An interview with session star Phil Todd

Category: Clarinet Interviews Jazz Saxophone | Date posted: 8 March 2015

Author: William Upton

Interview by William Upton
First published in Clarinet & Saxophone magazine, summer 2012 

“I always enjoy the anonymity of studio work”, says Phil Todd, multi woodwind instrumentalist and saxophone, clarinet and flute guru with the Guy Barker Big Band and the Colin Towns Mask Orchestra, and for over 25 years one of the UK’s busiest session musicians. “The oftener people hear your name the quicker they tire of it,” he continues as he waits to sound check for Manchester’s leg of Strictly Come Dancing – The Live Tour. We are sat in the bar of the Lowry Hotel, a regular haunt of footballers and business moguls, overlooking the Manchester canal and a smattering of paparazzi and celebrity spotters.

The offshoot of Strictly taps into that most millenial of obsessions, the celebration of mediocrity. But one aspect of the show that is far from mediocre is the band, boasting some of the most sought after names in the music industry, musicians who have graced countless film scores, TV themes and hit records. And for this tour they too are being given the star treatment. “They seem to treat this show like a rock and roll tour,” says Phil. “We travel round the country in two coaches – one for the band and one for the dancers and celebs, and we get put up in these five star hotels, but don’t tell anyone!” Readers will have heard his effervescent baritone solo on the theme to Pie in the Sky, the searing soprano on the Andrew Marr Show, the alto lead on the old theme for This Morning with Richard and Judy, and the rollicking tenor saxophone lead in Men Behaving Badly. In Guy Barker’s Amadeus Project he can be heard wielding the awesome tubax saxophone, part musical instrument, part central heating system, as if it were an alto.

Remarkably, for a man best known in musical circles for his facility as a multi instrumentalist, this facet of Phil’s career only came to fruition in the mid-80s, out of the fickle turns of the music industry. “The music that I love to play is jazz-fusion,” he says with fervour, “but when I was 18 and playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra I was studying the music of Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley and all the other great beboppers assiduously and not feeling at all comfortable with that musical language.” The young Guy Barker took Phil to his local jazz record store where the owner sat him down to experience back to back the first Brecker Brothers album (The Brecker Brothers), David Sandborn’s seminal Taking Off, and the eponymous debut by Tom Scott and the LA Express, recordings that have changed many musicians’ lives. “From that point on I knew where I was going.” Following this epiphany Phil joined Ian Carr’s Nucleus and spent ten years propelling the jazz-fusion wave, and having the most enjoyable time, musically, in his life. But the boom was short lived and after the first Winton Marsalis Quintet visited London in the mid-80s, with their retrograde 60s aesthetic, jazz-fusion evaporated from the minds of every promoter in the UK. Serendipitously, Phil fell into pop music at a time when the saxophone solo was de rigueur for every top ten hit (“So who was I to refuse to help out and do my bit?”). “I started to do a bit of TV work, particularly for a Musical Director called Ray Monk. When Ray was offered the job for the Paul Daniels Magic Show he phoned me up and said ‘Phil, I’ve got this gig and I’d really like you to be involved, but your flute playing is quite weak; it might be an idea if you spent a bit of time working on it.’” The result of this gentle nudge was an enduring passion for the instrument fuelled by a tireless work ethic for listening and practice - a lesson to us all that a capacity for doubling or trebling quadruples your employment prospects.

In 1939 Toscha Seidel, solo violinist on The Wizard of Oz, was paid more than Judy Garland for his work on that film, and top session musicians were pursued by studios like premiership footballers. “When you look at the history of the music industry, almost all it has ever done is shrink,” says Phil. “In the days of music halls and silent films every theatre had an orchestra. As technology has improved all it has done is make more musicians obsolete.” In the UK where musicians are generally looked down upon, the situation is particularly dire; the German state runs four full time radio big bands; the BBC’s solitary equivalent has all but ceased to exist. “In the UK we are regarded as drunkards and drug addicts.” One technological development that does not worry Phil is the ever improving artificial synthesis of the saxophone: “As an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) player I spent a lot of time working on the possibility of reproducing that sound, but the thing about the saxophone is that you can slip between musical extremes on a whim. A producer played me an eight bar saxophone solo he had created electronically. It took him two days, which in studio time is about 3,000 pounds, and I just thought ‘You idiot.’”

The jazz-fusion implosion may have been the kiss of death for Phil’s own musical intentions (“Am I going to spend a period of time making the best album I feel I have ever made and nobody listen to it?”), but life, he suggests, has come full circle: “My eldest son, a guitarist-bassist, has just finished a music technology degree, so his bedroom is basically a recording studio, and my younger son eats and breathes drums. Having spent the past 22 years kicking them up the butt, they sat me down and dictated me to start writing the material for a family album. Something will be happening, I’m not sure when or what, but watch this space.”

The music industry and the creative musician have a love-hate relationship; one recalls Joni Mitchell’s tongue in cheek exposé of musical cynicism Free Man in Paris and Graham Parker’s attack on his own record label, Mercury Poisoning, but Phil has found his own way of preserving his sense of enjoyment in the face of professional rigours. “This may sound naïve, but when I began to play professionally in contemporary commercial music I discovered that it is very difficult to hold on to the love of what you do.” Amateur musicians play what they want, when they want, with whom they wish, but as soon as one becomes professional this is turned on its head. “When I started learning the flute seriously I wanted to avoid taking my jazz saxophone language and shoehorning it onto the instrument, so I explored and discovered Indian, Gamelan, Chinese and South American music.” He became fascinated by the idea of a musical structure devoid of modulation, where different scales build upwards from the same root tones, and he now boasts an exotic range of ethnic flutes, “but I never do any professional work as an ethnic player: that is for me, for my enjoyment, my own little world I can disappear into.”

His interest in the East has, he tells me, extended to Phil’s philosophical outlook on life, an approach that has been sorely tested since being diagnosed in 2001 with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder affecting as many as two per cent of professional musicians. Faulty signals from the brain cause muscles to react abnormally. Phil suffers from focal, or musicians’, dystonia in the ring and little fingers of his right hand, meaning that it is very difficult for him to lift those fingers. Cruelly, the effects only manifest when it comes to playing an instrument; in day-to-day life they function as normal. Neurologists suppose dystonia of the hand and fingers to be caused by repetitive hand movements remapping the receptive fields in the cortex of the brain, so that areas relating to discrete body parts cease to be distinct. A cruel twist of the condition is that it affects those areas of the body performing the most complex patterns of movement: for pianists, the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand, and for flautists the left hand. Several prominent trombonists have developed the condition in their lips and Phil recalls a drummer no longer able to hold his sticks. Phil developed the condition when he fell in love with the sound of a soprano saxophone that required him to distort his hand. ‘I spent hours and hours working on this thing but all I did was train my hand and mind to malfunction. I would advise anyone to walk away from such an instrument, because in the not too distant future it can cause some major problems.”

"As I left he said ‘Is there anything else you can do for a living?"

Although there is no cure for the condition Phil provides hope for dystonia sufferers. “Conventional medicine was a write-off from the start,” says Phil. “Initially I went to see a specialist who asked me to let him know if I found anything that worked. As I left he said ‘Is there anything else you can do for a living?’ As I was walking down the corridor I stopped and I thought ‘No, there is not anything else I could do, because all I have ever wanted to do is to be a musician.’” When playing the saxophone and flute Phil has developed an unconventional flicking motion of the affected fingers and has had the right hand section of his clarinet converted to a covered hole system with rollers between the C and Eb and B and C sharp keys, although he concedes that he has lost a lot of his technique on the instrument. “Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine seem to have a positive effect on it, and I practice a Chinese energy exercise called Chi-Kung. Whether or not it is something that can ever be cured I do not know, but once I got over the initial shock I learnt to come to terms with it, to live with it and adapt to it.” Phil has been so successful in surmounting this adversity that audiences are typically left wondering ‘What problem?’

Woodwind doubling is an exercise in compromise. Playing the saxophone and clarinet causes one’s lips to swell, disrupting sound control on the flute. For years West End musicians have been countering this effect by taking ibuprofen, risking long term side effects such as stomach ulcers. Phil says, “It is like waking up every morning wondering how to subdue a stinking hangover: people have to think a bit deeper and address the fundamental causes.” Phil’s first measure was to use softer reeds. At around the same time he became disillusioned with the search for the perfect reed and invested in artificial reeds: “Natural reeds soften during a short period of playing but plastic reeds have no give, so I found that my embouchure was tiring very quickly. Most of the regular clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces have medium to short lays (the distance from the tip of the mouthpiece to where the reed comes into contact with the side rails) so one has to bite to make a sound, so I had my mouthpieces altered by Bill Wraphell, a mouthpiece guru in London.” The idea is that a mouthpiece with a long, smooth and perpendicular lay requires very little embouchure, with the control achieved by manipulation of the back of the tongue and the larynx. “Bill calls it an embouchureless embouchure.” Musicians suffering from undue tension while playing might also find this a practical solution. [For more on synthetic reads, read Michael Pearce's article here.]

"The answer is to listen to as much music as possible and learn by osmosis"

Session musicians are often at the mercy of producers; if you are asked to play like Kenny G or Junior Walker you swallow your pride and give them what they want, Phil tells me. “No matter how good you are at your own thing, you can be the express train that roars in to the station but forgets to stop. You have to be able to do approximate versions of how other people sound without sacrificing your own identity. I have had to do recordings where one cue is a screaming alto solo and the next is something very warm and gentle. The answer is to listen to as much music as possible and learn by osmosis. Even Tony Coe is still working at it today, listening and buying clarinets: it is a lifetime’s work.”

"If you want to have a home, a car, food and clothes, then you need to be aware that it is the music business"

Phil talks candidly of the daily dilemma musicians face, either shaping themselves into what they feel people want, or pursuing their dreams. “If you are happy to live a hand-to-mouth existence where the joy of what you are doing outweighs financial success, then follow your heart. But if you want to have a home, a car, food and clothes, then you need to be aware that it is the music business. You need to have a product to sell.” The problems start when people do not want what you have to offer. “You start becoming what you think other people want you to be, which sets up a huge degree of insecurity. But if you have a strong central musical identity then that is what you have to work on.” A shining example of this is Ernie Watts, one of the most successful multi-instrumentalists of the last 50 years, who for decades dominated the L.A recording scene. Phil says, “He is a great hero of mine. He does it all: saxophones, the oboe and the English horn, clarinets, flutes, but when he practices he plays what he wants to play, phenomenal jazz.” The theme to Dudley Moore’s film Arthur is unique for the beautiful alto saxophone solo, played by Watts, blending perfectly with the score but instantly recognisable as his own unique sound. “He has managed to stamp his identity on whatever anybody else wants him to do, and that’s what I have worked towards.”

When the Guy Barker Big Band, under the name Jazz Voice, played at the opening of the 2010 London Jazz Festival Watts joined them for a feature on Barker’s arrangement of Caravan. All day during rehearsals Phil spent the breaks pacing backstage listening to him practice, summoning the courage to introduce himself. “I’ve met many of my heroes and I have always been disappointed with them as human beings so in the end I had to grab myself by the scruff of the neck to knock on his door. I told him that his music had spoken to me on another level, a spiritual level, and he said ‘That is what music is supposed to be and what it is about.’ He was such a nice guy and the aura he gave off was so beautiful that I just started crying. He came over and gave me a big hug and said ‘It’s OK man, I understand.’ I had to walk out, and that experience had a profound effect on me.”

Music lovers must hope that Phil’s sons succeed in coercing him into finally recording his own album. In the meantime you can hear him on tour and in the studio with Strictly Come Dancing and on the hundreds of recordings he has made with artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to Westlife. Several years ago I was dismayed to hear apocryphal rumours that Phil had been forced to give up playing. Shortly after I was elated when I had the privilege to see him perform live with the Guy Barker Big Band. He is an example to all musicians not to take their art for granted and he left me with some advice: “Always try to find the fun side of music, and never be in too much of a rush.”

About William Upton

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at Flat 51, Parkview Apartments, 122 Chrisp Street, London, E14 6ET. Email: membership(@) cassgb.org. Tel: 01642 769 558

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