Alan Wakeman – The Octet Broadcasts – 1969 and 1979 is about to be released as a double vinyl LP, on digital and as a Mini Vinyl replica-style double compact disc by Gearbox Records. Interview by Martin Chilton
Saxophonist/composer Alan Wakeman was born in London on 13 October 1947, and his own musical start came courtesy of his cousin Rick Wakeman, who went on to find success with the progressive rock band Yes. “I started at school on the clarinet, but I rarely touch it now,” he explains. “My cousin, Rick, was an inspiration. He fixed for me to have his ‘school’ clarinet when he got his own and gave me my first lesson in his back garden… the poor neighbours!” While his cousin was aiming to be a pop star, Wakeman jokes that he was “determined to play modern jazz in dingy dives for no money”.
When Wakeman first became aware of jazz, the British ‘trad’ revival was under way, and he quickly became a fan of Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk and Chris Barber. His uncle Peter soon introduced him to American greats such as Louis Armstrong and later, after what he calls “some intense persuasion” from a friend, he succumbed to the bebop of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
As he became more interested in modern jazz, Wakeman gravitated towards the alto saxophone, switching to tenor when he was 19. He acquired a soprano when he joined Graham Collier’s band in 1967. “A lot of people have singled out my soprano sound over the years but I can do more on the tenor than the soprano allows, so I guess I’m more comfortable on that,” he adds.
The 1969 Recording
In November 1969, after finishing at the London College of Music, Wakeman played on the first of the two Octet broadcast recordings now being released by Gearbox. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 1’s ‘Jazz Workshop’ programme and featured a band led by Wakeman that included Alan Skidmore on tenor sax and flute, Mike Osborne on alto and John Taylor on piano. The band played “Dreams”, “Forever” and “Merry-Go-Round” and the broadcast was introduced by Brian Priestley.
Wakeman, then 22, had recently toured Germany with a big band when he was asked by Roger Eames, the producer of ‘Jazz Workshop’, to make a broadcast featuring his own writing, performed by “experienced” players such as Skidmore and trombonist Paul Rutherford. Wakeman recalls a session in the pub before the show, refreshments that finally concluded when Eames said, “I suppose we better do something.”
The relaxed atmosphere set the mood for some fine improvised jazz. “From my own experience, the best frame of mind for attempting to play jazz is to be able to forget your surroundings, who you’re playing with, what time of day it is, how much you’re getting paid, everything you’ve ever learned – and just give yourself completely over to the music,” explains Wakeman. “To achieve this sometimes a drink or medication beforehand may help.”
Wakeman wrote the music for both Octet dates and says the sessions reflected the Ellington concept of the musicians making the music. “Writing for jazz ensembles has always necessitated leaving space for improvising,” remarks Wakeman. “If you can present a musician in an atmosphere he feels at home in, he’ll sound at one with everything that’s going on. Duke Ellington expanded on the small band concept of freedom within the ensemble to presenting complete arrangements dedicated to one musician and his exclusive approach. I just tried to carry on the tradition – freedom within a ‘helpful’ structure.”
The 1979 Session
When Wakeman recorded the 1979 session, introduced by Charles Fox, Skidmore and Rutherford re-joined him, alongside new recruits Art Themen (tenor sax), Henry Lowther (trumpet) and Gordon Beck (piano). The show was broadcast on Radio Three and among the delights are “Manhattan Variation”, “Kingside Breakthrough” and “Vienna”.
The lovely track “Chaturanga” was inspired by Indian music. “I did a British Council funded tour of India with Graham Collier in 1979 and was astounded by the extent that the arts and culture pervaded the life of the country,” says Wakeman. “The origins of chess lay in a variation called ‘Chaturanga’, so when the idea of writing a suite based on the game was suggested by old friend and jazz aficionado Alan Giddings, I jumped at it. Also, I had become enamoured of the shehnai playing of Bismillah Kahn. Although I did my best to get notes out of the shehnais I brought back from India, I managed a better job of sounding like a shehnai on the soprano saxophone.”
Wakeman has enjoyed an eclectic career that included spells playing with Mike Westbrook, John Dankworth, Soft Machine, Don Rendell and Stan Tracey. In the week his band was rehearsing Chaturanga, he was also recording with pop singer David Essex.
“I first met David around 1973. I remember arriving at his terraced house and falling over cardboard boxes stacked in the hallway. David apologised saying, ‘Sorry, fan mail’. And I thought, ‘Who is this bloke?’ ‘But a lot of the stuff I played with David over the years (and it was probably about seventeen years in all)’ involved skills acquired as a ‘jazzer’. David’s favourite drummer (he was a drummer himself) was Joe Morello and he always got excited when he recognised a jazz face on his sessions; ‘Kenny Wheeler was on today!’ for example. As a singer, he had a powerful voice and always did his best to sound like a Londoner, not someone from LA. He wrote songs that reflected his upbringing and the sense of humour it engendered.”
Wakeman played in most of London’s most iconic jazz venues, including the 100 Club and Ronnie Scott’s. “Every time I stood on the stage at what was the Hammersmith Odeon, I would say to myself, ‘I saw Duke Ellington stand on this very spot!’ My first wife’s parents were jazz buffs who owned a printing company and did all the printing of posters and flyers for Ronnie’s for free. My mother-in-law, Audrey, was always exercising her right to free entry to the club and occupancy of her favourite table. I was often afforded free entry. Miles Davis once sat next to me (I’d been playing in the ‘Upstairs’ room), and it was the only time I ever heard his voice; I’d seen his band play twice and he never uttered a word.”
Having played in something of a golden age, what does Wakeman think about the impact of the pandemic on jazz and live music? “Even thinking about it, with all the problems of trying to make social distancing work in venues, depresses me,” he replies. “I can’t see that small venues, which are the life blood of jazz, will be having live music in the foreseeable future. But here’s to record companies still willing to take a chance and keep the music alive.”
That includes raiding the vaults for old treasures such as the Octet session. What does Wakeman want listeners to take from these broadcast recordings? “I would hope that any audience, modern or otherwise, would enjoy the extraordinary musical invention of the players involved, the quality of the BBC recording, the excellent commentary from two great jazz devotees, the faith of the producers and the far-sightedness of Gearbox to make these performances available in such a wonderful quality format which fully reflects that ‘Golden Age’. Also, I hope in these recordings that the generosity and enthusiasm the musicians showed me on both occasions comes across – live and well.” (pp)
The Octet Broadcasts: 1969 and 1979 is out on Gearbox Records on 21 August 2020.
20% of the proceeds of sales will support independent record retailers – DETAILS
LINKS: Full track and personnel listings are on the Gearbox website