I have written blog posts about my jazz piano influences, but none about my saxophone influences – hence this blog post.
My first experiences of Courtney Pine – in the 90s – were all unrelentingly positive. He is the reason why I play jazz on the saxophone – one evening I chanced upon a TV programme that was either an edition of the old South Bank Show (for those old enough to remember) or some other kind of documentary on the making of an album called ‘The Glory of Gershwin’ that featured all sorts of footage of music-making that was far more interesting than that which made it to the final cut/release. The most memorable bit for me was Courtney Pine trading with the great Larry Adler on harmonica – breathtaking. It reminded me of a similar show where Dudley Moore (Google him if you’ve never heard of him, he was an unusually talented man) plays ‘Amazing Grace’ just by ear, off-the-cuff in duo with an American clarinet player (sadly I forget who) who plays beautifully and who is in awe of Dudley’s improvised creativity in that moment and rightly so. Moments which prior to the internet you were just so happy to have caught and which stay with you forever. The sound of Courtney Pine’s soprano saxophone had a huge influence on me and very soon I has trying to play the saxophone along with the clarinet.
The last time I caught CP live was (I think!) New Year’s Eve 1998 (or something like that) at the Jazz Cafe where his ferociously virtuosic duels with the DJ were amongst several other highlights. He was warm, approachable and yet still a consummate showman and player. But several years later I saw him in attendance at a gig (where Ayanna Witter-Johnson was playing) and tried to say hello, but to say he was ‘cold’ would be an understatement. I have taken no interest in his output since – until my good friend Robert Mitchell contacted me to say that the Courtney Pine + Omar tour was coming to my home town and did I want to come? And when I saw the band he had assembled for this tour – including Vidal Montgomery on double bass and Robert Fordjour on drums, two longstanding pillars of the London jazz scene whom I had not seen for a decade and a half – I knew I had to come and hear what was going on for myself.
In many ways, Courtney Pine is now about more – and other – than playing his many (blowable) instruments. He worked the room with the skill of a magician, and then took several opportunities to make serious points about serious things. Although I appreciated some moments of the gig more than I did others, he managed to take me on a journey despite myself and I even ‘sang along’ when asked despite not wanting to. And right at the very end he played on his EWI the intro bassline to a tune from an early album called ‘Sacrifice’ which I used to love listening to (interestingly, the bass player on that album is now a minister in my church denomination working in the USA…) and it took me right back… It was a phenomenal thing to see and hear Vidal M and Robert F again after over 15 years and be reminded of how amazing it was to be a part of the professional jazz community in the UK. I’m really looking forward to playing some serious piano with these guys in the future, but there would be no jazz piano in my life had Courtney Pine not hired Julian Joseph and Bheki Mseleku to play on his sixth album To the Eyes of Creation (another good friend, the great bassist Gary Crosby also makes an appearance on that album), thus giving me many headaches as I listened to both the saxophone and piano playing, eventually making a name for myself on piano whilst never overcoming my love affair with the saxophone…despite trying more than once!
The saxophone is a quite incredible instrument in terms of sheer outright expressiveness. It is not an easy instrument to play in terms of content but when one finds the technique, language and the psychological/musical scope to offer more substantive ideas, then it becomes a truly incredible instrument and the reason why both Charlie Parker and John Coltrane will remain the most famous names in the history of jazz. Courtney Pine has had a real career and now sold all the copies of his latest album – playing something that offers an energy that somehow resonates into very unusual places. Even if you don’t like all of his musical decisions (and let’s face it, none of us likes everything that anyone does!), he has found something and made something and I was truly grateful to hear it live last night for the first time in 20 years.
So as I prepare to launch my new band, Alegria! – and get to grips with my own black-lacquer saxophone (an alto in my case), I want to thank Courtney Pine for the memories and the inspiration. All the other saxophone players I admire – Kenny Garrett, Branford Marsalis, Steve Coleman, Miguel Zenon, Joshua Redman, Wayne Shorter, David Sanchez, Joe Lovano, (fellow Briton) Tommy Smith – all these guys are a big part of my listening and formation but without Courtney they’d probably not have mattered as much as they did and do (to me).
But I want something different from the music – and to play differently as a saxophonist – and that is the point: we all have to play our own story. And in certain ways, Courtney Pine was the first person to teach me that you can play your own song. Yes, I’m a conductor, an academic, a piano player and I’m learning the harpsichord and I will need to write another post about my clarinet story – but there is STILL a song for me on the saxophone and it is time to deal with that unfinished business. I’m still alive, after all – unlike too many of my fellow (black) jazz musicians…