Edinburgh Festival: Jazz: A maestro in full bloom

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The Independent Culture
GUITAR LEGENDS come in various shapes and sizes. Some are out shopping on Wilshire Boulevard, some are just plain dead, and Herbie Flowers is making regular visits to the Edinburgh Festival with a routine that's part nostalgia trip, part stand-up.

His drily hilarious patter is reminiscent of the late Ronnie Scott. Herbie Flowers is 60 and still playing. "Some musos work at it but I play music."

He has just been recording a new album with George Harrison whose guitar collection is being renovated by a specialist. When Flowers opened his terminally wrecked guitar case the restorer fell upon the battered instrument with a wild cry: "A November 1959!" Flowers claims that his bass was virtually a prototype, so old it didn't even have the "Fender" transfer on the neck. "They say it's worth a lot of money but that's a load of rubbish."

He began his musical career as an RAF bandsman playing the tuba and the double bass. This nurtured his ability to sight-read anything thrown at him and later made him an ideal session musician - "In those days if they wanted 30 minutes of music you really recorded it in 30 minutes".

He earned what he regarded as a fortune playing for artists who were paid the earth. He illustrates his anecdotes with illustrative touches across the strings to form a running game of Name that Riff: "Thank You Very Much" (for The Scaffold), "It's Not Unusual" and "Delilah" (for Tom Jones), "Where do You Go to My Lovely" (for Peter Sarstedt) - "That song had 37 verses when he came in the studio".

The Scaffold job earned him pounds 6; David Bowie's "Major Tom" earned him a princely pounds 9. He was later to tour the States playing bass for Bowie. "I played for him, not with him - there's a difference".

As multi-track recording was introduced, journeymen musicians such as Flowers were used increasingly to replace the weak elements in famous groups. Flowers remembers standing behind the curtains at the Royal Variety Performance while the band out front mimed to his playing. "It's like conjuring really."

It becomes clear that Flowers is a pop musician by trade but a jazzman by nature - "sensible music" as he puts it. He still plays bass guitar with the same rubber-fingered facility and makes the Fender resonate like a Strad, but you can see that the two-note riff is way beneath him.

Best story of the night (night? what am I saying? It was lunch time; it just seemed like three in the morning) was his recollection of how he and Mick Ronson woke up this bloke who was lying asleep on the sofa. He wanted an A then an E then an A then an E. Flowers recreates exactly his sublime performance on "Perfect Day" and shrugs. "Two notes! It's supposed to be legendary but it's bollocks."

Herbie Flowers, Graffiti, 1.30pm-2.30pm, to 31 August.

Louise Levene