A Ruddock good gig

Martin Longley discovers a hidden Edgbaston venue, and a lesser-spotted jazzman.

John Altman
The Ruddock Performing Arts Centre
August 1st

Saxophonist John Altman is not so well-known on the jazz scene. His work is usually as a sideman, an arranger, or sometimes composer, with much of his work inhabiting the soundtrack or advertising spheres.

One glance at his credits will reveal a Zelig-like presence, standing just to the side, or lurking behind a whole host of famed artists. He’s contributed, in his various guises, to the careers of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Amy Winehouse, the Rutles and thence the Monty Python gang, just to name a handful of his massed credits.

He’s a 65-year-old with a boyish demeanour, shiny-domed and, for this gig, favouring the soprano saxophone, possibly so it will fit inside his hand baggage-sized, wheeled suitcase, which remains at his side wherever he roams, even onstage. The last artist that your scribe witnessed displaying such an attachment was Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Altman has the look of Lol Coxhill, including a similarly dry and wily sense of humour.

The chosen venue for this gig is also easy to miss, hidden away in the grounds of Birmingham’s King Edward’s School, and rarely presenting acts that impinge on the outside musical world. It’s a relatively new joint, and proof that there are always undiscovered scenes lurking where least expected. Altman fronted a quartet, with bassist Andrew Cleyndert being the most familiar presence from the jazz firmament. Mitch Dalton (guitar) and Pete Cater (drums) completed the line-up.

The first set trawled through a selection of originals and arrangements of non-obvious tunes, whilst the second opened up to a jam session vibration with members of The People’s Orchestra, a local community collective who were hosting the event. This latter half was much looser, utilising numbers such as C-Jam Blues and Take the A Train as vehicles for extended blowing and dialogues between the soloists.

Altman’s soprano lines were precise, cutting and labyrinthine, his experience outside the jazz world adding stylistic shapes that tended to make him stand slightly outside the music, looking inside from a variegated perspective. The repertoire was at once mainstream and off-kilter, mostly in the choice of material and delivery.

Altman has a yen for samba perversions, each set closing with bobbing transmogrifications of Eric Idle’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life and the theme tune to the old I Love Lucy television show. These were unpredictable highlights of the evening, genuinely subverting musical expectations, and providing the assembled with a jaunty step as they filed out of the theatre.