Roy Sainsbury Guitarist
The Roy Sainsbury Story by Ron Chapman
Just Jazz Guitar magazine regularly features interviews with guitarists who are quite often unknown to readers outside of the USA. Articles of this type make very interesting reading and I imagine that readers of this magazine frequently read stories of relatively unheard of players who are in fact highly regarded performers and recording artists.
In the November 2006 issue Jim Carlton interviewed guitarist Tim May. His name was only slightly familiar to me so I read further and I soon became aware that he is a player of some renown. The list of artists he has worked. with is nothing short of who's-who in the entertainment world so many that I can't list them all here.
I want to tell you about Roy Sainsbury ,who is a very accomplished English jazz guitarist and teacher. He has made many radio broadcasts with his trio and with the Midland Orchestra heard by millions of people throughout the U.K, been featured on Humphrey Lyttleton's Jazz Notes and on Britain's highly regarded "Michael Parkinson's Sunday Supplement" as well as other major BBC radio and television networks and yet remains relatively unknown outside of Great Britain. I met Roy four years ago at the North Wales annual Jazz Guitar week at Wrexham.
There was a tribute night arranged to pay homage to the guest of honor, Johnny Smith. I sat next to him during the performance and I could see that he was very moved by the recognition he received from the many guitarists in the audience. There were terrific sets by some world-class guitarists such as Jimmy Bruno, Trefor Owen, Mundell Lowe, Louis Stewart, and Martin Taylor. The performances were wonderful, but I was slightly disappointed not to hear some playing reminiscent of Johnny Smith's style.
Roy Sainsbury was welcomed onto the stage, and from the very first opening notes he had everyone's attention. The close-harmony melody of "Skylark" held everyone's interest including Johnny Smith's. In fact, it could have easily been mistaken for one of his arrangements. The tune progressed to a beautiful improvisation, which lifted the performance to an even higher level. Roy pays particular attention to tone, and the clear sound of his guitar coupled with his sophisticated harmonic sense and impeccable technique, and of course his supreme versatility, made for an enviably easy and relaxed performance. He was complemented by the superb accompaniment of Jake Hannah on drums and Bill Coleman on bass. I noticed that Johnny Smith never took his eyes off Roy as he effortlessly played this arrangement of one of Hoagy Carmichael's best loved tunes, and at the end of the set he was full of praise for Roy's playing.
When the show finished I looked for Roy Sainsbury. I had never met him before, and to be perfectly honest, I don't think I had heard of him. I complimented him on his choice of "Skylark" and how much it sounded like a J.S arrangement. Roy had evidently put a lot of thought into which tune he would play. He told me that he didn't want to play the obvious, so he searched his repertoire for something reminiscent of the chord style of J.S., but preferably a tune that had not been recorded by him, and therefore "Skylark" was his choice.
He spoke with reverence about Johnny Smith. "He has been a major influence in my music and has opened a lot of people's ears to jazz." Roy often tells his students, "If you think you don't like jazz, listen to Johnny Smith. He is an amazing guitarist and one of the greatest and melodic guitar soloists ever." Roy became well acquainted with him while propping up the bar in the hotel where they exchanged endless musician's jokes and stories.
Roy's musical career began in the 1960s. He had his first lessons with Jack Toogood who, through his appearances on Gordon Frank's radio show "Swingalong," became a very well known guitarist in Britain. Like many musicians of that era, Roy started playing in a rock `n' roll band. Some of the band members were interested in jazz. It was a natural progression from r r into more sophisticated music, and they eventually became a dance band. Roy laughingly mentioned that it was years later that he discovered that he got the gig because he was the only band member who owned a car!
Roy comes from a musical family and from his very early days he wanted to play the guitar. His godfather was a semi-professional guitarist who first gave him the opportunity of hearing recordings of Barney Kessel, Johnny Smith and the Ray Ellington quartet, who always featured very good guitarists. During the time he was growing up in Bristol he was exposed to many kinds of music. His father was a drummer and bandleader, and there was always music playing in the house. Roy grew up to the sounds of musicians such as Count Basie, Fats Waller and Coleman Hawkins. The first big band he ever saw was when his father took him to see the Count Basie band when they gave a concert in Bristol. It evidently made a huge impression, as his first love is the big band sound. It was only in later life that he realized the influence that these musicians had on his own playing.
Roy has performed with several bands at some of the most prodigious jazz clubs in Britain, including Ronnie Scott's in London's Soho. The Roy Sainsbury Trio, with vocalist Jane Christie, performed there in concert to celebrate the life of Britain's top jazz guitarist of the day, Ike Isaacs. He was certainly in good company as he shared the billing with such illustrious guitarists as Martin Taylor, Trefor Owen, Adrian Ingram, Judd Proctor and the Cedric West Guitar Ensemble.
Roy has played with many of the finest jazz players, including Scott Hamilton, Peanuts Hucko, Tommy Whittle and Don Lusher, and done has done several engagements with the "British Kings of Swing," consisting of Digby Fairweather on trumpet, Roy Williams on trombone, Alan Barnes on all of the saxophones, and clarinet, Neil Bullock on drums and Tom Hill, a wonderful bass player from the USA.
One day Roy heard a beautiful version of "A Foggy Day" on his car radio. At the end of' the song he was surprised to hear the radio presenter announce that it was Jane Christie with the John Christie trio. Roy remembered that several years before he had played with John Christie, but didn't know that John had a daughter, let alone a daughter who sang like that. He was so impressed that he wrote to John to pass on compliments to his daughter. John Christie remembered Roy very well and telephoned him with an invitation to play with the trio and Jane at a forthcoming gig. That gig eventually led to a residency of four nights a week for Roy and Jane at the Westmorland hotel in London. The hotel is opposite the famous Lords Cricket ground. It was a wonderful gig in the heart of the city, and frequented by many show business celebrities. Roy is a cricket fanatic so he was well placed to meet the famous cricketers who often stayed in the hotel.
During his time at the Westmoreland Hotel, Roy took delivery of a custom-made guitar by the revered English luthier Dick Knight. It was a large-bodied arch -top aptly named the "Knight Imperial." He has fond memories of the first night he used that guitar accompanying Jane when they performed to a full-house.
His first memory of playing a really good-quality jazz guitar was when he had a residency with a quartet in Bristol. Frank Evans, one of Britain's finest guitarists, was at the hotel one night and he asked Roy if he would like to use his Gibson ES 175, which he did. In comparison to his own Abbot Victor guitar, the quality of the ES 175 was amazing. Years later he realizes that it was a particularly good one, as none of those he has subsequently played have ever sounded as good.
Roy heard that Ivor Mairants was selling his Gibson Johnny Smith. Ivor had used it during the many years when he was recording and broadcasting with the Mantovani Orchestra. He brought it to Bristol from London and Roy bought it for £400 ($740). I guess by_ today's prices that sounds pretty cheap, but it was about the correct price at that time, and bearing in mind that Ivor Mairants was one of the best known guitar players in Britain and also owned the mecca of guitar emporia in Rathbone Place, London. It wouldn't have been sold at a bargain price.
Roy used that instrument for a number of years, and sometime later he got a very good job playing six nights a week with a twelve-piece dance band at the Locarno Ballroom in Bristol. The Gibson Johnny Smith wasn't really suitable, as they needed to play all types of music from pop to strict tempo dance music and he sold it and replaced with a cherry-red Gibson 335.
There was a wide variety of music played, and six nights a week earned him a fair bit of money. On the opening night Roy was impatient to get started. He was keen to make an impression, which he did, but not in quite the way he had hoped for. The band would materialize in front of the dancers on a revolving stage, but when the bandstand started to move, it started with a jolt - ,which knocked him off balance. This started a domino effect resulting in most of the band members ending tangled up on the floor, making quite a spectacle as they revolved into view of the crowded dance floor.
Roy told me that he had carried an elusive jazz guitar sound in his head for many years, but until he found his 1937 Gibson ES 150, he never quite attained it, The history of this seventy -year-old guitar has been lost in the mists of time. However, it came about that a friend of his, Tom James, buys and sells guitars, and he had seen this old ES 150 advertised on EBay. Tom contacted the advertiser, who lived in New York. The vendor said that his business was house clearance and he had been clearing out the attic of an apartment when he came across this dusty old guitar total forsaken and neglected. (Don't all guitarists dream of such a senario?) Where had it come from? Who had played it during its long lifetime? Oh if only it could talk! Tom expressed interest in buying the instrument and the seller informed Tom that it was in extremely poor condition. He must have known something about guitars because he mentioned that it sounded very nice. Tom won the bid for it and needed to arrange delivery from. New York to England. The seller asked if by chance he lived anywhere near Bourton on the Water in the Cotswolds, because he would be visiting there on holiday the very next week. So one week later and afte only a twenty-minute drive from his home, Tom had the guitar in his hands. Roy subsequently received telephone call from Tom who told him that he had guitar that he thought had the sort of sound Roy wa looking for, so Roy made the journey to Tom's house it Gloucestershire.
When he first set eyes on the guitar he wondered why Tom had bothered to ask him down. It was in appalling condition, with the neck worn down to the bare wood It was cracked in several places, the neck was very rough under the fingers and the frets were dreadful. It was fitted with the original bar pickup, later known as the Charlie Christian pick-up, which was the one without the notch under the second string, but as soon as he picked it up and plugged it in he said "Yes"! It sounded sweet, with tremendous clarity and a certain beautiful mellowness about it. It was exactly the sound that he'd been looking for. Roy told me how difficult it is to describe a sound, but jazz players will know what he means.
Roy traded in some pickups that he had, and with the trade and a cash adjustment, the guitar cost him abou £1,800 ($3,330). Roy then took it to Gordon Wells Dick Knight's son-in-law, who had taken over the manufacturing and repairing of guitars. He worked or Roy's guitar for many hours and repaired the cracks which are still there but are almost invisible. He re-fretted it, refinished the neck and parts of the body and brought it up to standard. After spending a fair amount of money on the instrument it looked more presentable played like a dream and sounded precisely like the sound that Roy had in his head. The guitar is fitted with a string damper made by guitarist Pat Farrand, which is an improvement on the original George Van Eps damper. It takes up less space, making it easier to play in the first position; also the pressure on the strings can be varied by the lock to increase or decrease the degree of damping, and the open strings can still be played and they still sound good.
Roy has his own very individual style and particular harmonic ideas. He uses very full melodic chords which, to my ears, owe more than a passing nod to Barney Kessel, who has always been an inspiration to him. I can imagine how excited Roy was to meet him after listening to his recordings for many years.
The opportunity came about when Maurice Summerfield arranged for Barney to hold jazz clinics in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Roy and Barney immediately established a very good rapport and met up whenever he visited the U.K. Roy found him very witty, charming, positive and philosophical, as well as being inspirational not only in his music but in his outlook on life. Roy not only performed in front of Barney but they also played together and exchanged ideas during late night jam sessions. Barney was totally self-effacing and not above asking questions about certain techniques Roy used in his own playing.
Roy's first CD was "Gentle Guitar," which was recorded in 1979, with Steve Richardson on bass, Bryan Jones (who is an excellent composer) played piano, Eric Bennet on drums, and on some of the tracks, Trevor Emeny plays flute and saxophone. Although many were sold, Roy never received one penny from the distributors who seemed to vanish without trace
Roy recorded a very tasteful CD with Jane Christie, "I've Got it Bad." When Roy plays behind Jane you are immediately aware of the great blend of voice and guitar and because he has such a rich sense of harmony he is never overbearing.
The CD has received wide acclaim, and Roy's tasteful guitar playing is heard to good effect on the album, both as a melodic soloist and a sensitive accompanist. I love his arrangement of "East of the Sun," with its flowing chordal improvisation. This album received a very favorable review by Anthony Cherry, who produces a Sunday radio show for BBC with over two and a half million listeners. This review was also reproduced in Just Jazz Guitar Magazine.
Roy recorded his beautifully arranged "My Foolish Heart" CD in 2006. It's a combination of jazz standards ranging from the McDonough/Kress "Chicken A La Swing" to the beautiful "Round Midnight," "My Romance," and "In A Mellow Tone," to a lovely, relaxed version of the Beatles "Fool on the Hill," and, of course, he also plays his arrangement of "Skylark." The collection of tunes showcases Roy's artistry as a solo guitarist ,with steady support on four of the tracks from the excellent double bass of Zoltan Dekany.
Jane Christie sings the songs the way you want to hear them, putting her own mark on such beautiful standards as "Our love is Here to Stay," Honeysuckle Rose," and "Dindi." The recordings show the musical interplay between the flute like vocal quality and mellow guitar, giving a classy combination of cool jazz and smooth sophistication. The accompaniment is enhanced by the wonderful tenor sax playing of Trevor Emeny and the bass playing of Tom Hill, with Gerry Freeman on drums, who combine to provide the quality of backing that many singers only dream of.
Roy frequently works with jazz singer Dee Daly, who has acquired vast experience over the years performing on TV, and at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club as well as many other top venues throughout Europe. She has a terrific voice and sings in a style very much influenced by Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
Roy was very influenced by the early recordings of Julie London when she recorded her two celebrated albums: "Julie is Her Name," with the legendary accompaniment by Barney Kessel on the first album, and by Howard Roberts on the second. Roy's performance with Lee Gibson is reminiscent of those albums that were released in 1955 and launched the torch singer genre, with Barney Kessel's muted guitar and Ray Leatherwood's subtle bass.
Lee Gibson is a jazz vocal sensation, a nationally and internationally acclaimed singer who has delighted fans with her wonderful voice. She was the featured singer with the "Kings of Swing," and is heard regularly on radio programs throughout Europe.
Roy continues playing, he strives for perfection with the two most important components: melody and swing. He feels extremely fortunate in being able to play the sort of music he loves to play with the fine musicians he works with. What more can a jazz guitarist ask for! Roy's two most recently recorded CDs ,"I've Got it Bad" with Jane Christie and "My Foolish Heart," have been very favorably reviewed by Allen Johnson Jr. in the May 2007 issue (number 51) of Just Jazz Guitar Magazine.
Roy's CDs can be obtained from his on line shop