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John Robert Brown
“Strictly Come Dancing is live television,” says Jamie Talbot. “Normally, three saxophones are used, with three trumpets, a couple of trombones, and a big rhythm section.” Talbot is one of the saxophonists on the show. He’s joined me for a chat at a café counter on the platform of St Pancras station, London, next to the larger-than-life statue of poet of John Betjeman, the man who helped to save St Pancras from demolition in the 1960s. Nearby, the Eurostar trains shush elegantly in and out of the beautifully restored terminus. We consume coffee and croissants while we chat. Jamie Talbot tells me about his own musical world. The Strictly Come Dancing TV programme runs every Saturday from August through to Christmas. Talbot plays tenor in the show, “And whatever else is needed,” he says.
“My main reason for choosing to play reed instruments was my father’s record collection," he says, in describing how he began. "My father was a fan of Stan Getz, Ben Webster, and Benny Goodman. Probably the first time I heard Moonlight Serenade, that did it! The secondary school that I went to, Kingsdale, in South London, had a good music department. I learned the clarinet there. Clarinet was what I wanted to play, more than the saxophone. Colin Courtney used to come into the school to teach. I studied with Colin for a long time. I started to go to the Centre for Young Musicians (CYM), at Pimlico. Colin was my teacher there. Then, when I went to the Royal College of Music (RCM), Colin was my teacher there as well! The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) was a great grounding. The first time I played with them I was about 15. The thing that struck me at first was the volume, the sheer noise level. I’d been playing with the band at school. As school bands go, it was a good standard. But NYJO; all of sudden, it was a wake-up call.
“I did a couple of things with the North Texas State University band. They came over here. Their lead alto couldn’t make something, he was ill. I did a couple of deps. The experience was not as hard as I expected, because they were so well-drilled. As long as you didn’t knock the furniture over, you were okay. Saxophonist Andy Macintosh told me about when he was in the States. He did some deps with Supersax. Naturally, he was a bit worried about it. Med Flory, the lead alto, said: “When the music goes up, go up. When it goes down, go down, and don’t play in the gaps. You’ll be fine. When it’s flying past at that speed, nobody will know.”
Talbot didn’t stick it out at the RCM. “I stayed for four terms,” he says. “I was accepting work. They didn’t approve of that, being slightly anti-jazz then. The attitude is a lot different now. I left the College in 1979. The first thing that I did was the West End run of Chicago. That was its first time round.”
“A pretty good first job,” he admits, “Which pays better now than it did, even taking inflation into account. After that, I worked on a holiday camp, did a bit on the ships, that sort of thing, but I always kept playing jazz. I joined John Dankworth’s band, a six-piece that used to back Cleo Laine. I played saxophone and woodwind, Kenny Clare was on drums, with Alec Dankworth (bass), Bill LeSage (vibes) and John Horler (piano). Funnily enough, I did a tribute to John Dankworth last night, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The saxophones were Tim Garland, Andy Panayi and Julian Segal, with Karen Sharp on baritone. Karen, whom I met for the first time last night, is a good player. She used to do Humphrey Lyttleton’s band.
“Another highlight was doing a few gigs with Ella Fitzgerald at the Grosvenor House. There was a big private do, where they had hired Ella Fitzgerald, with Nelson Riddle conducting the band. I was only 22. I remember being overawed by it.”
“Around 1984 I joined the Alyn Ainsworth orchestra, the TV band. That kept me busy for a few years, up until Alyn died in 1990. That was a learning curve, doing all the live TV shows. Then I went on the road with Ian Drury. I was with trumpet player Steve Sidwell. I did all sorts of pop things. I toured America with Wham!, playing Careless Whisper every night! We started off in Chicago. The venues were all big arenas. The biggest one we did was Hollywood Park Racecourse, in Los Angeles, holding 80,000 people.
“That was an eye-opener. I was still pretty young. Careless Whisper starts with a tenor saxophone solo. There was a costume change that George Michael had to do. So I had to go out on my own and play completely solo for about five minutes while George Michael was changing. When I received a sign from the side of the stage, I’d go into the tune. The first time you go out alone in front of 80,000 people, it’s frightening. On the back of the Alyn Ainsworth stuff, and the people I was working with then, I started to do a lot of studio work.
“I did a lot of that. I still do - television, films and jingles.” In reply to the oft-asked question about how one gets into such work, Jamie says: “If people want you to do it, they’ll ask you. You can’t sing your own praises; other people have to do it for you. Hiring is still basically word-of-mouth and reputation. And it’s a social business. You have to fit in with those around you. I’ve known good players who have blotted their copybook. Then, people don’t want them around.
“One of the highlights of my career was touring Europe with Frank Sinatra. We rehearsed in London. We began with a week at the Albert Hall. Then we went to France, Spain and Greece, and all over Europe. Half of the band was American, the other half was English. I got the gig because Ronnie Ross had recently died. I was booked on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet. That was fantastic, playing those arrangements and those songs every night. They were wonderful, a joy. You can’t wait to go to work every night. And that’s not always the case, is it?”
“We only ever saw Sinatra on the concerts. Even on the soundcheck his son, who was his musical director, Frank Sinatra Junior, would conduct the band. He’d sing the songs to make sure that the microphone and the monitors were alright. The only time that Frank Sinatra came on was for the concerts. Musically, we all seemed to be on the same wavelength. And of course, we knew all of the music. I was particularly impressed by the American rhythm section, who sounded fantastic. They brought Buddy Childers to play lead trumpet. The other three trumpets were Guy Barker, Tony Fisher and Derek Watkins. It was great. Buddy Childers enjoyed it as well. They brought over a lead alto, Mike Smith1, who was excellent. He’s still a friend. I’m still in touch with him.
I’ve done a lot of theatre work. Obviously, the money’s good, but you’re going out doing the same stuff every night. I haven’t done a show for four years now, which is working out okay. Some shows run for years. Cats lasted for 21 years. Phantom of the Opera has been on for longer than that. Sometimes the long runs retain the same musicians. I remember going into Cats. I used to dep for Maurice Cambridge, years ago. I hated it, because from where you were sitting, you couldn’t see the conductor. Jeff Daley took over when Maurice left. He said: “Do you want to come in and do Cats again? I said: “Okay. I’ll have to come and see it again. It’s been a while since I saw it.” I went in to the theatre. One of the trumpet players said: ‘I haven’t seen you for ages.’ We worked it out. I’d had a 17 year gap! Some guys have stuck it out, paid the bills, put their kids through college, the job being a means to an end. Some of the West End contractors have become tough with the rules concerning deps, stipulating that only two people can be off at any one time, so you can end up being stuck there, saying goodbye to any freelance work. Nevertheless, I dep in several, which is fine. At the moment the West End is healthy. There are a lot of musicians being employed, and are well paid. If any of the shows are struggling a little bit, it’s because the tickets are expensive. I depped in Shrek the other night. I saw the prices of the tickets on the way out. Some the seats are £60 a ticket. It’s a kid’s show. If two parents go, with a couple of kids, by the time they’ve had a meal it mounts up.
On favourite saxophone players Talbot speaks admiringly of Phil Woods and Michael Brecker. Indeed, Talbot is the first British player I’ve met who knows that Brecker lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, in New York State, so Jamie's enthusiasm comes across as genuine and deep. Talbot mentions the LA studio player Dan Higgins2. “He’s a fantastic player. Also Sal Lozano3 and Rick Margitza4. There are some wonderful players over there," he says.
“My alto is a Selmer Super 80 Series Two,” he says. “I had a Mark VII, but it was stolen out of a theatre pit. I’d owned it for thirty-odd years. It had a Freddy Gregory mouthpiece on it. That was great. I tried a few Meyer mouthpieces. I had one. I sent it up to Morgan Fry5. Now it’s fantastic. I use it all the time. Morgan Fry knows his stuff.
"My tenor is a Selmer Series Three. I use a Morgan Excalibur mouthpiece, and Vandoren reeds. My soprano saxophone is a basic Y62 Yamaha. I prefer it to any Mark VI soprano that I’ve played. It’s in tune, so easy to play. So I’m using that with an ebonite Otto Link. I have a Yamaha baritone as well, with an ebonite Lawton mouthpiece on that. Clarinet, I use B&H 1010s, probably early 1970s. I own a spare one, as well. My flutes and piccolo are all Pearls. A Buffet Prestige bass clarinet, a Yamaha Eb clarinet. I think that’s about it!
"Keeping up on all of those is like spinning plates. There’s always one of them wobbling! What I tend to practise more than anything is clarinet and flute. I’m playing the saxophone all the time anyway. And what you play on the clarinet and the flute you can adapt to the saxophone. I still love playing the clarinet. I started playing the flute when I was about 15, at the Centre for Young Musicians (CYM), at Pimlico, a Saturday morning college, studying with Adrian Brett.
“Transcribing? I used to learn solos by ear, playing them over and over again. Cannonball Adderley, playing Poor Butterfly, I remember learning that one when I was young. Transcribing chord changes is also a good way of training your ears.
And what of the near future for Jamie Talbot? “I’m writing a lot,” he says. “I compose library music for KPM, EMI and others, for which I record a lot at home. I have a set-up with a good computer and good software. I’ve done a few on-line recording sessions for people, including films, such as ‘Bee Movie’ and ‘Over the Hedge’, a few of these DreamWorks movies. I did the saxophones at home, and sent the files to the States. People are happy to pay the money, I’m not undercharging anybody! It’s the future. The technology is here. The genie is out of the bottle.”
- Mike Smith: http://mikesmithsaxophone.com
- Dan Higgins: www.danhiggins.net
- Sal Lozano: www.sallozano.com
- Rick Margitza: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_Margitza
- Morgan Fry mouthpieces: http://morganfrymouthpieces.com/content/contact-me
John Robert Brown
First published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, December 2011. Used by kind permission.