by Ian Mann
September 26, 2023
Ian Mann and Trevor Bannister pay tribute to the late, great John Marshall (1941-2023), drummer with three seminal bands, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, Soft Machine and Eberhard Weber’s Colours.
R.I.P. John Marshall (1941 – 2023)
I was saddened to hear about the passing of the great John Marshall, drummer with three of the most important and influential bands at the interface of jazz and rock, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, Soft Machine and Eberhard Weber’s Colours.
He appeared on three Nucleus albums in the early 1970s “Elastic Rock” (1970), We’ll Talk About It Later (1971) and “Solar Plexus” (1971), all released on the Vertigo record label. “Elastic Rock”, in particular, is now regarded as a landmark release in the history of British music.
In 1972 Marshall joined Soft Machine, a group that he would continue to be associated with in its various incarnations for the rest of his life and with whom he recorded a total of a dozen studio alums, plus just as many live recordings.
Marshall also enjoyed a parallel career as a member of Colours, the quartet led by the great German bassist and composer Eberhard Weber. Marshall appeared on the ECM albums “Silent Feet” (1977) and Little Movements” (1980), the second of which is playing as I write and still sounds good today.
He also appears on the 1999 ECM album “Achirana”, which saw him teamed with the Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and the Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen.
In 1997 Marshall recorded the album “Bodywork” for 33 Jazz Records, working alongside future Soft Machine saxophonist Theo Travis and former Nucleus. guitarist Mark Wood
Other notable artists with whom Marshall worked include bassist /vocalist Jack Bruce, saxophonist John Surman, guitarists Barney Kessell, Chris Spedding and Volker Kriegel, and composers Michael Garrick, Gil Evans, Graham Collier, Neil Ardley, Mike Westbrook and Mike Gibbs. This is, of course, just scratching the surface, the versatile and in demand Marshall featured on a total of over eighty recordings.
Marshall was also part of pianist / composer Keith Tippett’s huge Centipede ensemble on the staggering 1971 double album “Septober Energy”.
I was lucky enough to see Marshall perform live on a total of three occasions. In 1987 he returned to the Nucleus fold and I enjoyed seeing the band at the now defunct Triangle Arts Centre in Birmingham on 17th May, the last date of a Jazz Services sponsored UK tour. Besides Marshall and Carr the group featured Mark Wood on guitar, Phil Todd on saxophones and Dill Katz on fretless electric bass. I can be sure of my facts here as I am still in possession of a ‘flyer’ from that concert.
In 2007(ish) I saw Marshall perform as part of what was then known as Soft Machine Legacy at the Robin 2 rock club in Bilston, Wolverhampton. This was around the time of the release of the “Steam” album, credited to Soft Machine Legacy and featuring Marshall alongside bassist Hugh Hopper, guitarist John Etheridge and saxophonist Theo Travis, the latter making his recorded debut with the group after replacing the late Elton Dean. I haven’t unearthed any memorabilia from the Bilston date so my memories are actually less reliable than for the Nucleus show. I seem to recall that at Bilston Hugh Hopper was replaced by Roy Babbington, but some sixteen years on I can’t be totally categorical about that.
Unfortunately I never did get to see Colours, although I was lucky enough to see Eberhard Weber play live with Jan Garbarek, and also with the United Jazz & Rock Ensemble.
My last sighting of John Marshall live was at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when he appeared at the Town Hall as a member of the John Surman / John Warren Brass Project. The event took place on 4th May and my review of the performance can be found here;
It was also in 2019 that The Jazzmann published three features about John Marshall under the generic title “You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer”, the title sourced from a remark by clarinettist Acker Bilk, with whom Marshall once played. These were based around a series of interviews conducted with Marshall by regular Jazzmann contributor Trevor Bannister in 2018.
Trevor is based in Reading, the town where Marshall went to university to study for a degree in Psychology, while also becoming became involved in the local jazz scene.
The first part of Trevor’s features finds Marshall discussing various American jazz drummers as well as recalling his own school and university days. Link here;
Part Two sees Marshall establishing himself on the London jazz scene before going on to work with Mike Gibbs, Jack Bruce, Nucleus and Soft Machine. Link here;
The third and final part sees Marshall recalling more of his work with Soft Machine and also with John Surman and Eberhard Weber, among others. He also selects his ten favourite recordings from the many on which he has been featured. Link here;
Trevor’s interviews with John are very comprehensive and offer a superb overview of John Marshall’s career. There are fascinating insights and some great stories, some of them highly amusing.
I have enjoyed reading Trevor’s excellent features again and I’m sure many of John Marshall’s numerous fans will wish to do the same during this sad time.
I had hoped to meet John personally following the Brass Project show at Cheltenham. Following the publication of Trevor’s interviews he had expressed an interest in meeting me but this proved impossible due to the tight turnaround schedules for both musicians and reviewers alike. It was a privilege to witness his playing, but we never did make that meeting.
We really have lost one of the greats.
I’ll leave the last words to Trevor Bannister;
I was saddened to learn that John Marshall has died. He was a fabulous drummer and a lovely guy. He was quite frail when I interviewed him in 2018. This didn’t get in the way of his playing which was as forceful and imaginative as ever when I saw him in action with Soft Machine.
I did wonder if something was amiss when I read that Asaf Sirkis would be lining up for the coming Softs tour. The sad news followed soon after. A great loss.
R.I.P. John, and thank you for the music and the memories.
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