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Book Review; Playing The Band-The Musical Life of Jon Hiseman by Martyn Hanson

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Book Review; Playing The Band-The Musical Life of Jon Hiseman by Martyn Hanson

If you're a fan of any phase of Hiseman's career this book has much to offer and for its comprehensiveness alone is highly recommended.


Playing The Band-The Musical Life of Jon Hiseman

by Martyn Hanson

Drummer, composer, band leader, producer, studio owner and label boss-Jon Hiseman has been all these during a lengthy musical career that began in the 1960’s and which has encompassed jazz, blues, rock and more. It has been a remarkably wide ranging career that has seen Hiseman working in a variety of musical contexts but the one constant in his life has been his forty three year (and counting) marriage to saxophonist Barbara Thompson. It’s remarkable for a “show biz” marriage to last so long, especially given the highly independent and creative natures of both parties and Hiseman rightly regards his relationship with Thompson, both personally and professionally, to be one of his greatest achievements.

The book offers a comprehensive and exhaustive account of Hiseman’s life and career from early childhood to the present day. However the main focus is inevitably Colosseum, the ground-breaking group led by Hiseman in the late 60’s and early 70’s which fused jazz, blues and rock in a unique fashion at the height of the “progressive” era. The group subsequently reformed in the 1990’s and has worked intermittently ever since with Hiseman and Thompson fitting the band in around their numerous other commitments.

Author Martyn Hanson has published previous books on ELP, The Nice and Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs. Essentially he’s a fan, and much of “Playing The Band” reads like it, indeed at times the book risks descending into mere hagiography. However what this work lacks in literary style it more makes up for in it’s depth of detail (Hanson has certainly done his research), anecdotal evidence and sheer “page turnability”. I consider myself to be something of a Hiseman fan but there are large chunks of his career that I’m totally unfamiliar with and Hanson’s brisk no nonsense style certainly kept me turning the pages, eager to see what Hiseman was going to do next.

Hiseman himself has had considerable input into the finished tome as has the book’s editor, one time Colosseum manager Colin Richardson. No stone is left unturned as the book follows Hiseman’s career from early semi pro gigs through his sideman work with Graham Bond’s ORGANisation, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and others to the formation of Colosseum. Following the demise of the original Colosseum Hiseman subsequently formed Tempest before moving on to lead Colosseum II, a completely different band featuring sometime Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore.

When Colosseum II’s work largely failed to reach an audience now enamoured with punk Hiseman retrenched, becoming a vital member of his wife’s innovative jazz group Paraphernalia. In jazz terms Thompson’s group was also a great commercial success enabling Hiseman and Thompson to set up Temple Music, their own recording studio and publishing arm. The couple were thus early exponents of the art of music as a “cottage industry”. Already a formidable organiser Hiseman quickly added technical and production strengths to his arsenal. In addition to its other qualities “Playing The Band” is also a fascinating insight into just how the music business works.

No aspect of Hiseman’s lengthy career is left uncovered. There’s an insight into his work with the Anglo-European super-group the nine piece United Jazz And Rock Ensemble, a line up I was fortunate enough to see on their only UK tour way back in 1984! Sadly many of that band are no longer with us -Volker Kriegel, Albert Mangelsdorff, Charlie Mariano and Ian Carr have all passed away and master bassist Eberhard Weber is no longer able to play following a massive stroke.

I may have been a long term fan of the UJRE but I was totally unfamiliar with (or maybe I’d just forgotten about it) the depth of Hiseman and Thompson’s involvement with the much maligned Andrew Lloyd Webber. The pair play on soundtrack albums such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tell Me On A Sunday” and were to be heard every Sunday night on ITV playing on the theme tune to the South Bank Show (Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” featuring his brother Julian on cello).

“Playing The Band” features an extensive cast of musicians and others industry figures with whom Hiseman and Thompson have been associated over the years. Some of the great characters of British music are here, among them Graham Bond, John Mayall, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Colosseum’s original saxophonist the great Dick Heckstall-Smith. Inevitably there are some great stories, some of them highly amusing, but at other times the book can be surprisingly moving. Wayward geniuses Graham Bond and pianist Mike Taylor both met tragic, untimely ends. The accounts of Heckstall Smith’s battles against illness and alcoholism make for harrowing reading but Barbara Thomson’s indomitable struggle against Parkinson’s Disease is more heart warming, a triumph of the human and musical spirit against the odds. In any case this book is Thompson’s story as much as Hiseman’s, their paths are inextricably linked.

If you’re a fan of any phase of Hiseman’s (or Thompson’s) career this book has much to offer and for its comprehensiveness alone is highly recommended. I veer towards Colosseum II, Paraphernalia and the UJRE- reviewing this book has caused me to dig out my old vinyl featuring these bands and most of the music, including the most obviously “fusion” stuff still stands up well. Others will prefer Hiseman’s earlier career, particularly the original Colosseum and there’s certainly plenty about them. Parts of the book also represent a tantalising snapshot of one of the most adventurous eras of British music, the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Hiseman acknowledges that the book is likely to have limited general appeal and it’s unlikely to be available in most bookshops. Your best bet is to order directly from its publishers Temple Music at   

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