John Williams: The body eclectic

The classical guitarist John Williams loves mixing his genres. So if he's called a jack of all trades, he's not going to fret about it, discovers James McNair
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The Independent Culture

I first knew it as the theme music for the old country-pursuits programme presented by Jack Hargreaves, Out of Town. For John Williams, however, it's "Recuer-dos de la Alhambra", a 19th-century composition by Francisco Tarrega, with majestic minor-to-major shifts. Pleasingly, Williams is honouring my request for a one-to-one performance of the tune today, even slowing its tremolo-effect melody so that I can see precisely how it is executed. "Do you play?" he asks, smiling to reveal good teeth to match his good skin. I do play, but it doesn't seem quite the right moment to air my rickety take on "Greensleeves".

Williams, 63, is one of Britain's most recognisable classical musicians. Long synonymous with Stanley Myers's "Cavatina", as featured in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, he even had a No 13 hit with it in 1979. During a power cut in London in 1978, Williams played "Cavatina" to his erstwhile teacher and "father of the modern classical guitar", Andres Segovia, and the Spaniard pronounced it "charming". Talk to Williams for any length of time, however, and you soon discover that his teacher wasn't always so gracious.

"I remember Segovia calling me to the Piccadilly Hotel when I was a teenager," he says. "He was furious with me because I didn't want to enter the Geneva International Music Competition. Basically, he'd set it up for me to win. But my father didn't believe in competitions, and neither did I. I didn't want to be seen as some kind of child-prodigy circus act, and when I told him that I was going to study composition and theory at the Royal College of Music, that made it worse, because he thought that his authority was being usurped by my dad, who was also a very good guitarist. He said, 'John, I have to tell you that I am no longer your teacher. And when you are older, I will tell you why I detest your father.'"

Williams and I are at his home in Belsize Park, north London. Bright and spacious, it betrays the presence of a culture vulture or two. There are colourful modern-art paintings, African instruments and ornaments and textiles from South America. Copiously stacked bookshelves dominate two walls, and there are copies of Private Eye and The New Yorker on the coffee table. My host wears khaki combats, and a casual black top and slippers, his outfit chiming with his reputation for informality. Warm and enthusiastic, he's loquacious in a pleasantly discursive way.

The guitar he currently favours was made in New Zealand by the luthier Greg Smallman. It's a surprisingly heavy and remarkably resonant instrument, and with a price-tag of about £8,000, it was a snip compared with, say, your typical Stradivarius violin. While the guitar is insured, the dextrous fingers that caress it are not. "I like to do things around the house with saws," Williams explains, slightly worryingly, "and insurance would probably exclude that, because it's potentially dangerous. I should get my hands covered against car accidents and stuff, but I'm a bit fatalistic like that."

Ostensibly, we've met to discuss The Ultimate Guitar Collection, a new compilation of his work encompassing everything from Fauré's "Pavane" to Charlie Byrd's "Swing 59". Williams being Williams, however, he has a number of other projects afoot. The new duo he has formed with the multi-instrumentalist Richard Harvey, for example, will tackle music by the 19th-century Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan, Chinese folk music, music from Madagascar and more. He also has a one-off performance with the LSO coming up in November, and his guitar trio with Patrick Bebey and John Etheridge is still very much extant, too.

"People go, 'Oh God! JW thinks he's a jack-of-all-trades'," he says of his eclecticism, "but I don't know what else to do. I'm just responding to music. I mean, you don't only go to see comedy films, do you? You go and see Fahrenheit 9/11 one week and a comedy drama the next."

Williams's father, Len, was a self-educated Cockney, and a jazz and classical guitarist. He founded the Spanish Guitar Centre that's still situated on Cranbourn Street, London WC2 - and a woolly monkey sanctuary in Cornwall. A job with the music retailer, John Alvey Turner, took Len to Melbourne, Australia, where he parted from his first wife, Phyllis. He met his second, part-Chinese wife, Melaan, at a jazz club, and in 1941 the couple had their first and only child, John.

Early exposure to his father's stack of Django Reinhardt 78s might go some way towards explaining Williams's ongoing fascination with rootsy, indigenous music. Gypsy jazz, the Manouche guitar style, Cuban salsa and West African pop-guitar all push my host's buttons. Indeed, the mere mention of Reinhardt's name prompts a thorough if fruitless search for a DVD about Django's violinist foil, Stephane Grappelli. Williams explains that it has the only existing footage of Django, and is keen for me to note its title so that I can track down a copy for myself.

The other guitarist who dominated Len Williams's record collection was one Andres Segovia. Imagine Len's pride, then, when the 15-year-old son he had taught classical guitar scored a place on the summer course Segovia was anchoring at the Academia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy.

Williams says that he was too young to fully appreciate Siena culturally, but he does have fond memories of the Palio, the annual medieval-style horse race in the town's main square. It was also in Siena that he acquired a taste for South American sounds, he and his fellow student Alirio Diaz playing Paraguayan music alongside Siena's fountains late into the balmy night.

What, though, of his classes with the maestro? "I'd learnt guitar from my father," he says. "I didn't learn a lot from Segovia. People think that's disrespectful, and that Segovia was the great idol, but young players are not going to gain anything from going to pray at his altar; they can learn just as much from listening to Eric Clapton or Leo Kottke.

"In his own way, Segovia wanted to help me and was very generous. He had childlike enthusiasm - but also an enormous ego. He taught by example, but didn't really encourage or enlighten his students. His method was for you to copy him, and that was a reflection of his personality."

Was it his father's "non-purist" musical background that led Segovia to frown on Len? "Maybe, but there were other factors. Segovia, like my father, was a self-made man from humble origins. But, unlike my father, he pretended to be this urbane sophisticate. The impolite way of saying it would be that he tried to cover up his background."

Asked which of the tunes on The Ultimate Collection not originally composed for the guitar were most challenging to arrange and record, Williams plumps for Scott Joplin's classic ragtime piece "The Entertainer". "It's incredibly difficult to play solo," he says, "and a good example of the kind of piece that I won't always have right under my fingers as a staple of my repertoire. I had to work it up for the recording."

And what about pieces he would love to have arranged for guitar but has been unable to? "It happens all the time, but with experience you know just by listening to it whether or not something is feasible. The Barber Adagio, for example - wouldn't it be great to play that on guitar? But it's clearly not going to work, because of its long, sustained notes. Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No 1 would probably work well for guitar and orchestra, but why do it? It's so beautiful on piano."

Having sold more than 500,000 albums in the UK, Williams is one of our most successful classical musicians. Thanks to the kind of eclecticism alluded to above, moreover, BBC Music Magazine has called him "the world's most accomplished all-round guitarist". One of his less fêted crossover ventures was Sky, the rock-classical supergroup he formed in the late Seventies with the percussionist Tristan Fry and the session bassist Herbie Flowers, among others. For many critics, the band's less-than-hip Christian names were just the start of the problem.

"Oh, no! Not Sky again!" Williams smiles. "Maybe this is a good time for me to go and have a wee." But he gamely stays put, and rightly points out that Sky was amazingly successful. "It was friendly and welcoming," he says, "and I think it did go some way towards making classical music more accessible. I remember Francis Monkman playing Soler's "Fandango" on the harpsichord to a crowd of young rock fans at the Glasgow Apollo, and they went wild."

But hold on, John. Didn't Sky play safe rock music sanctioned by classical music-loving parents who were scared their kids might run amok while listening to the Sex Pistols or Jimi Hendrix? "God, I hope it didn't stop kids listening to Jimi Hendrix," he laughs. "That would be an awful thing to have on my conscience.

"You could take the piss out of Sky," he adds, conspiratorially, "and in the 1980s there was a BBC Radio 4 comedy show called Son of Cliché, which did just that very well. I still have a tape of it. Would you like to hear it?" He disappears upstairs, soon returning with a battered-looking cassette.

The Son of Cliché sketch has talk of Sky doing Baroque takes on songs by KC & the Sunshine Band, and an actor playing Williams concedes that it was "tremendously difficult" to devise a genre that would alienate rock and classical fans. That Williams was willing to play me the skit says much about his self-effacing appeal.

'The Ultimate Guitar Collection' is out on Sony. John Williams and Richard Harvey play Beverley Minster Parish Church tomorrow; Gala, Durham, on Wednesday; and Leeds Parish Church on Thursday