UK Jazz, Henry Cow & Overcoming Dystonia
Interview by Dr. Gary Gomes
Geoff Leigh is one of the more interesting improvising musicians performing today. He is perhaps best known to the fan community for his tenure on Henry Cow's first album Leg End (he also made ap-pearances on Desperate Straights with Slapp Happy and In Praise of Learning) but his musical career extended well before this and after. A unique improvisor- at times, he reminds me a little of the late John Gilmour from Sun Ra's Arkestra (a friend of mine who had never heard of Henry Cow heard LegEnd and asked me if it was Sun Ra). On a personal note, my favorite HC album is still LegEnd, largely because of Leigh's involvement.
Leigh also guested and played with many of the more important artists associated with Canterbury/Rock in Opposition people, including Charles Hayward, Aksak Maboul, Univers Zero. He also had partnerships with several world music artists, including Amid Chakar and Jalil El Afra.
Geoff's performing career was sidetracked in 1992-1993 when he suffered from the onset of dystonia because of a dental procedure- dystonia is a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable spasms and seizures. He was able to return to work in 1999 with medication that could address his situation and has kept busy with projects as wide ranging as working with Acid Mother's Temple, his old compatriot from Henry Cow, Chris Cutler, Men Working Overboad, Yumi Hara, Radar Favourites, Ex-Wise Heads, and many more. In all, his recorded output is truly astounding, with approximately 70 album credits. Leigh is one of those musicians who has played in many different idioms successfully, and is a rare and consistently sur-prising talent.
PSF: Who were your greatest musical influences? Who do you draw inspiration from, both in the past and present?
GL: Mmmm, tricky one! There were/are many influences. I was lucky to have parents who both loved jazz, so I was exposed to that from a very early age, like 11 or 12. In 1961, aged 16, they gave me permission to go with a friend to see a concert by Dizzy Gillespie – the support group was the John Coltrane quintet, who I'd never even heard of until then. This was the beginning of me starting to listen to music other than what my parents were into- not so much the really out there free stuff, but Blue Note style hard bop and soul jazz.
I guess my 2 favourite early saxophone influences were Jackie McLean and Cannonball Adderley. I was also hugely influenced by the UK rhythm and blues scene centred around guitarist Alexis Korner, who was not only the grandfather of that whole movement, but also the first musician to incorporate jazz into the scene, with players like Dick Heckstall-Smith and Phil Seamen. One of my absolute top fave groups from the mid-60's was the Graham Bond Organisation, with Bond on alto sax, organ, and vocals, Heckstall-Smith on tenor and soprano saxes, and the pre-Cream rhythm section of Jack Bruce on bass and drummer Ginger Baker. Live they were definitely the loudest, most raucous and funky band on the circuit – unfortunately, their records never captured their live sound. I often wonder what they would have sounded like if they'd been produced by the Blue Note team!
The first bands I played in were all heavily influenced by soul, R & B, and jazz-rock – it didn't take me long to realise that jazz was actually pretty difficult to play, but soul etc was a lot easier, so it was a great learning experience for me. I didn't start seriously listening to rock music until '67, when musicians like Zappa and Beefheart (and the Beatles) changed the goalposts forever.
Like many people, I'm still mainly inspired by the music I grew up with, rather than any newer artists, but I try to keep up with any developments which sound interesting. Groups like The Necks have transformed ideas about what you can do with a conventional piano/ bass/drums line-up, saxophonists like Colin Stetson have added to the post-free-jazz saxophone vocabulary, and electronic music has evolved in so many different ways it's almost impossible to keep up with them all.
PSF: I hear a great deal of free jazz in your playing. Is this a source for you? Who from this community did you listen to and like, if anyone?
GL: Yes, it was a logical step to go from listening to hard bop to checking out more adventurous musicians like Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy. But another major turning point was seeing the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with drummer John Stevens and saxophonist Evan Parker in 1967. This was way beyond what most people would call "music" - it had more to do with creating sound waves and (an overused word these days) soundscapes. A very physical experience in a small London club with 5 people in the audience, including me and a drummer friend I was playing in a soul band with at the time. The very next day we were trying to recreate what we'd heard, or should I say experienced! From then onwards, I started listening to more UK free improvisers like Brotherhood Of Breath, which was a kind of melting pot of all the top free players – I saw them playing with as many as 25–30 players, including Evan Parker, Mike Osborne, Dudu Pukwana, Lol Coxhill, Marc Charig, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, Nick Evans, and many more. Then I started checking out the American free scene, particularly Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was fascinated not just by their music, which covered a whole spectrum from traditional African drumming through to 20th century European art music, but the whole theatrical presentation, with costumes, face paint, and (in Sun Ra's case) dancers, fire eaters, and a light show.
PSF: How has your dystonia affected your playing?
GL: Enormously! Not just the fact that it affected all the muscles I need to play saxophone, but the psychological damage as well – before I was finally diagnosed in 1992, I had to put up with people staring at me and making very audible comments. My jaw was jumping around with a life of its own, my neck was twisting from side to side, and my eyes kept jamming shut. As one friend put it, it looked like I'd just snorted a mountain of bad speed or cocaine, and other people since have often assumed the same thing.
Fortunately, it hasn't impacted so seriously on my flute embouchure, but I have to play saxophone a lot, otherwise it's back to the basics as soon as I take even a short break from it. But I'm one of the lucky ones – the medication works (more or less) without too many side effects, and once I was diagnosed, I went straight into warrior mode. Fighting the enemy within became my mantra, and it seems to have worked. Apart from having to take the medication for the rest of my life, I can't really complain. And (so far) I'm not doing too badly for my age!
PSF: Why did you decide to leave Henry Cow? Was it musical direction or some other reason? Did you ever play with them again after you left?
GL: Ahh... the inevitable question! It's complicated.
One thing I've learnt is that I'm not a very good team player – hence the various solo/duo/ trio projects over the years. Once it gets to 3 or more other musicians, I start to feel claustrophobic and that impacts directly on my creativity. I can deal with a big group but only for a short time - being on the road with such a group really does my head in!
Anyway back to HC. I was very unhappy about the contract we signed with Virgin – in the end, I was out on a limb. The bottom line was either sign the contract or leave the group, so I took the easy way out and signed, only to leave 7 or 8 months later!
The whole record company thing was more political than musical, but there were musical differences bubbling under the surface – I felt that the written music was becoming more complex simply for the sake of it, and the improvisation was also taking a different direction – moving away from the more high energy free jazz approach, and towards a more electronic/ambient style. In the end, I was the only person playing totally acoustically, and yet, I was still the loudest player, which was very frustrating. Before joining HC, I had already experimented with electronic effects while playing with Mouseproof, and at this point had no desire to go back to that.
I have to admit that a lot of the group's internal dialogue concerning politics and music was frankly way beyond my intellectual comfort zone (if that's not an oxymoron!), and still is – if I watch some of the rare video clips of the band in its later incarnations, I really can't imagine myself onstage with them!
But despite all that, yes I did play with them afterwards – they invited me to play on a couple of tunes in London when they toured with Captain Beefheart in '74, and I appear on a couple of tracks on later albums. And I still get to play with Chris, Tim, and John occasionally.
Also see our interview with Chris Culter and our article on Henry Cow
Hear more of Geoff Leigh via his Bandcamp site
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