JLR Interview with Saxophonist Clare Hirst

DSC04713-LClare Hirst is a UK saxophonist with a distinguished career in pop and jazz music.  Clare has performed with iconic British groups including Bronski Beat, Communards and David Bowie among others. However, Clare made her name with all female band the Belle Stars in the early 1980s; playing saxophone and keyboards on hits like “The Clapping Song”, “Sign of The Times” (not the Prince tune) and “Iko Iko”, which was later used as the theme tune for the movie Rainman starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.

Today, Clare’s schedule is as busy as ever. When not travelling and playing gigs, Clare teaches saxophone, flute and clarinet at her local secondary school; and also recently went on a trip to Cuba to check out the musical scene there. Clare can be found playing regularly with South African piano player Mervyn Africaand trumpeter Claude Deppa; and also with singer Hazel O’Connor and pianist Sarah Fisher; that trio comprises saxophone, voice and keyboards, so Clare is no stranger to trying out different musical configurations. As a leader Clare has released three albums to date and is currently working on a fourth. Tough and Tender was her first from 1995 on 33 Records. Her second album in 2004 was a collaboration with singer Hilary Cameron called Summer Song and her most recent release is called Touchy which came out in 2008. Clare’s tunes tend to be catchy, often underneath a syncopated tempo which can vary from Afro Cuban to Calypso and Flamenco. For instance, title track “Tough and Tender” starts off in a leisurely latin tempo, then becomes quite intense as the track develops, underlying the title.

On Touchy my favourite track is called “Seven”, which apparently is composed in seven time and is the seventh track on the album! To me it has a 1960s Blue Note feel to it. I would say as a composer Clare favours the Wayne Shorter, Jim Beard method, within the natural quirkiness of jazz structure, favouring rhythm and melody over quirkiness for the sake of it; a trap so many jazz musicians fall into.

Clare is not the only artist who has had a long career in pop music then switched to jazz, Bill Bruford did something similar back in the late 1980s when he formed Earthworks after successful stints with Yes, UK and King Crimson. I think the 1980s was an iconic decade for pop culture and I loved the diversity of music that made up the pop charts. There were so many genres: New Wave; Heavy Metal, Soul, House, Acid and Rap all featuring in the top 10. The 1980s was also the decade many jazz stars had huge hits in the pop charts (Tom Browne, Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington jnr, George Benson, Patrice Rushen etc) it was a unique period in music history.

Conversely, many of the pop artists of that era were also into jazz. Sting, Andy Summers, Sarah Jane Morris, Alison Moyet, David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Stewart Copeland and many others have all dabbled in jazz, new age or other forms of creative music. Clare is no exception, a jazz fan from a young age so not so much a switch to becoming a jazz player but a natural progression. “I used to borrow my brother’s radio and listen late at night and I would hear this most amazing music from foreign radio stations, and I know now it was bebop but I didn’t know at the time what it was called”. Today, many a pop star who plays “jazz” would usually sing standards with a big band behind them, the likes of Clare Hirst are interested in playing creative music first and foremost.

My chat with Clare will be featured on the JLR Interview series. You can also listen to our chat below in a podcast.

Author: Laurie Burnette

A jazz fan since my teenage years. Fortunate to get into jazz during a period (late 1980s to early 1990s) when many great contemporary musicians were in their prime and making great music.