Understanding the Magic of Alan Wakeman: Quench’s Guide to The Octet Broadcasts

Words by Caitlin Parr
Image courtesy of Prescription PR

Alan Wakeman – The Octet Broadcasts

“The next young generation of British jazz” is a compliment that has been applied to many artists across recent UK jazz history, however the original Melody Maker magazine headline was penned to describe Alan Wakeman and his ensemble back in 1970. This collection from British jazz saxophonist, Alan Wakeman, was partially recorded over 50 years ago and has now been released commercially for the first time. The Octet Broadcasts presents two separate archived recordings from 1969 and 1979 that are now being released as a double LP vinyl set, CD and on popular streaming sites and MP3 download with Gearbox records. 

Described by Jazzwise’s Stuart Nicholson as “British jazz at its best”, Wakeman has released a collection that has resurfaced our awareness of a pivotal time for jazz in the UK, to way-back-when the rock and roll records took centre stage and the limelight away from the trad jazz scene. 

Wakeman’s compositions compromise free-improvisation and unique percussion arrangements that promote his many talents as a composer and band leader during the creative-contemporary era of 1970s British jazz. The release of his collection provides a timeless example to how recordings from across history give an insight into the evolution of expression in music, which is especially relevant to the genre of contemporary jazz.

Alan Wakeman

Originally entranced by the surge of British trad jazz across the 1950s, Alan Wakeman developed his own style and forms of free-expression through his earliest arrangements. Training and composing in a time that New Orleans’ Dixieland jazz was popularised across the pond, Wakeman was exposed to and influenced by a historical time in jazz – especially after this craze hit the London jazz bars in the mid-century. Wakeman transformed his style during this period and swiftly became a staple to the British and European modern jazz scene after graduating college and working as a professional musician. Taking heavy influence from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, John Surman, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and his college mentor, Mike Westbrook, Wakeman is acclaimed for “combining the emergent and the experienced” in his work and recordings, a very prominent combination found in The Octet Broadcasts.

Alan studied at the London College of Music, with tuition on both clarinet and saxophone by tutors such as Charles Chapman and Mike Westbrook. When the first instalment of the collection was recorded Alan Wakeman had recently finished college, and was still a fresh face and young influence on the scene. At this point, Wakeman was focussing on his composition and arrangement skills, though he was already receiving ample praise for his talent as a tenor saxophonist.

As his professional career spans over 50 years, Alan has had many incredible experiences – especially in the forms of performing, recording and/or touring with some of the biggest names in the world at the time, including Shirley Bassey, The Drifters, John Cleese, Gene Pitney and Gilbert O’Sullivan to name but a few. Alan Wakeman is also cousin to musician Rick Wakeman, who found his own fame with progressive rock band Yes. With this insight into the industry, Alan had his own confident to rely on and push towards success alongside.

The 1969 Recording

The first instalment of The Octet Broadcasts was originally recorded for the BBC Radio 1 show ‘Jazz Workshop’ with Brian Priestly in 1969. The band, led by a then 22-year-old Alan Wakeman, and including Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne, Paul Neiman, Paul Rutherford, Lindsay Cooper, Paul Lytton and John Taylor, performed “Dreams”, “Forever” and “Merry-Go-Round” for the broadcast.

Opening with “Dreams”, featuring a tenor sax solo by Alan Skidmore, the band thrived off of the atmosphere created in the studio, and produced a set of passion-fuelled enthusiastic improvisation – an art believed to only be achieved by focussing solely on the performance and other musicians. In an interview with Jazz News, Wakeman reflected on how he achieves this connection with improv by explaining “from my own experience, the best frame of mind for attempting to play jazz is to be able to forget your surroundings, who you’re playing with, what time of day it is, how much you’re getting paid, everything you’ve ever learned – and just give yourself completely over to the music”.

Presenting a musician with this atmosphere to encourage freedom for the ensemble can only result in the most personal and raw form of jazz, where improvisation is at its best. This concept is likened to that of Duke Ellington, who explored allowing small band freedom within an ensemble and providing a comfort and ambience that encourages the freedom of expression. With Ellington himself saying “if jazz means anything, it is freedom of expression.”

The following two tracks of the broadcast include my personal favourite of this recording, “Forever”. Featuring Mike Osborne and John Taylor, this track is a part of an Alan Wakeman suite that is also an allusion to the popular standard “When I Fall in Love”. And finally, ending with “Merry-Go-Round” – described by Brian Priestly as the programme’s “satirical finale” due to its unique exploration of cumulative and “novel” percussion improvisation.


Dreams (10:10) Solo: Alan Skidmore

Forever (08:10) Featuring: John Taylor and Mike Osborne

Merry-Go-Round (08:52) Solo: Paul Rutherford and Paul Nieman

Recording Musicians 

Alan Wakeman – Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet

Alan Skidmore – Tenor Saxophone, Flute, Gong

Mike Osborne – Alto Saxophone, Clarinet, Tambourine

Paul Rutherford – Trombone, Gong

Paul Nieman – Trombone, Gong

John Taylor – Piano, Castanets

Lindsay Cooper – Bass, Sleigh Bells

Paul Lytton – Drums

The 1979 Recording

Ten years later, the second instalment of The Octet Broadcast was introduced on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Interview sessions by Charles Fox. In a broadcast playing exerts from Alan Wakeman’s Chaturanga Suite, Fox notes how the show was only broadcasting 5 out of 10 of the originally movements in the suite due to timing limitations. The 5 movements played were also played in an abbreviated form. Subsequently, these shortened forms are the tracks that we hear on the album today. As leader of the octet and composer of the suite, Wakeman had finally taken aboard the earlier wishes of the likes of Brian Priestley that the saxophonist would allow himself the opportunity to arrange and show his talents as a performer regularly too.

The Chaturanga Suite was written around the game of chess, and inspired by the many forms of unpredictability and skill experienced in the game. The five moments heard on this recording (“Chaturanga”, “Manhattan Variation”, “Vienna”, “Robatsch Defence”, and “Kingside Breakthrough”) provide an eclectic insight into the origin and progression of the game of chess, and the variety of outcomes in a game.

Chaturanga was the name of the game of chess when it emerged in India around the 5th century. Alan Wakeman toured India in 1979 and is said to have been “astounded by the extent that the arts and culture pervaded the life of the country”. In celebration of the birth of chess, Wakeman composed the Chaturanga Suite upon return – following the immersion in India’s arts and music scene whilst on tour. The track “Chaturanga”, inspired by the earliest name of chess, includes scales throughout based on an India raga. The saxophonists’ passages throughout are inspired, according to Wakeman, by the shehnai playing of Bismillah Khan – mimicked by Wakeman on soprano saxophone.

The other four movements represent the stages of a chess game. As in chess, a variety of outcomes of the game lie similar to the variety of outcomes expected from an improvisation session with a larger ensemble. Alan Wakeman’s “open-minded approach to music”, experimental techniques, and vivacious approaches to arrangements such as the suite, were discussed by mentor Mike Westbrook when he complimented former student-Wakeman as “seemingly free of stylistic limitations”.


Chaturanga (06:42)

Manhattan Variation (07:59)

Vienna (05:38)

Robatsch Defence (01:10) Duet: Paul Rutherford and Alan Wakeman

Kingside Breakthrough (05:58) Solo: Alan Skidmore and Henry Lowther

Recording Musicians

Alan Wakeman – Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone

Alan Skidmore – Tenor Saxophone

Art Themen – Tenor Saxophone

Henry Lowther – Trumpet

Paul Rutherford – Trombone

Gordon Beck – Piano

Chris Lawrence – Bass

Nigel Morris – Drums

These revived recordings explore a pivotal time in British jazz history that deserved to be re-discovered and heard in 2020. This is an under-explored era, that we are slowly accumulating quality recordings and arrangements from, which changed the contemporary jazz scene and promoted jazz-fan attendance to iconic London jazz and live music stages such as Ronnie Scott’s and The 100 Club, as well as world-famous venues such as the Hammersmith Odeon, where the likes of Duke Ellington and Miles Davies also played. This extraordinary collection offers an insight into the ‘golden age’ of trad jazz that was long overlooked during the rock and roll rise in the 60s and 70s, providing motivation and making room for the eclectic passions of the likes of Wakeman to burst to the fore in an attempt to revive the free-improvisation magic that we have now had the pleasure of unearthing again.