Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Melodic or free-form, Mick Brannan was a saxophone sensation

Martin Newell in 1969, aged 16

Martin Newell in 1969, aged 16 - Credit: contributed

He died in mid August while I was away working. When I heard about his passing,

I was almost indignant. “Oh, what? Mick?” The fifth death in as many months of someone I knew. He’d had a Buddhist funeral, his wife Linda told me. Good people, the Buddhists. Buddhism is a quiet, kindly sort of faith which may often resonate with differently-wired individuals such as musicians, where other faiths fail.

During the last five years of Mick Brannan’s life he’d stopped drinking and although his cancer eventually overcame him, he’d tackled it head on; sometimes, I thought, almost with a curious enthusiam. Bi-polar, alcoholic and intensely creative, I’d known Mick since the late 1970s.

I first knew of him as a jazz sax-player, wild and experimental. When you are a young rocker you may think, as I once did, that you are an outlandish creature and that the world has not witnessed your like before. Then, you discover that there existed a race of musicians long before you who were as bad, if not worse. With jazz musicians we often discover it is the horn-players who are the ones.

I was a bit in awe of Mick when I was younger. For a start he could read the flys*** – old jazzer slang for musical notation. He was very generous with his knowledge. A natural teacher, he taught music for ten years at the Colchester Institute. He was good at bringing people on: the wayward, the shy and the unconfident. His wife told me that many of his former students remembered him with great affection and had told her so.

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She and Mick first met in north London in 1969. Ironically, not in a pub or a jazz club but at a launderette. 1969 was a good time to be in your mid-twenties in London. Mick had been working for the advertising agency Pearl & Dean.

As the 1970s dawned, a self-taught sax player and pianist, he co-founded a jazz ensemble with the cartoonist Mal Dean and another musician, Veleroy Spall. They were called the Amazing Band and soon became a name of sorts. There was an album, Roar, now quite collectable.

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With these three as the nucleus of a rolling line-up, a number of luminaries drifted through their ranks including Jim Mullen and the great Robert Wyatt who also played for Soft Machine.

It’s often said that music can be a cruel mistress. More often than not, she’s an amnesic one, too. Musicians will sometimes find that it’s possible to cover yourself in glory for a year or two, only to discover one morning that anonymity’s rolling sea has swallowed you up again. You’ll arrive at a crossroads, usually in your late twenties. Children may come along, for instance, and you move somewhere nicer, to a job maybe less sparkly, but ultimately steadier. In the mid 1970s Mick and Linda left London and settled in Wivenhoe.

When I first saw him play, Mick was performing experimental free jazz in an old church, with another now-dead Colchester eccentric, the organist Bernard Watson. With my knowledge of jazz only developing I didn’t quite understand the music but I supported the idea of it because it seemed so different to anything else which I’d come across.

By the early 1980s, I had my own primitive recording studio and began producing records. I had Mick in to do a session for me. It was he who first taught me how to record a saxophone. What I first got down on tape of Mick was a mix of utter strangeness and racket. I asked him if he ever played more... conventionally. Like, say, Stan Getz? There was an awkward pause. He seemed puzzled. “I can blow ‘melodic’ if you want.” he replied, non-plussed. “I didn’t think you’d want anything like that.”

“Try it.” I said. He played something for me. It was wonderful. Thirty years later, with the record having now been remastered and re-released, American listeners sometimes write in to ask me who the sax player was on that session. So Mick could blow melodic if he wished. Most of the time his playing was rather more interplanetary. The jazz star, Evan Parker, upon seeing the young firebrand playing, pronounced Mick “a thinly disguised be-bopper” – a compliment.

When he really got up a head of steam, in fact, Mick could frighten the livestock. Another musician who’d seen him in action at Colchester’s old Ollie Twist pub, said that at one point Mick had left the stage and was playing a fearsome free-form sax solo from the bar area, still deafening the punters long after the rest of the band had stopped.

There are many hilarious stories about his various unchained moments. Some, of course, would be due either to his illness or to drink. But there was an essential life force in there too. It was of the purest kind, usually only found in people of let’s just say, an artistic disposition.

For a while after retiring, Mick had been somewhat of a lost soul. Then, in the last five years, after his conquering of the drink and during a long war of attrition with cancer, I think he also re-claimed some of his former wonderment at the world. He began playing sax again: “Melodically too.” he’d assured me, laughing. He’d also started painting again – retrospective exhibitions to be announced. There is a light that never goes out, as we say.

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