Feature/Interview

Art Themen (Herts Jazz Festival, 28 and 29 September 2019)

Saxophonist Art Themen, who has been Patron of Herts Jazz since 2014 following the passing of Stan Tracey, will be appearing in two very different contexts at this year’s Herts Jazz Festival. He spoke to Sebastian:

Art Themen (Photo: Melody McLaren)

Art Themen has such an alert, lively and clear mind, his enthusiasm appears so undimmed, there is one fact that it is well nigh impossible to believe: he will actually be 80 later this year.

The saxophonist has a strong association with Herts Jazz. “Art first entered my life when I was eight years old,” says Clark Tracey, who directs the festival. And Art is completely at one with Clark Tracey’s Art Blakey-ish vision of music-making, touring, and indeed running festivals, to juxtapose younger and older players. Art Themen will be sharing the stand with saxophonist and BBC Young Jazz Musician winner Xhosa Cole, who is almost 60 years his junior. This combination has worked well previously and is being done again for the closing event of the festival. “Clark has such a great track record when it comes to putting youngsters together with the old guard,” says Art Themen.

That Sunday night closing concert features a septet including another player from the younger generation, pianist Sarah Tandy, alongside a third saxophonist, Mornington Lockett, guitarist Nigel Price, bassist Arnie Somogyi and Clark Tracey himself. The septet goes under the name Seven Steps To Heaven.

Art Themen talked about the experience of playing with younger players that comes via Herts Jazz: “I do feel energised. I consider myself lucky to have played with Laura Jurd, Alex Ridout, and Xhosa Cole within about two months of each other and that is largely because of Clark’s policy of mixing the old with the new. It is a privilege to be mixing with these youngsters.”

Art Themen is originally the Manchester area. He was born in “the mill town of Oldham”, as he describes it. He has been a major presence in the British jazz scene for decades. And yet that is not the whole story. As his Wikipedia page says succinctly: “Occupation(s): Musician, surgeon.” He spent most of his working life as an orthopaedic surgeon, while keeping his playing going throughout. And that experience is something he reflects on when talking about the role he is now in as one of a band of equals, rather than the hospital operating theatre, in which chains of command are necessary and clear: “In medicine as the consultant you are unassailable. So one of the differences with the medicine and music is that you are all equals on the bandstand. And I am never threatened by that, partly because I have been round the block enough times, but mainly because I enjoy it so much.”

Enjoyment and a sense of fulfilment also mark the way Art Themen talks about his other appearance at the festival, in a duo with pianist Steve Melling on the Saturday. The pair recorded the album Trace Elements a couple of years ago. (More here on the Fuzzymoon Records website). “I have played on and off with Steve for years,” says Themen, “and we kept saying we really should do something.” For their album – and for their duo appearance at the festival, the focus is on compositions by Monk, by Stan Tracey, and by Steve Melling himself. The title refers to a three-part suite by Steve Melling which Art has described as follows: “Trace Elements is Steve’s ‘thank you’ suite of three pieces, dedicated to Stan Tracey, acknowledging the specific significance of his great music, personal friendship and creative support.” (pp)

The 9th Herts Jazz Festival is at Rhodes Arts Complex, 1-3 South Rd, Bishop’s Stortford, CM23 3JG

LINKS: Seven Steps to Heaven. 8pm on Sunday 29 September 

Themen Melling Duo. 4pm on Saturday 28 September

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