Sky-high guitar legend teams up for St Jude's performance

PUBLISHED: 17:15 11 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:08 07 September 2010

John Williams who was once part of the band Sky has tried his hand at every kind of music and has now joined forces with another guitarist for a duo recital BY MICHAEL WHITE Back in the 60s it was flowery shirts and long hair. Now the shirts are gone,

John Williams who was once part of the band Sky has tried his hand at every kind of music and has now joined forces with another guitarist for a duo recital

BY MICHAEL WHITE

Back in the 60s it was flowery shirts and long hair. Now the shirts are gone, the hair is going, but John Williams is still, recognisably, one of the true, all-time greats of the guitar. And through a performing career that has lasted at least half a century (depending on when he's prepared to agree it began), it's extraordinary how often he's managed to reinvent himself, his image and his repertoire while staying firmly at the top.

Run through his CV and you find a man who's done everything from guest turns on the Val Doonican show (for those who remember black&white TV) to concerts with Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre. As a child prodigy, recently arrived in Europe from Australia where he was born, he was championed by Segovia and made his name on strictly classical terms. But then he joined the "fusion" folk/rock/pop band Sky and made hit records. And since then there's scarcely been a musical byway he hasn't explored: African, American, jazz, baroque, contemporary avant-garde...you name it and John Williams will have played it.

Which is more or less what he'll be doing in St Jude's, Hampstead Garden Suburb on June 16 for one of the star dates in this year's St Jude's proms season. In fact, it's a duo recital given with another distinguished guitarist, John Etheridge, who has been Williams's regular recital partner for almost ten years. The two Johns happen to be neighbours (Williams in Belsize Village, Etheridge in South End Green) and certainly friends. When I asked them what they got out of playing together, the agreed answer was "fun" - and just as well, since they're spending much of this year on tour together.

But they nonetheless represent two very different schools of guitar-playing. Williams, for all his eclecticism, is essentially a classical musican, playing an acoustic instrument with nylon strings. Etheridge is essentially a jazz musician with a rock/pop background, playing some acoustic but mostly electric with steel strings. And if you wonder where they find a common ground, look out their most recent CD: a Sony release called Places Between which contains most of the music they'll be playing at St Jude's.

"It's a mixture", says Etheridge, "some arrangements, some music John and I have written ourselves or had written for us, some jazz standards - but done with no attempt to meld into the same ground. We play in a way that complements each other's diferent strengths - so, for example, I'd never try to play classical: that's his world."

"And I", says Williams, "leave the jazz improvisation to him. I could do it, probably rather badly, and it might even be fun. But I don't believe in having fun at the public's expense. What we're about here isn't 'fusion'. Most of what we play is duo music but even so - he does what he does, I do what I do, and hopefully something good comes out of the collaboration."

What's interesting there is that, for many listeners, the guitar might not seem like a collaborative instrument. In rock and pop, of course, it is. But in the classical tradition it comes standardly with the romantic image of a solo player, one foot on a box, strumming at sunset in a hacienda courtyard. And it doesn't make enough noise to compete with other instruments.

But Williams is a serial collaborator, having played with everything from orchestras to organs. He insists that the idea of the guitar as purpose-built for solos is a "complete misunderstanding".

"Go back to the historic origins and you see it was essentially used in ensembles and accompaniment - mostly of popular dance music. Like baroque lutes, guitars played first of all in consorts, and it was out of those groups that soloists emerged. Not the other way round. And the need to project a bigger sound only came in the 19th century when performing venues got bigger. Until then the guitar held its own perfectly well against other instruments."

So what about the bigger venues now?

"Oh, now I amplify the sound through speakers. I have to if I'm playing alongside something like John's electric instrument. But that doesn't make my sound electric. It's still the classical Spanish sound but with the volume turned up. That's all."

Back in the days of Sky, John Williams did in fact dabble with electric guitars, and got a lot of stick for it from classical purists who accused him of selling out.

"That was ironic", he says now, "because although Sky was successful it was never big money. If you're a super-group like Police or Wings you rake it in, but we weren't in that league. I could earn far more from a single, subsidised concerto date at the Festival Hall than I ever did on a commercial one with Sky. The overheads were huge (we had a crew of 25 on the road when we toured), the management took 20 to 40 per cent, and the remaining profits had to be divided five ways. Believe me, classical dates paid better, and whatever my reasons for doing Sky, it wasn't the money."

John Williams and John Etheridge play at St Jude's, Hampstead Garden Suburb, June 16 at 7.45pm. Tel: 020-8458 1582.


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