Tim Whitehead

The jazz saxophonist on creating an album inspired by a collection of JMW Turner watercolour sketches at Tate Britain

Tim Whitehead
Published: February 3, 2011 at 10:03 am

How did your interest in JMW Turner come about and how did that develop into the project at Tate Britain?


I’ve been in and out of the galleries over the years, living in London. The time Turner really got through to me I was working at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and at a break in rehearsals I went to the National Gallery and saw his view of Margate. I found it very moving – it made me cry. And I didn’t know why, but I went back and it had the same effect on me again!

I then got into looking in some detail at the Turner exhibitions at the Tate. Every time I looked I’d get this strong musical narrative. In 2006 I started researching the possibility of doing a project. Then my back went, and over the next three months I promised my back that I’d do something about it! I met people at the Tate and, over a couple of years, they asked me to be an artist-in-residence.

How many prints did you have to go through?

The scale was huge. Around the world there are something like 25,000 pieces of his work. The Tate has a huge percentage of that. I went through just about all the Colour Beginnings catalogue [of watercolour sketches] – hundreds and hundreds. In the Tate’s prints and drawings room I had my own desk and they let me set up my keyboard and laptop so that I could work on the music.

During the day I could work with my headphones and after the public went I could get the saxophone out and we’d set up the paintings that I was interested in for that day and blast away! I got somebody in to record me so I had decent recordings of the improvisations and at various points a couple of film crews came in and filmed my improvisations in front of the pictures. The film footage is now part of a couple of short films.

Half of the tracks on the album are from the Tate performance and half from the studio. Was that something you’d planned all along?

The premiere performance [of Colour Beginnings at the Tate in November 2009] was the first time we ever played the music in public and some of it is really tough. I just kept an open mind. In the event it was amazing. It was packed and it was so affirming because I’d spent ten months on this stuff and I felt a high level of communication with what stirs me about the art and the artist and I felt we carried the people with us.

The studio tracks turned into a bit of a nightmare because between June and October there was only one day that I could get all the musicians into the studio! We played all day and at the end of the session pianist Liam Noble was lying underneath the piano.

What got you into playing jazz in the first place?

There’s two answers. One is Acker Bilk, in the sense that I watched him playing clarinet on the TV when I was a kid and thought: ‘Hey, I’d love to play that’. The other is, when I started playing, I started making up my own tunes and it was a real necessity.

In the beginning I played lots of classical music. I was at a school with Simon Rattle – and it was the first time that he ever conducted an orchestra. But even then I was improvising. As a law student, we had a folk band, and I used to play bits of this and that, and a bit of jazz. I realised that jazz had a fantastic history to it and it had developed in this phenomenally short amount of time, with its own vocabulary, syntax and everything.

Interview by Neil McKim

For more information on Tim Whitehead’s Colour Beginnings and details of tour dates, click here.


Audio clip: Colour Beginnings – 'Sunrise over wet sands'

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