Saxophonist and composer Stan Sulzmann celebrates his 65th birthday in November with an EFG London Jazz Festival concert on the opening night of the festival this Friday 15th, and a new commission. The same works will also be performed at concerts in Cardiff and Birmingham (details below).
Sulzmann used to be known for his decades of work as one of the top session musicians in the UK. His alto saxophone solo on the 1980’s Poirot theme was the siren call for countless households to get together round the television. He has no end of stories from his time doing sessions, like remembering hearing the pianist on a session at Lyndhurst for Joni Mitchell’s album ‘Both Sides Now‘: “I heard this piano solo from behind me somewhere (in one of the booths), instantly recognisable sound of Herbie Hancock ! . I’d had a lifetime of joy hearing Herbie play, but the thrill of him being there …”
But these days he has definitely moved on: “I’ve worked very hard to leave all that behind.” And with success: within the British jazz community, and paticularly among the musicians, the influence as mentor, teacher and inspirer is immeasurable.
Gwilym Simcock refers to his natural, spontaneous musicianship: “I know that if I had to just had to walk out and make music with someone, he’d be at the top of the list, the music is so heartfelt, it’s such a natural thing.” And Julian Siegel: “Great writing, great playing, a great musician”. And as a fellow saxophonist? “He’s a fine example of a saxophonist who’s worked in many different spheres, an example to musicians on any instrument. It’s all about the music and his sound, and also about how much support he’s given to all us other musicians.”
These sentiments are typical of what is said on the British jazz scene. He is a universally respected figure, and very widely seen as not having the visibility he deserves.
He has written an ‘extendable suite’ of big band arrangements of compositions by other UK composers. Essentially they are the people he has worked with, and influenced. I asked him how the project got going. ”I have a theory that if nothing’s happening you should just do something. And then something else will happen – you just don’t know what it is yet. You create the energy.” He had started work on a big band arrangment of some pieces at the end of 2010, when Guildhall School approached him to see if he could do a project with students (We reviewed that first concert HERE).
The suite has grown – “I realised it was quite a neat idea” – and subsequent performances with more movements were given in London in the 2011 Jazz Festival, in Manchester at the jazz festival, in Cambridge (see our preview). This is one of the central projects in British jazz. Stan Sulzmann talked about it prior to the Manchester Jazz Festival performance HERE
The new piece to be premiered on this tour is entitled “Up and Down”. What’s it about? “It’s a reflection that life has ups and downs” and it’s also based on the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes the Weasel‘, which contains the words “Up and Down the City Road, In and Out the Eagle…” The piece ends with the sound of Bow Bells, reflecting Stan Sulzmann’s London roots: “I’m a cockney, born in Islington.”
For a sense of Stan Sulzmann’s distinctive skills as big band composer/arranger, listen to an extract from The Thrill is Gone, included in the PODCAST (at 6:53) which Peter Quinn and I did for The Arts Desk.