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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
16 July 2022
No. 68
Barbara Song
Barbara Thompson 27 July 1944 - 9 July 2022
Barbara Thompson
Barbara Thompson and Jon Hiseman were a remarkable couple. Initially our relationship with them was a working rather than a social one. But in the long hours of recording, mixing and hanging out in the studio, over the tea breaks and the lunch breaks, we got to know each other pretty well and we became friends. Over nearly four decades and through all kinds of recording projects it was never dull. Sometimes difficult, challenging maybe, but never dull. Frequently hilarious, often thrilling and sometimes life-changing.
Barbara Thompson
Barbara and John created a vibrant world behind the respectable exterior of their rambling Edwardian house in suburban Sutton. Impossible to imagine that, lurking beyond the curtained window of what appeared to be a Grannie flat, was a hi-tech recording studio crammed with the latest technology. Inside the house itself there existed a fever of musical activity, comings and goings, crises, crazy hours and all the fun of Temple Music.
Barbara the composer/instrumentalist was immersed in the musical trajectory of their work. Not only was Jon a musician but he also took care of management. This covered touring, recording, publishing and the sizeable business side of things. They were dedicated professional musicians who wanted total control over their careers. They practised hard, constantly driving themselves forward, always keeping ahead of the game.
In our many visits to The Ridgway most of the time was spent in the studio, either recording with fellow musicians, or in long sessions of mixing and editing. This could be pretty gruelling. It was always a relief when Jon called ‘lunch’ (which could be at any time during the day). We adjourned to the spacious living room. There we sat at a table bearing one of Barbara’s specially prepared soups, enjoying the pleasures of good food and good conversation.
It might seem that we inhabited completely different musical worlds. In fact we had a great deal in common. We followed each other’s bands and projects over the years, went to each other’s gigs and had many similar stories to tell. When Parkinsons hit we saw its effects and the positive way in which Barbara, and Jon confronted it head on. As she became gradually less able to play, Barbara threw herself into composition. She generated orchestral and choral works, saxophone quartets, a tuba concerto, until she became unable to use the computer. But she never gave up, writing her autobiography, and releasing a retrospective collection of her work on record.
We didn’t play together often. Barbara played some mean recorder on the Good Friday 1663 album, Jon played cajon on Art Wolf and kit on Fine’n’Yellow. Barbara contributed a brilliant setting of Oceans, Straits, Currents and Seas to Kate’s album Cuff Clout, a Neo-teric Music Hall. I wrote an arrangement of September Song for Barbara’s solo album Barbara Song, the music of Kurt Weill, made with the Medici string quartet. One of our last recordings with Jon was Paintbox Jane.
In 2016 over supper with Jon and Barbara in Covent Garden, Jon offered me an astonishing gift,- to record my solo piano album on my favourite Steinway in Paris. A few weeks later we were all installed at Hélène Aziza’s place at rue Paul Fort. By then things were difficult for Barbara but on days off she and Jon were out sightseeing.
Back in 2003 we had invited Jon and Barbara to join us in a big Swiss commission. The work Turner in Uri was for solo voices, choir, brass band and jazz/rock group. We had rehearsals in London, a couple of weeks in Switzerland with more rehearsals, and then performances in Altdorf and Zurich. Being on tour with such friends, playing new music with a huge ensemble to packed audiences, not to mention the Alpine scenery, made this one of the most enjoyable projects ever. For a jazz musician it doesn’t get much better. Barbara, in a two-sax section with Chris Biscoe, was already at a fairly advanced stage of Parkinsons but her playing was as impeccable as ever. Her soprano solo on Alpine Forget-Me-Not is breathtaking.
Paris 2016
It took not only talent but a great deal of courage and singleness of purpose for a woman to achieve success in the largely misogynistic UK jazz scene of the 60s and 70s. All the more credit to Barbara who won through on sheer merit as saxophonist, band leader and composer. Like Jon, Barbara achieved great public and critical recognition not just in the UK but around the world.
For Kate and me it has been a joy and a privilege to have known and worked with such great artists and exceptional people.
Mike Westbrook
Barbara Thompson plays Alpine Forget-Me Not in Altdorf,
Switzerland 15th August 2003
Barbara Thompson plays Alpine Forget-Me Not in Altdorf
Paris 2016
Oceans, Straits, Currents and Seas
words Kate Westbrook music Barbara Thompson
Jon Hiseman &
Barbara Thompson
Photo © W. Gonaus
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