The very distinguished arranger and composer John Altman published his witty autobiography Hidden Man earlier in 2022 and speaks to Stephen Graham ahead of his big band LoveMusicLive outdoors appearance with Mica Paris this summer
John agrees that a jazz sense of composition is very different to a classical one. He certainly knows. Movie fans will have spotted him acting as well as writing the music for 1990s film Hear My Song starring Adrian Dunbar, Superintendent Ted Hastings in hit BBC drama Line of Duty. Adrian even co-wrote some material with John for Hear My Song for instance singing ‘Movin’ and John, speaking on the phone, explained that the pair have written new music since. A highlight of the film which involves mercurial night club owner Micky O'Neill played by Dunbar putting on a Josef Locke concert only to find out that all is not quite what it seems (and is it really even Locke?) is Adrian singing ‘Nancy with the Laughing Face’ the Jimmy Van Heusen and Phil Silvers classic known for its appearance on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963). John says that he nearly worked with Hartman and met him for lunch in London not long before he died. His friend back from industry trade show MIDEM in Cannes had asked: ‘‘have you heard of Johnny Hartman?’’ ‘‘Not half!’’ he replied. But he was horrified to discover the mooted project, this being the 1970s, was more disco than classic standards. ‘‘It made the Bee Gees sound like Ravel or Boney M like Madonna’’. Johnny was diagnosed as suffering from cancer, he left for the States, and their collaboration never happened in the end.
Collaborations that did are in the running to be featured at the outdoors Mill Hill concert. So expect treatments of such classics as ‘It's Oh So Quiet’ as contenders for the set-list, the fabulously dynamic Björk song that Altman arranged for the famed Icelandic singer. Also possible are ‘Bright Side of the Road’ and ‘Moondance’ the latter in the Van Morrison set-list for decades. The big band will include 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 5 saxes, tuba, bass, piano and drums. John himself plays soprano saxophone as a favourite among the saxes that he has played over the years – idolising Lucky Thompson as a big hero especially.
Back in the late-1970s from 1978-9 John was musical director for Van Morrison writing horn charts and wrote a new arrangement of ‘Moondance’ one that Van subsequently used for many years afterwards Van referring to it as the ‘‘Altman chart’’. The composer loved working with the great Belfast man and Sir Van since 2016 who this year was Oscar-nominated for ‘Down to Joy’ from the film Belfast. John himself has won Grammys and Emmys in his time and thinking back to those days he says that Van gave him ‘‘carte blanche’’ and never told me what to write. It didn’t matter if ‘Caravan’ is now reggae!'' ‘Caravan’ being the Van classic featured on the Moondance album from 1970 and not the Ellington-Juan Tizol composition of the same name in case you were wondering. For his new arrangement he says at the time he freshened it up.
As for Ellington when asked if push were to come to shove which did he prefer: Ellington, Basie or both? Of course, the answer is both and he says that from the age of 7 he was able to sing ‘Jack the Bear’ and the solos! His was certainly a musical family. And through his uncles Sid and Woolf Phillips who played the London Palladium John often saw the bands when they came to London. He says among saxes he likes the soprano sax for its portability. And asked about the music of John Dankworth, the great altoist-arranger and bandleader, he says he had a great chat with Dankworth some years ago when others were mingling at the funeral of drummer Allan Ganley and he also has worked with John’s son bassist Alec Dankworth in his own band. We talk about voicing a bit and he says he likes Dankworth’s work on The Servant, the 1963 Joseph Losey film. ‘‘Terrific scores’’ is how he describes the Dankworth body of work and he also refers to Dankworth’s work with Mel Tormé and Dame Cleo Laine (possibly the Nothing Without You album).
Altman’s jazz roots go deep. He tells me that his mum was friends with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. John himself met Sonny Stitt to name but one icon and he has played with James Moody, Plas Johnson and Houston Person to name three more.
Altman is also famed for his collaborations on ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ from the classic and hilarious Monty Python 1979 film Life of Brian which he says is one of his proudest achievements along with music for the film Funny Bones (also directed by Hear My Song’s Peter Chelsom) and the tank chase music in James Bond movie GoldenEye.
The Altman big band has played in American festivals and in Australia. Back in Blighty he is closer to home. Born in December 1949 he went to primary school in Edgware, secondary school on a scholarship to the City of London School and later Sussex University where he read English Literature. He holds an honorary doctorate in music from Sussex. At the upcoming Mill Hill show he is joined by the great soul and gospel singer Mica Paris. John keeps his ear to the ground for new arranging talent such as trombonist Callum Au (known for his work with Claire Martin) and Tom Richards, the Jamie Cullum musical director and bandleader.
The John Altman Big Band and Mica Paris MBE play LoveMusicLive at the Mill Hill Country Club, north London, on Saturday 30 July. Tickets