Ever since he was barely in his teens, Nigel Hitchcock has been amazing audiences with his prodigious technique and improv skills.
I first heard Nigel on the legendary Itchy Fingers sax quartet recordings back in the early 1990’s (which were mind blowing!) but he has been a busy guy touring and recording with just about everyone you can think of since then.
I caught up with Nigel for a chat about his career while he was in New York performing with Mark Knopfler.
NM: So you started with saxophone younger than most of us.
NH: Yes, I was only 8 when I started playing. My older brother Clive was also a saxophone player. He was 5 years older than me and I really looked up to him. I was trying to follow in his footsteps – who doesn’t want to be like their big brother?
NM: And the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) was a big part of your early life?
NH: Yes, I joined them when I was about 11. In fact it’s NYJO’s 50th anniversary this year and they have put out a bunch of videos from the old days. There’s a video of my playing on “Saturday Morning Swap Shop”, there’s another one where I’m being interviewed by Margaret Thatcher!
Nigel Hitchcock performing with Itchy Fingers in 2007.
NM: NYJO sounds like it was an amazing thing to be part of.
NH: It was absolutely incredible. It was the best schooling you could ask for really. When I joined the band you would turn up on a Saturday morning and play through 20 tunes you had never seen before. Then you would do a Sunday lunchtime gig playing another 20 tunes that you didn’t play at the rehearsal the day before! The following week it would be the same. So we just got to see so much great music and I think that’s the reason why so many of the great session musicians in England came through NYJO at some point.
NM: That’s pretty challenging for a young teenager. It must have been great for your reading and improvising skills.
NH: That’s right, there’s no time to hang around, you’ve just got to get your brain in gear, which is what it’s like being a session musician.
NM: Where you also out doing other gigs at that time?
NH: Yeah sure, Throughout NYJO at 11, 12 and 13 years old I started playing in people’s jazz bands. There was this guy called Tim Caldwell, he was a saxophone player who used to write for NYJO and when he found out that there was this young kid on the block he took me to gigs in Paris and Germany. I was already out and on the jazz scene, playing with guys in their seventies!
When I was sixteen I left school and I think I did my first studio session about two months later. I played on my first pop track with the Pasadenas, that was before I’d played with Itchy Fingers. I was only seventeen and I was in the top ten!
Finding saxophone inspiration
NM: When you first started out, what was it that really fired you up about playing saxophone?
NH: The very first thing I heard when I had only been playing for a couple of weeks was an old NYJO album with Chris Hunter playing all this amazing chromatic stuff. I thought “Wow! Can you really do that?” So I just thought that was completely normal, and what was expected. Nobody told me otherwise! So he was my first real big influence.
Everyone around me was much older and more experienced and they would give me things to listen to. I heard a little bit of John Coltrane but I didn’t like it, it was slightly out of tune and a bit wild and inaccessible.
I’d been playing for only about a year when I heard Michael Brecker for the first time and instantly that clicked with me. I thought this was absolutely how the saxophone is meant to be played. Brecker is my ultimate hero, I know every solo he’s ever done off by heart.
I find it really difficult actually to get into other players. I got into Stan Getz and Lester Young, I got to love Charlie Parker but not until I’d left NYJO really.
NM: So Brecker is really your guiding light?
NM: But you’re an alto player predominantly?
NH: Yes but that gave me something new. People have said to me, in hindsight, that I was the first guy on the scene who played like Michael Brecker on alto. So that gave me a new stamp of identity. If you try to do it on tenor then you are instantly comparable, and obviously lagging far behind the real thing! But if you do it on another instrument then you’ve got a bit of an edge.
Transcribing solos on saxophone
NM: So after you discovered Michael Brecker what did you do? Did you start obsessively learning all the solos? What was your path?
NH: I think the first album I heard was “Back to Back” by the Brecker Brothers, with David Sanborn. I liked David Sanborn but it was Michael Brecker that really turned me on, even though I was playing alto. And then the first album that I really got my hands on when I had probably only been in NYJO for about six months was “Steps Ahead”.
Michael Brecker’s solo on “Pools” just enamours me. I just thought “this is the most complete, perfect thing. It holds every harmonic key that you could possibly need. My mother had a linguist’s record player that played at 17 1/2, so it would be half speed and down the octave. I taped it on a cassette, and I took that solo down on a soprano sax.
It took me two months to take down that solo, then I spent another eight months working it up till eventually I could play along with it at full speed. And after that, I’ve never had to write out a Michael Brecker solo ever again because I can hear it at full speed. So that was the best bit of homework I ever did! I highly recommend that to anyone.
NM: When you were doing that transcribing were you actually writing it down as well?
NH: Oh yes absolutely. There are loads of Michael Brecker books of solos out there but I’m a firm believer that if someone hands you something on a plate, it doesn’t go in. You need to have such a passion for it, you’ve got to know what it is so you are going to spend those two months working it out. And that’s why it’s stuck in my brain. Actually after that I did go out and buy the Michael Brecker transcription books and I sat and did all the corrections!
NM: The other thing about transcribing is that you spend all that time really listening, not just to the notes, but to all the inflections – you don’t get that when you buy a book!
It took me two months to take down that solo, then I spent another eight months working it up … that was the best bit of homework I ever did!
NH: Exactly. Students come to me and tell me that they’ve heard Michael Brecker, but they’ve listened to ten minutes of YouTube and heard five seconds of each solo. You’ve got to really want to work it out for yourself. And you can’t teach people that passion.
NM: Is he still the player that you listen to most for inspiration?
NH: I have to confess that in recent years I don’t really listen so much, because I’m on constant output mode! I’m writing a lot more these days. I’ve written classical music and crossover pieces. But if I want a bit of inspiration I would definitely put on Michael Brecker as opposed to anybody else.
Today there are some great players – Seamus Blake, and Chris Potter, but they have undoubtedly come out of the same school. It’s the same harmony but they use it in a different way. Everyone has their own personal vibe on it but it all comes from Brecker. But he would be the first to say he stole it all from John Coltrane! The thing is Michael Brecker put it in tune and quantised it and made it accessible to my generation.
NM: And Brecker really crossed the boundaries from jazz to commercial. You’ve also worked in so many different genres. Was that something that inspired you?
NH: Yes, you’d hear him play with Cameo, and Art Garfunkel – all sorts of things. Now I’m really proud to say I’m playing with Mark Knopfler and I get to play the thing that Michael Brecker recorded for him that sold about a million saxophones!
NM: The solo on “Your Latest Trick”. Amazing!
NH: Yes I play it every night! It’s like a homage to Michael for me.
Nigel Hitchcock onstage with Mark Knopfler
Memorising music on saxophone
NM: The first time I heard a recording of you was with Itchy Fingers. There’s a “folklore” story about you memorising the pad on the way to the gig?
NH: Yes, it was for a gig in Berlin. We were on a train and Mike was testing me – “Right, “Hiatus”, page 8, 10th line down at the far end, 16th semiquaver…” and I’d say “just after the crossing out that’s an F sharp”. He would try to catch me out!
NM: You were only 17 when you started with them. That must have been a great experience.
NH: Absolutely. My standard of playing went through the roof very quickly because it had to, both technically, being on it with the mind, as well as being silly on stage, jumping around. It was a great thing for me.
Building a career on saxophone
NM: So you’ve done a really wide range of different things from jazz to classical and lots of commercial playing – is that just the way it happened?
NH: There are different sides to that. One is that coming through NYJO my peers there were Jamie Talbot, Dave Bishop and Phil Todd. So I heard Jamie with NYJO playing jazz then I found out he’s just done the theme for “The Young Ones” which at the time as a massive TV series in Britain.
And you realise that these are the guys who are playing on “Family Fortunes” theme tune and the advert for the Cadburys chocolate bar. It was normal – that was what you did.
All you can ever do is play your ass off and hope that people notice!
I realised at an early age that playing jazz was not going to afford me the lifestyle that I would probably like to have. I wanted to make a living and have a good life out of doing this. I was lucky to get my first studio break when I was sixteen. Andy Mackintosh couldn’t make it for a John Altman gig – John Altman did the arrangement for “That Old Devil Called Love” for Alison Moyet – he’s a musicologist and writes jingles and music for films, that kind of thing.
I did that one gig and John just got me on every session after that. As soon as you start in the studios and you get a reputation of being able to play whatever they need then it just blossoms.
I was very lucky. But a good friend of mine once said to me “as musicians we only really pick up the phone and say yes or no, we never really decide a career path. All you can ever do is play your ass off and hope that people notice! And if you’re any good it doesn’t remain a secret, people talk about it.
If you can play, people will know who you are. There are all these young guys who are Facebook-ing and saying “Hey look at me” but that’s not how you are going to get on in this business. What you’ve got to do is play your ass off and impress somebody.
Saxophone album projects
NM: A couple of years ago you did that “Smoothitch” album. I really enjoyed it. How did that project come about?
NH: A few years ago I signed up a seven album deal with Sony BMG Masterworks in New York. The first album was a classical album, the second was going to be a crossover album, the next one was going to be the Smoothitch album, and I was going to do a remake of the Parker with Strings album.
In the end things changed with Sony and they dropped about twenty artists – including me. I’d already got this stuff in the bag though, so I figured the only way to do it was to finish it off myself. So I started my own label “Eight Inch Clock” – a great anagram of my name! It was a great chance for me to do everything myself.
I recorded everything, I mixed everything, I mastered everything – I did everything at home, myself, in my Mac.There were no studios involved. For the bass tracks I went to Laurence Cottle’s house and he plugged his bass straight into the mini jack. It was an incredible learning curve, and a great opportunity to do the whole process and learn how it all works.
And now I’ve done it I never want to mix an album every again!
NM: So you’ve been doing some classical writing too?
NH: Yes, not for a while. I was commissioned to write an album by a banking syndicate in Kazakhstan! It was to write a tribute to a guy who had bought a bank in Kazakhstan for ten thousand dollars and in six months turned it into the third largest bank in the Russian Federation. He then got shot and his brother came to me and asked me to write some music dedicated to him. But the only stipulation was that it came out on a major record label. So when the deal went down with Sony that was it, and it’s never been released.
NM: Oh no! I listened to some of those tracks on your website, they sound amazing. What a shame because that was an enormous amount of work to put together.
NH: Yes, it took 6 to 7 months to write, and we recorded it with a sixty piece orchestra at Abbey Road. You can’t believe that you can get that far, then the rug can be pulled from under your feet at any moment at all.
Hitch’s tips on how to practice saxophone
NM: What are the most important things about practising that you would recommend if someone was getting started on saxophone? I guess you are pretty obsessive about your practising?
NH: When I first started playing I as practising for eight hours a day for the first three or so years.
NM: Even at eight or nine years old?
NH: Yes I would get up, I’d do two hours before school, an hour at lunchtime, a couple of hours when I got home, then I’d go to a big band rehearsal! I was absolutely obsessed with it!
I learned a couple of tricks accidentally which in hindsight were the making of me. One was, if you can remember what one note sounds like on your saxophone, for instance, if you know what a G sounds like, then you can leave the saxophone in the case.
I haven’t really physically practised my saxophone since I was eleven years old! I do all of my practice in my head. You can do it in the car, you can do it in the supermarket queue… in fact it became even more of an obsession, almost the the point of being an illness.
So I have a memory of Michael Brecker playing the opening of “Stella by Starlight” [sings opening phrase] – and I know that’s a B on a tenor and an F sharp on an alto. I have that note embedded in me, like my name. It’s just always with me.
So now I can finger and sing everything I play. So why get the saxophone out? It’s only an amplifier!
“I do all of my practice in my head.”
In sport education they teach you to visualise first, then when you run up to the ball you’ve already scored the goal. All you are doing is repeating the necessary action. It’s just the same when playing an instrument. If you’ve got that in your head, then you have all the wiring, but it’s the wiring of a perfect weightless saxophone with the perfect mouthpiece, the perfect reed, it always sounds great and you are always blistering.
So when you turn up at ten o’clock in the morning for the gig and you pick up a cold lump of metal with a shitty reed, and you stick it in your face, your brain overrides and plays the horn in your brain! So you are always playing the same horn, you’re not thinking “my reed’s not working” or “I don’t like this mouthpiece”.
I’ve only had two mouthpieces in my whole life! I don’t mess about with that stuff. It’s not about that.
NM: That’s great because it’s a different way of looking at it. As players, particularly as adult learners, it’s easy to get caught up worrying about the mouthpiece, the reed, all these other things – so it’s great to hear you say that, to bring it right back to the essence of what it’s all about.
NH: I’m so thankful, and lucky really, that I found that out completely by accident. I didn’t know I was doing that until about ten years ago when people were asking me “how do you do that?” and I was saying “well this is what I think I’ve done… I don’t know how that happened.”
I got this note of Michael Brecker’s stuck in my head when I was eleven, then I left the saxophone under the bed and I’ve been practising 24 hours a day! Laying in bed doing choruses of “Cherokee” in every key, having bebop nightmares! But that’s what made me the player I am.
Nigel Hitchcock’s Set-up:
I’m a Yamaha endorsee so I have Yamaha Gold Plated Custom Z across the board.
Mouthpieces: On tenor I use a Dukoff D7. I’ve just found another one as I had a bit of a scare with this one when the tooth plate came out – it’s the only mouthpiece I’ve played with on tenor since I was 9 years old!
In NYJO and with Itchy Fingers I used a Dukoff on alto as well, which I used for all those years and most of the session stuff I did. Then about 15 years ago I got a Freddy Gregory to half-copy my Dukoff but I wanted something a bit bigger and fatter.
Reeds: Alto –Rico Royal. I used to play 3.5s, I’m down to 2.5s now. It’s just easier.
On tenor I use Frederik Hemkes.