Classical guitarist John Williams headlines Grassington Festival

Classical guitarist John Williams.
Classical guitarist John Williams.
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Internationally renowned classical guitarist John Williams is at Grassington Festival this month. Duncan Seaman reports.

One of the world’s most distinguished guitarists, John Williams has embraced music from all over the world in a career spanning five decades.

Next month he’s due to combine forces with jazz virtuoso John Etheridge and composer Gary Ryan at a concert in Wharfedale. The show, billed as ‘a colourful and varied programme of solos, duos and trios’, is set to be one of the highlights of this year’s Grassington Festival.

“John Etheridge and I have had a duo for many years,” 75-year-old Williams explains of the origins of the partnership. “In this programme we’re going to keep some of our most popular pieces. The reason that we’ve got Gary Ryan to join us, which is really great, is that we can add different combinations, not just in addition to Etheridge and myself but we can also add some different music.

“One thing being that we’ll all play solos. Gary Ryan will be able to play some of his own music, which is fantastic, but we’ll also be playing extra duos. We’ll still have John and me playing duos but also I’ll play duos with Gary Ryan and Gary will play duos with John. Then at the end of the programme we’ll have a couple of trios.

“By having Gary with us, we’ve not only broadened the range of the programme, but also the different combinations. It gives a new lease of life, if you like, for Etheridge and myself, and also Gary joining us has not only given us different and new music but also Gary’s own music which we would love people to have the opportunity to hear. Gary has got his own following in public but it’s nice to incorporate that within the following that Etherdige and I have got.”

Actually the biggest inspiration to me was not Segovia but meeting all the students from different countries, in particular Latin America and South America.

Williams and Etheridge first shared a stage about 15 years ago. “We joined together when I had a group called The Magic Box, which was to play arrangements of African music,” Willliams recalls. “When I say African it really was from different parts of Africa – we chose everything from Madagascar, which is off on one side, and Cape Verde island, which is off the other side.”

The pair, it seems, have a simple chemistry. “I think we just got on,” says Australian-born Williams. “I knew his playing before we actually played together. As a person he’s very much like his music – he’s very free and enthusiastic and flowing. It’s very important when you have a musical partner that you get along as mates as well. He lives just a few hundred yards from where we do in north London so we constantly meet apart from music just to have a cup of tea and chat.”

Although renowned as a classical guitarist – in a recording career that began in 1958, his repertoire has extended from Rodrigo and Villa-Lobos to Paganini and Vivaldi – Williams has long had an interest in jazz, a possible legacy from his English-born father Len, who was also a guitarist.

“I don’t actually play jazz,” Williams is at pains to point out, “what I actually say is I play at it, meaning when it’s written down and it’s organised I can get the style but I don’t improvise, not in the true sense of the word. I muck around on chords but I don’t actually improvise in jazz harmony. With simple harmonies I can alter the patterns, I’m not tied note by note, but I can’t improvise in jazz harmony, even though that was my father’s specialty.”

When he mixed with jazz musicians such as John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, “everything as written out for it by John Dankworth”.

“I try to correct that false attitude that I also play jazz; I say I play at it, I can imitate the style and John Etheridge very forgiving,” he says.

“Gary Ryan is better and more akin with the jazz idiom than I am, even though we say of ourselves he’s a classical player, he’s a pretty dab hand, he can play jazz piano and I’m sure he and John Etheridge will bring a fresh flavour to our programme; he’ll probably do things with Etheridge that possibly I couldn’t or wouldn’t.”

From the age of 11, Williams studied under the Spanish virtuoso Andres Segovia, the father of classical guitar. In his authorised biography, Williams caused a stir by suggesting Segovia’s teaching style was too rigid.

“That generation of teachers and maestros were like that,” he reflects today. “I’ve talked with some of my contemporaries and when we were all young we all had some of the problems that I had with Segovia with our maestros.

“My main concern, which I must say is becoming less so as time goes on, has been that young guitarists are giving this figure as a kind of icon that you followed like a rule book and imitated unquestioning. The younger generation of players now don’t have that question at all but my generation and the generation in between have had that problem and the reason I have been very open about my reservations about Segovia have been to try and guide people to have a little bit more confidence in their own way of doing things and not to simply follow Segovia like a fundamentalist religion.”

It was at Segovia’s summer school in Italy that Williams “funnily enough” discovered Latin American guitarists such as Antonio Lauro and Agustin Barrios. “Actually the biggest inspiration to me was not Segovia but meeting all the students from different countries, in particular Latin America and South America, I had some good friends from Mexico and Uruguay,” he says. “There were guitarists from all over the place but I suppose the main inspiration to me was Alirio Diaz, the Venezuelan guitarist and he introduced me to Venezuelan music and also to Barrios, the Paraguayan composer. That was the origin, it’s never left me, really, Alirio Diaz is now 90-plus and still going. I haven’t seen him for a few years but we’ve kept up a very big friendship all the time.”

In the 1970s and 80s famously appeared in primetime television shows, hosted by the likes of Val Doonican and Les Dawson. His recording of Stanley Myers’ Cavatina became a hit after it was used as the theme to the film The Deerhunter and with the fusion group Sky he played on Top of the Pops. He feels it helped open many people’s ears to classical music.

“I certainly think with Sky it was not such much that the audiences changed, apart from the fact that we did some very good stuff – not all of it but about half of what we did, and the live shows were fantastic, I don’t think the records did us justice – but just from the guitar point of view I think it opened up a whole world of classical playing to people who wouldn’t have rated it as something that they liked or knew anything about, they might have found it a bit intimidating.

“It was not only classical guitar,” he adds. “There was Francis Monkman, the first keyboard player – who we did our best two albums with – on harpsichord. The other guitarist, Kevin Peek, and myself were playing so-called classical duos and Francis was playing long harpsichord solos, so we actually did a lot to get people to be aware of music that they otherwise had thought was only for toffs.”

To celebrate John Williams’ 75th birthday, the record label Sony Classical has released a 58-CD box set containing all the recordings he made for them over 40 years. He seems delighted to see the full breadth of his repertoire represented.

“Some of it I haven’t heard for years because it’s not part of what I’m doing now, but when I look back I have to say it looks great on paper,” he says. “Some things I’d forgotten about. Every now and then I think some things should maybe dug out for players today. A very early example if a chamber concerto by Patrick Gowers which is an extraordinary piece that no one plays today.”

A couple of years ago Williams talked of retiring. He explains: “The retirement was from travelling, which I don’t do at all now outside England, and not playing purely solo recitals.

“In the last couple of years I’ve taken part with friends in odd charity dos in London and every year John Etheridge and I do two or three nights at the Pizza Express in Soho, and we’re doing that this year in September. Adding Gary Ryan and making it a trio that’s sort of changed things a bit and next year we’re doing about ten dates round about England so it’s a sort of semi-retirement – or as some way said in the profession a semi-requirement.”

He “couldn’t ever” contemplate giving up music entirely. “I still play as much or even more at home,” he says. “The things is when you’re playing concerts all the time, say on a tour, you don’t really need to practice a lot because your fingers are going for two hours three times a week but it’s sometimes when you’re doing that very difficult to concentrate on any other music.

“Paradoxically by being semi-retired I can do more playing of different things at home than I otherwise would be.”

6 Hands: John Williams, John Etheridge and Gary Ryan, play at Grassington Festival Hall on June 23. For details visit www.grassington-festival.org.uk.