A Few Words With...Jon Hiseman

Interview by John A. Wilcox

Jon Hiseman is as distinctive a drummer as the world has ever seen. Gaining his footing in the early days with John Mayall, Hiseman went on to form Colosseum, then Tempest with Allan Holdsworth and Ollie Halsall. He was recently the subject of the book Playing The Band - The Musical Life Of Jon Hiseman by Martyn Hanson. Hiseman sat down with Progsheet to give us an inside look at his life and work...

PS: What was the first kit you ever owned?

JH: My father made my first drum kit, using a washboard, a home-made tom-tom, together with a borrowed marching cymbal. Wire brushes on washboard is one of the great percussion sounds.

PS: What was your first paying gig as a musician?

JH: I started playing the drums about time I met Dave Greenslade, who would later become the keyboard player in Colosseum. He formed a trio...which is how I met Tony Reeves, who became the bassist with Colosseum. So, at the age of 13 I was already playing with 2 musicians who would become crucial in my later life as a professional musician. We played mostly jazz standards, plus some of Dave's early compositions. We put on a 'Jazz Dance' at a local church hall and made 10 shillings each - untold riches!

PS: How did you meet Jack Bruce and what was your experience recording with him?

JH: Pianist Mike Taylor, one of the great jazz innovators in the UK in the early '60s, formed a trio which included Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. When they left to join Alexis Korner's band, I took Ginger's place, but from time to time Jack Bruce would come back and play with us. That's where I first met him and went on to record two albums with him, Songs For A Tailor and Things We Like. I enjoyed working with him very much...I always found him charming and very encouraging. He was extremely meticulous and always knew exactly what he wanted, but he seemed to like what I did in those contexts. I have nothing but good memories of my times with him. He is probably the greatest singer/songwriter and bass player of his generation.

PS: Why did you decide to leave the gig with John Mayall and start Colosseum?

JH: I joined John when he put together his jazzier line-up for the Bare Wires album, when he added a brass section to his traditional blues quartet. After just a few months, he decided to disband this larger group, so everybody was sacked except myself and Mick Taylor and we reverted to a quartet, with the addition of a young bass player, Steve Thompson. I enjoyed this time with John very much and he made bandleading look easy, but I soon realised that if I was going to get a band of my own together, the time was ripe. Audiences in the late '60s were always looking for something new and the media were very happy to go along for the ride.

PS: Was Colosseum a band that road tested compositions first before bringing them to the studio?

JH: Colosseum wrote material 'in the round' (or rather, created and learned material in the round, because nothing was ever written down) and then tried it out on stage. What worked, stayed and what didn't disappeared...and this seem to work very well for us. However for the third album, Daughter Of Time, we worked on the material only in the studio. It's our only true studio album and, at the time, it didn't seem nearly so successful. Finally, of course, the famous live album of 1971 was entirely rehearsed at sound-checks and performed on stage.

PS: Which album do you feel best represents what you were looking to achieve with Colosseum?

JH: Without doubt, the live album, because by that time, the musicians in the band were all the right ones. I had a powerful lead singer in Chris Farlowe and two great backup singers, Clem and Mark, whose complementary voices blended very well for the ensemble parts. Sadly, we disbanded only six months after releasing it, because I just didn't feel the band could go any further. There were several contributory factors, but underlying it all was a feeling that we done all we could and we had just run out of steam.

PS: How did Tempest differ in tone from Colosseum?

JH: I set out to create a much simpler band, which was far more lyric/song based. The albums certainly reflect this, but the live performances gradually became more and more instrumental.

PS: Many associate Tempest with Allan Holdsworth, often overlooking Ollie Halsall. What do you feel Halsall brought to the band?

JH: Ollie was an extraordinary musician, but he was also a maverick. He came into the band playing alongside Alan, who was basically fulfilling his contractual commitment before he left. During the month when they overlapped, I probably had the best band of all. We had some wonderful gigs as a trio with Ollie, but at the end of the day, he became less interested in playing with the band... he was just going on stage and doing his own thing. It soon became clear to me that there was nothing for it but to fold the band.

PS: Tell me a bit about what the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble offered you as a player.

JH: Playing with the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble was always very difficult for me as a drummer. Each member of the band contributed a chart in the style of his own band (which is why it was known as the 'band of bandleaders'). I had to get into each composer's head in order to try to work out what it was he wanted from the drums. There were so many different styles. We had relatively little rehearsal time before recording the albums live. Very often, I wouldn't get into what the piece was about until we were halfway through the tour that followed the release of the album! So I have mixed feelings about the UJRE, but toward the end, during the last couple of tours, almost 30 years later, when we simply went out and played our 'hits', I really had it under my belt.

PS: How did marriage change your life as a musician?

JH: Well, Barbara, of course, was also musician when we met in 1964...before either of us turned 'pro'. So we grew into the life together and from the mid '70s, we always worked together. There was never any conflict of interest.

PS: Playing The Band - The Musical Life Of Jon Hiseman came out in late 2010. How "hands on" were you with the project?

JH: I was very hands-on and actually added large chunks to the book. The author, Martyn Hanson, was excellent at researching all the detail, creating a timeline and ferreting out many little details long forgotten by everybody else, but of course, those details then triggered other memories about the background to them and kicked off other stories, which I was able to add to the mix. When Colin Richardson edited the book and we read it through together, that triggered a load more - and Martyn was always there digging away in the dark.

PS: What did you learn about yourself over the course of working on the book with Martyn Hanson?

JH: It made me realise that I had seemed to have been a 'bobbing cork' on a rough sea...never really in charge of my destiny, but always reacting to events in a predictable way, though the course had really been set very early on in my life without me being aware of it.

PS: What's your current kit?

JH: Pearl MLX Maple shell kit. (I have 3 identical drums & cymbals) 22 inch bass drum on stage, 24 inch in the studio 10" 12"13" 14"16" tom-toms in the studio and 10"12" 13"16" and 18" toms when on the road with Colosseum. I also have 18" and 20" bass drums. I select a snare drum from my collection appropriate to the project but my favourites are the Ludwig 6 1/2" Black Beauty and a very old 5 1/4" wooden Slingerland in Champagne sparkle finish. All Paiste Cymbals - Signature 14" hi-hats, Signature 17" & 18" crashes, Signature 24"China and 20" or 22" old Sound Creation and Formula 602 Dark Rides.

PS: Can we ever look forward to you playing in the US in the near future?

JH: There's no chance of me ever playing in America now. In the last couple of months Barbara and I have officially come 'off the road', because her Parkinson's condition has got to the stage where, although the playing is fine, the travelling is really too much for her and affects her quality-of-life. I would not consider continue touring without her, so I am staying here in London, working in the studio on various Audio and Video projects while she concentrates on writing her own compositions.

PS: Who's in the latest Colosseum lineup?

JH: Dave Greenslade, Mark Clarke, Chris Farlowe, Clem Clempson, Barbara Thompson and myself. We have already laid down some tracks for a new album - maybe, in time, we'll get to finish it!

PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you always enjoy listening to.

Olivier Messiaen - The Turangal´┐Żla-Symphonie
John Coltrane - Ascension
Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key Of Life
Chick Corea - The Mad Hatter
Frank Sinatra With The Count Basie Orchestra - Live At The Sands
Vangelis - Blade Runner


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