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Alan Skidmore: A Supreme Love

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Alan Skidmore: A Supreme Love
Alan Skidmore is one of the finest saxophonists to come out of the United Kingdom, Europe or indeed anywhere. In fact, it was hearing Skidmore's tenor solo on "Have You Heard?" from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (Decca, 1966) that encouraged a young Michael Brecker to take up the instrument. Skidmore had also served his apprenticeship with blues singer Alexis Kornerin the sixties and by the end of the decade was equally well-versed in the blues and in the avant-garde sounds emerging from Soho's jazz clubs from bands led by Mike Westbrook, Chris McGregor, Michael Gibbs and John Warren. His first album, Once Upon A Time, came out on Deram in 1970, revealing a saxophonist of outstanding technical ability that was matched with a remarkable musical intelligence.

Now 81 and semi-retired, this 6-CD box surveys Skidmore's 60-year career in jazz. The source material, in the main, comes from the saxophonist's own collection of recordings, the vast majority of which have never been issued before. Beautifully packaged with excellent sleevenotes from writer Richard Williams, the set is divided helpfully into decades. It opens with a teenage Skidmore playing opposite his dad, Jimmy, and ends on with the then septuagenarian at London's Café Oto playing John Coltrane's A Love Supreme with his quartet.

It was his father who dissuaded Skidmore from taking up the drums, his first love, with the sage advice, "Don't be daft, son. You've got to be there first and you'll be the last to leave and you've got to lug all that stuff around." In 1961, he saw and heard Coltrane in London on the saxophonist's only UK tour. It was a pivotal moment and the great man has been an inspiration ever since. As Skidmore puts it, he has never tried to play like Coltrane, knowing nobody could, but he says "I am influenced by him, I love his spirit and I love his compositions." Indeed, a number of Coltrane numbers feature on these discs.

Given the nearly fifty tracks on this set, attempts to pick a few highlights result in many changes of mind. However, "Nature Boy" and "I Remember Clifford" from the jazz- with-strings album, After the Rain (Miles Music 1998), with Colin Towns' arrangements, are wonderful examples of Skidmore's consummate ballad playing. The three tracks from Montreux 1969 that would later appear on Skidmore's first album as leader, Once Upon A Time (Deram, 1970), inevitably rank very highly.

Yet, one suspects that fans will turn quickly to "Directions" from a Weather Report performance for Nordeutscher Rundfunk in 1971 with the addition of Skidmore, saxophonist John Surman and trombonist Eje Thelin. The fact that Skidmore damn near steals the show is confirmation of his remarkable abilities but that a whole concert exists somewhere is ear-tinglingly exciting. There is also an intriguing, if low-fi, recording from a gig at Ronnie Scott's in 1988 with Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine. But then there is just so much great stuff here that this must be a prime candidate for archive recording of 2023.

Alan Skidmore recently spoke to All About Jazz about A Supreme Love.

All About Jazz: How long did it take to put this whole project together?

Alan Skidmore: The biggest problem I had, Duncan, was knowing what to leave out, not what to put in. Everything is from my archive, which I have collected over the years. It was very difficult. That's why it took such a long time but it got me right through COVID and lockdown and it was something for me to concentrate on. So, I hope people like it. Mark Wastell (producer/label-owner) was adamant that he wanted each chapter to feature a particular decade, so it starts in 1961 with me playing with my dad and finishes in 2019 with my quartet.

AAJ: A highlight for me has to be the tracks from the Montreux Jazz Festival that later appeared on Once Upon A Time. I recall your band reaped most of the prizes at the festival.

AS: There were 14 groups from 14 countries. The radio stations from each of those countries sent a group. There were six prizes and we won three—we won ''best group," I won "best musician" and Tony (Oxley) won "best accompanying drummer." So, that's not too bad. But also on Chapter One there's two tracks by an earlier group I had with Bob Cornford on piano, Alan Richard Jackson on drums and Dave Holland on bass, not long before he joined Miles Davis. It wasn't even from a jazz programme. It was an afternoon, tea-time programme. That's why the pieces are so short but the rhythm section was amazing having Miles Davis' future bassist on them.

AAJ: I guess a lot of people will be surprised to see that you played with Weather Report. But then it's clear from where a lot of these tracks were recorded that much of your working life has been in mainland Europe.

AS: John Surman and I had been doing these Jazz Workshop programmes in Hamburg. Weather Report were a new group and it was their first trip to Europe, so John and I and Eje were added for the concerts and the recording. In fact, it was such a new group that for the first couple of days, John Surman and I spent the time playing badminton because Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were still writing the music. But yeah, it went well and then we flew to Berlin to play with them again. They were all really nice guys—Wayne was incredibly quiet and private but a really nice man. They all were.

But it was really after Montreux that I started working more in Europe. As I've told many people, when I went to work, I went to Heathrow. I didn't work in this country. Europe was where the work was for me and many other British musicians.

AAJ: What for you are the fondest memories for you on this CD—if that isn't an unfair question?

AS: I think the range of material on disc five is just incredible. I think of all the groups on the boxset, the first three tracks on Chapter Five is my favourite quartet. The rhythm section with Steve Melling on piano, Arnie Somogyi on bass and Gary Husband on drums is just second to none. Gary is absolutely amazing. Not only is he perhaps the greatest drummer I've ever played with, he's a world class pianist, which makes him play the drums like he does because he understands the music and he understands what you're doing.

Those tracks start with "But Not For Me" using Coltrane's arrangement, then we play "Naima" the way he played it when he got divorced from Naima, his first wife. He plays the melody upside down, so I play it the same as he did at that time. Then, at the end of the tune I play it the right way up, the correct way. But I thought it would be nice as a tribute to him. Then, we finish with "Impressions."

AAJ: You've always acknowledged how important an influence Coltrane has been on you and your music.

AS: Absolutely. And, of course, Chapter Five also features two other quartets playing "Giant Steps" and "Mr. PC." And I wanted to put something on it by Ubizu, the African group I had with the two Africans on it, Musa Mboob and Saidi Kanda. So, we do a version of Coltrane's "Africa." It's just a short piece but it was a lovely, lovely tune. I think the voicings Colin Towns wrote worked great and, for lots of reasons, it was the right piece to choose.

But John Coltrane had a profound effect on my life. There's a little quote on the back where I thank him for all his help and spiritual guidance over the years. I've always said, I don't play like John Coltrane. I can't play like John Coltrane. No-one could. He is the greatest saxophonist I've ever heard in my life or likely to hear. But I am influenced by him. I love his spirit and I love his compositions. It would be impossible for me to hear someone better.

Track Listing

See Discogs.com for complete track listings.

Personnel

Album information

Title: A Supreme Love | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Confront Recordings

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