Feature/Interview

John Altman: Putting Some Big Band Brass into ‘No Time To Die’

John Altman’s credit in the closing titles of the new James Bond movie reads ‘Studio One Conductor and Additional Arrangements.” Here he explains the back-story of how he put some big band brass into No Time to Die:

A panoramic shot of the nineteen brass players for No Time to Die. Photo courtesy of John Altman (standing right).

Twenty-five years ago, I was the historical (or should that be hysterical?) music advisor for a small studio movie entitled Titanic. My job entailed going through the 1911 White Star Line playlist, selecting a combination of light orchestral period pieces, classical overtures and contemporary Broadway and popular songs, rearranging them for a five-piece ensemble, recording and producing I Salonisti in Zurich and moving rapidly on to pastures new. Why am I mentioning this? Because two years later the movie was released and promptly became a major talking point wherever one went. For two years I had told people I had worked on Titanic – the usual response was ‘what’s that’ – and now I couldn’t escape it, although I had to struggle to raise any memories!

In February 2020 I was asked by Hans Zimmer to add big band brass touches to several cues in the next James Bond movie, No Time to Die. Then came the pandemic and I began writing my memoirs (*) . All thoughts of 007 and No Time to Die were shelved, seemingly indefinitely. Suddenly the film is everywhere – earlier today ‘out and about’ I heard people discussing when they were going to see it. Thus far I have done four interviews and am writing this piece – the soundtrack album only came out today!

John Altman. Photo credit Danny Clifford

So why me? All thanks to the fine composer Lorne Balfe who suggested to Hans that, given my history with the music of Bond (I had arranged and conducted the score for Goldeneye and had stepped in to compose the music for the Tank Chase through St. Petersburg sequence when the producers had decided to replace the composer’s original attempt – with the composer’s approval I will add lest it seem I was offering myself as a ready-made substitute!). On Goldeneye I had viewed the sequence on the Friday, composed on the Saturday, orchestrated on the Sunday, had the parts copied on the Monday, recorded on Tuesday night, dubbed on the Wednesday and the film was screened on the Friday! It proved to be the only cue in the movie that featured a brass section – and what a section! The trumpets alone were Derek Watkins, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Baker, Guy Barker and Steve Sidwell. Guy said to me ‘I’ve gone to heaven – playing the James Bond them sat between Derek and KW.’

Hans is a great friend and was wary of contacting me in case I thought the request might be construed as demeaning. On the contrary I was delighted to add my ideas to the opening Gun Barrel theme and the big chase sequences. I was then asked if I would stay on and take charge of re-recording all the brass cues in the film so that there could be greater separation in the mix. The brass section was a delight – wonderful to see familiar friends like Mike Lovatt, Tom Walsh, Tom Rees-Roberts, Andy Crowley, Andy Wood and Mark Nightingale – equally at home playing straight orchestral music and big band jazz. Job done and placed on the back burner of my memory. Until this week!

One additional piece of trivia. My jazz quartet in recent years has occasionally featured a vocalist. Monty Norman, one-time band singer and of course composer of the James Bond theme. Not, alas, at the same time that it featured on piano a lad named Jacob Collier. Whatever happened to him?

(*) John Altman’s memoirs, Hidden Man – My Many Musical Lives will be published by Equinox Books in February 2022

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