Celebrating the life and musical legacy of Barbara Thompson MBE

Written by | News, Women in Jazz Media

Barbara Thompson by David Redfern

I was fortunate enough to interview Barbara Thompson a few years ago and opened my article with this statement: Barbara Thompson writes and performs for the saxophone like no other. With love and unwavering respect, she cherishes the instrument when needed, challenges and pushes it beyond boundaries and shows us that in the right hands, the saxophone really is truly magnificent.

Kim Cypher, who also interviewed Barbara a short time ago, opened her article with ‘If you ask me to name a woman who has inspired me, there will be many incredible women who have positively influenced my life, including my Mum, family, friends, fellow musicians…I could go on. But, top of my list musically has to be a lady who sparked excitement in me back in the 80’s, igniting a passion and realisation that I could follow and achieve my musical dreams, ultimately shaping the way I lived my life. I am referring to the legendary multi-instrumentalist, composer and band leader Barbara Thompson MBE.’

Jess Gillam says she is ‘one of the most inspirational women and saxophonists I know’. Trish Clowes tells us ‘Barbara is an inspiration to everyone she meets. Her passion for and dedication to music is formidable’. Alyn Shipton ‘I have met few truly brave people in my life, but Barbara was far and away one of the bravest’. The Jazz Journal said ‘She was actually one of the best jazz musicians and composers in the world’.

Barbara Thompson quite simply impacted countless lives. I could write a whole book on how Barbara Thompson has inspired people around the world.  June 2nd, 2023, at Union Chapel, London was a night full of people who have been inspired by Barbara. A night that will forever be in many people’s hearts, minds and souls. An evening to celebrate and love the virtuoso saxophonist, composer and bandleader  – legend – Barbara Thompson MBE.

The venue was perfect. Union Chapel in London, a stunning Victorian Gothic style Church built in the late 19th century, known for its incredible live music events and inspired Margins Project, supporting the homeless community and a venue that was not far from where Barbara grew up.

Everyone knew that this night was going to be something special, but it exceeded all expectations. Organised by Barbara’s daughter Ana Gracey, the line up, was inspired. The opening performances were with Paraphernalia with Peter Lemer, Dave Ball, Billy Thompson, with guest saxophonists Snake Davis, Emma Rawizcz and Andy Scott and incredibly Jon Hiseman and Barbra Thompson were there too via a huge video screen, playing along. This was an incredibly moving opening, not only was Barbara already in our hearts and minds, but we could hear her, we could see her and it felt like we could almost touch her.

The second performance quickly reminded us of Barbara’s extensive, diverse and inspirational compositional catalogue. The chamber music trio Trifarious with Tim Redpath, Rachel Calaminus and Alex Wilson brought us two of Barbara’s compositions, The Flying Dutchman and Spin. Beautiful.

Ana Gracey

Ana Gracey came onto the stage to perform for the first time her original song ‘Fairweather’, featuring her mother and recorded by her father, legendary drummer Jon Hiseman. The stems remained in the archives for almost 15 years and the song was finally produced and made public after her parent’s deaths. The performance of this song was incredible. The strength Ana found to perform this song was inspiring. More than inspiring, it was ethereal, otherworldly – beautiful.

The penultimate performance of the first half was the exciting Rascher Saxophone Quartet, performing Barbara’s Saxophone Quartet No.2, ‘From Darkness into Light’. They remind us of not only Barbara’s incredible virtuosic technical compositional skills, but her sense of humour. So many moments of joy.

Trish Clowes

The first half closed with the Big Sky Choir. Over 50 vocalists singing from above us all, ‘Meditation’ and ‘The Sky is Full of Light’, from Barbara’s ‘Journey To A Destiny Unknown’, which is also the title of her brilliant book. We open the second half with the brilliant Jess Gillam and her interpretations of ‘The Unseen Way and ‘Tribute to Sidney Bechet’. Her incredible energy was exactly what we needed to bring is back after the interval. You can’t help but feel Barbara would be absolutely loving this. Next we have more guest saxophonists ( and no, you can’t have too many), Tom Ridout and Snake Davis, joining Stars of Colosseum for a magnificent seventies blast before we move in another direction with an ensemble created specifically for this night, The Weill String Quartet with Trish Clowes performing two Kurt Weill songs that had been arranged by Barbara. With each new set, you are reminded of but also completely astounded by the range of her work. We are astounded again with the next set, The Marici Saxophone Quartet performing Saxohone Quartet No.3 demonstrating so very clearly Barbara’s genius and moments of humour.  This set was a real challenge for the performers, expertly tackled and the connection and chemistry of the performers was incredible.

Jess Gillam

Paraphernalia return to the stage was a truly incredible speak guest – with Isabelle Hiseman, Barbara’s granddaughter. You will find Kim Cypher’s article about Isabelle after this one, so I won’t say much here other than to say, seeing Barbra’s 12 year old granddaughter walk onto the stage and play the saxophone was something very, very special. The audience fell silent and magic was truly made.

The Big Sky Choir return with the final part of Barbara’s ‘Journey To A Destiny Unknown’, ‘End Of My Journey’ with Ana Gracey’s stunning vocals singing from high. This was emotional. The end of the evening was a performance of ‘Unity Hymn’ written by Barbara for her band Paraphernalia and choir, with special guest Kim Cypher. The perfect ending to an incredible night.

Kim Cypher by Ron Milsom

There aren’t really the words to express how I feel. It was a truly magnificent, EPIC, overwhelming celebration and tribute to Barbara Thompson and I will be forever grateful to have been a small part of it. The whole evening was so carefully planned and beautifully put together by daughter Ana Gracey and to have Barbara and drummer husband Jon Hiseman there onscreen performing alongside Paraphernalia on stage was truly special. I also got to meet and perform alongside some magnificent musicians and everyone was so welcoming and supportive, like one big family united in love and respect and with one mission – to do Barbara proud and pay tribute to her for all her music and inspiration. The Grand Finale was captured on film and I really hope you enjoy sharing this performance full of love, respect and thanks for Barbara Thompson’s music and inspiration. What a joy to share the stage with Peter Lemer (keys), Clem Clempson (guitar), Billy Thompson (violin), Phil Mulford (bass), Steve Roberts (drums) and Big Sky Choir for the first ever ‘live’ performance of ‘Unity Hymn’ composed by Barbara Thompson. Huge thanks to Barbara’s daughter Ana Gracey for organising the event which raised money for Cure Parkinson’s. Thank you, Barbara Thompson, for the music and inspiration. May your music live on forever’ Kim Cypher

When I interviewed Barbara, the last thing she said to me was: ‘I like it when people thank me for my music, that’s so very nice. And people, they play my music at funerals and weddings and that’s the nicest thing. To have people say they love your music. That means a lot’.

Thank you, Barbara. We love your music. Thank you for your music and for all the gifts you have given us all. You will forever be in our hearts.

All photos by Tatiana Gorilovsky unless otherwise stated.

Barbara Thompson website

This is the first of two articles celebrating the life and musical legacy of virtuoso saxophonist, composer and bandleader Barbara Thompson MBE originally published in the July 2023 Women in Jazz Media magazine. Click here to read the second article, Kim Cypher’s interview with Isabelle Hiseman

Last modified: October 31, 2023