Jon Hiseman R.I.P.


Jon Hiseman, who has died aged seventy-three after suffering from brain cancer, was one of Europe’s leading drummers. He enjoyed a long period of prominence from the late 1960s, when he formed the band Colosseum, into the noughties with the successful pan-European United Jazz & Rock Ensemble and for many years worked with his wife, saxophonist Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia before reforming Colosseum in 1994 and latterly creating the band JCM with guitarist Clem Clempson and bassist Mark Clarke.


Despite his strong personality behind a drum kit, Hiseman became a drummer by accident. Born in Woolwich, he studied violin and piano as a child and when the mid-1950s skiffle boom arrived some friends at the local church youth club decided to form a group. They were short of a washboard player, so with the help of his father, who put together a “kit” from a washboard, a paint tin, some vellum held in place with shoe laces and a cymbal acquired from a Boys Brigade band, Hiseman joined in. He later said that the technique with brushes that got him his first jazz gigs was based entirely on the thimble strokes he learned by playing Freight Train, a skiffle hit for Chas McDevitt.


When he left school Hiseman’s intention was to become an accountant but after a couple of years of office work, while playing jazz and R&B around London by night, he opted to become a full-time musician. He joined the New Jazz Orchestra, where musicians and composers including bassist Jack Bruce, trumpeter Ian Carr and trombonist-arranger Michael Gibbs were bringing forth ideas, and when Ginger Baker left the Graham Bond Organisation to form Cream in 1966, Hiseman took his place in a band that was a big live attraction, if often chaotic due to the brilliantly talented Bond’s drugs and alcohol-induced darker side.


After a year with Bond, Hiseman joined Georgie Fame just in time for Fame’s management to fire his band as an unnecessary accoutrement to pop stardom. Hiseman then played with the ill-starred pianist-composer Mike Taylor’s trio and then teamed up again with saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, from the Bond Organisation, for a short spell with John Mayall, featuring on the inveterate bluesman’s Bare Wires album. Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith also recorded the instrumental jazz album Things We Like with Jack Bruce and guitarist John McLaughlin in 1968 and featured on Bruce’s Songs for a Tailor the following year.


His experiences with Bond and Mayall had convinced Hiseman that he could marry jazz, rock and blues successfully, so with Heckstall-Smith, Dave Greenslade, a pal from teenage bands on keyboards, the experienced bassist Tony Reeves and singer-guitarist James Litherland, he formed Colosseum in 1968. The band was a powerhouse, with Hiseman playing his by now familiar twin bass drum kit, and enjoyed success with albums including Valentyne Suite, although it wasn’t until the 1971 album Colosseum Live that he felt they’d captured his ideal of playing jazz fronted by an Elvis Presley-style singer in the shape of Chris Farlowe.


Like John Mayall, Hiseman was a serial talent spotter and following Colosseum’s demise he formed Tempest with first, the brilliantly individual and technically advanced guitarist Allan Holdsworth and then another mighty guitarist, Ollie Halsall. Colosseum ll followed, with guitarist Gary Moore, and it was as their Electric Savage album was being prepared for release in 1977 that an unlikely pairing emerged.


Andrew Lloyd Webber recorded for the same label, MCA, and he happened to hear Electric Savage in the company’s office. He’d been looking unsuccessfully for a rhythm section to bring his variations on Paganini to fruition and felt Hiseman’s team might just do it. The result was the album that produced the theme to TV’s long-running arts programme the South Bank Show and the Hiseman-Lloyd Webber connection continued through Cats, Starlight Express, Requiem, and a television special featuring the London Philharmonic, Placido Domingo and Sarah Brightman, with Barbara Thompson’s improvised flute lines often remaining in the shows’ scores.


In 1975 Hiseman worked with German pianist Wolfgang Dauner on a television show in Stuttgart called Elfeinhalb (Eleven-thirty). Its mixture of music and political discussion proved popular and resulted in the eleven-strong house band, which also included German bassist Eberhard Weber, British-Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and Barbara Thompson on saxophones and flute, becoming a major concert draw and selling unimagined quantities of records in Germany. Named the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble, they remained popular and Hiseman toured with them on alternate years until 2002 while working with his wife’s band and recording the music for TV detective series A Touch of Frost, for which they composed the theme tune.


The couple also worked together in the reformed Colosseum after Barbara took over when Dick Heckstall-Smith died in 2004 and ran their own production company, touring organisation and record label. Colosseum’s second phase came to an end in 2015 but Hiseman continued to play drums. He formed JCM to pay homage to the great musicians he’d worked with but who had died, including Allan Holdsworth, Jack Bruce and Heckstall-Smith and having recorded the album Heroes, the band was touring in April when Hiseman took ill and was found to have a brain tumour.


He was an incredibly energetic presence who took an interest in every aspect of music making and despite his aversion to accountancy as an occupation he had sound business judgement as well as talent which he once described self-deprecatingly as “flailing away and hoping for the best.” He’s survived by his wife, Barbara, daughter, Ana, and son, Marcus.


Jon Hiseman, drummer, born June 21, 1944; died June 12, 2018.


From The Herald, June 22, 2018


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