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Davey Payne: Ready To Play

By Published: December 31, 2012
Now and the Future

Payne lives in a small town in Cornwall, which is about as far west as you can go in England, and far away from most cities. Regarding the UK jazz scene at the moment, he says, "I like what is going on at Café Oto. Also saxophonist Alan Wilkinson's night at the FlimFlam,Ryan's Bar. It's a shame that Ronnie Scott's is just having middle-of-the-road easy listening. I'd love to see the Sun Ra Arkestra down at Ronnie's."

On playing with others and the feelings he gets, Payne comments, "When I play with others, I'm totally aware of them. That's what it's all about; dialogue, communication, to create a oneness, to lose the ego, so if you need to play a thousand notes you do that but if only one note is required you do that also—this is when free music is at its best. It is said that you have to be intelligent and in control of the music. Well, I like to be out of control; it's a different intelligence and control. OK, sometimes tell the music what to do but try letting it speak to you also."

Observing interactions between members of The People Band, there is the undeniable warmth that can only come about when musicians have shared the "oneness," which Payne describes, over a number of years.

Payne comes across as a spiritual player and person rather than one who compromises for the band wagon. How does this fit, with the commercial factors influencing many genres at the moment? Payne explains, "If you are a spiritual player some of this will come across whatever you play but it will be watered down. A bit like Malcolm McLaren mixing Madam Butterfly, with rock rhythms to get opera to the masses, but it misses the point somewhat. However, if you need to make a living and don't want to chop wood, you can't be blamed for that. Monet wouldn't chop wood, stick to his art and become rich and famous. I was lucky and able to more or less play my own thing and be fairly free over the tightness of the Blockheads. And I like chopping wood.

Payne has been influenced by many genres, eras and musicians, absorbing what is going on around him and developing, along the way, his own views. Yet, he is, underneath it all, one of the most conventional people you could come across, while still retaining a touch of the maverick. As a musician he can turn his hand to most genres and when he plays, there's the sense that he is genuinely in the moment. However, playing at his level does not come naturally. Enormous talent is part of it, but Payne works hard on his music and presenting it to the audience. When he joined The Blockheads for an event in London in 2011, the group's manager said, afterwards,how hard Payne had worked, alongside singer Derek Hussey in particular, making sure everything was right and how, like all good gigs, what the audience doesn't see is the hours of practice—learning new pieces and becoming reacquainting with old ones—that goes on beforehand, in order to present a show in which the music sounds like it flows as easily as honey from a spoon.

In person, Payne talks at length and responds with anecdotes, memories and counter-questions. He started life in North London but moved to Clacton as a boy. He and his twin brother were members of the local cycling club and when they were about 14 they regularly cycled from Clacton to Ipswich or Diss in Suffolk—a distance of over 60 miles. Payne was born in London but the family moved to Clacton on Sea when he was young. At 16, Payne moved back to London. He remembers: "We moved to Clacton because we had a holiday bungalow there. Instead of going to art school as advised by my school, it was taken for granted that I would work for my dad. He soon realised that working on machines while singing Louis Armstrong solos wasn't for me."

Payne moved back to London, leaving home just before his younger brother Barry was born. He has played with various bands and is a musician in his own right, recently playing with Bex Marshall. Back in London, Payne found a job in Nathaniel Berry's music shop in Holloway Road, four doors up from Joe Meek's studio. Mike Berry and members of the Outlaws used to come into the shop.

The job provided the opportunity for Payne to immerse himself in the London jazz scene. He would go to Ronnie Scott's and the Flamingo all- nighter. At Scott's, Payne saw many American musicians. He saw Art Blakey at the Finsbury Park Astoria. During the '80s, Payne developed a passion for American cars and sought out American scrap yards in search of vehicles. In the '60s he worked with people like structural artist Bruce Lacey on projects like the Fun Palace in St Katherine's Dock,London, so Payne has had his fair share of other experiences outside music. At one event, unbeknown to Payne at the time, a young student and his teacher were in the audience—that young student was Ian Dury.

And yet, while he discusses all manner of things, what comes across is Payne's intrinsic self belief and it is this which also pervades his music. He is very serious about most things and, throughout his career, Payne has presented several images to the world—from the experimental, free playing player in the '60s and apparently volatile, often furious sax man of the '70s to the relaxed, affable man of today—but he is really a mix of all these things. He is engaging but he can still become angry. There have been disagreements with people —some of which are legendary— but the Payne of today is mellow and seems happy.

Onstage, Payne comes into his own. He has the talent to be afforded a freedom in performance, which few players enjoy. Taking his cue from fellow musicians, he solos with consummate ability, yet is aware enough of the other players sharing the stage to avoid stealing their limelight. Preferring to let his playing do the talking onstage, he relishes the spotlight when it falls on him, yet does not seek personal recognition to any great extent. He gets absorbed in the music and freely admits to getting carried away on occasion. He has thrown jackets, shades and other items into audiences, only to regret losing some of them later, notably his Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren satin jacket, covered in badges and stickers. As he says, "Who knows what was in the pockets?"—which he threw into an audience, never to be seen again.

Payne can surprise. At a recent production of the play Reasons to Be Cheerful, the Graeae Theatre Company production of the Paul Sirrett play, word got to the cast that Payne and his family were coming to the Truro Hall performance. John Schwerbel & Patrick Kelly, the main vocalist in the show and Dan McGowan—who plays a version of Payne's double sax solo in "Rhythm Stick" in the show—were understandably nervous. Payne however, visited the cast just after the final sound check and gave them encouragement. He gave Dan a tie he had worn for a gig and Kelly one of Dury's jackets. Of that evening, Kelly says,

"We'd just finished sound check for that night's show at The Hall, Truro. and in comes that smiling, friendly face of Payne (anyone that has ever met him will know what I mean), with a plastic shopping bag in hand. After saying, hello to all the gang, he came to me and said, 'I've got something here.' He paused and then said, 'You might not want it but...,' and then pulled out one of Ian Dury's jackets; it fit like a glove. We had a hug but I had to pop off for a teary blub side-stage. I couldn't believe the love and generosity Payne showed and the casual way the jacket was in a shopping bag and that he thought I might not want it. The jacket only comes out now for special shows, including that night of course. Payne smiled when he saw me in it and gave a little thumbs up from the front row. He sent me a lovely message after we did 'Spasticus Autisticus,' at the opening ceremony for the Paralympics too. That meant the world to me."

Asked if he is working on any projects at present, Payne's reply demonstrates that he has lost none of his enthusiasm for playing. "The People Band are keen to play more" he says. "The Blockheads would like me to do some specials and I would like to do that. Also, just round the corner from me is bassist Pete Kubryk Townsend, who comes round and encourages me to play, so that keeps me on my toes."

He added, "I've been writing a biography for about 12 years now, and it's ongoing, but I hope to finish it by next spring. A lot of it is about growing up in North London. Also there is lighthearted political and sexual exploration—but there are lots of good pictures and it's real."

Payne has lived in several locations, including Amersham, Harwich and the most interesting perhaps being a house in Buckinghamshire—built by New Zealand architect Amyas Connell—where Payne lived in the late '70s. Now, he and his wife, with some of Payne's eight children, live in Cornwall. He enjoys painting, DIY and of course, music.

When Payne is playing, the spirituality and emotional outpouring via his instruments makes his stage presence something special. He has that ability to completely lose himself and give everything to the playing. Payne feels music as a spiritual experience, and his audience shares this. When he gets reaction from the crowd, he becomes even more adventurous and inventive. No solo is the same. Free form finds its way effortlessly into well known songs which the Blockheads churn out and, with Payne on stage, every song takes an unexpected turn. His famed solo on "Hit Me" may follow the original, or it may take on a life of its own and hold the audience spellbound. The other band members relish his playing. Payne can astonish with his dexterity and musicianship but above all, he will entertain. Whatever the future holds for him, one thing remains. He is a musician of enormous talent.

Selected Discography

Howard Jones, Pearl in The Shell (Dtox, 2010)

Terry Day, Interruptions (Emanem, 2006)

Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Mr Love Pants (CNR, 1997)

Nico, Drama of Exile (Aura, 1981)

Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Laughter (Stiff, 1980)

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