holland’s band on Thursday. It’s always lovely to see those chaps, and when it’s a recording session at his place, JH always gets the local caff round to put out a magnificent spread of sandwiches. Jools’ man is one of the few who understands that a good cheese and pickle sandwich must never, on pain of a lingering and painful death, be made with grated cheese, and if at all possible using very fresh white bloomer. By the time I’d arrived, the thought of this had been playing on my mind most of the way around the M25. I was in a near-erotic frenzy of Branston-based lust. Disaster! A new caterer had been engaged! She’d made some egg and anchovy doorsteps though. All was well. The job of the day was to provide some backing for an album track over which a celebrity girl vocalist from the nineties was going to place some vocals. She turned up two and a half hours late, pushing the session into overtime. Rude cow.

Easter will see me in my role as the Dennis Thatcher of Jazz, looking after Her Indoors as she does a lunchtime guest spot at a big band gig in sunny Southport, selling the CD’s and home-made jams and chutneys, and then retiring to the family seat in Wigan for the traditional Chinese nosh-up. Next week we have a Very Significant Birthday here at The Gables. Don’t miss the next thrilling instalment, folks!


Blog of International Travels

The Thursday before last, just after tea-time, I was floating around like a forgotten Elastoplast in the council pool in my orgy-sized Jacuzzi in my suite in an Andorran hotel. When you operate a saxophone for a living, the perks can be strange. So can the un-perks, if that’s the right word. In order to get to the tranquil bliss of the aforementioned aquatic leisure facility, I’d had to get up at 4.30am, drive from the Gables to Gatport Airwick, down the mandatory 6am super sizzler and two pints of Strongbow in the departure lounge, fly to Barcelona and then get on a coach for three hours. Whilst something of an adventure, it was hardly relaxing.

The reason for this roller coaster of alternate high tranquility and grinding discomfort was a concert in the Congress Centre there with the BBC Big Band. Her Indoors had been booked as the main turn, and by co-incidence, much later on in the day, I’d been asked to go and operate a baritone sax in support. In our line of business, we refer to such an engagement as a Commando Raid, since we are flown straight in to the job, are then required to play the concert, and then flown straight out again. So you can see it’s a bit like The Guns of Navarone, only more brutal and with cheaper flights. As with all foreign trips, by the time you get back to the home airport, it seems to have gone on for months on end, and any memory of Life Before The Trip is but a dim glow. In the dim romantic glow of the passenger lift in the multi storey back at Gatwick, Her Indoors remarked that we’d been away for a grand total of twenty-seven hours! Andorra lies on the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees- right here-

Just like Monaco, it is a small independent principality, or tax haven, and just like Monaco it seems to have been substantially re-developed in the early 1960’s with early 1960’s concrete architecture. Just like Monaco, because of the tax situation most people who live there are gazillionaires, the 1960’s concrete architecture is maintained in spangling pristine condition, very much in completely the opposite fashion to, say, Croydon, which means that just like Monaco, it looks a bit like a set from Thunderbirds. Often on one of these trips, the actual concert part of the activity is so eclipsed by the sheer fatigue of getting there and back that one forgets altogether about the actual point of the journey. On this occasion, the gig itself went very well. We were there to play an Ellington programme, so there was little to go awry. Consisting mainly of Ellington’s original scores, the concert also included some arrangements of Ellington material by other writers. After a version of Rockin’ In Rhythm to open proceedings which, with its rock-steady beat and incredible high note trumpet antics from young Louis Dowdeswell, raised the level of excitement in the room to a nearly unclean level, we played them an arrangement of Take The A Train by the German arranger Jorg Keller, which took an expanded and contemporary look at the old classic. Maybe a shade too expanded and contemporary for the good concert going folk of Andorra, as, in his conversation with conductor Jay Craig afterwards, the Mayor said something along the lines of “Wonderful concert- simply wonderful. Congratulations to all. You did have us worried with that second one, though.”

After the gig, there was a brief opportunity for a beer back at the hotel, before it was time to climb the wooden hill to blanket fair, or given the colossal size of the bed up in room 402, which had clearly been designed for a similar amount of folk as had the Jacuzzi/dry dock thing in the bathroom, blanket amusement park, to enjoy a nice nourishing, rejuvenating three hours’ sleep before climbing back on the coach and enjoying further slumber on nice comfy coach seats, as the sun rose over the Pyrenees right in our faces to help us to nod off. This all sounds like carping, which it isn’t intended to be- the gig was great. I am a saxophone operator, and I got to operate it on a lovely stage with some great players, and on some of the best music ever written for band. The sunrise to which I have just alluded, although hardly the friend of rest, was of breathtaking beauty, which is why I started off this whole rant by making the point that the perks of this job are many, varied and strange.

Further perks have ensued this week. I am currently sitting here tapping this into the Mobile Command Centre Information Portal, or Laptop looking at this-

A few days after the Andorra Caper, Her Indoors, The Volvo and I found ourselves back at Gatport in order to enjoy another early morning Cider and Super Sizzler special, and then to get on a great big aeroplane to fly out to Barbados. Unlike the Commando Raid of the week before, the deal was that we’d do our gig on the first day, and then enjoy a further four days off by the sea. A completely splendid plan in anyone’s book. On the flight over, I watched that new film “The Wolf Of Wall Street”, and whilst I found it to be a thumping good story, and at three hours long, a good use of a large chunk of the journey, I was quite surprised that Mr. Branson and his pals at Virgin HQ has left all the many and varied naughty bits in. Especially given the fact that you are sort of on display in the sleepy public arena that is a long-haul flight with your viewing choice. Sitting as I was on the aisle seat of the big central block you get on huge intercontinental aeroplanes, I became concerned that the two nuns one row back across the aisle might notice I was feasting on a rich portion of high-priced Hollywood smut, but as I couldn’t hear the rattling of rosaries, I reckon that they either didn’t mind, or didn’t notice. Deciding to clean up my act anyway, once the film had reached its inevitable grubby denouement, I spent the rest of the flight becoming addicted to a video game called Bejewelled, in which hours would pass while I played a kind of psychedelic naughts and crosses. Proper opium for the mind. By the time we touched down in Bridgetown, I had been exposed to high-level rudery and then subjected to three hours of cyber-hypnosis. And I loved it. I had turned into Winston Smith at the end of 1984. If you’ve never been out this way before, few things can prepare you for the sensory overload that is stepping off a plane and out into the Caribbean air. The warmth burrows straight in, and all those little muscular aches and twinges which our climate loves to foster just evaporate. Grantley Adams airport is also partially open plan, with great swathes of Caribbean flora to break up the concrete. Driving across the island reveals a topography which is comprised mainly of rolling hills and thick woods. From a distance, it looks rather like Cornwall, until you look a bit closer and spot that the vegetation is mainly palms and huge great leaves which would not look out of place hanging out of the mouth of a Stegosaurus. Once again, the travel element has nearly made me forget about the gig. We played to a mixed audience, with a lot of Americans present. I’ve never really had an American audience before, and it was immediately apparent that they really were clued up on their jazz. Nodding sagely when the differences between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins were being discussed in one of the links, It felt like more of an English university audience than one of the general public. As a result, I didn’t have to do quite the usual amount of jumping up and down and shouting as normal to try and sustain their attention, and as a result of that I ended the evening merely very sweaty, instead of, as I had feared in the tropical heat sporting a jacket and tie, absolutely drenched. Perks here were quite a lot of free Banks’ Beer, and best of all, a talking parrot backstage. It’s incredible what you can find if you look.

Since then, there have been a few other luxury perks, the most startling one being the effect of enough sleep. I can think and walk around now without feeling as if parts or all of me has been made from recently chewed bubblegum. Night falls quickly here in the tropics- at around 6.30 the sun retires behind the horizon in a blaze of oranges, blues and greens, and then it’s night time, which is thick velvet black. Home tomorrow though, taking off here at around tea-time, and landing back at Gatport with the time difference just in time to plough round the M25 in the rush hour. Smashing.