Book Review -Playing the Band – The Musical Life of Jon Hiseman

Book Review. Martyn Hanson. Playing the Band: The Musical Life of Jon Hiseman
(2010, Temple Music. 464pp., £16.95. Review by Chris Parker)

‘The band’, in this scrupulously detailed, intimate account of drummer/bandleader Jon Hiseman’s musical life, is usually his most famous one, Colosseum, but the book also follows the fortunes of many other projects in which he was involved, from the pioneering Graham Bond Organization to recordings with Andrew Lloyd Webber and performances with life partner Barbara Thompson ‘s Paraphernalia.

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Illuminated throughout by judiciously selected first-hand accounts from numerous and varied participants and observers, but depending for the vast majority of its many insights on the thoughtful, often pungent contributions of Hiseman himself, Playing the Band sheds valuable light not only on the day-to-day vicissitudes inevitably involved in bandleading and touring, but also (courtesy of Hiseman’s ‘parallel career’ running Temple Music studios) on the fundamental changes undergone by the music industry consequent upon the introduction of technological innovations, chief among them digital recording.

A few examples will give a flavour of the range and depth of Hiseman’s thought. On pop drummers: ‘Several things really irritate me about young pop/rock drummers: they hit the drums so hard, they hit them so badly and they leave the stick on the drumhead for too long after each beat …’ On listening back to recordings: ‘… all I had ever heard was what I thought of as the mistakes, so Jack [Bruce] was important to me, because he confirmed what I was beginning to suspect – most listeners don’t know what is intended and only hear what you have done … and often there’s a big difference’. On other drummers: ‘Keith Moon is a gas … nobody seems to take him seriously – they should‘; ‘Stevie [Wonder]’s playing combines for me the naïveté of the beginner with that ultimate of all attributes, the ability to create drum parts which sound completely inevitable […] It is as if I can hear how every musician would like to have drums played, if all that practice and technocracy wasn’t in the way.’

In addition to such perceptive comments on matters purely musical, the book also takes an unflinching look at the self-destructive drug use of figures such as Graham Bond and Mike Taylor, the unscrupulous business dealings of promoters, and the unpredictable fashions and fads dictating the behaviour of record companies. It also contains several skilfully chosen sections of colour and black-and-white photos from all stages of Hiseman’s career, although the production values of the text (misspellings of words such as forgo, practise, rarefied etc.; the use of italic type for band names; the occasional intrusion of ‘straight’ inverted commas instead of ‘curlies’; an irritatingly impenetrable index containing block entries with up to 50 page citations; unfixed widows etc.) let the book down badly at times.

Culminating in a fascinating account of the tours (and tribulations) of Colosseum II, a touching tribute to the late great Dick Heckstall-Smith (to whose autobiography The Safest Place in the World Hanson’s book provides an intriguing complement) and a final celebration of Hiseman’s marriage to Thompson (‘the real success has been my family life with Barbara and our two children Marcus and Anna’), Playing the Band is none the less an absorbing, lovingly compiled and admirably detailed account of a pivotal figure on the UK jazz/progressive rock scene.

The book is available from Temple Music

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