Pete King is arguably the greatest living alto-sax player alive - and a Formula 1 fanatic.
When he's not bewitching audiences with that sweet mix of growl, rasp and pierce, he's likely to be reading up on aerodynamics. He completed a thesis in the subject just for fun, and put it to good use by winning model-aircraft-flying competitions. In the 1950s he began an apprenticeship that was intended to lead him to race car or aircraft design, but then the jazz bug grabbed him and took him away.
But he never lost his love of racing and his imagination is still captured by the deeds and techniques of the guys in the cockpit. He sees parallels between the two worlds: "Jazz is about pushing things to the absolute edge, picking something up and stretching it, beyond what might seem possible, but hopefully still bringing it back without crashing. The only difference of course is that we only risk looking foolish, not hurting ourselves or worse."
In King's autobiography, due out next year, he talks of the greats, in both spheres. "For me the all-time greatest drivers, like Tazio Nuvolari, Juan Fangio and Ayrton Senna, are true innovators, with talent verging on genius. They move and inspire me in the same way as Bird, Coltrane, Beethoven or Bartok. There are great events in music, like Louis Armstrong's solo on 'West End Blues' or Bird's solo on 'Embraceable You', and there are great events in Formula 1, like Senna's legendary, mesmerising first lap in the European Grand Prix at Donington. For me, that was on a par with Coltrane's seminal 'Giant Steps' solo."
Senna had such an impact on King that after the Brazilian's death, he recorded a musical tribute, 'Tamburello', which was released on Miles Music in 1995. 'Miles Music' is suggestive of the great jazz player Miles Davis but, in another link with the sport, it actually denotes John Miles, former Lotus F1 driver and later Lotus engineer, the label's owner.
'Tamburello' won BT British Jazz Album of the Year in '96 and you need to listen to it if you haven't already. In particular you need to listen to the track 'Ayrton'. It's truly beautiful and actually pulls off the trick of mixing F1 engine sounds with jazz instruments. Each listener will form his/her own images, but it took me like this:
Half a minute or so of scene-setting, like mooching about at a grand prix, little snapshots as cars are readied, coming in and out of the pits, mechanics working, everyone doing their tasks, oblivious to the onlooker. Real engine noises.
A piano then segues you to the cockpit, the sax suggesting the deft coordination required and the rhythm of a lap - off-throttle, braking, steering, back on-throttle. Then Ayrton is lost in the outer edges of possibility, lost in his gift.
Sudden sax blasts feel like raw car-control moments, where he's magically caught a real high-octane slide. The rising sax note suggests the engine accelerating and the pumping of the throttle with quick jabs of sax. Then intricate bits of driving, probably through a slow section, flicking it across kerbs.
The music returns you to the onlooker's perspective, the engine noises fantastically evocative. The short blasts of music feel like screen grabs, a couple of seconds each, flashes of in-car action from lots of different places and angles. There follows a passage of Brazilian samba, celebratory but chilling, knowing the story. There's a sad, melancholy closer of Ayrton on the day. He had just discovered some treachery, his family's opposition
to his girlfriend and he couldn't believe they could have done this to him.
Then Rubens, then Roland. It's made him feel even lonelier. He's out of his comfort zone, there are all these new guys coming in, he's feeling the turning of time. There's a horrible conspiracy of circumstance to the weekend.
"We just played it as 'pure' music," says Pete, "but I hoped the way I planned the suite it would have a little of the emotional effect I was trying to achieve on someone, somewhere."
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