Take a quick survey of who is playing saxophone with the top acts in the UK today and you will find Simon Willescroft at the top of the list.
Simon’s biography reads like a who’s who of the pop industry and his yearly schedule sees him recording and performing all over the world. Simon has been playing with UK pop legends Duran Duran for the last EIGHT years and in between tours I managed to catch up with him for a chat about his musical journey.
NM: How did you get started with music?
SW: I was really lucky getting the chance to go to Manchester’s Chethams School of Music between the age of 17 and 18. I came out of a regular school where I thought I was doing really well as a player, as I was one of the very few keen musicians there. That can do a little too much for your confidence at a young age, so going to Chethams was definitely the best thing for me. The two years I spent there showed me how much I had to learn. At Chethams you are treated like a professional musician from the very begining in terms of the schedule that is set for you. It was intense, but a very valuable experience. They had a great big band there as well which I learned a lot from.
NM: Was it a natural progression then into the Royal Northern College of Music?
SW: Yes. I was already doing little jazz residencies in cafes and bars by that stage, and even a few recording sessions. I started to develop a more pop/commercial sound early on and there weren’t that many players doing that at the time, so I was getting calls to do sessions for that style of playing.
NM: So at quite a young age you were already refining your sound. How old were you when you first started going out gigging?
SW: I was probably about 17. I remember there being issues with me not being able to play in certain places because of my age. Certainly by my second year at Chethams when I was 18, I probably had 3 or 4 regular nights put together. I booked local, established rhythm section players who were more experienced than me and we played Real Book jazz standards. I found this was the best way of learning for me. I learned more from playing regular gigs than any other form of teaching.
NM: Do you think that you learn more in a live gig situation because of the pressure you put yourself under?
SW: Yes. Even though I was developing my sound, I was still far from honing it. The thing I ended up doing was building a circle of friends who were the best musicians in Manchester. So I was booking older, MUCH more experienced players, and putting myself in a position where I had to try to keep up.
NM: And they became your mentors?
SW: Absolutely! Actually the best band I got into was a band called “Loose Change”. It was a Monday night residency but it consisted of all the best session players in Manchester. These guys were incredible. They used to do all the Granada TV sessions, sometimes 3 recording sessions a day. And they were doing and tours for years before I appeared on the scene. They had transcribed a pad of charts – tunes by David Sanborn, Yellowjackets, Tom Scott, Michael Brecker….. all the music I loved, and we did this every Monday night. It was the best thing I could have done. Having to sight-read these charts was a real challenge. It was the first time I had seen fully arranged charts with short pop solos and 2 bars here and there that just said “fills”. I had to come up with something melodic, tasteful and in the style, which was a challenge for me.
At first I was just an over excited 18 year old and I just went in and tried to blow jazz all over it. The guitarist who ran the band, Mel Dean, who is
still a busy studio musician, sat me down and said “we love your enthusiasm, but you need to bring it down a bit – concentrate on your sound and think about what every tune needs”. It was really great advice. It took me a while to sink in properly, but now that advice is what I swear by.
NM: I think that’s such great advice for younger players. As a musician booker I see this a lot in younger players. I bet that was fantastic advice to get at such a young age.
SW: Yes it was brilliant and they kept pushing that to me. Also they gave me lots of advice about how to build solos. They told me that I didn’t need to just steam in there straight away and to give the music some space. It was especially good advice for the style of music we were playing. Until that point I had just been playing jazz standards gigs and I think I was just trying to translate that style of playing to this new music I had discovered.
It wasn’t until I did lots more listening and spent more time being mentored by these musicians, that I started realising I was much more interested in
getting a great sound and working on the style of my playing, rather than just playing lots of notes.
NM: So you were a young 18 year old and I imagine at Chethams you were doing a more technical, classical repertoire. What was your process for learning how to play in this completely different, commercial style?
SW: Mainly lots and lots of listening. Although these days I don’t get time to listen as much, back then I was listening to recordings wherever I was. In the car, in the kitchen, everywhere. I was constantly listening and discovering new music. There was a little record shop down the road from Chethams called decoy records and they had a great collection of this style of music so I spent all my money there. I was never inspired by just spending hours in the practice room on my own. For me I found it was better to spend time listening and then just go out and do gigs, play with great musicians and work through ideas there.
NM: Did you spend much time transcribing?
SW: For me, I found the best way was to pick out a few notes or short phrases to transcribe, because I could see how I could use them in my playing. I didn’t spend much time transcribing whole solos. I would then practice those short phrases over a few of keys and try and include them in my playing. That’s just what worked for me.
NM: It’s great to hear you say that, Simon, because I agree that looking at single notes or phrases is a great way, particularly for adult learners to quickly get into a style of playing, and learn things you can apply to your own sound.
SW: It’s definitely what I found most useful for the style I wanted to play.
NM: So, when you moved to study at the RNCM were you doing a lot of classical repertoire?
SW: Yes. The reason I went to the RNCM was because I wanted to get a degree under my belt. I was already doing a lot of gigging with some of the best musicians in Manchester and earning a bit of money. I wasn’t ready to leave that, but wanted to continue studying at the same time.
NM: So what was the next thing after you completed your studies at RNCM?
SW: One of the guys I was working with by the end of the RNCM was the drummer Elliott Henshaw. We both decided that it was time to move down to London because we wanted to see what else was out there. We figured if we did it together it would be easier. So we plucked up the courage and moved down to London, figuring we could always come back if things didn’t work out. I quickly got involved with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and through some friends starting doing some function band gigs. I also started doing some gigs through the Arts Council scheme “Live Music Now” which promoted gigs for young musicians to perform in schools, hospitals, prisons. It was a very, very slow process but I started meeting people down in London, building up contacts and gradually getting better gigs.
NM: How did the Duran Duran gig come about?
SW: The first “pop” gig I ever got after I moved to London was with Tony Hadley. His management company also looked after ABC and Go West so I started doing some touring with them as well. Then about 8 years ago I got a call from the Duran Duran tour manager saying that their regular sax player was unavailable, and was I free for a short tour? It turns out that Snake Davis [sax player for Eurythmics, Sting, M-People, Take That] had recommended me. I had done some deps for Snake before with Rose Royce and we had also worked together a few times. Of course I said yes straight away! It was just a few trial gigs, then a few weeks in the USA and Eastern Europe touring, but I got on really well with the guys and I have been playing with the band ever since.
NM: The common theme through your story Simon is how important contacts are in the music game.
SW: Definitely. You can trace every gig back through recommendations and people you have met or worked with. I wasn’t going out to meet people with an end gig in mind, I just wanted to get out there to meet and play with as many different people as possible. Hopefully, one day someone will call you or recommend you when the right gig comes along.. You need to have your skills together too of course, so you can keep those gigs if and when the opportunity comes up.
NM: Would you agree that it’s also about being someone who’s easy to get along with on the gig?
SW: Absolutely. It’s massively about that. You could be the best player in the world but you won’t get the call if nobody wants to spend time with you in the studio or on tour.
NM: I’ve been listening to the new “Spice Fusion” album that you recorded with Elliott Henshaw and Simon Niblock. That sounds amazing. What other projects are you busy with at the moment?
SW: I really enjoyed the Spice Fusion project and always like to be involved with albums like that. I’ve recently set up my own recordingstudio at home because for years I’ve had to turn down smaller recording sessions because I didn’t have my own gear. So now I have a simple set-up with some great gear and I’m really enjoying doing all sorts of projects that come in from all over the world. That’s the way things are going these days and it’s great because you can just work in your slippers! I also enjoy doing horn arrangements and fixing horn sections for various tours and sessions.
NM: So, what music are you spending time listening to these days?
SW: I don’t listen to as much music as I used to, but when I do it’s more songs as opposed to sax lead / instrumental music these days. I love great singers like Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and Michael McDonald.
NM: Do you find that good song-writing and good singers inspire you with your playing?
SW: Absolutely. The saxophone is the closest instrument to the human voice. I started playing with the singer/songwriter Beverley Craven quite a few years ago and something she said stuck with me. On our first gig I didn’t want to get in her way musically so was holding back a bit, but Beverley is quite direct about what she wants in a sax player, or any musician for that matter. She she was looking for someone who could basically take over from her voice and become her when she’s not singing. That was really interesting because she wanted me to have the same impact and same emotion in my playing as her singing.
NM: It’s interesting to hear this, because I think when you go through a standard “classical” education in music like you did, I don’t think there is enough emphasis put on just being able to convey an emotion through a simple melody, and yet that is what connects with an audience.
SW: No, there definitely isn’t. The focus is based primarily on technique, and although that’s very important, it’s just as important, if not more so to have a great sound and feel. Particularly in the kind of playing I do.
NM: I guess that comes back to what you said earlier about being able to play in the right style for the gig.
SW: Definitely. It’s so important to understand what’s needed and to be able to adapt very quickly whether it’s on a new gig or on a studio session. Often you will get very little direction on what’s wanted, mainly because they can’t always describe it to you. So the trick is to learn to know what’s needed and be able to do it quickly.
NM: A question I like to ask players is, if you had time to only practice a single thing, what would it be?
SW: As boring as it sounds it would be practicing long notes over every octave, so you have a constant sound over the entire range. I notice that a lot of players don’t always have that – it’s often stronger in the middle but weaker at the top and bottom. You need to have a sound that has the same impact over all of my range. So for me that’s what it would be. If the saxophone comes out at my house these days, it’s generally to find a good reed for the next session or gig!
Look out for Simon on the new Spice Fusion album “Trying to hard” (www.spicefusion.co.uk) which is reviewed
in this issue. For Simon’s full discography, BIOG, PHOTO’S AND VIDEOS check outwww.simonwilescroft.com
Cannonball GA-5 alto sax / Claude Lakey ebonite mouthpiece
Cannonball GT-5 tenor sax / Dave Guardala Studio mouthpiece
Yanagisawa 991 curved soprano sax / Yanagisawa ebonite mouthpiece
Rico Select Jazz reeds – FILED 3 soft