Keyboardist Max Middleton played a pivotal role in Jeff Beck’s jazz-rock fusion period, including helping to put together the classic album Blow By Blow. In this interview with George Cole, Max describes how he became a musician and later came to play with Jeff Beck.

He talks about his work with Dick Morrissey and Jim Mullen, Jack Bruce, Kate Bush, John Martyn and Chris Rea. He also discusses jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Erroll Garner and John McLaughlin. Max has also recorded three solo albums and an album with guitarist Robert Ahwai.

You are often described as being classically trained. Can you tell us about your musical background?

I started playing the piano quite late. I was born just after the war, and at the time, it was a matter of surviving; just getting through. We were very poor and we had no record player at home – I had never heard music, actually.

When I was around eleven, I went to a secondary modern school that had music on the curriculum, but I didn’t really know what it was. I heard a chap playing the recorder and I thought it sounded fantastic. I asked the teacher about it and he gave me a recorder and a book which showed you where to place your fingers.

I took it home, and a few days later, I remember stopping the teacher and saying, ‘I can play!’ – I think it was ‘The Holly and the Ivy.’  He told my mother to buy me a piano and that was the best thing that could have happened. She found a piano down the road – a little girl was giving up the piano.

So, we pushed the piano up to my place and I started having piano lessons from someone down the road. There was no classical training, although I liked classical music. Eventually, I got a decent teacher and started playing bits and pieces.

One of the lads at school had an uncle, who had come back from New York, and I went around to my friend’s house and he was playing this boogie-woogie record. I said, ‘What’s that?’ I had never heard anything like it.

I started getting interested in that kind of music for some reason: I veered towards jazz and the pianist Erroll Garner. I started listening to jazz pianists like Dave Brubeck, who was very popular. I was about sixteen years old around this time.

I knew that I didn’t like pop music because it and jazz music were worlds apart. Nowadays, there are people who play pop who are fantastic musicians.

It just goes to show what a difference a teacher can make to your life.

That’s right, although I wish I had met some people who were interested in the blues – it wasn’t until many years later that I listened to that music and I wish I had heard it much earlier, because it probably would have influenced me in a different way.

I often hear how Mick Jagger met Keith Richards, and how they owned the same blues albums, but I never heard any blues. I found music quite difficult in a way, so I used to play things I liked, no matter how wrong it was.

It was quite hard to discover new music in those days

One huge difference now is that if you’re interested in something you can get a DVD or go online and there are artists showing you how to play. So by the time you’re fifteen or sixteen, you can know loads of things, but you couldn’t when I was young – you really had to try and find a record and listen to it and learn from it.

But I didn’t have a record player. I bought my first record in 1963, when I was 17, Erroll Garner’s Close Up In Swing – I still have it. I still didn’t have a record player. I was so naïve that I would take it out [of the album sleeve] and look at it and see if I could hear something! Eventually I did get a record player and started hearing Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane – really great players.

I find it hard to get excited about young players now, even though they are brilliant. In those days, they seemed to be making it up as they went along. Take someone from the blues, like Muddy Waters, and some of the riffs he played had never been played before, and that was marvellous.

Who were your musical influences?

The reason I liked Erroll Garner was apart from him being a fantastic player, he was so melodic. It’s from him that I learnt about jazz. Jazz musicians would play a tune and then there was a big free-for-all for fifteen minutes and then they would play the tune again, and then finish.

I had no idea what this free-for-all was – I thought it was just a big jumble of notes. But Erroll was so melodic. I heard him play ‘Summertime’ and suddenly realised what he was doing.

He’d play the tune and then he’s got four bars [of improvisation] and then he’d play the tune, although slightly differently, and then he has four bars again, and there are the four bars at the end again.

And he would maybe solo in a different way. And I thought: ‘That’s what they’re doing!’ So when I started to hear more complex music, I understood what was happening, even if I couldn’t play it. It was learning the hard way, really.

I started listening to other piano players like Dave Brubeck and he had a saxophone player, Paul Desmond, so I started getting into the saxophone. I heard Oscar Peterson and saw him at Ronnie Scott’s.

To me, Erroll Garner was a completely different world, because I liked his approach to music. He would just play a tune the way that he felt – it might be fast or slow or have different chords. Once Oscar Peterson had learnt a tune, he would have that arrangement for years, but Erroll Garner was completely spontaneous.

I liked that approach of not playing anything that was too regular all the time. People would say to me during a recording that ‘every time we’ve played a verse, you’ve played it slightly differently’, and I think that came unconsciously, and partly because I couldn’t remember what I’d done!

Did you join any bands as a teenager?

No, it was very strange and I still don’t understand it now. We lived on a council estate and we never had a telephone, but our neighbour did. I remember him coming around and saying that there was someone on the phone for me.

I didn’t know who it was but his name was Ed Spevock, and he said, ‘I used to go to school with you and I saw you playing some hymns in the school assembly. Do you still play piano?’ I said ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘I’m in a little group and we’ve got a radio gig at the end of the week.

It pays £11.’ [Ed was a drummer] I was earning £4 a week from my job in an insurance firm, so I thought it was a fantastic offer. So he invited me to a rehearsal at the church hall. The singer was trying to sound like Elvis. Saturday came, but the radio gig was put off. Next week came, the same thing happened. This went on for about six months.

I hated this guy, but then I loved him. He said, ‘what happens in the business is that you do a record and then a tour of America.’ I thought, ‘Good god, at the end of the month I’ll have to retire!’ I never ever did anything, but having all those frustrations right at the very beginning meant I was never disappointed afterwards whenever things went wrong, and they normally went wrong most of the time!

How did you end up in London?

I met Roy Cousins, who was a lot older than me and who liked to play jazz – he was a drummer. He had a ‘jazz beard’ and I thought ‘This is the real deal.’ He was a manager in the docks and he got me a job. I worked at the docks for two or three years, until my mid-twenties.

I worked for a freight company at St Katharine Docks and I was in charge of the wine section – I was the only person with a secretary. I did lots of administrative tasks, such as organising the boxing up of wines and sorting out the tax.

Did you join any bands?

I was still just playing on my own. I didn’t know any other musicians in the docks. Ed Spevock was now a jobbing musician and he was playing with two West Indian musicians, Clive and Stan Chaman. He invited me along and I loved what they were playing.

The bass player – Clive Chaman – was fantastic and the music had me spellbound. I asked them to show me what they were doing and let me hear the rhythms. I didn’t know how they had got those rhythms and the guitarist told me that they would go up to the hills in Trinidad and listen to the old guys playing calypso. I went down that road as well and liked anything that was rhythmic.

How did you move from the docks into the world of music?

I left around 1968 and started working for record companies. They would ask me to listen to a single and write out the chords, harmony, lyrics and melody for £2 a record. I thought it was great, because I could sit at home and do the work.

It was through Clive Chaman that you met Jeff Beck

Yes, it was around 1970 and I was around 25-26 at the time. Clive did loads of gigs and knew lots of musicians around London. I didn’t know Jeff Beck; I hadn’t heard of him and had never heard The Yardbirds. I remember going to meet him and I went into the room and drummer Cozy Powell came up to me and said, ‘Glad you could come down and have a little play.’

I remember Jeff was sitting in the corner, just playing. I just played what I thought I should play. At the end of the evening Jeff said, ‘I’m making a record next week, do you fancy doing it?’ I said ‘okay’ – it was very casual.

How did you move from acoustic piano to electric piano?

It was partly because, in those days, the likelihood of getting a decent piano to play on was impossible. Today, you have keyboards that sound quite realistic as pianos. I heard a Wurlitzer, which sounded interesting, but when I heard the Fender Rhodes, I thought, ‘I like this sound.’

Then I heard Steve Wonder play Fender Rhodes – I think it was on his [1972] album Music of my Mind. I bought my first Fender Rhodes in America in 1974 and have had one ever since.

How did you get into composition?

Normally, I’d write a tune because we were short of material, but I’m glad that I did write a few tunes for Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow, because it’s probably what I’m living on now. My first compositions were on Jeff Beck Group’s Rough and Ready, ‘Jody’ and ‘Max’s Tune.’.

The problem was that we all had publishing contracts and we were all getting stitched up. Publishers would sign you up, and if you wrote anything, they’d take some of the money, even though they didn’t do anything – we were getting ripped off.

So eventually, Jeff’s manager said, ‘Let’s just say Jeff wrote everything and we’ll split the money, because there are four or five of you with different publishers.’ On the second album [known as The Orange Album] I wrote ‘Definitely, Maybe,’ which was slide guitar.

I remember [album producer] Steve Cropper trying to encourage Jeff to play it, because he kept giving up. Eventually, we got there.

On Rough and Ready, ‘Jody’ is credited to Jeff Beck and Brian Short. Who was he?

He wrote the lyrics. He was a friend of mine from Newcastle.

The Jeff Beck Group and Stevie Wonder teamed up in the studio in the United States. What are your memories of that?

We met Stevie Wonder and were with him in the studio for around a week. When he wrote Music of my Mind, Motown turned their back on him, because he changed his music – he wasn’t the Little Stevie Wonder in the suit and bow tie anymore. He wanted to make his own music in his own way.

Stevie supported the Jeff Beck Group in Detroit and he said to Jeff, ‘I’ll write you a song if you play on my album’. A little while later, were in a studio in New York [Electric Lady] with [Stevie’s musical collaborators] Robert Margouleff – who was an engineer, and Malcolm Cecil, who was a jazz bass player from England.

I was mesmerised by Stevie. Being blind, they would take him around the studio and say, ‘Here’s the piano; here are the drums.’ He would sit at the piano and play three tunes straight off. He’d go over to the drums and play them, and play something else. He would sing – he didn’t have all the words, but eventually they came.

I remember he was supposed to write a song for Jeff, and he had about twenty-five albums-worth of recorded stuff on the shelf – his output was enormous. He kept playing stuff and Jeff would say, ‘No, no, I said write me something funky.’ So Stevie said, ‘You boys go and have a cup of tea,’ but I didn’t leave; I sat with him.

He went over to the clavinet and then played ‘Superstition’ straight off. Then he went over to the drums and started to sing – he knew it was going to be called ‘Superstition,’ but he’d just hum the odd couple of words. He would do it again and more words would emerge.

The next day, he came into the studio and he had finished ‘Superstition.’ Motown heard it and said, ‘You can’t give this to Jeff Beck,’ and of course, it was a big hit. Jeff eventually recorded it in his way [with the band Beck, Bogert and Appice], but it was never going to be like Stevie’s; it was like a rock version.

There are stories that the Jeff Beck Group recorded ‘Superstition’ with Stevie.

We did play together – I was playing Fender Rhodes and Stevie was on the clavinet. I remember playing a chorus and doing a descending sequence and when I heard the brass section on ‘Superstition’ I thought there was just an inkling of what I had done.

But the version of ‘Superstition’ you hear is the one he did in the studio straight off, because there are things I remember him playing. 

Jeff Beck suggested that he laid down the original drum pattern for ‘Superstition.’

No, no, no – Stevie Wonder did it all on his own.

Jeff Beck formed another incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group, which included drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Tim Bogert, as well as you on keyboards. This started out as a quintet, with a vocalist; and then you and the vocalist left and it became a power trio. During this period (1974), you joined the band Hummingbird. That was an interesting band – it also included singer Bobby Tench and Clive Chaman from the Jeff Beck Group. Was Jeff Beck involved in any of the early Hummingbird material?

He wasn’t involved. I think we had asked him to play on a tune, but there’s nothing of his on the Hummingbird album. I thought the first album [simply called Hummingbird – the band released two more albums] was really good and had Conrad Isadore on drums.

His brother Reg, used to play drums for Robin Trower. Bernard Purdie played drums on the later albums.

Hummingbird played a wide range of music – blues, jazz, rock, funk, reggae – it was very versatile. I love the band’s cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Can’t Hide Love.’

Yes, I remember us doing that.

When you look at the career of Jeff Beck, you hold a unique position in that you were there when he had the Jeff Beck Group and when it transformed into the Beck, Bogert and Appice power trio. And then he moved into jazz-rock with Blow By Blow and Wired. You are the only musician who was with him constantly during this period. Jeff was looking for something new. Did he ever talk to you about wanting to move into other directions or did it all happen organically?

I think it’s both of those things. When we first did Blow by Blow, we were playing with Carmine Appice. We did a couple of rehearsals, but we didn’t know what we were going to do. Carmine said to Jeff, ‘I want this record to be called ‘The Carmine Appice/Jeff Beck album’ and Jeff looked at him as if he was mad and said, ‘No, this is my solo album.’

So he fired him. Jeff said to me, ‘What are we going to do? I’ve waited six months to get [producer] George Martin and I’ve got the studio booked.’ I told him not to worry and I brought in a drummer, Richard Bailey, who was very young [he was eighteen at the time] and Phillip Chen on bass.

Carmine Appice has claimed that some of his drumming parts were used on ‘Blow By Blow,’ for example; he says that his opening drum groove on ‘Scatterbrain.’ was copied by Richard Bailey. Is that right?

No, no, not all. ‘Scatterbrain’ has a funny time signature, an awkward time signature, and Richard Bailey was great at all those time signatures. ‘Scatterbrain’ was Richard one hundred percent. I don’t think we did ‘Scatterbrain’ until after Carmine had left, so you can’t put it down to him.

What was it like recording Blow By Blow?

I remember George saying, ‘We’ll record from ten in the morning until six and just work hard during the day, because it’s pointless to just keep going through the night – you get tired and don’t produce anything.’ The first day, Jeff arrived around four o’clock. The next day, he came in at six.

George Martin asked him why he kept coming in late and Jeff said. ‘The parking – I’ve got to pay £2 for a parking meter!’ George replied, ‘You’re paying £1000 a day for the studio, which you’re not using.’ He was funny Jeff!

We would come into the studio at ten, with no Jeff, so I said to George, ‘Let’s record stuff.’ I had a friend who had written ‘Diamond Dust’ [guitarist Bernie Holland from the band Hummingbird], so I played that with the drummer.

George had an ARP synthesiser, and as we didn’t have a bassist, he said, ‘Let’s try that,’ so I played the bass line on it. George put some magnificent strings on it.

George was a lovely chap – I really liked him. He would sit with me and ask, ‘What are the chords? Do you think I should put strings on it?’ and I said, ‘Yes, definitely.’ Jeff said, ‘We don’t want strings; that’s namby-pamby!’ That was one tune I was really proud of, because I had listened to Peter Sellers singing ‘All The Things You Are,’ which had an echoing sound and magnificent strings.

I said to George, ‘The strings are wonderful. They remind me of a chap called Gordon Jenkins, who wrote strings for Frank Sinatra’, and he said, ‘It’s funny you said that, because Gordon Jenkins was my idol.’ So we got on even better after that! I remember doing The Beatles tune ‘She’s A Woman’ as a reggae tune, because Richard Bailey was West Indian. George Martin hated it! Jeff came in and played on it.

What would you say were George Martin’s strengths as a producer?

I asked him that, because I had met so many producers who didn’t have a clue about what they should be doing! George said, ‘My job is to bring the record to budget, but also bring out the best of the artists. To suggest things, but just get the best out of them.’

I had worked with a producer who was a drummer and he would insist on playing the drums and direct things his way, but George wasn’t like that. I’m sure with The Beatles he would suggest things and help with musical things, but just encourage them to do what they did – I thought he was brilliant.

Going back to ‘Max’s Tune’ on Rough and Ready, did it inspire you and Jeff Beck to compose ‘You Know What I Mean,’ the opening number on Blow By Blow? I ask, because at around 3:07 on ‘Max’s Tune’ there’s a riff that appears as the main riff (though played slightly faster) on ‘You Know What I Mean’ at about 0:42?

I can’t remember now. That tune, I just played because I liked a sequence…oh that’s right! It goes into a little funky bit!

You’ve said that ‘Freeway Jam’ was inspired by the bridge on ‘Definitely Maybe.’

When I wrote ‘Definitely Maybe,’ I had all sorts of ideas for the bridge section, including a long section, but nobody could be bothered to learn it, so I kept them as two songs. I am proud of ‘Freeway Jam’. I showed Jeff the melody on the first day in the studio.

Jeff had the first chord and then I wrote the rest. The drummer [Richard Bailey] and bassist [Phil Chen] really got into the riff and it was being born as we played. Jeff started off doodling along and then started playing. The energy in that tune was fantastic – it was live in the studio, with no overdubs, and just the first take.

Am I right in thinking that only ‘Scatterbrain’ and ‘Freeway Jam’ were recorded live in the studio, and on the rest of the material Jeff overdubbed his parts?

Yes. On ‘Diamond Dust,’ for example, Jeff had to learn the tune to play over it.

On the Jeff Beck documentary Still on the Run, Jeff Beck was very generous about your role on the album, and said that you had suggested he cover Stevie Wonder’s ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.’

It may have been. I was always for anything that had a lovely melody and I preferred that to the heavy rock stuff that he played. He was such a fantastic, melodic player.

Looking at your role on Blow By Blow: you composed or co-composed four of the seven tunes; brought in the drummer and bassist; arranged ‘She’s A Woman,’ and suggested including ‘Diamond Dust’ and possibly ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers’. Do you not think you should have got a co-producer credit on the album?

No, no, no. In those days I just played what I liked. If George Martin hated ‘She’s A Woman,’ I didn’t take any notice if he liked it or not. Jeff liked it and that was the important thing. I was happy to do anything – it was the early days of recording for me. I was pleased to be involved in anything.

Blow By Blow was both a creative and a critical success. You must feel proud to be a part of that album.

I don’t really think about it. To me, we were just doing stuff we liked. I remember Jeff ringing me up after the first review, which slaughtered it.

Jeff was really worried and I thought about it and then said, ‘No, wait a minute. When we went into the studio, we never moved onto another tune until we said, ‘This is fine; let’s move on to the next tune.’ So don’t worry about it; that’s just their opinion. You’ve got to do what you feel is right.’ I am glad it was successful.

After recording Blow By Blow you went on tour with Jeff Beck, drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Wilbur Bascomb. What are your biggest memories of it?

I think that was my favourite tour because Purdie was fantastic – I loved Purdie. CBS said ‘you’ve got to go on tour to promote Blow by Blow.’ Jeff told me that he didn’t think Richard [Bailey] would be the right drummer, because he was so young and inexperienced for playing big stadiums.

We also had no bass player. CBS suggested Bernard Purdie, so Jeff and I went over to New York, and Purdie had brought along his bass player, Wilbur. We rehearsed and Jeff said, ‘I don’t know about Purdie,’ and I replied, ‘Okay, but did you listen to the bass player – he’s fantastic.

He knew everything that you played and he was brilliant.’ Jeff was undecided.

What persuaded Jeff Beck to take on Bernard Purdie?

I think it was a matter of there being little time to get anyone else.

But Bernard Purdie proved to be the right man for the job.

I always remember when we played at The Spectrum [an indoor arena] in Philadelphia. It was a 12,000-seater and we had played there with the Jeff Beck Group. We hadn’t done well and got a lukewarm response. We were now doing a gig as a four-piece instrumental and I thought we were going to get crucified – they’re going to murder us because we didn’t do that well when we had a singer.

By then, the stadiums had very big screens either side of the stage, so the audience got close-ups of the musicians. Purdie was so infectious a drummer – he was swinging – I looked at the audience and could see people dancing in the aisles. We had a great time.

You were on tour with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Mahavishnu with John Mclaughlin were doing really well in the charts, so we were supporting them. Then Blow by Blow was released and it did even better – it went up the charts. The record company said, ‘You’ve got to be the headliners,’ but Jeff said ‘No’, because he admired John McLaughlin so much, so every night they would say, ‘Do you want to go on first or should I?’

It was very amicable, and maybe [Mahavishnu drummer Narada] Michael Walden would play with Jeff, or Purdie would play with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a very happy time – it was just musicians enjoying themselves.

It’s a shame a live album from the tour was never released.

I know. The reason I say it was my favourite tour was because it was so free, and sometimes we would play a tune and I’d think ‘this is sounding great!’ So, I wouldn’t play, so it was just the three of them, and then I might gradually come in. Whatever you did was okay.

I think Jeff later got into stuff that had to be a bit more precise, because he started to play very melodic things which were beautiful – like the live gig he did at Ronnie Scott’s [in 2007]. But there has to be some organisation; the chords have to be right and everything, so it changed slightly that way. [Back then] It was just Jeff playing with a funky backing band, with Purdie and Wilbur, and Purdie made everything swing so well.

On the follow-up album Wired, you composed the opening number ‘Led Boots,’ which some say pays homage to Led Zeppelin and others say is quite the opposite! So what’s the story behind it?

It had nothing to do with Led Zeppelin. I was driving to the studio and I started singing this simple riff in my head. I showed it to Jeff in the studio and we just played it, with Michael Walden on the drums. It was a bit in 7/4 and Jeff always liked these quirky time signatures.

The tune is very simple. Michael Walden knew Jan Hammer and said we could get him to play on it as well. That started Jeff’s meeting with Jan, who was fantastic.

You later did a vocal version of ‘Led Boots’ with the band Hummingbird on the Diamond Nights album.

We had Purdie on drums and 7/4 wasn’t his thing, so he changed it to 4/4 and that made it slightly different. My friend [Brian Short] who wrote the lyrics to ‘Jody’ did the words and that’s why lyrics are on it.

Am I right in thinking that George Martin was less involved with Wired?

Yes, that’s right. I think because Jan had a studio [Red Gate in New York State] and Jeff was starting to move away from the strings and into what Jan was doing, because Jan was a brilliant player – very melodic – which Jeff liked. Jan could make synthesisers sound like a guitar and give Jeff a run for his money.

In the end, I didn’t see the point of a synthesiser trying to sound like a guitar, because Jeff’s sound is unique and that’s good enough. What happened eventually is that Jeff needed really good musicians to accompany him, but he didn’t really want loads of people playing solos – people wanted to see Jeff because he was becoming such a great solo artist. They weren’t really interested in the musicians around him, but they had to be good to keep up with Jeff.

Didn’t you suggest Jeff cover the Charles Mingus tune ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ on Wired?

I always liked Mingus and knew the tune, but to be honest, it was when he heard John McLaughlin do an acoustic guitar version [on his 1971 album My Goal’s Beyond]. I may be wrong, but I think that was what inspired him. That was done live in the studio as well.

The first time Jeff played that bridge, ‘I’m Singin’ In The Rain,’ [at around 3:36] I thought it was great, because we hadn’t practised that. In fact, when he started the tune, I thought, ‘This is going well,’ and then I heard this feedback on Jeff’s guitar [at around 1:48] and thought: ‘Oh no, it’s going to be ruined!’ but Jeff managed to control the feedback and bend it into shape – he made it sound beautiful.

On the original version of the tune ‘Sophie,’ you played an extended keyboard piece at the intro, which was edited from the album version.

I can’t remember much about that – it was a long time ago.

You and fellow keyboardists Jan Hammer and Tony Hymas are arguably the most influential musicians on Jeff Beck’s career.

I think probably at the time when I was first playing with Jeff, he was feeling his way as well. He’d been playing one type of music – pretty straight blues with Rod Stewart and The Yardbirds. Even The Yardbirds were trying to do slightly different things.

He met other musicians and then he started to experience other stuff. He was probably only listening to people like Howlin’ Wolf and old blue guys, and then he started to expand. I remember him coming in with a record by [Japanese electronic keyboard pioneer] Tomita, which was classical pieces played on a synthesiser.

Jeff was tickled with it. He was always trying to look for different sounds. He’d say to me, ‘Why do people want to hear the guitar again? It only does this or that.’!

Looking back at your long musical association with Jeff Beck, what would you say you gave to him musically, and what did he give to you?

I really don’t know to be honest. I think he was a natural player and all I can say is that I liked his playing and I appreciated him. I don’t know what I got from him, apart from I’m just very pleased to have met him because I love his playing – that’s all really. I’m just very privileged to have played with him.

We’re talking just months after his death.

We all thought he would be the one that would keep going on.

In 2007, Jeff Beck played for a week at Ronnie Scott’s. Did you attend any of the gigs?

I just got the DVD. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of guitarists in the audience!

Any other memories of Jeff Beck?

I remember rehearsing in a studio and Jeff was in the next room with a French guitarist, who had won a competition to play with Jeff Beck. The French player was obviously brilliant, but Jeff’s such an old-timer, in that everything he plays is with his fingers, because they didn’t have loads of pedals back in those days.

He played a tune – it was from one of his albums after Wired – and he hit one note and then played the melody just with the whammy bar – his intonation was perfect. This French man was trying to play the same thing, and couldn’t play it at all, because he couldn’t keep anything in tune.

Jeff’s tuning was so brilliant. I remember once we were playing in the studio and Jeff played a solo. [Producer] Steve Cropper said it was a bit out of tune, so Jeff says, ‘Okay, I’ll do it again’ and Steve was surprised that Jeff didn’t bother re-tuning his guitar, he just hit the strings a bit more!

On Cozy Powell’s 1979 solo album Over The Top, you wrote a couple of songs, including one featuring Jack Bruce.

The tune ‘Sweet Poison’ has Jack Bruce playing on it. I said to him, ‘I’ve got four chords here’ and told him what they were. It was one take again – Jack played brilliantly and it was all spontaneous.

I was very pleased with that because that’s one of the few recordings I’ve got of playing with Jack. I had never met anyone who could play the bass like him, but also sing – he was wonderful.

Another tune you wrote that’s on the album is ‘The Loner,’ which is dedicated to Jeff Beck.

Jeff never played it. I thought it would be nice if he did, but I wasn’t in the same circle as him by then.

Was the title a reflection of Jeff’s personality?

I didn’t get into a deep meaning. It was the melody that suggested the title – I wasn’t thinking of Jeff being a loner!

In 1979, you played on two interesting albums, one of which was the Dick Morrissey/Jim Mullen album Cape Wrath. How did you get involved in that?

I think Jim Mullen and Dick Morrissey liked our rhythm section which was Robert Ahwai [guitar], Richard Bailey [drums], Kuma Harada [bass] and me.

You composed ‘Song for Carla’ which is a lovely song featuring soprano sax and strings. I presume it’s dedicated to Carla Bley?

I wrote that after we had come back from the pub. Jim Mullen played [the Carla Bley composition] ‘Dreams So Real’ and it was beautiful.

I thought as it was supposed to be Jim and Dick’s album, I’d write a piece, featuring a little orchestration, which could go on the front and be like an introduction to Carla’s tune, hence the song title. I was quite pleased with that.

Another album that came out in the same year was Another Sleeper, featuring you and Robert Ahwai. One thing I’ve noticed about your compositions is how you like to blend different moods, such as on the track ‘Partial Eclipse (Total Madness)’, which starts off a calm, peaceful, atmospheric piece, and becomes this driving, uptempo tune, with a lovely string arrangement. You seem to like that contrast, between hot and cold; dark and light in a lot of your compositions.

It’s purely accidental – it’s not conscious. I asked George Martin ‘how do you write for strings?’ and he said think of each instrument – two violins, a cello and a viola –as a four-part harmony.

There’s a lot of good music on the album, with tunes like ‘Theme For a B-Movie’ (great title!). You use a lot of wordless vocals and it brings to mind the music of George Duke and Earth, Wind & Fire, ‘High Jinx’ has a great groove to it.

That’s Robert on guitar – he’s just great at making those off-beat patterns.

What are your memories of making that album?

I have many happy memories of that album because they were my friends. It was so relaxed and we just did things that we liked. There was no pressure from the record company. Although it probably sold nothing, I think in the end, if you’re chasing success, I don’t think that’s a good thing to go after.

In 1986, you produced the Dick Morrissey album Souliloquy. It had an interesting line-up of musicians –  Robert Ahwai, Kuma Harada, Steve Ferrone from the Average White Band on drums; percussionist Danny Cummings from John Martyn; Bob Weston formerly from Fleetwood Mac and Lenny Zakatek from The Alan Parsons Project. How was this band put together?

I don’t know! They were all good and we didn’t spend a great deal of time learning things. With one tune, I showed Robert and Kuma the riffs, and told Dick the melody and we then spent about half an hour learning it, and then just did it.

You’ve also played with the jazz-fusion guitarist Brian Tarquin and appear on two tracks on his 2008 album Fretworx

I never met him. I was sent a couple of tracks [‘Solidarity’ and ‘Jungle Room Boogie’] and I just played over the music.

He’s quite a Jeff Beck fan, and has covered ‘Blue Wind’ and ‘You Know What I Mean.’

I didn’t realise that.

You’ve also moved into non-jazz circles and that included working with John Martyn on his 1981 album Glorious Fool, produced by Phil Collins. What are your memories of that album?

I thought John was fantastic – he was just a great musician. I can remember he started playing in the studio, and Phil was in the control room, and Phil said, ‘This is starting to sound good,’ so he crept into the studio, got on his drum kit and started playing – it was all spontaneous.

That’s why I liked John. He was a bit crazy and I think he had a death wish, but for the most part, I liked him. I always remember when we were playing in Ireland and we were doing very well in this place, which was packed with lots of fans.

They wouldn’t let him off the stage when we had finished – they kept clapping. So we played two or three encores we had practised, and they still wouldn’t let him off. Then we played two or three encores we didn’t know too well, and they still wouldn’t let him off. I thought, ‘What’s he going to do now?’

He went back on his own, with just his guitar, and played ‘I’m Singin’ In The Rain’ in his way – it was completely spontaneous. It was his chords and he brought the house down. It was fantastic and I thought, ‘I love this man!’

But you said that you thought he had a death wish?

He drank so much and he seemed to want to get into fights. Then he did something to his leg and had to have it amputated [In 2003, a cyst burst in John Martyn’s leg and part of his right leg had to be amputated]. He wasn’t going to be someone who lived a long lifetime [he died aged 60].

You also worked with Kate Bush on her hit album Never For Ever, playing keyboards and doing some string arrangements. How did that come about?

I don’t know how. It may have been through engineer Jon Kelly [the album’s co-producer], who used to work at AIR studios. That was interesting and there were things I couldn’t quite get together. We would play a tune and Kate would say, ‘Let’s do it again,’ so we’d play it again.

Then she’d say, ‘Let’s do it again,’ and we’d think, ‘What’s wrong?’ because if someone says, ‘It’s not G-minor; it’s E-flat,’ you can put that right, but if someone says, ‘Let’s do it again’, you’re wondering what she’s chasing – what she’s looking for?’ and that was one of the things I found a little difficult.

But she was lovely and when she sang in the studio it was like a live performance – she would do the actions – everything. I liked her very much – she was a lovely girl.

You had a long association with Chris Rea, and one of the tracks I love is the rearranged version of ‘On The Beach,’ which features a long solo from you on Fender Rhodes.

We played the tune and just kept playing, and I kept going – that was just a spontaneous solo. In one part of my solo, I played a riff and Chris picked that out and used it for the introduction of the single version, which Robert Ahwai played. My solos tend to be melodic and he used that.

Looking at your solo work, how did that come about?

It was Chris Rea’s manager Paul Lilly, who said, ‘Why don’t you do your own albums?’ I was a bit nervous at first, because I thought playing an electric piano with a trio could end up sounding like a hotel lobby band.

Then I thought, ‘I’m just going to write what I write.’ Paul had his own studio and was learning how to record, so it was all new to him too. We just started the first album and carried on.

How did you go about making your solo album?

I was always excited, because I wondered what would happen. I would go to the studio with something in the back of my mind, like a few notes of a melody.

I didn’t go in with nothing, although a lot of stuff was improvised in the studio – I’d have a couple of chords or a melody to kick off with.

When it comes to composition, do you have a set approach?

I don’t even think about it. I’ve no idea. I’m not really a composer; I sit down, plonk my hands on something and if it sounds nice, I try to develop it. Most of those [solo] albums are spontaneous in the studio.

How did you approach someone like Jeff Beck with a new song – a demo, chart or did you sing him the melody?

I’d probably just sit at the piano and say, ‘this is the tune.’ In the days when we did Blow By Blow I didn’t have access to recording demos. I just played on the piano – it was quite simple really. That’s why I tended to keep things pretty simple.

The two constants on all your solo albums are guitarist Robert Ahwai and drummer/percussionist Martin Ditcham. What is it about these musicians that connect with you?

Martin is a great little drummer. He keeps time and that’s all I want from somebody. He’s a very good percussionist, so why look for somebody else? I’ve known Robert a long time and I just like his playing – he’s one of the best rhythm guitarists I know and he’s very tasteful.

On Martin Ditcham’s website, he talks about being involved with some experimental sessions with Jeff Beck. Were you also involved in them?

No, I didn’t know anything about that.

Your first album, Land of Secrets, released in 2003, includes jazz trumpeter Dick Pearce.

Oh yes!

The album is quite eclectic music-wise, mixing jazz, Latin, reggae, blues and Caribbean. The opening number ‘Loco’ for example, has Martin Ditcham playing like a drum machine, there’s jazz-funk groove, and you’ve got African chants. It’s another of your mixed genre compositions.

To be honest, I don’t think about it. I think with that track, someone who wanted to get involved put down a rhythm track and then they disappeared! I just made it up as I went along.

Once I got the first bit of melody down, Paul and I would say ‘Stop here, leave a little gap and then I’ll play here.’ It was totally improvised. I said to Martin, ‘Just play’ and I think it was one take from him.

Was all the music on the album improvised in this way?

Yes. We’d say, ‘It needs another bit here.’ It was really quite simple.

 ‘Miles Away’ has some lovely trumpet on it, courtesy of Dick Pearce. I assume that was a tribute to Miles Davis?

I’ve always liked Miles Davis – I love the sound he has. I loved Dick Pearce’s playing – he’s a beautiful player. I just asked him to play the melody for me. What’s nice about Dick is that he doesn’t play it strictly as you have written it. He’ll play it as if he’s been playing it for years and is just embellishing it. I really enjoyed his playing.

Talking about Miles Davis, do you have a favourite period of his music?

Kind of Blue is obviously a fantastic record and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. Miles didn’t think it was anything special and it was just a couple of sessions. But he’s got really fantastic musicians – [John] Coltrane, Cannonball [Adderley] Paul Chambers, Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb.

It’s a fantastic album to put on in the background, like a coffee table book. But if you sit and listen to it, it’s fantastic, because of the great playing, so it works on two levels. If you put on an opera, you have to sit down and listen to it – it’s too obtrusive to be background. But you can do both with Kind of Blue.

What did you think of Miles’s jazz-rock period with albums like Bitches Brew?

I wasn’t so keen. What I did like is the Jack Johnson album. The first time I heard it was when I was rehearsing with Jeff Beck. We were in a huge cinema and the sound crew had the record playing through the PA – it was enormous.

I thought it was Jeff and I thought the guitar player was fantastic – John McLaughlin was brilliant. But I didn’t like too much of what Miles was doing. Miles was always trying to push boundaries, but I prefer his older stuff. I think he once said he didn’t like playing ballads live because nobody could do them as good as when he was with people like Coltrane and I can understand that.

There’s a live album My Funny Valentine [released in 1965] with Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, and his playing is lovely – they are all brilliant. I like that period, NefertitiMiles Smiles – it was brilliant, but I really didn’t get off on the rock stuff.

It’s interesting you talking about how Miles Davis was always pushing boundaries because Jeff Beck was the same. I remember you once said in an interview that Jeff always liked to move onto new things.

He was always looking for something new because he hardly wrote, so he used musicians to inspire him. He looked for different types of musicians. That’s why he played with Jan Hammer – he thought Jan was great, and he was. [When it came to playing rock] Jan was probably better – he’s more melodic and played wonderfully.

I think Jeff’s forte was melody – he played ballads so well. The rock stuff was okay. Jeff’s other forte was the way he could change his sound just by using his fingers – it was all in his hands.

Going back to Land of Secrets, were you pleased with the results?

Yes. Of course you can always do better, but I was pleased with it. I didn’t want to dwell on it and keep going over stuff. Sometimes, if I listen to one track, I think, ‘That sounds okay.’ I’m pleased that I did it because I can say, ‘For better or worse, this is me.’

Your second solo album, One Thousand Sails [released in 2010] had a more Eastern influence, I’m thinking about titles like ‘Sunrise In Jaipur/Nightfall In Mumbai,’ and ‘Sunflowers and Saris.’

I think ‘Sunflowers’ was the first tune I did. I only called it that, because I was in the south of France and it just spelt sunshine to me. I put tablas on it, which was why I called it ‘Sunflowers and Saris’ – it was just a mixture of the two. It’s just a blues and it’s quite simple. Martin swings along, as usual.

John McLaughlin is famously influenced by Eastern music, were you as well?

I was not influenced by it, but I liked anything he did – he’s incredible, especially when he really got into playing Indian music with tablas and the violinist [Lakshminarayana Shankar]. The things they played together were tremendous.

I also liked McLaughlin when he played with a trio at The Royal Festival Hall [recorded in 1989] with [percussionist] Trilok Gurtu and a bassist [Kai Eckhardt]. I thought that was really fantastic and Trilok Gurtu does a long drum solo that is not a typical drum solo – it was lovely. They played so well together, musically.

With One Thousand Sails being your second solo record, did you have more confidence about doing it?

No, I didn’t really. I just tried to make up a tune, something that had a melody. Something I could play and then have a little play with afterwards – it was pretty basic.

There was a church where Paul had his studio and I heard these bells, so on one tune, there’s a note that plays all the way through like a bell. Swifts were flying over so we recorded them and put them on – it just developed like that.

I love ‘Winter Song – Song of Summer,’ which starts off as a long solo piano piece and changes into a mid-tempo rhythmic piece – you do like presenting two songs in one! They blend beautifully.


Your third album was Two Cranes [released in 2013]

I remember Paul saying he would like to do another album and I didn’t know what to do. I happened to be in Japan, and as I was leaving the airport, I saw a picture of two cranes, which are very important in Japan [they symbolise good fortune, loyalty and wisdom].

Listening to Two Cranes, it seems to have a more stripped down approach, musically. There are nine tunes – five are just drums and keyboards; two are solo piano and only two feature a band. Was that a deliberate approach or just how things turned out?

‘Absent Friends’ [a solo piano piece] was just something I played in the studio. I just happened to be thinking of friends who were no longer with us. ‘Sendai’ was the result of that terrible tsunami that killed lots of people in Sendai [in 2011, around 20,000 people died].

My friend, bassist Kumar [Harada, who plays on the tune] happened to be there at the time, but wasn’t hurt. My daughter had a baby called Finlay, so I thought I’d write him a tune [the solo piano piece, ‘Hush Little Fin.’]. It reminded me of Brahms’ Lullaby.

‘I really like Water Garden,’ which has both the piano and electric piano sounding like gentle rippling waves of water.

I like that as well. I think of images [when composing] and love Japanese gardens. We tried to have the sound of a device that is a piece of wood that fills up with water and clicks on the stone. It empties the water and then refills [a bamboo fountain called a shishi-odoshi or ‘deep frightener’].

‘Down Home Girl’ has a funky bass line and the clavinet sound reminded me of Stevie Wonder

I think Paul and I were talking about ‘Superstition’ and I had my clavinet, which had just been fixed, so it was sounding good. So I said, ‘Let’s just do a track’ and that was it.

‘Nomad’ is another of those tunes that starts with a long stretch of gentle piano playing and then suddenly – whoosh! It becomes an uptempo piece. It’s like riding a horse that starts off on a gentle trot and then suddenly gallops away – very exhilarating! Were any of the transitions planned?

Nothing is ever planned – ever. I just think, ‘I like this bit,’ now let’s move on. Yes, it goes into 5/4 after the piano and the piano has just got the melody, but I didn’t think too deeply. I’m a melodic player – never avant-garde – it’s as simple as that.

Were you pleased with the resulting album?

I was. I was hoping somebody would use the music for film or advertising, but I don’t think enough people heard it.

Any plans for another solo album?

Not at the moment, because Paul has sold his studio. The trouble is that we’re all getting to that age where we can hardly function! I have met some people where I live and one chap has a studio. But it’s very hard to find people I get on with musically.  Martin [Ditcham] has moved to the Amazon, and younger players are quite different. If I found somebody here I could play with, that would be different.

Are you still playing?

I am doing the odd gig, but they’re only in people’s gardens. I have one in a couple of weeks at a cricket club. It’s really good to get out and play.

You have had a remarkable musical career, especially as none of it was planned. You must feel proud of your achievements?

I am because I’ve always tried to do things that I like – I never did it for the money. All the music I’ve played – whatever it was – was music that I would like to play. I loved John Martyn’s playing and Kate Bush as well. Chris Rea had a lot of good tunes, and of course, Jeff. I liked very much playing with [guitarist and bassist] Snowy White – we did quite a lot of stuff in Germany. He used to play with Thin Lizzy and I didn’t realise how good a band they were. [guitarist] Mick Taylor is a great player. It’s always chaos with Mick, but it’s good! He’s a lovely bloke and his playing is excellent. I did a track with Mick and I played it to Jeff Beck, and Jeff said, ‘I can’t play like that, this is fantastic.’ Mick said the same thing about Jeff – they both thought a lot of each other.

Max’s website is at

With thanks to Paul Lilly, and to Max for all his time and for the use of the image.