early, classical

As a child, our house was full of music.  All kinds of music.  It was also full of musicians and performers, and since I was equally inspired by the ‘people’ themselves as much as what it was they did, I enjoyed a very comprehensive, stimulating and influential induction into the world of music as a kid.

Throughout my life I have been affected and inspired by many different realms and styles of music.  It was always a very simple process – whatever touched me, would influence me and somehow stay with me.  Indeed some of my earliest memories are of picking out (on the piano) Beatles songs, show tunes, themes from TV, Disney songs or whatever…  simply from having been having been enchanted by the piece’s melody, it’s atmosphere or it’s form.  I would expand on these, experimenting with the various ways I could portray them and also then make attempts to improvise on them.

Through my early, intense classical piano studies I was exposed to the beautiful music of Eric Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitry Kabalevsky, Robert Schumann and many others.  I also worked to an extent through the Bela Bartok Microcosmos series later, and the exposure to all of this music was profoundly affecting on me.  While still heavily immersed in classical study in 1972 I witnessed a live televised concert by the Stan Kenton Orchestra featuring one ‘Baron’ John Von Ohlen on drums, and (majorly) through him I started to become aware of a very serious, strong and passionate attraction to playing drums…. jazz drums, rock drums and big band drums at that!  They represented a freedom and exhilaration that was far away another world from the academia and intense competitive elements I was experiencing in the classical world, and I began to follow this desire (with my first kit comprising of hand-me-down pieces of equipment my father had saved from his army days.)  It wasn’t long before the two lines of instrumental endeavour became somehow inseparable, and I was aware of both forms of expression becoming equally paramount in terms of importance for me.

Today, still considering myself predominantly an improviser at heart, I am most naturally drawn to work in areas where spontaneity is a key element.  Contrasting that – and I am full of contrasts! – I am equally at home with the endeavour and challenge of composition, and virtually all I’ve been through, either in study or through the challenges of so much varied musical work in my career up until now, has usually been (at least!) of influence to me – sometimes of pivotal importance.

big bands

Apart from classical music, my earliest favourite music was that of big bands.  I researched all the bands of the 1940’s so called ‘Swing Era’ – something that was later to come in very handy for when I joined the Syd Lawrence Orchestra at age 16 – but my favourites were the ones that incorporated a certain classical romanticism and imaginative sophistication (Claude Thornhill, Gill Evans, Bob Brookmayer, Sauter-Finigan Orchestra , Juan García Esquivel,), the British stylists who were also incorporating rock elements (Michael Gibbs and Mike Westbrook), and the very hard swinging bands such as Count Basie, Woody Herman, Bill Holman, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel lewis and others. My perennial favourite of all was (and still is) Stan Kenton – through almost all of his periods – since he was the one in pursuance of the most dynamic, daring, thrilling and dramatic expression right from the beginning.  He was speaking my language, and… I responded!!

A good spot to jump to drummers at this point.  The aforementioned John Von Ohlen, particularly as he played with Kenton in’72 (captured magnificently on the double CD “Stan Kenton Today”) was indeed one of my first, very significant drum influences.  And if you become aware of the CD I believe you’ll hear the influence is still very much with me.  The drama was everything with John, with his John Bonham-esque huge drum sound and on (Kenton’s own) huge cymbals, he delivered!  The infectious swing, command, dimension, dynamism and sheer intent he displayed in his playing was just magnificent and is still to me, this day one of the most thrilling and emotionally moving things for me to hear.  While on Kenton, I’ll also mention in particular Mel Lewis who’s whole lot more understated and irresistible swing feeling was always a big favourite of mine.  On the English scene in the 50s and 60s there was a special one – the late Mr Ronnie Verrall.  He had it all too, and his playing (to this day) remains some of the most spirited and exciting and of all big bands drummers, from any era in my estimation.

bill evans, tony williams, miles davis and mahavishnu

Around this period in my young life (and thanks to the London session keyboardist Kenny Salmon) I was introduced to the beautiful work of Bill Evans. His nakedly elegant, poignant and personal interpretation and lucid improvisation was to capture me for life.  He had discipline and absolute clarity to his beauty – other factors I was to aspire myself towards always.  Dear Kenny Salmon also sent me a cassette of the Herbie Hancock ‘Headhunters’ album – also one of the big favourite records of mine still today and another super-big influence back in the day.

I had also somehow discovered the work of another artist that was to become somewhat of a life’s influence and inspiration to me – Tony Williams.  There was a cassette release of the Tony Williams Lifetime which I had acquired, and I was on my first tour in Germany with Corpus Christi (School) Brass Band playing this over and over on our bus (up to my ear via a mono speaker.)  I was in raptures.  The other occupants of the bus were not!

I’d met a few new friends – two bassists, one named Glenn Allot and the other, Bill Worrall.  Through these guys I was to discover many more life-changing records!  Glen was a huge fan of Stanley Clarke, Return To Forever, Miles Davis (who naturally was to become another landmark influence for life), Billy Cobham and many others, and Bill was one of a few who introduced me to the works of The Mahavishnu Orchestra.  On a family holiday to Cornwall someone introduced me (and taped for me) an album called ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’.  Every aspect about that music totally transfixed me – particularly Billy Cobham at that point.  My father was working as Musical Executive for Yorkshire Television and was hiring many of the big session musicians of the day from London, and he was turning to a number of these guys asking them what I should be listening to.  He one day brought home a copy of ‘Birds Of Fire’, and (always wanting his approval on music) I asked him if he liked it. “No!”, came the answer, “but this is what these guys say you should be listening to right now!”

I should mention here – and not taking anything away from my love of what Joe Zawinul did – probably the highest of my influences on piano and keyboards, Jan Hammer.

The first Mahavishnu Orchestra was also one of the first truly ‘international’ bands I came across, and for me the members were cast perfectly.  Billy from New York by way of (his birth place) Panama, Jerry Goodman from Chicago, Rick Laird from Ireland, John McLaughlin from Yorkshire and Jan Hammer from Prague, former-Czechoslovakia.

Jan, for me, brought the same kind of individualism, improvisational and harmonic discipline and intelligence to everything he did as Bill Evans… only this was extremely modern.. and loud!  His charged and equally poignant “New York via Eastern Europe” character has always been of lasting and profound influence and inspiration to me, and I’ve aspired towards achieving all those elements in my own way of playing since discovering him in Mahavishnu.  You can trace him back too and hear his same approach although in a very much more jazz realm on the old Elvin Jones recordings too.  He is one of my perennial all-time great influences, also on account of the fact he’s both a keyboardist and drummer, and also in that he’s involved (to the same degree as classical and jazz) in rock and even television and film music.

… To be continued