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Saxophonist Larry Stabbins Retires
Tariq Goddard , November 20th, 2013 12:20

Luminary saxophonist and composer reflects on his reasons for recently calling time on performing

Saxophonist Larry "Stonephace" Stabbins recently played his last show at the Wiltshire Music Centre at Bradford On Avon. There was a symmetry to this as he had begun his long career more than fifty years earlier performing at venues in the same area as part of his father's big band. Stabbins pursued music as an end in itself and, as such, was probably better known and respected by his fellow musicians than the wider audience he deserved the attention of. His career took in spells with many of the leading names of modern jazz, including Keith Tippett, Louis Moholo, John Stevens, Tony Oxley, Peter Brötzmann and Robert Wyatt. In recent years he had collaborated with Portishead's Adrian Utley on the Stonephace album and played as part of Jerry Dammers' Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra, having previously enjoyed some commercial success with Weekend and later Working Week in the 80s.

Stabbins' greatest contribution was to the instrument he played so brilliantly, the saxophone, rescuing it from the ersatz musical shorthand it had become synonymous with in the musical mainstream, a byword for false pathos in film soundtracks or steamy love scenes, and restoring it to its proper place as an instrument of violent wonder.

His final performance, bringing to an end the last line-up he worked with, consisting of Zoe Rahman, Crispin "Spry" Robinson, Karl Rasheed and Pat Illingworth, was predictably moving and emotionally rich; the wilder aspects of Stabbins' playing wandering beautifully over tracks from his last two albums, career highlights and a rare standard, the music as involving and evocative as anything heard in the medium. It would be a pity if some jazz-loving billionaire did not offer him a two week residency at The Blue Note, but failing that, Stabbins will be retiring to live on a boat with his wife Manice, and concentrate on his other great passion, writing.

Contacted for his reasons for retiring, Stabbins had this to say: "I've done everything I wanted to do. There's nothing else I particularly want to do musically which is actually a realistic option, but there are lots of other things in life, which I still want to do while I'm able.

"To some extent it's a question of economics. I have no illusions about earning a living from music, but if and when I do work I want to travel in comfort, get treated properly and stay in a decent hotel. That seems remarkably difficult to achieve. Otherwise, much as I still get enormous pleasure from the being on stage (and the band with Zoe is probably the best band I've ever had), it's just not worth it. The lack of any proper touring circuit for jazz in the UK means the work involved in setting up gigs is enormous and one-off gigs just don't make financial sense. I've always found the funding bodies arcane and intimidating (and I think I'm of at least average intelligence) and dislike their utilitarian requirements. I have no interest in education or don't see it as my job to provide extraneous benefit to the wider community, so I've never had any money directly from the funding bodies. Again the funding they offer never seems to be worth the effort of applying unless you enjoy, and are particularly good at, dealing with bureaucracy and authority. I probably originally became a musician to avoid both.

"The music scene has changed drastically over the last 50 years and the cultural role of jazz in particular is entirely different. It attracted me because it was rebellious, alternative, had a veneer of danger to it (drugs and debauchery) and it identified with the underdog (black people in racist societies) and had a generally anti-rightwing/authoritarian political agenda. In my teenage years, it also felt groundbreaking and exploratory. None of that seems to me to apply any more either to jazz or its spin-offs, such as improvised music (I think I prefer Flying Lotus for the groundbreaking exploratory stuff).

"I also have a strange relationship with the British music scene because of the variety of music that I've played over the years. It makes me difficult to pigeonhole because I haven't had a consistent product in a way that most musicians do. You know exactly what you're getting if you book Peter Brötzmann or Evan Parker or even John Surman for instance. As a consequence I have the feeling that the "avant-garde"/improvised music end of the music scene regard me as too populist and therefore mercenary and think I sold out, while the more general jazz scene think I'm both "genuinely weird" (Jack Massarik in the Evening Standard) AND too populist because of Working Week.

"I'm very lucky really to have been working at a time before music was devalued by internet access and I had many good years playing my own music all over the world to some great audiences and having fun. The band with Zoe has been an absolute joy. They're amazing musicians and lovely people who enjoy playing together. I'm proud of the music and feel I'm playing as well as I ever have done, so that seems a good point to finish."

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