Photo credit: Nicholas de Jong Cleyndert
On Monday 10 September the 606 Club presents a night of music and celebration in honour of the great British saxophonist Don Weller. Don is now essentially retired from active performance. Saxophonist Art Themen, a contemporary, a colleague and a friend for many years, has been pivotal in putting together this tribute. He explains the background to a special night at the 606. Interview by Laura G Thorne:
Laura G Thorne: You and Don have a long history in the British jazz scene, but how did you and he first meet?
Art Themen: As Don and I are all of a similar age and similar musical backgrounds it was inevitable that we should start playing together on the London jazz scene. Both of us started on classical clarinet, Don being much more proficient, having played Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at the Fairfield Halls in his native Croydon. In addition we both had a grounding in more traditional jazz, blues and, inevitably, a brief flirtation with the world of pop music – Don can be heard on David Bowie’s and Alan Price’s recordings.
For me, therefore, the chemistry of playing in a quintet with Don seemed just right although, disappointingly, the passage of years have made it impossible for me to remember the very first time we played together! For me, playing with him was a perfect fit and the lineup of two tenors/rhythm section has always had audience appeal with its connotations of gladiatorial combat, particularly enhanced by the differences in our physical build. There was never an ego clash or cutting contest but instead a feeling of mutual respect. (Admittedly however on certain nights we would josh each other as to whether or not there had been a reversal of the result of the biblical clash between David and Goliath!)
LGT: The ’60s and ’70s were a burgeoning period for modern jazz. You worked with Stan Tracey a lot, and I understand that Don did as well… You and Don have played together for several decades, what would be some of the more memorable moments?
AT: We were both fortunate in having caught the attention of Stan Tracey who employed us in his various groups, notably the Octet and Big Band from the ’60s onwards. Those were heady days and it’s difficult to single out any particular concert but of the highlights. I do remember the first performance of Stan’s The Bracknell Connection in Berkshire, his Queen Elizabeth Hall big band concert and many performances at Neil Ferber’s late lamented Appleby Festival. Don dragged himself back from the brink of ill health in 1995 when he was commissioned to write a suite for a big band.
The performances of his Pennine Suite were always special concerts, as well as the unfortunately infrequent performances of the Three Tenors outfit which included the wonderful Mornington Lockett. (Don was featured on the cover of the 3 Tenors CD in the guise of his doppelgänger Luciano Pavarotti).
Another high point was the Octet’s tour with the Gil Evans Orchestra when, as a result of Michael Brecker’s indisposition, Don, accepting the ultimate accolade, stepped into the great man’s chair with considerable aplomb; so much so that after the week had ended, Don toured and recorded with Gil’s trumpet player at the time – Hannibal Marvin Peterson.
LGT: Both you and Don are saxophonists, and there will be a couple of other noted sax players at this tribute show, including Alan Barnes and Mornington Lockett. Do you have a way to explain the differences in style between the four of you?
AT: Tackling the question of different styles of Don, Mornington, Alan and me is a tricky one. Of course we all sound different and I’m sure that, in a blindfold test, the majority of jazz fans would be able to tell us apart. Many factors involved: I’ve already mentioned that Don and I are largely self-taught whereas Alan Barnes got a first class degree at Leeds College of music and I believe Mornington was the first jazz musician to graduate from music school with the tenor saxophone as his main instrument. I’ve always maintained that a formal musical education does give you an edge, although lack of it certainly hasn’t done Don any harm! Practice also must come into it. I feel if I don’t practice to certain extent, I can’t improve, whereas Don seems to get by without practising in between gigs. I remember him telephoning me one day during my practice period. He was astounded. “Practice? That’s cheating!”
Another, probably apocryphal, story about Don’s practising, relates to his being asked how he managed to play so well when he had a few drinks, to which Don replied “I only practise when I’ve had a few drinks…”
I’m a little uncertain about this but in view of his formidable technique I think it likely that Mornington practises a lot, but despite this solitary woodshedding he never for an instant sounds glib or facile. I’m also unsure of Alan Barnes’ modus operandi but he’s such a natural musician that he is always instantly recognisable. We all have different heroes from whom we have picked up different aspects of their playing, all of which contributes to the subtle variations in our approach to the music. Another factor responsible for us all sounding so different is the legacy of dear Adolphe Sax. He created an instrument that is so idiosyncratic that, although it was never his intention, it lends itself to jazz more than any other horn.
I can never quite analyse what happens on stage. There’s always a magical chemistry about jazz so that, if you’re playing with another saxophone player, something inevitably rubs off with the result that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.
LGT: Don founded the innovative jazz/rock outfit Major Surgery in the ’70s. (CD review). Rock music was clearly on the ascent during that time and I’m wondering what its influence was on jazz music (for good or ill)!
AT: We all have had flirtations with other genres of music and Don is no exception. Major surgery did have a more commercial appeal but its material was pretty much jazz based. Don’s natural integrity does not allow him to compromise and, whether not he is belting out a no-holds-barred blues solo or some complicated Coltrane-type chord progression, it’s still his own voice that we are hearing. I don’t believe the that music can be pigeonholed; some of us may stick to one particular genre but Alan Barnes, for example, has the ability and versatility to encompass many styles of music without compromising his jazz credentials.
There’s a true story about our own Henry Lowther, the trumpet-player who, after appearing at the Woodstock festival – yes THE Woodstock festival – with the Keef Hartley (rock) band, went on to do a gig on the West Coast of America. At the time Miles Davis was playing to a half-empty jazz club down the street. Miles came into Hartley’s gig and enquired of Henry how come he had managed to pull such a large audience. Henry gently explained “It’s the blues man” or words to that effect. Miles went away, changed his stage persona, added a few electronic instruments and the rest is history.
I think we all help each other…
LGT: What inspired you to organise this event at this particular time?
AT: Any credit for organising this tribute should go to Steve Rubie who, modestly as ever, has agreed to host this event. Also the original idea was Andrew Cleyndert’s. In the words of the late Peter King, the business brain behind Ronnie Scotts Club, “We are all a family.” Making a few phone calls was all that was needed to organise this event. Don being such a well-loved figure, everyone was more than willing to give their services.
LGT: If you had to briefly sum up how you regard Don as a musician, colleague and friend, what would you say?
AT: Don is unquestionably my favourite British saxophone player. I can do no better than to quote the words of The Observer’s Dave Gelly reproduced in the 606 Club’s programme for September: “Tenor saxophonist Don Weller was, and is, among the true originals of British jazz with his cavernous sound and utterly unpredictable turn of phrase.”
It is an understatement to say that Don is well loved. He is a man of few words with an idiosyncratic vocabulary. As a mark of the esteem in which he is held we have all tried to imitate his characteristic and untranslatable expression of “Oooowheeeee” which has passed into common jazz parlance. Don was devoted to his wife Di, and, during her long terminal illness he would, without fail, make the journey across town involving four bus journeys to visit her daily. Anyone who has listened to the rendition of his composition Di’s Waltz cannot fail to be deeply moved. I regard him as a true friend and incomparable musical compadre.
Laura G Thorne is the 606 Club’s Marketing Manager