Thursday, March 27, 2008

John Altman


When and how did you become a member of ASW?

John Altman: Early in 2005, at the instigation of my good friend Denice Lewis. She is a very dynamic personality and I suddenly found myself in a telephone conversation with Erik – being 'recruited'!

Q What is your favorite site feature on ASW?

JA: I enjoy reading the forums (and occasionally posting). The messages help me to stay in touch with people and I find the guide valuable when I am 'on the road' both for restaurants and events.

Q Tell us how your music career began.

JA: I come from a well-known musical family and began composing at the age of seven. At 12 I decided I wanted to play the saxophone, got one on a Friday and did my first gig the following night. Eventually I wound up playing with various well-known performers in the late 60s and after university joined the band Hot Chocolate, who encouraged me to write. I then spent several years as Van Morrison's musical director ’til I decided to concentrate on composing and arranging and effectively gave up touring.

You have composed and arranged the music for film soundtracks, TV series, TV commercials and many great musicians. For those of us who aren't familiar with what ‘arranging’ involves, can you please explain this role?

JA: I am a composer and arranger. Arranging involves taking composed material, whether by me or by others, and setting it for anything from a small group to a 120-piece orchestra. This involves creating things such as introductions, orchestral lines and memorable soundscapes – in a lot of cases, one is creating the song as it becomes known to the public ear.

You have worked with many of the music industry's greats, including Rod Stewart, Barry White, Tina Turner and George Michael. Can you recall for us one of your fondest memories from working with such stars?

JA: I have so many stories! I fondly remember Tina Turner making me a cup of tea; Bjork arriving five minutes before the end of the ‘It's Oh So Quiet’ recording session and completing the recording of the song live and in one take; playing offstage piano for Eric Clapton at a London concert; mending Sting’s saxophone; doing piano/voice duets with Van Morrison in an Edinburgh hotel bar and having a patron suggest to him that he should take up singing professionally. Playing and even acting in several shows with the Monty Python team onstage was also a highlight. And there are many more memories.

Tell us about why your birthday parties have become legendary.

JA: It started when I had the Muddy Waters Band perform at my 21st and continued with Bob Marley and the Wailers jamming at my 25th. When I started the Monday sessions at the 10 Room in London, I was lucky to have Chaka Khan and Lionel Richie sitting in with our band on my birthday in successive years – so it has now become a tradition I have to maintain.

What’s it like being ‘the man behind the scenes’ on some huge hits like Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ and Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’? And how does it compare to fronting your own all-star big bands?

JA: 'Bright Side Of Life’ has haunted me for the last 30 years! It was really conceived as a throw-away ending for Life of Brian, and Terry Jones wasn't overly fond of it. But it sneaked in as the finale of the film and over the years took on a life of its own on the football terraces and in the pop charts. I can still pick out my whistling on the soundtrack! The Bjork track featured my UK big band, which still performs at jazz clubs and festivals, as does the Los Angeles version of the band. I have also taken the music to Australia and fronted a band there – there's nothing like the sound of a big band! My next project will be an album of my big band playing my own music.

What has been your career highlight to date?

JA: Being honored by my peers. I’ve won all the major industry awards – the Emmy, British Academy Award, Television and Radio Industry Award, Music in Advertising Award, several ASCAP Awards, and last year received the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters Gold Badge Lifetime Achievement Award. Plus my music for Titanic (all the music played by the ship’s orchestra) was cited in the Oscars, for which I have been short-listed twice. And getting to work on some great movies and records and to play my saxophone with some of my heroes and heroines.

Which piece of music, of all of those you’ve arranged or composed, are you most proud of and why?

JA: I am very proud of my scores for two Peter Chelsom films – Hear My Song and Funny Bones – and of my music for Little Voice and Beautiful Thing. Also for RKO 281 and The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. I do like my arrangement of ‘Moondance’ I did for Van Morrison, which he still utilizes, and a lot of the work I did with Trevor Horn for various great performers. I can’t say I am ashamed of any of my work, although there are some commercials I have written I’d rather most people didn’t know about!

Do you still organize the famous and award-winning ‘10 Room Monday night jam-sessions’ in London's West-End?

JA: Sadly the 10 Room is now defunct – we are currently playing at a few venues around London, and trying to re-establish what we built up over seven years at the 10 Room, where guests of the caliber of Black Eyed Peas, Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Pharell, R Kelly etc would jam with our house band in front of invited guests; a great private party which I’m pleased to say many ASW members attended and enjoyed.


JA: London

Travel Destination?

JA: Caribbean and Australia. And Los Angeles when it’s time to go there!


JA: So many to choose from, but I love my local Chinese!! Yay for Dynasty.

Top 5 hotels?

JA: Sunset Marquis, West Hollywood (My home away from home!)
Shutters, Santa Monica
Essex House, New York
Savoy, London
Millers, London (Go Martin!)

Museum or gallery?

JA:The National Gallery is a never-ending source of wonder for me. I love Dickens House in Doughty Street [London] too – more for the atmosphere of Dickens writing there.


JA: Thief of Baghdad with Sabu and John Justin. Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (they both have great music scores too), Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and The Naked Truth with Peter Sellers and Terry Thomas.


JA: Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I used to lecture and specialize in the novel, but Dickens stands head and shoulders above every other writer.

Cause? Which one and why?

JA: Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy – the gift of music is so precious and does light up people’s lives.


JA: Rembrandt

Historical figure? Why?

JA: Frederick Delius – when I first heard his music on the radio I had to stop the car and listen in amazement. It opened doors and windows in my soul I never knew existed. And still has that effect.


JA: 10 Room when we were in full flight. Charlie O’s where I get to play and hear great jazz in LA.


JA: The iPod – I have three full ones and they have changed my life.


JA: Book Soup and Ray’s Jazz Shop


JA: Tea!!

Top 3 songs?

JA: Haunted Heart’ sung by Jo Stafford
Anything written by Harry Warren
‘Let’s Get Lost’ sung by Chet Baker

—- Laura Jakobovits

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