Jon was one of the most important people in our lives. Over the last thirty years he produced almost all our recordings. The CATANIA album, that we worked on back in January was to be the last of these.
JCM had a long tour in prospect. We had projects of our own, notably Kate’s GRANITE album. We agreed to meet up at the end June to put the finishing touches to CATANIA. Assuming, that is, as Jon joked, if the tour didn’t kill him!
In fact it was not the tour that killed him, though it was a particularly gruelling one. Taken ill in Germany he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and flown home. While waiting to go in for surgery Jon was, as he said to Kate ‘Suspended between Heaven and Hell’. But the positive view was that someone of Jon’s physical and mental strength would surely pull through. It was not to be.
Smith's Academy Notice Board
As well as being a great drummer and a brilliant producer/sound engineer, Jon was an honest and most generous friend. On average once or twice a year we made our way to The Ridgway in Sutton, never knowing for sure what adventures lay ahead. Those times in the studio with Jon, often for just a few days, sometimes for several weeks, were almost like a confessional. Shut off from the outside world, we were face to face with the realities of what it is to be an artist, one’s hopes and fears, and one’s limitations. This often involved going down what Jon called ‘tunnels’ in order to resolve problems, technological or musical.
There were agonizing periods of waiting, periods of hard grind, moments of despair. Jon gave us a rough ride sometimes, and I realize we could be difficult. Then there were those joyous times when everything came together. He could be brutally frank,- Once when I was fumbling with a keyboard overdub he asked impatiently ‘Shall we call Pete Lemer?’ Once a first take of a new vocal was greeted with ‘That was terrible, Kate!’ Generally however no one could have been more patient, supportive and appreciative. His approach to production was not to dictate but to ask ‘What is your vision?’ and then help you to achieve it. Along the way there were crazy times which had the three of us rolling about the studio floor in laughter. Jon loved ‘the jokes’. And if we reached an impasse, or alternatively had just triumphed, Jon would pronounce ‘Lunch!’ And lunch with Jon and Barbara, as well as being extremely hospitable was a forum for discussion of everything under the sun.
All these experiences are embedded forever in the albums that we made. Like all those who enjoyed his friendship, learned from his wise counsel and benefitted from his great skill and artistry we are devastated that he should have been taken so suddenly when he was at full stretch and at the height of his powers.
Almost the last word he said to me when we spoke just before his operation, and I ventured to suggest that he might need to slow down, was ‘Why?’
We have lost a guiding star.
Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
When we said goodbye to him at the end of the last session there was no sign that anything was wrong. He was about to plunge into a period of intense rehearsal with his new Trio, JCM. A year ago he told us that he’d decided to go back on the road. “If I don’t play, I’m dead!” He’d realized that many of the great guitar players he’s worked with, Jack Bruce, Alan Holdsworth, Larry Coryell and others, had died. He decided to dedicate an album to these, his Heroes. The combination of Jon with his long time friends and musical associates Clem Clempson and Mark Clarke, is a powerful affirmation of that fusion of Jazz, Rock and Blues of which Jon was a master. He played us a couple of tracks. The energy and commitment and the sheer quality of the playing was immediately apparent.
JON HISEMAN - 1944 - 2018
14 June 2018
photo: Temple Music
In a modest house in Washington D.C. around 1947 Jim, my father, is sprawled at a grand piano. He is playing and he is singing ‘Oh Shenandoah I long to see you, away you rolling river…’ He loves music, from Lutoslawski to Cole Porter, from Grand Opera to Jazz. The room is full of friends, diplomats, spies, and scientists, all drinking and loving and singing. Polly comes from the kitchen with large bowls of Eton Mess, strawberries with cream and meringue. Polly, my botanist mother, loves Shakespeare and murder mysteries. So I grow up hearing classical music and jazz, even some folk, and reading low to high literature and being dragged round art galleries.
Stravinsky’s Soldiers Tale is an inspiration when I am a young person,- inspiring not only for the music, but also because it was written in difficult circumstances for a small ensemble. There is a stubbornness in Stravinsky that I admire. Not long ago I visited his grave on the island of San Michele in the Venice lagoon. He and the great impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, are buried near one another in the Greek and Russian Orthodox part of the cemetery. There are high walls and cypresses to weep by. Standing in the shade, I hear fishermen outside the walls on the water in their boats, talking and singing.
At a concert performance by the Amadeus String Quartet of late Beethoven quartets I am moved and terrified. I wonder now which quartets they were, but it’s too long ago.
It is 1963 in Chicago and a friend plays the Charles Mingus album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I don’t understand it, but I want something of what it is.
I join Mike Westbrook’s band in 1974, and oh so fortunate then to travel the world with the music. Being a primitive, I have been grateful over the years to glean some knowledge of the history of jazz, from the musicians with whom I’ve worked. And I have played Eb horn with some of the best. I write lyrics and I sing in Mike’s bands which range in size from chamber orchestra plus large jazz group, to a voice and piano Duo. I perform with contemporary classical groups, and with composers such as Michael Finnissy and Heribert Leuchter. I have sung the role of Anna in the Brecht/Weill Seven Deadly Sins with the LSO, Big Band Westbrook Rossini at the BBC proms, and I have toured with the classical ensemble Lavolta.
I wish I had done a sound engineer’s course at the beginning of my touring life. And, having never learnt to read music well, every new composition takes me much time to learn. How can I not feel that is regrettable? That said, I do sometimes wonder if these very handicaps help one find one’s voice. There being no easy way, one embarks on a difficult voyage, navigating tricky waters, and so perhaps comes to shore all the stronger.
As for my influences, inspirations,-The Bert Stern film Jazz on a Summers Day features Anita O’Day and she sings Tea for Two. I love her delivery, wit, style and that delicious instrument her voice. Maria Callas can break my heart with beauty, so too can Karen Carpenter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Saxophonist Chris Biscoe, Mike and I are in Vancouver playing at the Jazz Festival with our Trio. We have an evening free and we go to hear singer Betty Carter. She is a revelation both for her technique and for her musical imagination. On our ‘turntable’ at present is her version of Lover Man with Geri Allen on piano, Dave Holland bass and Jack DeJohnette drums.
In the early days of my forty-year partnership with Mike I know I didn’t altogether fit in the jazz world, coming as I did from fine art and fringe theatre. I enjoy the American Song Book and the form and freedom that Jazz gives participants, but I hanker after a broader language than that which the current scene in general displays. So when I formed my band Kate Westbrook and the Skirmishers, I wrote the lyrics for a ‘neoteric music-hall’ and called the piece Cuff Clout. As a child I enjoyed Music-Hall songs. As an adult I still find the political and varied nature of Music-Hall admirable, but the music tends to be unadventurous. In Cuff Clout my aim was to find a new direction and so, with Arts Council of England funds, I commissioned eight composers from across the spectrum of contemporary music to write settings for the 8 song lyrics that make up Cuff Clout. Some of the eight are rooted in jazz, others in jazz/rock, contemporary classical, pop, and rock ‘n roll….
My interest in all kinds of music and in theatre, chimes with Mike’s interest, and together we have written both large and small-scale compositions embracing diverse musical and theatrical forms. A recent music theatre show Paintbox Jane about the painter Raoul Dufy, is written for a small and joyful company of actors and musicians. We have written two other major compositions with an artist as subject,- the jazz oratorio Turner in Uri focuses on J.M.W. Turner and his first visit to Switzerland. Artwolf is the other piece, commissioned by the Aargauer Kunsthaus and scored for a quartet, it concerns the Swiss topographical painter Caspar Wolf.
Both Mike and I have found it possible as writing, performing, recording artists, to live from creating and performing our own work, and very occasionally conducting workshops and the like. Several times in the past when things were very tough financially, we have thought we would have to get a ‘proper’ job. Then, out of the blue, has come a new commission, a recording contract, a radio or TV appearance, a tour or a Festival gig with a good fee. And so we have battled on.
Now in my final decade or so, I feel a sense of urgency, a need to write more, play more music, paint more. Humour seems important, and yet the song lyrics I am writing at the moment are serious and about the environment, and death and there are few jokes. Mike and I live near Dartmoor and we go on the moor when we are able to do so. We have seen a Wheatear there and, through the early part of the summer, there are skylarks. Mike knows birds well. The cry of the Curlew is the sound for which I have a great thirst.
The lyrics for GRANITE spring from being on Dartmoor. Mike and I discuss the ideas and instrumentation. My words sit on his piano in the music room. He plays around with shapes, forming his musical language, and soon he says ‘Can we have another word here?’ or ‘I suggest that we repeat these lines.’ And so the two of us fashion the song together. We often speak about music in terms of painting and find each of the Arts informs the others,- synesthesia.
Now GRANITE a soliloquy exists, played by the wonderful GRANITE Band. The album was recorded at dBs Studios in Bristol. Producer Jay Auborn and his assistant Callum Godfroy help us cross borders and enjoy the drama of the music with an occasional dash of humour. The first performance is imminent. What could be better at my great age than to have this fresh beginning?
More Information about the pieces mentioned
GRANITE will be premiered in The Dartmoor Resonance Music Festival on June 21st at the Ashburton Community Arts Centre, in Devon, coinciding with the release of the GRANITE album on Westbrook Records.
GRANITE Sound Samples
In the days before regular passenger flights, I am crossing the Atlantic on a big ocean liner. I am 10 years old and I dance to a Big Band with an old man whose name I can’t remember and who probably danced with the Prince of Wales.
After boarding school I study Fine Art. Painting and Music are my twin delights and torments. Where painting is a solitary occupation, involving many hours of work in my attic studio, music is sociable and dangerous, playing with fellow musicians in front of audiences very occasionally several thousand strong.
GRANITE was commissioned by Frank Eichler and the album is funded by Airshaft Trust.
TRACKS of DESIRE
3 June 2018
Kate Westbrook - photo: Sergio Amadori