Monday, September 25, 2006


DICK HECKSTALL-SMITH – ONE FOR THE ROAD A Sunday morning, April, 2004 Dick Heckstall-Smith is being driven by a neighbour and accompanied by his manager as they journey from Fortune Green in North West London to Bristol. After several years of slowly failing health, resulting, in the last year at least, in many cancelled gigs, DHS is travelling to play a come-back/warm-up show with British blues performer Eddie Martin. Sax players need to practice every day, play live whenever possible, just to maintain their craft, just to keep their lungs in shape. In the last year, he has regretfully had to pull out of both legs of a Colosseum reunion tour of Germany. The prospect of summer shows with his old band in Germany loom, but first Dick has another major show to prepare for, an appearance at the Odense Blues Festival in Denmark in the company of the British Blues All-Stars. First of all though, the matter of today’s gig with Eddie. Dick is sitting in the back of the car resting, reading the Observer newspaper, engaging in fragments of conversation about a bewildering variety of topics. How it will be good to see Eddie again, how arrangements for Odense are going, and where exactly are those weapons of mass destruction? Fifty years of motorways, service stations, check-ins, checkouts, sound checks and one-night stands have not diminished Heckstall-Smith’s hunger for playing, his total enthusiasm for music and the people who create it. A friend and colleague of Dick’s, fellow tenor player and former Gil Scott-Heron sideman Ron Holloway described him as being “so in love with playing his horn and the act of creating music.” On this cold wet day in April, Dick must know at some level that for him the road is winding down, but his far from ready to accept this, rather electing to concentrate on forward planning. There is much talk in the car of a new-recorded version of his 1995 suite “Celtic Steppes.” The original piece, recorded with a twenty plus piece big band, a flawed yet whole-hearted and at times brilliant attempt to marry Celtic themes and history within the structure of a large jazz band. Now, the plan is for a vocal parts to be added to the original work, and to expand the whole with the addition of “Midi-Evil”, an existing piece first premiered with Heckstall-Smith’s DHS$ band in the early 90’s. Dick’s great wish is for the newly invigorated “Celtic Steppes” to finally get a public performance. The thought of this project, allied to the prospect of getting out on the road again to play the blues, and to play once again with Colosseum, is what is keeping him going. They arrive in Bristol by mid-afternoon. Dick first played with Eddie Martin some nine years before, after invited Dick to sit in with him at a Sunday lunchtime gig in Weston-Supermare. That show was the first time they had ever met, but in the intervening years, a friendship has developed, based partly on mutual admiration. Heckstall-Smith has enjoyed many such relationships during a long and eventful career. From early days playing jazz at Cambridge University, through days with The Sandy Brown Jazz Band, much freelancing, and notable spells with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Graham Bond ORGANization, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and of course Colosseum, one of the first bands to marry jazz and rock themes together. In the years since Colosseum first folded, in 1971, Dick Heckstall-Smith has recorded four solo albums, quite a few collaborative projects, many guest spots, and worked live with a stream of bands in a variety of styles. He has worked all this time because it has been a financial necessity, but also because music is what he does, an essential part of who he is. As Ron Holloway says of him now, “He was a force of nature when he put a tenor saxophone to his lips.” As Eddie Martin and his wife clear the plates away after Sunday lunch, the force needs recharging, and Dick takes a nap, before the get in for that nights show. We turn up at the waterfront pub an hour or so before the show. Already a few people are getting into position for the show. One very drunk kid, no more than twenty, approaches Dick and his manager. He has a small VHS recorder in his hand, and tells us that his father has been a lifelong fan of Dick, but is unable to get out of the house these days. Would it be ok if he filmed the show so he could show it to his Dad later? The manager tends not to believe this story, but Dick does, and gives his consent. Later in the evening, the would be filmaker will be seen standing outside the bar throwing up. No filming is made. Onstage, Eddie Martin transforms himself from a soft spoken, gentle guy into a driven blues performer. This is his home territory, and with his small tight band, he rips into the packed sweaty audience with fine searing blues guitar. Dick joins him onstage to great applause. The manager listens to the reaction of the crowd. Some are aware of Dick's history, talking of the legends he has played with, from Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton to beyond. Others say Dick who? They all respond as he plays though. His playing is a little hesitant by his high standards, lacking the confidence and energy of his greatest performances, but the pleasure on his face, in his stance, is there for all to see, and there are moments when he hits a note to die for. There are always moments like these when he plays. Towards the end of the set, he is tiring visibly, but both he and the crowd are having fun, and Eddie is in his element, choking more life out of his cherry red Gibson. The manager, a player a long time before, gets up for the encore. Dick is generous in every way as he does so, and then it is over. Dick sits on the stage as people gather to talk to him. One person has a collection of old Decca LPs which he wants Dick to sign. He is deathly pale by this time, and on leaving, has to be supported on either side by the manager and the neighbour. Playing has taken everything he has out of him, and he has nothing left to make his legs work to any useful degree. Most people feeling as ill as he is would have been home in bed, maybe for the whole day, but Dick still has music to make, and that comes before anything. To be playing, to be around musicians, to be up there on the stand, in his own words, “The Safest Place In The World” Dick sleeps most of the way home, surfacing now and then, still full of plotting and new plans. He makes it to the Odense show the next month, he and Long John Baldry both pushed around in wheel chairs by volunteers. It will be his last major show. Six months later, he will have passed away, leaving so much music unplayed, so much undone, but leaving a warm feeling within those who loved him and loved his music. PETER GRANT PORTERVILLE< SEPT 2006
Posted by Johnny Luddite on 09/25 at 02:18 AM | Permalink
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