John Burgess - so in love with all that jazz
John Burgess has a CV that looks like a musical encyclopaedia. Just in jazz terms the saxophonist has become known as Scotland’s man for all sessions, slipping with apparent effortlessness from playing 1920s and 30s style hot jazz with the Nova Scotia Jazz Band to spontaneous music with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra via the funky, blues and gospel-drenched sounds of classic Blue Note Records adherents Grooveyard and the mainstream swing that celebrates the Great American Songbook.
Further examination, however, reveals a man at home in a rock ‘n’ roll horn section who left for London in 1987 with a reggae band and has toured with trance folkies Peatbog Faeries and the late Tam White’s blues and groove team. Last summer, after their tenor player took ill and had to pull out of their European tour, Burgess could be seen and heard honking mightily with American country ‘n’ Tex-Mex giants the Mavericks.
“I know it looks a bit jack-of-all-trades,” says the affable Haddington-based Burgess, “but to me it all comes from the same place. I’m just standing up there doing what I do and I suppose that’s a distillation of everything I’ve listened to.”
In the beginning Burgess was a wannabe trumpeter. His mother had, he says, a small but very refined collection of jazz records that he heard constantly when he was growing up: Muggsy Spanier, Alex Welsh, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong were her choice and all played trumpet or cornet.
Then at the age of thirteen, through his mum’s involvement with the festival, Burgess became a t-shirt salesman for Edinburgh Jazz Festival and got to hear the best of classic hot jazz and the Count Basie alumni who were regulars at the event. He still didn’t play but when he did save up to buy his first instrument four years later, he went along to Mev Taylor’s music shop in Edinburgh with £45 to get the cornet in the window he’d been eyeing up and … it had been sold.
“I was devastated,” he says, “so Mev gave me an alto sax instead to try for a week. I wish I’d kept it because it was one of these white ones that now sell for fifty or sixty grand. But although I got on well with the instrument itself, I didn’t want to play alto. If I couldn’t play trumpet, I wanted to be Ben Webster, so I got a tenor and a month later I had a gig in a pub in the High Street. I wasn’t very good but I was good enough to fool the punters in a pub in the High Street that I could play.”
At seventeen, although too young to drink in said pub, he was a late starter, certainly compared to the Bancroft twins and a by-then Boston-based Tommy Smith, who were all around the same age as him and playing on the Queen’s Hall stage.
With encouragement, however, from the late saxophonist and broadcaster Gordon Cruickshank, with whom saxophone lessons usually ended up with pots of tea and afternoons spent listening to his extensive record collection, Burgess worked hard at developing his skills and once he’d moved to London he found decent paid work touring Europe with rock ‘n’ roll bands and less well remunerated but musically enriching gigs with London’s South African contingent – including saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and pianist Mervyn Afrika – and hardcore British jazz scene players such as Jon Stevens, Harry Beckett, Alan Skidmore and Elton Dean.
From 1994 to 2005 Burgess spent half the year touring and recording in the U.S. and Canada and for a while after deciding to stay closer to home to look after his ailing mother he could even be heard playing Americana songs on guitar in local pubs, a strain of music that filtered into his You Are What You Hear album, recorded with German bassist Martin Zenker and American drummer Adam Sorensen.
His latest endeavour, which will slot in between work with the Nova Scotia Jazz Band and a forthcoming album with traditional jazz trombone master Roy Williams, is a quartet called So in Love that makes its debut this weekend at Fife Jazz Festival. As with his Urge to Burge album from 1999, it’s an unashamedly determined effort to grab the floating audience’s attention with something beautiful.
“I’m not going to be playing fast and aggressive,” he says. “I’m going to be doing what I love to do and that’s play ballads. It won’t all be at the same pace – there are blues, soul, bossa, Neil Young and John Lennon songs in there with the Great American Songbook – but I want to appeal to people who aren’t out and out jazz fans while at the same time bringing enough weight to the music to satisfy serious jazz people.”
From The Herald, February 6, 2014