If jazz instruments were ascribed a gender, then the tenor saxophone would probably be male. Gruff-voiced, its register typically echoes the pitch of male conversation. Though it can be a sensitive new man sometimes, as when Lester Young backs Billie Holiday, the history of the instrument, from Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane onwards, has tended to veer - like the course of a night out with the boys - between the extremes of male behaviour: from macho, bar-crawling blues to maudlin, drink-sodden ballads. With a few notable exceptions, like the veteran British saxophonist Kathy Stobart, relatively few female players have made a go of the tenor, preferring, like the superb US saxist Jane Ira Bloom and the Canadian Jane Bunnett, to concentrate on the smaller soprano. Barbara Thompson, though, who begins a British tour with her new band, Sans Frontiers, on Tuesday, is not only a tenor sax specialist; she also has one of the strongest sounds around.
'It's a deep instrument,' says Thompson. 'It's very tough, very bluesy and very expressive.' While studying clarinet at the Royal College of Music, Thompson, now 48, discovered jazz and bought an alto sax. 'I played it extremely badly, but found I had an ear for improvising.' She then graduated to the baritone - 'because there was no competition' - supporting The Who with the all-female band She-Trinity. After joining the New Jazz Orchestra, where she met her husband, the drummer Jon Hiseman, Thompson took up the tenor, although it was a couple of years before she got to play a solo with them. 'I find it a harder instrument to play technically because it's heavier, but expressively it's easier. You can get that wonderful breathy sound on the tenor, like Coleman Hawkins or Stan Getz. The alto is prettier but if you play the right sort of thing on the tenor, nothing can beat it.'
Thompson is used to being approached by young female saxophonists looking for advice and inspiration. 'At a workshop at Leeds College of Music recently, I had three girls wanting to kidnap me. They were saying how they were prejudiced against, and how hard it was to be taken seriously. It's tough for them because they end up playing in awful joints and because they're young and nice-looking they get taken advantage of. They've got to prove they are serious. I said you have to create your own environment: if you get a good bassist, you'll find a good drummer who wants to play with him or her.'
Sans Frontiers is a departure from Thompson's usual fusion band, Paraphernalia. An all-acoustic sextet, it brings together some of Europe's foremost improvisors. As well as Thompson on sax and Hiseman on drums, there's the Italian, Enrico Rava, on trumpet, Polish violinist Michael Urbaniak, Bo Stieff from Denmark on double bass and Dutchman Jasper van't Hof on piano. Formed to celebrate the European Union Year of 1992, the concept of Sans Frontiers may still be ahead of its time: it's a chance to catch the spectacular playing of Thompson, however, and this is as good a moment as any.
Barbara Thompson's Sans Frontiers open their British tour at the Regal Arts Centre, Worksop on Tuesday 8 December and continue until the 17th. Their London date, on 14 December, is a benefit for Friends of the Earth at Union Chapel (071 344 4444).
'I arrived on the job in what I considered to be a perfect state of equilibrium, half man and half alcohol.' Eddie Condon's aphorism from 'We Called it Music', is one of many amusing anecdotes collected in Miles Kington's The Jazz Anthology. Kington has avoided an exhaustive survey of the field in favour of concentrating on some classics of those most unreliable of memoirs, the jazz autobiography. 'It was the musicians who appealed to me rather than the critics,' Kington says. 'Whitney Balliett (the dean of New York jazz critics) began to seem rather precious when Jimmy Giuffre's clarinet playing was described as mauve in one essay and deep pink in another. I kept finding I was arguing for people who should be better known.' Accordingly, Kington plumps for Hampton Rawes' chilling junkie's memoirs, Raise Up Off Of Me, rather than Miles Davis or Art Pepper. He also uses extended excerpts from the works of failed trombonist but successful writer Mike Zwerin and Scottish acoustical architect and clarinet player Sandy Brown, as well as transcripts from a series of radio talks by the poet-pianist Roy Fisher. This reliance on old faithfuls is so successful that the reader begins to crave for the works themselves. Happily for the anthologist, as Kington slyly told the audience for a reading at Waterstones in Bath last Monday, they are all out of print.
The Jazz Anthology by Miles Kington is published by Collins pounds 17.50. Kington is on next Sunday's Radio 2 Arts Programme (10.00-midnight) presenting BBC archive interviews with British jazz musicians.
Given a market dominated by bland US jazz / fusion, the best albums of the year have tended to be by artists who either continue a proven expertise, cultivate eccentricity, or remain satisfied with sincere recreations of a historical style. David Murray's latest, Fast Life (DIW), holds few surprises but yet again demonstrates his absolute command of the tough and tender tenor sax idioms, with a toe-to-toe battle with Branford Marsalis among the highlights. Joe Henderson's Billy Strayhorn tribute, Lush Life (Veuve), confirms his status as the most expressive of all contemporary saxophonists. Pianist Don Pullen's African / Brazilian set, Kele Mou Bana (Blue Note) succeeds in combining his deliberately ham-fisted style with some percussive grooves.
Among the eccentrics, Charlie Haden's Haunted Heart (Verve) is an attempt at a soundtrack for an imaginary film noir, setting standards and original Raymond Chandler-inspired themes alongside the recorded voices of Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern and Billie Holiday. Kip Hanrahan's Exotica (American Clave), with Pullen and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce among the band, includes ponderings on global and personal politics set to a rhythmic background drawn from Latin and R & B.
Among the neo-traditionalists, a tribute to Charlie Parker, Continuum, by the Charlie Watts Quintet with Strings, recorded at the opening of Ronnie Scott's Birmingham club last year, is a wonderful slice of retro-bebop, with saxophonist Peter King in sparkling form. Roy Hargrove's The Vibe (Novus) is quality late-bop from a trumpeter born in 1969.
For jazz-related music that even your mum, dad, spouse or children can listen to without feeling much pain, Courtney Pine's excellent In the Eyes of Creation and the re-mixed version of his reggae album, Closer to Home (both Island) are recommended. Phil Upchurch's Whatever Happened to the Blues (Go Jazz) is a funky journey across a range of black musical styles, with contributions from Pops and Mavis Staples, Oscar Brown Jr and others. Although their album won't be out until early next year, US3's single, 'Cantaloop' (Blue Note), is the jazziest jazz / rap I've come across so far, with samples of Herbie Hancock and real trumpet from Gerard Presencer.
As usual it's hard to beat the CD re-releases for quality and value. The monumental triple CD set, A John Coltrane Retrospective: The Impulse Years (Impulse) leaves the field. Other impressive re-releases include no less than ten re- dscovered Sun Ra albums from the Martian maestro's own Saturn label, re-issued on Evidence; all are good, with Holiday for Soul Dance particularly fine. Ben Webster's The Verve Years (Verve) includes some of the great Ellingtonian's most affecting ballads like 'Chelsea Bridge' and 'Sophisticated Lady'. Among the vocalists and rap-precursors, Gil Scott Heron's great Winter in America set from 1973 is once again available on Strata East and The Last Poets have been disinterred by the coupling of Oh My People and Delights of the Garden on one Mau Mau / Demon Records CD. Finally, for a truly sloppy Christmas soundtrack, Mel Torme's Christmas Songs - a new recording on Telarc Jazz - contains enough sugar for several puddings.