By Kenny Mathieson
The news that saxophonist Barbara Thompson is to give up touring and performing follows on the heels of the public announcement that she had been diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. The diagnosis was made four years ago, but has only now been made public.
Thompson was one of the first women to make a major impression on the British jazz scene, as a saxophonist and a band leader, and she intends to continue her musical activities. Although she will no longer tour, she will carry on with both recording and composing. As well as her jazz-related writing, she has composed a number of large works for chamber groups and orchestras.
Thompson led her long-established Paraphernalia in a final week of performances at Ronnie Scott’s in London in early April. The saxophonist had a classical training, but was seduced by the expressive quality of Johnny Hodges’s alto (one of her planned projects is an Ellington suite). She bought an alto and “practised like mad, trying to sound just like him”, but soon began to develop her own voice across a range of reed instruments, including alto, tenor and soprano saxes, and flute.
She met her future husband (and future Paraphernalia drummer) Jon Hiseman on the London jazz scene in the mid-60s. She worked with many of that scene’s luminaries, including the doyen of women jazz musicians in the UK, Ivy Benson, an experience which she recalled as being simultanously “marvellous and horrific”, and has led her own bands since 1969.
She joined the Berlin-based United Jazz and Rock Ensemble in 1975, and has retained a big following in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. She formed Paraphernalia in 1977, and later led her own big band, Moving Parts. She was happy to embrace electric instruments and electronics, and her band became a leading contributor to the development of a diverse range of jazz-fusion directions, from jazz-rock to all manner of folk, ethnic and world music influences. Her most recent album, Thompson’s Tangos and Other Soft Dances (Intuition), is a good example of her skill in adapting a given form in her own distinctive fashion.
She and Hiseman, whose credits include drumming for the jazz-rock band Colosseum, set up Temple Music at their home in Surrey in 1982, where they run a studio as well as attending to the management of their various musical activities.
Her projects over the years have included settings inspired by Oscar Wilde and Philip Larkin. She has often been the chosen saxophonist on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s projects, and is currently involved in taking the process one stage further and writing her own musical, based on George du Maurier’s novel Trilby. She hopes to have the work completed in preview form later this year.
Her life may no longer encompass the stress and strain of being on the road, but she gives no indication that she intends to let her illness slow her down in other respects. After much research into the disease, she and Hiseman took the decision that she should stop taking what they saw as harmful medication, and concentrate her energies on composition. With several commissions pending, she is going to remain a busy woman.
She refuses to see giving up touring and performing as an end. Rather, it is a change of direction, enforced perhaps, but one to be embraced as an opportunity rather than simply a loss. She may be off the road, but Thompson intends to make sure it is definitely not the end of the road for her music.
Visit Kenny Mathieson’s website at http://www.kenmat.dircon.co.uk/.