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Interview ‘He has inspired my whole life in jazz’

Veteran tenor saxophonist ALAN SKIDMORE talks to Chris Searle about his tribute album to John Coltrane

THE tenor saxophone is the lifelong companion of septuagenarian Alan Skidmore. His father, a prime tenor saxophonist himself, gave him one when he was 14 and encouraged him to practise long notes to develop a sound and scales to develop a technique.

He turned professional when he was just 16.

A crucial transformation in the young musician’s life was hearing hear John Coltrane play live in north London.

“I was too young to realise what an impact Coltrane would have on the rest of my life at that time,” he says, “but he has inspired my whole life in jazz —  his spirit, his sound, his technique, his enormous creativity.”

Skidmore spent his early professional years touring with British comedians like Tony Hancock and playing in blues bands with Alexis Korner, John Mayall and Georgie Fame.

“Learning to play the blues at an early age of my career played a huge part in my development.

“If you want to be a jazz musician and you can’t play the blues, you’re stuffed!” he declares.

The 1960s up to the ’90s were golden years for “Skid,” as he became known. Inspired by tenor saxophonists like Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Paul Gonsalves and “my old mate and wonderful musician, Ronnie Scott,” he made some classic recordings in the ’70s — Once Upon a Time and his SOS saxophone trio album with Mike Osborne and John Surman.

And he was the first European jazz musician to tour South Africa after the fall of apartheid, making three stomping albums with his Africa-inspired band, Ubizo.

Yet Coltrane has always been his most powerful and enduring inspiration. His dedication albums Tribute to Trane in 1988 and After the Rain a decade later are landmarks of British jazz and he was a formidable presence at the 50th anniversary concert to commemorate Coltrane’s death at London's Cafe Oto in 2017.

The double-CD album of the concert, just released, includes him playing Attaining and Ascent in an outstanding three tenor-saxophone line-up with Paul Dunmall and Howard Cottle, alongside bassist Olie Brice and drummer Tony Bianco.

Flutist Julie Kjaer and drummers Mark Wastell and Stale Liavik complete a cosmopolitan line-up, with all combining on Coltrane’s Ascension as a rousing finale.

It’s a deeply moving record and Coltrane is living in every note played, with Skidmore the great horn griot at the very heart of the tribute.

It’s now nearly 60 years since the young Skidmore sat through that life-changing Coltrane concert yet his sound still echoes the master, not as an imitator but in his very own way as an emulator.

John Coltrane Memorial Concert at Cafe Oto is released on Core Records.

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