Nigel Hitchcock is one of the leading alto sax players in the UK, in a career spanning jazz and a wide variety of session work. He started young, first picking up the alto at age eight and joining the National Youth Jazz Orchestra at the still tender age of eleven. He plays regularly with leading players such as Stan and Clark Tracey and is enjoying his tenor role in the popular band 'Celebrating the Jazz Couriers'. His teqnique and tone quality on alto are outstanding. (Born: Rustington, England; 1971.)

What was the first kind of music you can remember listening to?

There was lots of classical music in the house, because my eldest sisters play violin, piano and flute and my brother was learning the clarinet. But then after a short period of playing the clarinet, my brother moved to saxophone, and he started bringing home Count Basie including a version of C Jam Blues, plus things like the Syd Lawrence Orchestra and Glen Miller, Bennie Goodman, Artie Shaw. So there was quite a mix.

When did you first pick up an instrument? You started young?

Yes, I started on the recorder when I was six, and started playing the alto when I was eight. Then flute and clarinet came shortly after, more out of necessity than want. I wanted to be like my big brother so they said off and see this saxophone teacher and after one lesson, he put me on alto in the local big band. Then it was playing everything from 'In the Mood' to Edelweiss'.

That's a terrifically early start.

Yes well when you're a kid, you soak up things like a sponge, totally open to everything. Also you don't realise how difficult it's supposed to be. It's a great advantage - my brother is 5 years older than me and that gap was just enough for him to realise how difficult some things were. I heard Michael Brecker aged 11 - 'so this is how you're supposed to play the saxophone then'.

Did you do other things as a boy? Go out and kick a football?

Did a bit, but wasn't that interested. I would come home from school and started playing, from age 8 to 11; I just didn't put the saxophone down at all.

Then when I joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra [at age 11], I realised some things about playing that it's not the 'be all and end all' of it. It's more important to have a life-enhancing experience, be it going to the pub, its more beneficial to your playing than sitting in and playing by yourself. Because it makes you the person you are and the character you are - that's my philosophy.

You joined the NYJO and within a year you had been given the main alto chair. When do they play?

Every Saturday morning there's a rehearsal in central London and then there were gigs at all sorts of times! Generally there'd be odd gigs at times throughout the year, and once a year there'd be a tour with a singer. In the first few years, we played with Vic Damone, Peggy Lee, Buddy Greco, and Al Martino.

They're big names!

Absolutely! Yes, they'd say to them, come and play with this youth big band, because this orchestra is for youth, the standard of musician is as good as you can possibly get without booking a professional band at full rate!

Did you go through the music exam system?

I took Grades on the clarinet - grade 3 and grade 5, I think I got distinctions. I took Grade 5 theory which you need in order to take Grade 8, and then I never bothered to take Grade 8 because by that time, I'd already done numerous TV shows [laughter] on clarinet, sax etc., its kind of irrelevant to have a piece of paper that says Grade 8! I'm glad that I had the experience of the examination board though, because that's one of the hardest things that I think a musician can ever do. Auditioning and taking exams is terrifying.

So at the tender age of 16, you said goodbye to school and it's on with session work, working in Central London. How did that happen?

Well, funnily enough, in my last year at school, when I was 16, I'd been working so much I had about an eight percent attendance record and the only exams I got were English Language, Maths and Music. I'd already decided to be a musician and I'd already been on the road for three to four years and touring. So yes, my last day at school, I was there for a couple of hours and managed to get out early, I moved straight to a flat in Marble Arch, and didn't stop working for about 5 months - I was doing TV adverts, pop records, - I was playing with the Pasadenas, a pop band at the time - black soul outfit. I worked in the background - I like to go into the studio, do my thing, generally first take and then I go. I like that! So I was lucky to walk out of school straight into the professional business. However, after a few months, the work dried up, there was a general consensus among musicians that somebody 16 years old didn't need to be earning £1,000 a week when there were people of forty and fifty who had 4 kids and a big house. So though I went in and did things, there's still a pecking order, which when I was that age was unbelievably infuriating - but now I understand it, you know.

There are relationships, who works with who, but once you'd got in..?

Yes, well there are relationships, but I've had some lean times you know. I've moved away from home and moved back about half a dozen times. The last time was two years ago when I was back with my parents again for ten months. So it's not easy.

Tell me about the varieties of session work you do?

Absolutely everything! Every style of music conceivable I have played! There are straightforward things like pop solos, I've done lots of movies - there was a shot of Kim Basinger in a film, made up as a cartoon called 'Cool World' and Mark Isham did the music. For cartoons, the stuff is always off the wall, instantly changing. We did 'A Hundred and Two Dalmatians' {that just came out}, in fact they got me to play some really fast bebop, and they animated one of the spots on a dog's back to the time of the bebop - interesting effect! They got me to play this fast bebop, and then they drew the cartoon. That's how they planned it.

There have been other times when I have turned up at eight o' clock on a Sunday morning to find a harpist, a cello player, a sitar player and a guru tabla player with ten disciples - mad, but it was to do a documentary on Uzbekistan!

The staple diet has been pop singles for a long time - the scene now is nothing like it used to be - but still some of that, some film music, a few TV commercials - again nothing like there used to be - there was time when I did at least five a week - now I do about one every 4 months!

Because a lot of library music is used, the Musicians Union have changed the rules, made it cheaper for television stations to use music. The business is going to die if we're not careful. Anyway, so I do any and all kinds of music from Ravel's Bolero to Madness.

So you also do classical?

Oh, absolutely! Particularly if you turn up on a film session, I've done everything from raunchy rock 'n roll saxophone in one thing and in the next playing Parisian classical saxophone, and playing soprano like an oboe - completely classical, every note is right through the middle. That's a whole different art, being able to read and play these things just the same every time. And I enjoy that, I get as much of a buzz out of that as getting my rocks off playing a jam session - the jazz thing is only a small part of my playing. So variety is the spice of life - I don't like doing anything twice if I can help it. But I'll try anything once, as they say, except incest and morris dancing!

I believe that Tony Coe's memorable sax recording was of the Pink Panther theme, what would you say yours was? Oh. that's tough! What about EastEnders - for a short spell of time there were two different saxophone players - which was Dave O'Higgins and me. But so many people wrote in and complained about it they put the old theme back on!

On the Fast Show, 'Please release me' is me. Also there's a bit at the front of Blue Peter now 'dubben-dubba, dubben-dubba, dubben-dubba, dubben dubba, da'. Two saxes in unison. So a few things like that. So the big thing I'm famous for has yet to happen, something to look forward to!

You were doing session work and then you joined 'Itchy Fingers' - what age was that?

I was seventeen - 1988 - no, not very old, what happened was that one of the saxophone players, John Graham, had been away in South America and had seen this crystal blue water, and had decided to dive in and it turned out to be about 6 inches deep - so he managed to break three of his fingers! And two days later they were going to Berlin for ten days for a Saxophone quartet Festival.

They'd heard that I'd got a photographic memory and I could do this and that, so I got called to his place in Clapham, where we did all the rehearsing - and that's how I got that gig.

What sort of a band was Itchy Fingers?

Just 4 saxophone players, I played alto, John Graham played alto, soprano and tenor, Mike Mower played tenor and flute and Howard Turner on baritone. And because you can all carry your saxophones, it means you can do gigs in strange places, go to the middle of a forest in Bavaria and not have to worry about having to plug an amp in. Also we went to Indonesia and played for the Sultan of Brunei - one of his grand-children was in this school and had all his minders around him, but the school only had a roof and a few fans to it, and was open all around, no walls, and there we were playing to these children who had never seen saxophones and at the same time, here was this kid with about a million pounds worth of gold hanging round his neck, it was really bizarre!

We also toured around Europe a lot and I enjoyed that. The music was mostly written down and we played with clip on microphones so everybody had to learn it. I was with them for 18 months and during it there were a number of tours, around 3 weeks in each place. We went to Hong Kong for a week, come back, then 3-4 weeks in Germany, come home have another week in Holland.

It was Stravinsky-esk, mad, off-the-wall a lot of it. He's a fantastic arranger Mike Mower! So really contemporary saxophone music. You know, lots of variety - madness!

You've received 3 jazz awards - the Schlitz Award for Rising Star - what was that for?

I'm always very baffled about the jazz awards; all of them. I don't know who votes for them or who decides. I guess being in Itchy Fingers must have given me enough profile to be noted and put in for them. But I don't really know. And I have to say from the musician's point of view, it's the kiss of death to take them seriously. For instance, I don't remember if it was the Schlitz or another award, but they can't hand it out to the same person every year. If they could, Pete King will still be winning it in eighty years time - everybody loves him, everybody knows him, right generation, so most people vote for him, so its only out of default that we have a lucky dip of one of the other ones this year. So I don't understand exactly how they work and I don't take those things too seriously. So, sorry about that.

Did the Cleo Lane Personal Award mean anything more?

It did mean more as I do know John and Cleo quite well. And she was lovely as well, because she invited me to a lunch with Princess Margaret to collect my award, and I did have to say 'I'll join you for desert, because I've got a session', so the least I could do was join them after. So I did the session, and forgot to get dressed up so I'm sitting on a table with Cleo Lane and Princess Margaret and I'm wearing gear like this! So I said Hi, I nicked a piece of roast beef and a sweet got my award and went off to do a gig somewhere. And she loved it - she was completely impressed!(I think?@£$%^&)

The Pat Smythe Trust Award?

That one means a lot to me - because that was voted for by musicians, and Pat Smythe though I never met him, has obviously influenced an awful lot of people on the scene here. Jason Rebello's got it, and probably Gerard [Presencer]. And also I think I was only about the second person to win it. The presentation at Ronnie Scott's was a very nerve wracking event because Elaine Delmar comes out and gives me a cheque for £2500 and you have to say 'Thank you very much' put it on the music stand. You then have to play your set in front of all your contemporaries - and all your heroes are all sitting right there in front of your Mum and Dad and the cameras! So that's a real tough one. You worry the cheque might be cancelled by the time you get off the stand!

But it was very helpful because I bought a car with it so I could get to some of these gigs!

So what's happened to you since then? Lots of pop stars, mainstream jazz and other work?

It's been a truly bizarre mix over the last few years. From doing the Jazz Couriers at the Bulls Head one night to doing Robbie Williams at the BRIT Awards the next. It's been up and down the whole time.

Is one is more rewarding than the other?

Yes, well, let's say I don't do Robbie Williams for fun. And lots of things with Tom Jones and TV Specials and so on. But I much prefer doing the jazz gigs. If only they paid as much as the pop thing. Actually as time goes on, the pop gigs are getting worse and worse paid, even the guys in the band become more like extras, staff, and the 'turn' is all they feel they need - it doesn't interest me any more.

Because the recording industry is getting squeezed these days?

Oh, unbelievably. With all the downloads of MP3s across the Net, that kind of thing. It's changing the way the record business works. And as a jazz musician I support it really because for me the best thing I could do is make an album, sell it off of a website, you know? Make ALL of the money back on it.

As it is, the best jazz deal I've been offered is £1,500 up front and 5% of the takings. Just 5%. Now the word jazz covers many sins. When you say you're going to make a jazz album, most people consider the album I made - that's who I am - I'm that alto player. They'd probably be horrified to hear me play like Pharaoh Saunders on the tenor? As a session musician and as a passionate lover of music, I'd like to play in hundreds of different styles - I like to play like Stan Getz or John Coltrane or whoever, I like the variety. I hate this trying endlessly to prove you are this one thing, this one identity, because I'm not at all.

I notice that in the SnakeRanch Sessions, I notice that no matter how fast the music, your tone still seems pretty good?

Yeah, yeah, yeah! I try not to throw the tone out the window just because you trying to do something flash. It's all about control, with the alto. It's such a woman, you've got to get it by both hips!

Tell me about your revival of the Jazz Couriers? Mornington Lockett had a chat with Martin Drew to start it off?

Yes, well Mornington and Martin both had played with Ronnie Scott a lot before he passed away, and the music of Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott from the Fifties are still burning modern contemporary tunes. Basically the energy that they put out at that time is what a lot of British people were missing on the British jazz scene. So Mornington thought it would be a good idea to transcribe some of the tunes.

And actually right from the word go there's been a real vibe from some of the gigs, you almost feel like Tubby and Ronnie are having a laugh up in the stalls. You know, occasionally we play little pastiches of Ronnie and Tubby and the way they played, but we're not trying to emulate the way they played it, its just paying homage to them in this time, you know? So it's not really the Jazz Couriers but we call it 'Celebrating the Jazz Couriers, but it's great fun! Mornington Lockett's such a fine player to have, we spark each other off so its quite inspiring. And both me and Mornington have a vast vocabulary and sometimes you can't retain that on a gig all the time and it takes one person to play something to remind you of a whole load of other stuff - you then play that and have a really good night, you know? So it's great fun, I only wish there could be another naught on the end of every paycheque.

When you were first picking up the alto, how do you reckon you learned how to improvise?

Well, the first time that I came across this, my jazz teacher said 'there's something that said 2 bars 'extemporisation ad libertum' and I said, 'what's that?' and he said 'well, its basically in the A major chord, here are the notes in that scale, so that's what you play - but I'm not a jazz musician so don't ask me!' But go away and listen to Charlie Parker or whoever.

And I was just put in the right direction of listening to people and picked it up naturally really, from the people around me, from records. I was lucky because my brother was 5 years older, he had older friends, so someone said oh, listen to this and they gave me a National Youth Jazz Orchestra record with Chris Hunter, an astounding saxophone player. So I thought ok, that's what the saxophone is supposed to do, and just learnt all that kind of stuff.

So a lot of it is recordings, but a lot is it is also being around people and having things played to you that you love and you genuinely have to want to know what it is they are doing. It's one thing to listen to something and say 'that's amazing' and be a punter, but if you listen to it and say 'I'm just going to listen to that 2 seconds a million times now because I don't know what it is, you know?' That's the sort of brain I've got.

Have you ever had any of these recording devices for slower payback at the same frequency?

What I did have was my mother's linguists record player that plays at half speed so I recorded it at half speed and then transcribed it at the soprano - did that with a Michael Brecker solo, just did it on the one solo, now I can hear Michael Brecker at full speed…just write it out, which is great - but I spent about one month transcribing one solo 3 octaves away from where it was. That is, about 5-6 hours a day and going over it to make sure I got every note right, making sure I could play along with it.

Do you do anything like that now?

I was just saying that I love to play so much that it's a sacred event to me and I feel I'm watering it down listening to music at home. So when I'm at home I'd rather cook fresh food, watch movies and play games, so it's great when I go out and play jazz again!

I would rather save up my enthusiasm for jazz for when I go to play and then it's more fun, you know? And it's more about the state of mind than anything. I mean, we did 2 gigs about 2 weeks ago, and then I went away on holiday and I didn't touch my tenor all week. Got back, got to the gig, said to Mornington 'I'd better have a look at the sax, you know, haven't played since the last gig'. Got it out and played the best I've played in months. It's about being fresh and being a child!

So who are your main musical influences?

Michael Brecker, he's God, number 1, has been since I first heard him, aged eleven. Obviously Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley - Chris Hunter I have to mention, an English alto player that was in the NYJO and he moved to New York and started doing a lot of work with David Sanborn - that kind of player but more technical. As far as music generally, I'm a big fan of Chick Corea, I was weaned on Johnny Hodges, when I first started playing - I'd been playing a couple of weeks and my teacher said 'Look, this is the sound, what you do to make the instrument sing, really put a voice through it. And I went right, ok, so I heard lots of like that when I was young, though I'd not put it on now so much.

If I listen to music at home now, I'd rather listen to Stravinsky, and I find I'm more and more into the heavy classical things. Because there's a very fine line between classical music and jazz in the sense that I feel that when I'm playing the saxophone it should be more instant composition, as opposed to reeling out things you know all the time. And what Stravinsky did I now think is astounding, I'd be very happy to incorporate some of that into my playing.

What about the future for you? And making CDs? Was your Quartet for the quartet regular?

At the time I made the CD, we were doing a few odd gigs here and there, and we'd all been playing together for years - so no problem, we just went and made the CD. But just the same I never really got it together to go and do gigs - the sad story is I sat down and spent 2 months calling 50 venues to get a gig with my quartet - I got a gig at the 606 [Club] and one at the Bulls Head. And even though I'd got the Cleo Lane Personal Award, at Wavenden, they didn't know who I was. And I couldn't play there because my name wasn't on the list. Things like that. So you know, it was so impossible to get gigs, I gave up really. I love jazz, but I don't need to suffer and starve for it. Rather do something else.

What about working on the continent?

I have been doing a few jazz gigs in Europe in the last few months, and there are some fantastic players over there. Unfortunately they seem to have the attitude, that if you're not from America, then you're not the real deal! And I was playing with a rhythm section in this club in Holland, and they've been there with Rick Margitzer, and Bob Malak, and Tim Armocost as well - three amazing New York tenor players.

But when I played there they said the musicians had the best fun they'd ever had, I didn't give them any bullshit - I'm not American, not big-time, I'm out for the good of people out to have a nice time, don't need to ensure I got such and such a quota of vodka in my room. But basically the club wouldn't have me back again because I'm not American and didn't pull in enough people! And that's so sad it makes me just think well, I'm not that interested in it. If there's a gig, I'm quite happy to go to places, I love to travel and do these things.

Future prospects?

More and more what's coming up is I'm writing library music - the music that gets put on a shelf and then when somebody wants 20 seconds of music to go behind the sports results they call up a library company and ask, and they say - have this! And they licence them the music. Most of what I've done is a minute or 30 seconds long and aimed at TV.

It's like a lottery ticket, mostly it's sitting around waiting. One of my pieces was on a 'Head 'n Shoulders ' advert, so they use just 3 seconds of sexy saxophone at the beginning and I make quite a bit of money out of it and that's a nice surprise. But there are people who make a very good living - you could make two hundred grand a year if you do nothing but write library music, and with the Internet, there seems to be less and less need to be in the city - I'd much rather have a nice home life, an organic vegetable garden and a dog, and send files across to where its needed.

These days I write files and send it to a drummer who sends me the drums back who sends it to the bass player and he sends me the bass back. So there's no need to use studios any more. So the only need to get together is to play jazz, which is great!

So more and more, my ambition is to have a reclusive life, I love the countryside, I love nature, and I much prefer animals to people on the whole!

So whatever the state of health of jazz in the UK, it's agreed that there are a lot of graduate students coming up, have you any words for them?

Er, yes, good luck! I've had a couple of students from the Royal Academy that I've given lessons to. They're fantastic players, full of enthusiasm, dying to do everything. Now I'm 32 years old and I'm still looking up to the generation above me in their forties who are doing all the TV things and stuff and they're still waiting for the generation above them to move out. Now these kids are 19 years old or so, they are going to be 50, before they get a sniff of my work. So I don't know what they are going to do, where they are going to play, or play with. What I notice is that they seem to be a bit cocky about the fact that they know this, or know that, how that works, and I don't want to learn to become a great reader, I just want to be a great jazz player and have my own voice. Well, if you want to be shouting at yourself in your own home, OK, but if you want to have a voice to get out to the public, you need a different medium because jazz isn't going to get you heard, you know? Jazz is a fairly small world. So really I hope they can get it together, I hope there's enough of them. But it seems to be that jazz is only for musicians. There's a few people above 50 years old at these gigs and anybody younger than that is a player. Now musicians don't pay to see other musicians, they get in for free. But the only people left who are interested, are musicians.

There are different brackets to jazz, the Bulls Head [at Barnes] is more realistic in that it's Stan Tracey and straight ahead bebop, whereas if you go to the Jazz Café, it's to see the YellowJackets and Kenny G. Or maybe Diana Krall. So is it jazz or is it commercial?

Last question - do you have perfect pitch and can it cause problems?

Yes, I do. The key you play in doesn't matter, but it winds me up if things are out of tune. If the pianos out of tune? Yes, its not too bad on a piano, the things that drive me nuts are records just playing slightly fast, or slightly slow - drives me absolutely crackers!

And when you play in England, the tuning frequency is A440 and when you play in Germany its A444 and in America it's A442. So England is the flattest of them all, but to me that is the true note, don't know if that's something you become attuned to or born with. It's a really subtle amount; you can make up the difference by different lipping! But you go into some bands here, you think, 'ah, German tuning!'

A true A is actually A448. An A is 7 and for each octave it's multiplied and it comes out at 448. I know about frequencies. The relation of maths to frequencies I find absolutely fascinating - and things like a seashell. That's a Fibonachi Sequence - the growth rate of each section is the same as the Fibonachi Sequence, which is adding the previous numbers together. - 1,2,3,5,8, 13 and if you do that all round you get a seashell. Its also related to the maths of music, all tied in together.

The way a tree grows is pretty much the way that music grows, that notes are formed, say in overtones. Heard of the Mandelbrot Set? It's a mathematical number where the answer to the equation gets put back through the equation, a sort of feed back loop, it throws off patterns. There are examples in nature like beetles, sea-horses, the paisley pattern on a tie. And we take these things for granted. God's thumbprint, if you like, you can look on a computer screen to see it all happening. They put one number in and it formed a sycamore tree, another number in and it built an oak tree. So if there's a God, he's a mathematician!

In jazz, there can be an argument about whether something is mathematician driven, playing a particular pattern or playing with heart and soul. To me, the heart and soul is seeing the beauty of the maths. But the perfection of it - when you're playing Cherokee, the maths of the chord sequence is really difficult, but the form when you get into it is just beautiful maths. So there's no division between maths and music, to my eyes at any rate!