INTERVIEW: John Harle (Part Two The Saxophone, Publication Mar 15th, Launch Concert Milton Court Mar 17th)

John Harle. Photo credit and (c) Nobby Clark

JOHN HARLE is an internationally renowned saxophonist with an impressive back catalogue of projects from classical to pop. John Tavener, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and Sir Harrison Birtwistle have all dedicated works to him , and he has also worked with Elvis Costello, Marc Almond, Herbie Hancock and Sir Paul McCartney. He is also the composer of over 100 film and TV scores and 50 concert works.

He is about to publish a major two-volume work about the instrument “The Saxophone” (Faber Music). In the first part of a two-part interview (LINK) Sebastian asked him about the book. In this second part, John Harle talks about some other issues: his most popular recordings, his new role at the Guildhall school, about the saxophone and the voice, jazz and classical. The interview ends with John Harle looking forwards to the book launch event at  Milton Court on March 17th, which will witness the premiere performances of newly commissioned works by Gavin Bryars, Sally Beamish, Graham Fitkin, Carl Davis and Oliver Leith.

LJN: What is the work or recording of yours that has been heard the most?

JH: The recording of mine that’s most popular is Silencium – the theme to Silent Witness. It’s been the theme of the show for over 20 years and every time there’s a new series on BBC1 there’s an uplift in sales and it sneaks onto the Classic FM playlist.

I suppose that after that, the most successful and widely heard albums are my recordings of the classic Saxophone Concertos with The Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields on EMI Classics, and also my album with Elvis Costello and Andy Sheppard, Terror and Magnificence.

You can hear these on my website.

LJN: You have a new role at the Guildhall School?

JH: I started the saxophone department at Guildhall in 1986 as a young man under the guidance of Philip Jones (of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble), and taught there for 26 years.

I’ve returned to Guildhall now as Visiting Professor of Saxophone, with a specific brief to teach as part of the Artist Masters Degree, and this is a two-year course that I’ve devised as a springboard into the professional musical world. The degree consists of a creative project that has both artistic and commercial merit, and is for jazz, classical or multi-genre players.

The ethos of the course isn’t unlike the methods employed by the Bauhaus school of art in the 1920s and ’30s – the work must have both artistic merit and commercial application, which is no easy feat nowadays in a world dominated by free internet music!

Playing an instrument is one of the things that you can’t fake by reference to the internet, and this is our strength – live performance now has more value than recording in commercial terms unless you are at the highest end of pop. Finding attractive and practical live shows that work in innovative venues and situations is a major preoccupation nowadays, and the path of a young player nowadays is less secure without a personal project of their own that they can perform. Giving this direction and purpose to musicians of any genre is the heart of the Guildhall Artists ethos.
You can read more about it at http://www.johnharle.com/guildhall-masters.htm

LJN: You have been active as both a classical and a jazz player. Is it possible to do both?

JH: I think that this is a musical question as much as a saxophone question. Technically, it’s not a problem – but the players who have the head-space and fluency to work at a genuinely high level in both genres are very, very few. Vincent David is a true artist in both genres, as is Branford Marsalis – masters in jazz and classical and they create new projects and repertoire in both. Truly unique.

When I think of other favourite players across genres, they tend to be in one camp with a high awareness of the other – Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Marcel Mule, John Dankworth or Michael Brecker for example. I’m in this latter category – classically trained and known initially as a classical performer, with various forays into many other areas. As a composer I feel entirely fluent in both jazz and pop though, and sometimes my own saxophone sound suits these projects, and sometimes it doesn’t! If I wanted a full-throated jazz tenor sax on any of my projects, I wouldn’t even attempt that myself before getting on the phone to Andy Sheppard!

My early background is in prog rock – Pink Floyd, King Crimson, etc, and I feel entirely at home there as writer and player. Much of my own music across the board has elements of prog in it – like my recent Tyburn Tree album with Marc Almond of Soft Cell.

Marc and I have an active songwriting partnership – we’re just recording a song we wrote together for his 60th Birthday album on BMG – with saxophone solos!

LJN: Your sound on the saxophone is characterised by a closeness to the human voice. Has your sound been inspired by particular singers?

JH: I’m a high instrument player – soprano and alto, so my choice of singer models is fairly predictable and female. I suppose that I’m attracted to vocal sounds that could seem to slide from genre to genre with ease, like Sarah Leonard singing Michael Nyman, Joni Mitchell in Shadows and Light, Eliane Elias in Dreamer and straight-ahead classical like Maria Callas in Tosca.

LJN: What are the main things which you do for your own health and well-being?

JH: Eh? I gave up alcohol 15 years ago, but now smoke cigars – always guaranteed to improve breath flow and lung capacity. I moved out of London ten years ago to Kent and am now in fresher air, but have become a commuter, which doesn’t help stress levels. For my mental health I read Viz and watch British New Wave films of the 1960s. I also listen to unusual music for pleasure – I find music generally difficult nowadays, but I really do enjoy obscure film and library music from the likes of Basil Kirchin, Sven Libaek, Pete Moore and Steve Grey, and early electronica – Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire and the other BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers. And most things on Jonny Trunk’s record label, Trunk Records. All this is a round-about way of saying that I have recently neglected to go swimming and jogging every day. I will take your question as a prompt to restart a healthy physical routine and enjoy the privilege of living in a rural idyll in Kent. 🙂

LJN: What are the plans for the event on 17 March?

JH: The book launch is a concert at Milton Court, the new hall in the Barbican. I was awarded a PRSF grant to commission some new works for saxophone and piano.

My pianist for the last 25 years is Steve Lodder, who will be well-known to many of your subscribers for his work with George Russell, Carla Bley and Andy Sheppard. Steve and I have been working at the new pieces by Gavin Bryars, Sally Beamish, Graham Fitkin, Carl Davis and Oliver Leith. All these will have first London performances at Milton Court on that night – thousands of notes for us to learn! We’ll also play music by Steve and I.

Signed copies of The Saxophone will be available at the Milton Court concert. 

 Milton Court tickets for 17th March
The Saxophone is published by Faber Music on 2 March. PRE-ORDERS HERE 
(LIST) of works dedicated to John Harle

Categories: miscellaneous

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