John Altman

Saxophonist, composer and arranger to the stars John Altman has upcoming live shows

  • 16 April: Big band (and special guests) at Pizza Express Dean Street
  • 13 May: Ruth Fisher’s Prosecco Jazz Brunch at the Watford Jazz Festival

Feature by John Bungey:

John Altman with Quincy Jones. Photo supplied.

The hidden man of music is emerging from the shadows. John Altman‘s career can read like a tour of the cultural highlights of the past 50 years: his film work includes James Bond and Titanic; he has collaborated with everyone from Chet Baker to Amy Winehouse, Rod Stewart to Björk. For Van Morrison he orchestrated “Moondance”, and for Monty Python, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. All of this without troubling the headline writers of the music press.

But now the London-born Altman has decided it’s time to edge a little closer to the spotlight – if only, he jokes, so that people stop confusing him with the other John Altman (that’s Nasty Nick from EastEnders, and yes, they’ve done events together). “It’s funny,” he says, “I’ve been very happy just being in the shadows but there comes a time when I want to do something and people don’t think it’s the other John Altman.”

Last year he published “Hidden Man: My Many Musical Lives”, whose myriad tales include a cutting room encounter with Charlie Chaplin, a 21st birthday party at which Muddy Waters sang, and his stint as a London tour guide for Bob Marley.

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John Altman

In Britain, he says, he tends to be pigeonholed as a composer and arranger, whereas in LA, where Altman long had a base and regularly gigged, he’s more recognised as a band-leader. Playing live in London may alter that view with a big-band show at Pizza Express in Soho on 16 April.

“We had a dummy run of the new presentation in Leytonstone [East Side Jazz Club] which went really well. My idea was to create a show that looked at every aspect of my career – jazz, composing, commercials and arranging – bringing them all together. The show is a mix of jazz standards that I’ve arranged, original jazz numbers and then hit records that I’ve worked on. So at the moment there are three male-sung and three female-sung hits. I’ve included Moondance; Kissing a Fool that I arranged for George Michael; and Always Look on the Bright Side from “Life of Brian”.”

That last one sounds like a showstopper. Altman laughs. “I toyed with the idea of making it a samba and then I thought everyone knows it in the movie arrangement so why don’t I just adapt that. If I get frowns from the jazz purists so be it.”

For the female vocals he includes his arrangement of “That Ole Devil Called Love” for Alison Moyet and “Get Happy”, as sung by Jane Horrocks in “Little Voice”. There’s also “It’s Oh So Quiet”, which as readers of Altman’s book will know, was recorded in one take after Björk turned up only ten minutes before the recording session was due to end. Singing at the Soho gig will be Rebecca Poole and Shane Hampsheir. “The idea is to have a pool of vocalists – like big band musicians – to draw on when shows come up,” he says.

Then on 13 May, at the Watford Jazz Festival, Altman appears with slimmed down forces. He’s the guest for Ruth Fisher‘s Prosecco Jazz Brunch. Altman will be playing saxophone with his quartet featuring Andrew McCormack, piano, Flo Moore, bass, and Chris Higginbottom, drums. He’ll also be chatting with the Jazz FM presenter.

“It will be tunes that I’ve written and standards – some of them fairly obscure – that I’ve picked up over the years. They’re often tunes that could be famous but Charlie Parker never recorded them. There’s a story behind all of them, whether they’re long involved stories or short pithy ones.”

For Altman, it’s been a life steeped in music coming from a family well blessed with the musical gene. Four of his uncles were band-leaders and he grew up in a London home where stars – Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins – were family friends. “I remember Jack Benny sitting on the sofa. He used to put black boot polish on his bald patch and it would come off on the antimacassars. My mum would go mad.”

So, as well as music, expect a fund of such tales at Altman’s live shows, from the age of antimacassars to Amy Winehouse.

PP Features are part of marketing packages


Bookings for 16 April Pizza Express

Bookings for Watford 13 May

John Altman’s Autobiography at Equinox Books

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