Photo credit & copyright Jenny Hymas
Keyboardist and composer Tony Hymas has had a remarkable musical career spanning the classical, jazz, jazz-rock, pop, rock and rap genres.
He’s composed and performed many classical works; worked with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine; played in concert with Frank Sinatra; had a 45-year musical association with Jeff Beck; composed the Mr Men theme for the popular children’s TV series and had a worldwide pop hit with his band Ph.D. He’s played in numerous bands and with many jazz artists including, Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, Ray Russell, Daryl Runswick, Tony Coe, Evan Parker, Eric Gravatt and Sam Rivers, as well as many French musicians including, saxophonist Michel Portal.
And all this is barely scratching the surface of a career spanning six decades. In an extensive interview with George Cole, Tony looks back at some of his career milestones and looks forward to future projects.
I believe your first love was composition, and that your primary ambition was to be a composer rather than a musician.
That’s true – that’s what I wanted to be when I was three or four. I’d write bits of music on paper and get my mum to play them [both of Tony’s parents were pianists].
I’d say, ‘That’s no good,’ and she’d say, ‘That’s what you wrote!’ I still do it today – I spend time in my shed writing pieces for a large orchestra and putting them on the shelf afterwards.
Can you tell us a little more about your love for composition?
Right from my earliest days I wanted to be a composer – like Tchaikovsky! Okay, it didn’t exactly work out like that – people like [Mark-Anthony] Turnage, [James] MacMillan and Tansy Davies (who is great by the way!) are full time composers and top marks to them for it.
I got diverted into jazz and the thrill of just being a professional musician, along with the need to support a family. So it’s now a battle to write all the music I should have written over the years – all those unfinished works.
I’ve always felt that the orchestra was the ultimate form of expression for me – discovering the Marylebone Library aged twelve and taking scores home every week according to what would be on Radio 3. In that way learning the repertoire, plus I had an enlightened composition teacher who taught me a lot of practical stuff – he also introduced me to jazz [more on this below]. As for the orchestra, during the 70s to 90s, I got to experience writing and hearing first-hand thanks to [music label] KPM and the producer there, Peter Cox. Peter Cox was another big figure in my life, and my works included Symphony, which we recorded with the LSO [London Symphony Orchestra]. In those days, scores were hand written (and copied). Since 2000, my orchestral oeuvre is up to seven pieces so far. I will probably pay for a proper recording and get a few more finished while I still can.
Who are your favourite composers in the classical, jazz and pop/rock genres?
Tricky – too tricky as I have approximately two hundred favourite classical composers (quite a few start with B). Jazz musicians, likewise. Pop/rock? Still quite a few!
You were classically trained at the Royal Academy of Music?
I was always going to be a classical musician. I studied composition at the Royal Academy while I was still at school. I’d go up on a Saturday morning and had a very good guy, a Welsh composer called Gareth Walters. He taught me a lot about orchestration.
A guy called Frank Cordell, who was big in British music, could do a very life-like impression of a Gil Evans score. So, I went to the Academy to study classical composition and piano. I had a very good piano teacher [Harold Rubens], who said, ‘You’re never going to be a concert pianist, but I’ll give you a good technique, which will stand you in good stead’
Your first job was as resident pianist for a ballet company?
Yes, Ballet Rambert [then based in Chiswick, London. Now simply known as Rambert. Tony was associated with Ballet Rambert from 1966 to 1972]. I’d play for the class every morning, which was a kind of discipline, trying to make it interesting musically! I would play waltzes while they did their pliés.
I must have played a few hundred classes for them, as well as the rep which included pieces like Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’ I did compose some pieces too – one when [French composer Olivier] Messaien refused permission for [American choreographer] Glen Tetley to use his ‘Quatuor pour le fin de temps.’
They kept asking [Messaien] and he kept saying: ‘Sorry but no,’ right up to eight days before the premiere. I rustled up a 50-minute substitute piece for violin and piano (approximately the same length and number of notes). My mate Michael Rennie/Bloomberg (a fine violinist) learned it as it evolved.
I realised that I shouldn’t stay with the Ballet Rambert for too long and got out of it and went into the London sessions scene, which was great in the 70s – it was fantastic.
I gather there was quite a strong camaraderie amongst session musicians in those days?
It was like a party – you’d have two or three get-togethers with your mates every day. We were very badly behaved! There were loads of sessions, including some weird situations, such as when Dizzy Gillespie was in the trumpet section but not soloing.
How long were you a session musician?
I did it for about two or three years and then I started to get a bit disenchanted with it. I’d thought I’d better join a band and that’s how Jack Bruce happened [more on this later].
What were you getting disenchanted about?
There were too many sessions that were boring. You could play it, but it wasn’t interesting or challenging. Some sessions were challenging. I can remember people like [film composers] Lalo Schifrin and Jerry Fielding – my God! Jerry Fielding would write a score based on Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, so you had to be able to do it!
At what stage did you start getting into electronic instrumentation – electric pianos and synthesisers?
I suppose I had to do a bit as a session musician. I bought an ARP Odyssey and didn’t know how to get it to work. In the early 70s, keyboard players had to have some kind of synthesiser, but I didn’t find it at all easy – I’m not saying I do now.
When I hear the ARP playing of Chick Corea or the Moog playing of Jan Hammer – those guys just really got it down. Being a pianist, I found the transition to the [different] touch more difficult. It doesn’t worry me now, but then, keyboards these days are geared more towards pianists, but it was not easy.
How did you get interested in jazz?
I was introduced to jazz by Gareth Walters on those Saturday mornings. When I was fourteen, he put on the Modern Jazz Quartet and I had never heard anything like it – it was so strange and different.
That started my love of jazz. My cousins would say, ‘Listen to this,’ and I started playing jazz with a couple of guys at school. I bought LPs – Miles Davis, Count Basie.
Were you influenced by any jazz pianists?
Mostly Gil Evans, because of the writing for Miles Davis – Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess. I listened to that all the time. When it came to jazz pianists, I was more of an Erroll Garner/Red Garland fan – out-and-out swing. I remember when I first heard Thelonious Monk, it was quite controversial in a way.
I listened to jazz pianists, but perhaps not as much as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea – they were the main influences on me. Trying to emulate what they did – my goodness; that was some ambition!
How did you get involved with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine?
I got out of the Ballet Rambert and managed to make my way into session work because of a friend of mine, Chris Gunning, who did a lot of jingles. I was doing an audition for a show in the West End and a report got back to a fixer [who finds musicians for sessions] called John Flanagan, ‘He’s alright.’ John Dankworth needed a pianist for a session. I got the call and the next thing I know, I’m Cleo Laine’s pianist – it was amazing. And I played a lot with John.
When was this?
Around 1972/3. I left them in 1974, because we were expecting a child, and I did think it was time to move on, but it was a great at the time.
Weren’t you also involved in arranging Cleo Laine’s 1974 album A Beautiful Thing?
I arranged some of it.
On 17 October 1973, Cleo Laine performed at the Carnegie Hall in New York, and an album – Cleo Laine Live!!! At Carnegie Hall – was released the following year.
We did two Carnegie Halls. The first was with an all-American rhythm section, with [drummer] Bobby Rosengarden and [bassist] George Duvivier. The one that’s recorded was with a friend of mine Daryl Runswick [bass] and the drummer was an Australian, Graham Morgan. The guitarist was Carmine D’Amico [John Dankworth played sax and clarinet]. I listened to it not so long ago, because Daryl said, ‘It still sounds alright’ – and he’s right.
It sounds like a band at the top of its game.
She had the New York audience at her feet and John was a great compere.
In an interview in the early 70s, John Dankworth said this about you: “In the current line–up are three young musicians, who had never played in Ronnie Scott’s before: Ray Harris in the trumpet section, Mike Page playing baritone and Tony Hymas, piano and keyboards. All three of them, in fact, are ex–Royal Academy of Music students…. We had one day’s rehearsal before that job, and no time to go through all the pad [set list]. On the first night, Tony Hymas was reading nearly everything at sight, and it didn’t seem to bother him at all; he’s a marvellous musician.”
Bless him. I hadn’t seen that.
What would you say you gained the most from your association with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine?
Getting less and less nervous, which is a big thing! Professionalism. They swore by what they called ‘Doctor Stage.’ If they felt a bit under beforehand, they would go and do a show and then felt great – that was their philosophy. I learned a lot musically from John, of course. When I was twelve, I didn’t dream that I would play with John Dankworth.
Whilst you were with John Dankworth, you formed a friendship and a musical association with Daryl Runswick, which continues to this day. Back in the 70s, you both formed the Tony Hymas/Daryl Runswick Big Band and I think you only had one gig together?
It wasn’t a gig – it was a recording – we never did a gig. It was something Daryl and I dreamt up on tour – we wanted a tuba, a French horn – Gil Evans-type textures, so let’s do a big band. We never got a gig together and I seem to remember that we tried approaching the Arts Council [for financial support] but neither of us were very pushy.
I’ve never spoken to Daryl Runswick, but he seems like a very generous person, because in his liner notes for the album, he states that your composition ‘When The Bough Breaks’ is the best piece on the set
That’s the typical thing he would say.
The band included Frank Ricotti on vibraphone. The music still stands up well today.
I’ll take your word for that!
You also played in the Daryl Runswick Quartet and are on five tracks on the album The Jazz Years (Live). It includes one of your compositions, ‘Skreepin.’ which is an interesting title!
It combines with creepin’ with, oh I don’t know…It seemed an illustrative word – it’s a bit creepy really!
How did you get to compose the Mr Men theme [a cartoon TV series based on the children’s books by Roger Hargreaves. It was first broadcast in late 1974?
A bass player with Rambert – Joe Campbell – got the gig and I wrote the music.
In 1977, you played on the Jack Bruce album How’s Tricks. I understand that [guitarist] Hughie Burns got you the gig?
I had met [drummer] Simon Phillips on a session for [bassist] Johnny Gustafson a few months before and we really clicked. Hughie got Simon and me into the Jack Bruce project. We went up to Essex for a day to play with him. I reminded Jack that we had done a gig together for a fashion show.
This was before Cream, when he was just this Scottish bass player standing at the back. That album was a game-changer – it was one of the biggest things in my life.
It included a tune you composed with Pete Brown [who co-wrote many of Cream’s songs with Jack Bruce] ‘Something To Live For.’ You had obviously composed music before, but you have said that this tune was rather special.
It was the first song I wrote. Pete’s lyrics really set it off – it was a great lyric that expressed the melody perfectly.
What are your biggest memories of Jack Bruce, both as a person and a musician?
It could sometimes be tricky. We were roughly the same age, so things might get a bit fractious on tour! The humour thing was always good and we respected each other as musicians. We never fell out but it did get a bit difficult on tour sometimes.
I followed him in the latter years, and his singing and his bass playing were right up there at the end – it was extraordinary. Against all the vicissitudes and problems he had in his life, he was still a magnificent musician.
Another musician you’ve played with a lot is [British guitarist] Ray Russell, who in my view, is a vastly underrated talent.
Ray and I were big session players in the 70s. We did a lot of sessions that are best forgotten, but we had a lot of laughs. I got him to play on a Ph.D. record in the 1980s [the 1983 album Is It Safe? – more on PhD below]. I think that’s the last time we played together.
Gil Evans appeared on some of Ray’s albums, did you ever play with him?
I went to his gigs and got to say ‘hello,’ but I never got to play with him or have the honour to collaborate.
You did a couple of albums with Frank Ricotti Have Sounds Will Travel and Street Pictures. Stan Sulzmann [who sometimes played with Tony and John Dankworth] was on sax and Les Hurdle on bass.
I don’t know how Stan, Frank and I made the records, which was library music [music licensed for commercial use]. We did some live gigs with Harold Fisher and Simon [Phillips] on drums – that was fun.
I have to ask you about the time you were a last-minute stand-in for a Frank Sinatra concert at the Royal Albert Hall in March 1977?
His musical director had taken ill and so his pianist Billy Miller had to go out in front of the concert band, and so they needed a pianist to stand-in at the last moment.
How did they come to you?
I was known on the session scene as somebody who could read music and step-in. ‘Mr Reliable’ [laughs] – I made that up, nobody called me that! But to be on the London session scene you had to be able to read music and be able to play.
What was the experience like?
I was put in a DJ [dinner jacket] and turned up. I think there was a rehearsal, because the drummer said [adopts a Noo Yawk accent] ‘Oh, oh, no concertos. Mr S don’t like no concertos.’ So I played my arpeggios and then Frank said, ‘Aw, let the kid play.’ Isn’t that nice? What a gent. He really respected musicians, Frank. He liked a string section and he knew his arrangements. It was two hours of my life when I met the great Frank Sinatra and played.
Did Sinatra say anything to you after the concert?
No! There was no ‘come to my dressing room,’ but it was an amazing experience.
Let’s talk about your long association with Jeff Beck, which began in late 1978, when you joined him, Stanley Clarke and Simon Phillips for a Japan tour. I assume you had heard Jeff Beck’s albums Blow by Blow and Wired by then?
This is a terrible confession, but I hadn’t heard Blow by Blow when I met Jeff. I was just into classical music and jazz. Simon phones up and says: ‘Do you want to come to Japan next week? Jeff is playing with Stanley Clarke.’ They had been rehearsing for three weeks and it hadn’t worked out with the keyboardist. So I thought, ‘Stanley Clarke! Great – I’ll go and do that. Who’s this Jeff bloke?’ [laughs].
So I turn up at some studio in Old Kent Road [London] and there’s a moog synthesiser, which I try and play, and Jeff says, ‘No, play it like this,’ because he had just done these tracks with Jan Hammer – what! I was in at the deep end, and about ten days later, we were at the Budokan [a giant arena] in Tokyo – fantastic!
There’s a story that when Simon Phillips called to invite you on the tour, you said something along the lines, ‘Let me consult my diary; oh dear, I have a Cleo Laine gig in the middle of it’ ?
That’s not true! I think that’s apocryphal. I don’t know where that came from!
How did you get involved with the album There & Back?
We did the tour of Japan and I returned home, and a few months later, I get a call from Simon, ‘Let’s write some tunes for Jeff,’ which we did. I had a Tascam Portastudio [a multi-track recorder] and so wrote some tunes. We sent them off to Jeff and he loved them.
I had just bought myself a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 [synthesiser], which was fantastic. We went down to Wadhurst [in Sussex, where Jeff Beck lived] and played Jeff the stuff. That’s how we came to do There & Back.
So you originally presented Jeff with demos?
Was it a challenge writing for a guitarist?
I just wrote tunes and didn’t try to make it sound like a guitar – that came a bit later when I became more used to writing for him. On There & Back it was just straight-ahead melodies.
He really loved melodies and his guitar was like a voice.
Yeah. I often said to him that nobody played my tunes the way he did.
I believe the first tune you and Simon wrote for Jeff Beck was ‘The Golden Road.’ How did you and Simon collaborate – were you together in the same room?
We were up in his little room – he had a small drum kit set-up. I can’t remember what keyboard I had, but I don’t believe I carted my Fender Rhodes up there, because it weighed a ton. He’d play something and say, ‘What about this kind of groove?’ and I just tried to play.
One of your best-known collaborations is ‘Space Boogie’ which Simon Phillips says was inspired by Billy Cobham’s ‘Quadrant 4’, although that was in 4/4 and ‘Space Boogie’ is predominately 7/4. Did he present you with just a drum pattern and you then had to build everything on top of that?
He must have gone [hums drum pattern] and then I did [hums synthesiser line]. I haven’t heard it for a long time, because I rarely listen to my old stuff.
[Mo Foster played bass on There & Back]. You were on Ray Russell’s 1977 album Ready or Not, which I believe is the first time you, Simon Phillips and Mo Foster played together.
Mo is no longer with us. [Mo Foster died 3 July 2023]
Oh, no! I didn’t know that! I used to talk with Mo via email – he was a lovely bloke. What are your memories of Mo?
My abiding memory of Mo is of a thoroughly nice bloke – we played many sessions over the years and he was always a good and generous spirit. [Tony is one of a number of musicians booked to play at a memorial concert for Mo Foster at 229.London on 27 November 2023]
The recording of ‘Space Boogie’ sounds like a live band playing in the same room, but I gather Mo Foster dropped-in his bass track and Jeff Beck added his solo later on.
That’s right. Mo must have overdubbed the bass and Jeff’s solos were usually the last thing to go on. We’d say, ‘Come on mate, we’ve got to finish this thing!’
Jeff Beck said that he felt intimidated by the presence of three top musicians and [the album’s co-producer] Ken Scott told me that he spent a lot of time building up Jeff’s confidence. Did you feel any of this at the time?
No, I wasn’t aware of it. I think maybe he was exaggerating. We certainly made no effort to intimidate.
‘The Pump’ is a classic – what a groove!
That was Simon [hums the drum pattern]. When you’re in the room with someone and they start playing a groove, you have got to come up with something.
‘The Final Peace’ is a lovely track.
I seem to remember we had a synthesiser [hums a line] that keeps going along. I said, ‘we’ll have that as the background, and you play some bluesy phrases over the top, and I’ll work around them with the harmony underneath’, and that’s how the piece worked.
What was Ken Scott like to work with?
Ken Scott was lovely – he was a nice presence in the studio. Avuncular, funny, professional – he was good.
Is it true that Jeff Beck used to ‘threaten’ to play a heavy metal version of the Mr Men theme?
I don’t remember ever discussing it with Jeff, or him threatening to do a version. It could have been interesting!
After There & Back was recorded, the four of you toured the world. I’ve heard some great live recordings from the USA and Japan, and I was disappointed that there was never an official live album of this band.
I know. I have some cassettes and all four of us were burning; Jeff was incredible.
Mo Foster told me that he lugged along a VHS camcorder and recorded some of the gigs.
I remember his VHS, but what happened to them?
He was going to show me some footage, but it never happened. Hopefully, it will turn up one day. Another disappointment was that there wasn’t a second album from the band; Simon Phillips has said that you had both written some more songs for Jeff that never got recorded?
Good question! I went and had a monster hit [Ph.D.’s ‘I Won’t Let You Down.’], so I was off and [laughs] going to be a pop star – sorry lads! In 1983 at the Royal Albert Hall, Jeff, Simon and [bassist] Fernando Saunders and I played together for the ARMS [Action into Research for Multiple Sclerosis] concert, but we never went into the studio.
There & Back was like an album of two halves – you had Jan Hammer’s tunes on the first three tracks and the rest were yours and Simon’s.
Jan’s tracks were very, very good – the man wrote great tunes for Jeff and there’s no doubt about his moog playing – it’s ridiculous [as in, superb].
It was strange that it was two halves. It could be seen as competitive but we didn’t think like that. I don’t know what Jan felt about it, because we never discussed it with him. Although he has said in your interview that he loved Simon’s drumming on something.
As an aside, prompted by your interview, I dusted off [the Jan Hammer/Jerry Goodman album] Like Children. Bloody hell – it still sounds good! That was Ken [Scott].
Your band Ph.D. had a massive international pop hit with ‘I Won’t Let You Down.’ I read that your record company suggested you form your own band and that you work with [singer] Jim Diamond?
It wasn’t the record company; it was a manager who fixed a lot of sessions, Jeffrey Levinson. He said, ‘You should form your own band, but you need a singer!’ That’s how Jim came into it.
He went to your home one spring day and it was a very productive session, in terms of composing songs?
Jim was one of the most enthusiastic people I had ever come across. He came to our house and he was a force of energy. Every day we would write songs. I had never worked with that kind of concentration before – it was fantastic.
And what a voice he had! I particularly love the tunes ‘Maria’ and ‘Poor City’ from the first album.
He really believed in his singing and it showed.
I understand that, when you were writing ‘I Won’t Let You Down’,’ you both realised you had created something special.
That tune became our point of reference. We had hit a rocky patch, so we said, ‘Let’s listen to that song we did the other day,’ and when the hook came around we both said, ‘Yes!’ and did whatever the version of the high-five was in those days. We knew we had written something good. [It reached the UK top three in 1982]
What was it like having pop success? It must have been the last thing on your mind when you started out in the music business!
I probably thought I was going to be a great composer! [laughs] But success per se wasn’t a motivating factor – it still isn’t, thank goodness. It was the pleasure of doing it, and success was a by-product. In some ways, it was a slightly double-edged sword. It was a little bit weird in some ways, being successful.
When you came to record the second Ph.D. album [Is It Safe? Released in 1983], was there a lot of pressure to come up with another big hit?
[Adopts an American showbiz accent] ‘Yes, there certainly was!’ By that time, it got a bit difficult with Jim and me – egos and stuff, but I think there are some wonderful songs on the second album and the sound was good.
We wrote one song, ‘I Didn’t Know,’ which was a big hit in Italy, but I think by that time, all sorts of awkward things had happened, not just with Jim and I, but things surrounding us. The record company probably went, ‘It’s not worth it,’ which was a shame.
Jeff Beck played on ‘I Didn’t Know’ but was not credited.
Yes, he was on it. I think that might have been his management. He liked playing the melody.
There was a huge gap between Is It Safe and the third Ph.D. album Three [26 years; the album was released in 2009]. Why was that?
In the meantime, we had spoken many times and I had been in the studio and helped him with a project of his [the 1988 album Jim Diamond]. We tried to do some things, but never finished anything. We would meet every few years and still wrote a few songs, some of which we put on the 2009 album.
The time wasn’t wasted, but he was doing his own things. He once said, ‘You are my electronic soul’, or something like that! [Jim Diamond died in 2015]
Going back to Jeff Beck and his 1985 album Flash, which is not one of my favourites of his. A musician friend of mine and I both agree that your track, ‘You Know, We Know’ is the best thing on the album.
Jeff said to me, ‘Write me some tunes,’ so we did some things and then it was, ‘Where’s Jeff?’[His management says] ‘He’s in New York with Nile Rodgers’ [the album’s producer]. ‘What?!’ ‘Sorry, but thanks very much – we’ll let you know.’
Nile was also producing Madonna’s album [Like a Virgin] at the same time, so he was obviously a busy chap.
That’s not an album I’ve listened to for a very long time, but it’s nice to know that ‘You Know, We Know,’ was okay. Was there a singer on it?
I was going to ask you about that, because at the coda, there are these haunting vocals, and I was wondering if they were sampled?
It might well have been a real voice. A friend of ours, Ginny David, has a wonderful voice but never really hit the big time. I met her through Jeff in 1983, when I got a call to go to [producer] Glyn Johns’ studio. It was the first time I heard Ginny sing – a huge voice.
She was singing the lyric on a song I had done for Jeff called ‘Sitting Bull Must Never Die,’ which was produced by Glyn Johns. But I never heard any more about it – I don’t know what happened to that. That piece became ‘You Know, We Know,’ which is a shame, because it was good with the Florrie Palmer lyrics [Florrie is a British singer/songwriter who composed Sheena Easton’s smash hit ‘9 to 5’].
I’ve just listened to the version on Flash, which has a ridiculous (as in not good) drum ’track.’ Indeed, that whole thing was taken out of my hands. Ginny and I did, however, get writing together both for Jeff and a prospective vocals/synth duo – some nice songs.
But neither of us was pushy enough, and so that was another project that went on the shelf – there are a lot of them! [Since our interview, Tony has contacted Ginny David, who says she doesn’t think it is her voice on ‘You Know, We Know.’ Also, see below for Florrie Palmer’s recollection of working with Jeff Beck and Tony]
You formed a trio with [jazz clarinettist/ saxophonist] Tony Coe and [bassist] Chris Laurence on the 1985 album Mainly Mancini.
I had met him through playing in a modern contemporary music group of [clarinettist] Alan Hacker’s, called Matrix. We were playing [Czech composer Leoš] Janáček and all kinds of modern music. Tony got me to attend Jean Rochard’s Chantenay Festival [which hosted jazz concerts between 1978-88, at Chantenay-Villedieu, a village in north western France].
I should mention Jean Rochard, who is a French record producer, and has his own label, Disques Nato. Disques Nato has been a huge part of my life. I had played with Tony previously on his 1984 release Le chat se retourne.
He’s a wonderful bassist Chris Laurence. I first saw him playing with the Geoff Eales trio with Martin France on drums.
Absolutely and he’s a great classical player as well.
Another 1985 project was the Sky album The Great Balloon Race. How did you get involved with the band, and end up doing the vocals on your song ‘Desperate For Your Love?’
That was through another session pal [bassist] Herbie Flowers. He was a bit of a mentor actually. He got me to write that, but let’s not talk about the ‘vocals’…
In 1988, you released your solo album Flying Fortress. It’s not exactly a jazz album, but there are lots of jazz musicians on it – Tony Coe, Stan Sulzmann, Chris Laurence, Frank Ricotti. It’s quite a mix of genres, musically?
Yes it is, but most of my albums are a mixture of genres. By then, I had been with Jean Rochard on a few projects and he said, ‘I’d really like you to do a solo album.’ So, I got my Fostex multitrack at home and started doing things and we finished it at a studio called Dave Hunt Studio in London, where we had two Fostex’s synched up – 32-track, man, hey! [laughs].
The next thing I know there was a nice write-up in a French magazine. Disques Nato have just reissued Flying Fortress and a lockdown album, I did Flying Fortress: Back on the Fortress, which has a lot of guest musicians, who recorded their contributions in their own studios and were then overdubbed.
The following year, you are back with Jeff Beck and the album Guitar Shop, which is Jeff, you and drummer Terry Bozzio. How did you three get together and work together?
Jeff phones me up and says, ‘I’ve got this drummer that you will really like to play with – let’s get together for a session or two.’ I met Terry and it was terrific. We were going to write together and went to Sol studio, which is in Cookham [in Berkshire]. [Recording engineer and producer] Leif Mases was hanging about and he said, ‘Look, do you want me to record some of this?’
The next thing we know, we were writing an album at the same time as recording it! [laughs]. On it went and it became a real, big project. Writing together in a studio is a dangerous thing to do, and you can waste a lot of time and unfortunately, we probably did, but the end result was that we managed to compact it into something.
That was the days before Pro-Tools [music production software] and digital editing and you could probably get away with it [now], but [by] going straight to tape, we made a lot of problems for ourselves.
The quality of the songs was incredibly high – tunes like ‘Where Were You,’ ‘Slingshot,’ ‘Big Block,’ ‘Two Rivers,’ ‘Behind The Veil’.
That remains the most exciting outfit I’ve ever played in. When we reunited in 2002 for the Festival Hall concert [it was at the Royal Festival Hall, London for Jeff Beck and Guests – a three-night event]. Terry just arrived and we ran through one of those numbers and I was having palpitations – I was overcome with the excitement of playing again with those guys.
There was obviously more space with not having a bass player?
Yes, my idea has always been, ‘That’s great; I can take the harmony wherever I like, because that’s my left hand.’ These days, it would be even easier with the technology that is available. I still do it [play without a bassist] with a band called Ursus Minor [a collaboration originally between Tony and the late guitarist, Jef Lee Johnson]. I still like playing with bass players as well!
Is it true that ‘Where Were You’ was influenced by Les Voix Bulgare, the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir?
Jeff was noodling phrases (couldn’t leave his guitar alone!) while we were working on something in the studio – can’t remember what. I had the idea of recording the noodles and putting them in order, harmonising, etcetera. The result was ‘Where Were You.’ Only later did someone point out the resemblance to Les Voix, which, of course, he loved. ‘Influenced by’ is probably the best way of putting it.
What are your memories of the Guitar Shop trio performing ‘Slingshot’ on the Arsenio Hall TV show?
It was an extra two nights tacked onto the end of a long tour of The States and I was saying, ‘We can’t do this – I’ve got to get home!’ I was persuaded, and Arsenio Hall was a very nice bloke, and of course it didn’t do us any harm at all – it was a good job that we did it. It was good fun.
What prompted the reunion in 2002?
It was on the anniversary of 9/11 and nobody wanted to do a gig at the Festival Hall, so Jeff’s management said, ‘Let’s do something, but not in connection with 9/11.’ The place was there and had the opportunity to invite quite a few guests. I was asked to MD it [be the musical director] and we rehearsed for two weeks for it. And that’s how the three of us came to play together and led to us touring the States in 2003.
I was hoping there would be a live album from the Guitar Shop 89/90 tour, but the only one to emerge was the limited release of Live at the B. B. King Blues Club in 2003. I was also disappointed that there was no second album.
We had a go. We tried to write together again, this time in a rehearsal studio with no recorders going. I’m not quite sure what happened there, to be honest, but it stopped. We couldn’t repeat whatever it was that we had done on Guitar Shop. About five or six years ago, I messaged Jeff about having another go. I think we could have done something good, especially with advances in keyboard technology, but he said, ‘No.’
In 1995, you joined Jeff in the studio with John McLaughlin to record the tune ‘Django’.
I remember Mark Mondesir was on drums and the vibe was pretty good. I was having a bit of a problem, because the keyboard wasn’t very good. I remember we went out looking for something to eat and finding somewhere – that’s my strongest memory!
Between 1996 and 1998, you had a number of collaborations with [saxophonist] Sam Rivers. You did three albums together – Configuration, which was a mix of melodic tunes like ‘Béatrice’ and avant-garde music like ‘Gleam’. Then there was Eight Day Journal, which was an orchestral/big band work, with all song titles in French, and Winter Garden, a duet with you on piano and Sam Rivers on sax. Three very different works. How did you and Sam get together?
Jean Rochard decided that Sam Rivers needed some kind of lift or something and asked Sam if he would be interested in coming to Europe. We had a quintet with Paul Rogers [double bass], Jacques Thollot [drums] and Noël Akchoté [guitar], Sam and me.
We did a lot of gigs around France. It was exciting stuff and everybody in the band was a positive player with something to say. Eight Day Journal was Jean’s idea.
What’s the significance of the titles, which are all dates in French?
They don’t exist! My big idea! Nobody ever spotted that – the secret is out! That album had a quintet with Chris Laurence and Paul Clavis [drums] and Noël Akchoté. Noël was the wild card because I didn’t write any parts for him, so free improvisation meets a string quartet, with Sam blowing over the top of it.
Sam and I travelled quite a lot around France doing gigs, sometimes as a duo. Winter Garden was the name of the only place in Orlando where we could find somewhere decent to eat!
In 1999, Jeff Beck released his album Who Else! You composed or co-composed nine of the eleven tunes. It was an interesting mix of techno, electronica, jazz, rock and even folk. How did you get involved and presumably Jeff Beck said, ‘This is the direction I want to go’?
He asked me to write some tunes, as was the usual start. I did six or seven demos, and by then I put down an impression of what I wanted him to play. I have to say
there’s a track not on the album, which he should have put on it, but there was a bit of a disagreement at the time. This track still exists and I’ve sent it to a few people and they’ve said: ‘That’s Jeff at his best.’
What was the track called?
‘Still Missing You.’
Might it get released at some time?
I can’t put it out, because he didn’t want it to go out.
What sort of music was it?
It was a ballad. He loved the piece but I don’t know what happened. It was [his guitar] over a string-type [synth], like ‘Where Were You’ and ‘The Final Peace,’ along those lines.
I really like ‘THX 138.’ That title was a homage to George Lucas’s first film as a director? [THX 1138]
Some of those titles were not of my choosing, but that was a good title. That’s the licence plate from [the George Lucas film] American Graffiti – I was happy to go with that as Jeff was a big fan of the film.
Have you seen Jeff Beck playing it live in Tokyo in 1999?
You have got to see it on YouTube. It’s a great version with Jennifer Batten on guitar and MIDI for the keyboard parts. They also play ‘The Pump’
‘Another Place’ is a lovely solo guitar piece, like ‘The Final Peace.’ You seemed to be able to write music that brought out Jeff’s amazing touch, tone and sensitivity
That’s what he used to say to me, but it was a two-way process, because I loved his playing and it was easy to write for him.
‘Brush With The Blues’ was a concert favourite
It was originally called ‘Les Évadés de la nuit’ (The Escape of the Night) and was written for a 1994 French film Pas tres catholique, directed by Tonie Marshall. I have to say ‘Brush With The Blues’ always struck me as feebly obvious – yeah, the drummer plays with brushes, but I mean – doh! [Tony later released his version of ‘Les Évadés de la nuit’ on the Hymas and The Bates Brothers 2012 album, Blue Door].
There was another track I called ‘Le Veronese’ from Romeo and Juliet, but they called it ‘Angel (Footsteps)’. ‘Tony’s being intellectual again – we can’t have that!’ [laughs]
What do you think of Who Else!?
It all got a little bit slightly rancorous in the studio towards the end. But time heals! I haven’t heard the album for a long time.
You weren’t involved with Jeff’s next album You Had It Coming, but composed the final track on his 2003 album Jeff, ‘Why Lord, Oh Why?’ You are credited with composing and mixing the track, but not playing on it. Is that correct?
I certainly didn’t mix it. I went along for one session at a little studio in Primrose Hill [north London] and thought no more about it. Jennifer Batten told me not so long ago that she liked it – I didn’t know it had ever come out.
Where did the title come from?
[Tony hums the melody] It seemed like an alliterative title. It was one of my titles they kept!
Jeff Beck went on to play some classical pieces, I’m thinking of songs like ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ and ‘Nessun Dorma.’ In view of your classical background, was there ever talk of you and Jeff collaborating on a classical piece?
There had been talk about like back in 1981 or 82. I was going to compose something, but I was saying, ‘You’ll have to learn to read music, if we’re going to do this,’ and all that ridiculous shit, which I wouldn’t say now.
Those orchestral tunes were on his  Emotion & Commotion album. I seem to remember going along and either playing on or helping with some track, but I don’t know what happened to it.
In 2007, Jeff Beck played for a week at Ronnie Scott’s. Did you go and see any of the shows?
Yes, that was great; that was cool. Jeff was with [bassist] Tal Wilkenfeld, [keyboardist] Jason Rebello and [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta. JB was very pleased to see me and they played some of my tunes.
Being back in Ronnie’s must have brought back many memories for you
Yes, I used to play there with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine and Tony Coe.
There’s a strong case in saying that Jan Hammer, Max Middleton and you were the most significant musicians in Jeff Beck’s musical career
He loved his keyboard players; that’s true.
You’ve already mentioned one tune you did with Jeff that has never been released. Is there any other material that you have done together that hasn’t been released?
There’s loads of stuff on cassette – ideas. He would come down to here and we would just jam around in my little shed. A lot of that needed work. I’ll catalogue them one day!
In Annette Carson’s biography of Jeff Beck, Crazy Fingers, she mentions that around 1993, you were involved with a project with Jeff Beck that included Stewart Copeland, Paul Rodgers and Bryan Adams. Apparently around nine tracks were recorded before Jeff junked the project.
I’m not sure where that came from. The trio with Jeff and Terry was still very recent. I’m pretty sure Jeff (or [Jeff’s manager] Ernest Chapman) never mentioned that project to me.
Another project she mentions is Jeff recording with you, Steve Lukather and Pino Palladino. One tune was called ‘Hurricane’
Ah yes – Steve L was producing JB – with [bassist] Pino and [drummer] Manu Katche. I’d written some tunes and really liked the way they played (it was just a trio, by the way – no keys). It seemed to be going well but next thing I knew, Jeff had blown it out – a shame!
We’re talking just six months after Jeff’s death – can you recall how you heard the news?
I got an email from Simon [Phillips] – ‘Is it true about Jeff?’ I check-up – bloody hell.
He lived very well – he was sensible, he looked after himself and he was in bloody good shape, so that was a total shock. He should have lived a lot longer. He should have been like those old blues guys playing in their nineties.
Looking back – what are your biggest memories of Jeff Beck?
I think he was a really good bloke. By that I mean he cared about people. I can think of a few anecdotes where it was obvious that he was concerned about people. He was a good human being, never mind all the musicianship – that goes without saying. He was a good guy.
Between 2005 and 2010, you released several albums with [guitarist] Philip Gibbs and [saxophonist] Paul Dunmall
I met Paul and Phil at some jazz festival in France and we thought it would be great to do something. Next thing I know, we were recording in Bristol. We made three albums. The last one [Mumuksuta, released in 2011] was with Paul Rogers [bass] Tony Levin [drums] and Neil Metcalfe [flute]. It was free improvisation. I’d done a lot of that with [saxophonist] Evan Parker. It’s very interesting, especially for a writer like me to do that. I wouldn’t say it’s liberating, but it’s a good thing to try to do.
We’ve covered many things, but what other projects need to be mentioned?
For Jean Rochard’s Disques Nato, there are many projects, including several albums featuring Native American Indian music (Oyate, Remake of the American Dream, Left for Dead), and my albums, L’Origine du monde [an orchestral work inspired by the provocative painting by French artist Gustave Courbet] and Chroniques de resistance [inspired by the French Resistance]. I’ve done a recording with French clarinettist Catherine Delaunay [No Borders].
There are also three trio albums: A Winter’s Tale from 1991 with [drummer] Jacques Thollot and [bassist] Jean-François Jenny-Clark. Hope Street MN from 2001 with [bassist] Billy Peterson and [drummer] Eric Gravatt. And in 2012, Blue Door with [bassist] Chris Bates and [drummer] JT Bates.
Also a band that was active from 1991 to 1995, The Lonely Bears with [saxophonist] Tony Coe, [guitarist] Hugh Burns and [drummer] Terry Bozzio. A crazy line-up which worked! (We recorded three albums).
More recently, and still going is, Ursus Minor, with [saxophonist] François Corneloup. It was originally Jef Lee Johnson on guitar (RIP), and [drummer] Dave King (from the band Bad Plus). The band now includes [guitarist] Marcus Machado and [drummer/singer] Stokley Williams (three albums so far). Guest musicians include Jeff Beck on the first CD [Zugzwang, released in 2010]. He came to first ever gig in Paris, along with some rappers including, Boots Riley. Boots did a lot of shows with us over the years.
Minneapolis was a project with [French saxophonist] Michel Portal involving members of Prince’s New Power Generation [drummer] Michael Bland and [bassist]
Sonny T, along with [guitarists] Jef Lee and Vernon Reid. We released two CDs and played many gigs – the last one (Paris 2016), was a blazing gig featuring Michel Portal, Vernon Reid, Sonny T, Stokley Williams and me. That gig was an absolute highlight – all five of us were on top form – you can hear Sonny T laughing during Stokley’s solo (it’s just so witty!). Vernon Reid was individual as hell and Michel was having the best time – I believe he still talks about that gig. Yes, I’m happy with the way I played that night – the sound on-stage was seriously good thanks to the monitor guy.
Regarding Ursus Minor and Boots Riley. What’s your take on hip-hop and rap music? Miles Davis and Quincy Jones embraced it but other jazz musicians say jazz and hip-hop do not mix
My French producer Jean Rochard got me into rap. On the first Ursus Minor album, we had various rappers – M1, Umi, D, Spike and Boots Riley (whom I stay in touch with). I’ve always liked the marriage of words and music, having had several goes myself, although not rap as such. As for the ‘not mixing’ thing: anything by [American rapper] Kendrick Lamar for example. To Pimp a Butterfly, disproves that for a start.
On the Ursus Minor album I Will Not Take ‘But’ For An Answer is a short, powerful track ‘The Inevitable’ How was this composed and how much was improvised in the studio?
Nothing was worked out. We felt that such a jam was inevitable at that point, hence the title.
On the same album you provide the vocals for ‘The Closest Call Ever.’ Do you enjoy doing vocal performances?
Not quite sure where my head was at then! As for doing it live: forget it – I can never remember the words, which again adds to my respect for the guys mentioned above.
I thought like Daryl Runswick, you had given up jazz for classical music, because you have both worked together on various classical pieces
Daryl just recorded his second symphony, which is great, but hopefully I’ve got Daryl playing jazz again!
He says he put down his bass years ago!
I had this idea of doing a jazz trio, with Daryl on bass and Harold Fisher on drums. I want Harold, because he’s a great drummer – he was the first drummer I played with, with Dankworth. We haven’t recorded anything yet. That’s what I’m getting on with right now. I’m feeling very positive and hope it will happen. It’ll have to do it now it’s out there!
Will there be any gigs?
It’s going to have to be me that organises it, so I don’t know! [Alas: since our initial interview, Tony has had to put this project on hold].
You’ve had an incredible musical career. You must feel very proud and pleased with what you have achieved so far
I do feel I should have done a lot more. The trouble is, being able to do a lot of things is not always good. Being able to play classical and being able to play jazz and other things is not always the easiest thing. I’m certainly not resting on my laurels. I do feel some considerable pressure to do some serious stuff over however many years I’m granted.
Many thanks to Tony for all his time and patience.
Tony’s profile (in French) and disography (in French and English) on the Disques Nato website is here: https://www.natomusic.fr/artisans/jazz/artisans-detail.php?id=73
Florrie Palmer recalls working with Jeff Beck and Tony Hymas
This short biography is from Florrie’s website: One of the first British female singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Florrie’s songs have been recorded by many, including Agnetha Faltskog from Abba, Manfred Mann, Mike Rutherford of Genesis and Elaine Paige. Her biggest hits were recorded by Sheena Easton, who secured the number one spot in America for six weeks with ‘9-5 (Morning Train)’.
Tony recalled Florrie providing lyrics for a song ‘Sitting Bull Must Never Die’, which was due to be recorded by Jeff Beck, with Ginny David on vocals. Here’s Florrie’s memory of the event.
I did not write ‘Sitting Bull Must Never Die’. The only song I wrote to Tony’s music was a haunting and beautiful tune I called ‘Electric Guitar’. I did a demo of it with myself singing. I wrote the lyric with Jeff in mind. It was written as a love song from him to his beloved guitar and about how it would never let him down. It was designed so that he could half speak the lyrics over the tune as his then manager Ernie Chapman said he was reluctant to do another song singing. We all loved the finished song but Jeff never did record it – I think he decided against ever singing again after ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining!’ [for the record, Jeff did reluctantly sing on a couple of tunes on his 1985 album Flash.]
Jeff came to my house near Richmond and we spent a lovely day fiddling about with ideas. Then I went down to his house [in Wadhurst, Sussex] where I tripped over kittens in the loo and cats everywhere (I think they were rescued by Celia Hammond, who was living with him then). Jeff was such a nice man, so easy to get on with and with not an air or grace about him. And when he was sitting down just fiddling about on his guitar, I got proper goosebumps and knew I was in the presence of the first actual genius I had ever come across. He was the last as well. I am now 75 and have never met another.
I was fortunate enough to meet and hear some amazing musicians in my years in the business but I swear he was touched with something other than most. The feel he had was exceptional and extraordinary. No wonder he didn’t want to sing.
He was far too good for that. I genuinely treasure my luck in having heard him play in the same room with no other players, just on his own. Perfection. I was just another songwriter supplying a demand where there was one. But he was right to refuse to sing any more. I just believe I was so lucky to have had that brief time with such a maestro.
Tony says: ‘The mystery deepens – I’m pretty sure I never got to hear Florrie Palmer’s song ‘Electric Guitar’ – and I have no idea what the tune might have been.’
Many thanks to Florrie for allowing us to share her story.
Florrie’s website: https://www.florriepalmermusic.com/