OBITUARY : Mick Pyne

"Mick Pyne's musical sympathies are as wide as his talents are remarkable." Charles Fox was introducing one of several Radio 3 broadcasts when Pyne improvised continuously at the piano for half an hour. The resulting music probed every corner of jazz piano from Fats Waller and James P. Johnson to Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.

Pyne loved every kind of jazz and consequently became an expert on all of it. It was no problem to him, in fact a natural move, to leave the avant-garde quartet of Tubby Hayes for the mainstream band of Humphrey Lyttelton. Although he was a perfect musical chameleon in the way in which he could evoke any style or period of jazz, he was no copyist and, as his astonishing solo performances demonstrated, the galaxy of his ideas was as wide-ranging as those of any of the American stars. Any of his record albums will demonstrate that this is not an exaggeration.

He was the pianist I chose for a series of broadcast jam sessions that I organised for BBC Radio Merseyside under the leadership of Humphrey Lyttelton during the Seventies and Eighties - Pyne and his best friend, the equally talented bassist Dave Green, were automatic choices. Both were "modern" players not just able to play it but sincere about working with the music of an earlier age. He introduced one of his most impressive compositions and performances, a piece which roamed from stride piano to post-bebop, called "James" in honour of the piano mentor James P. Johnson, at one of our concerts.

His friendship with Green led to the best rhythm section partnership in British jazz. But their interests away from jazz coincided, too. Both were avid collectors of historic events on tape (I was the third member of our triumvirate in this). Many was the call that I received from him in London for a videotape when a much-sought Laurel and Hardy or Will Hay film was shown on television only in the North, where I live.

Pyne worked for Humphrey Lyttelton's band from 1973 to 1985 and Green was with Lyttelton from 1965 to 1983. Lyttelton has a strong, most charismatic personality and not unnaturally many of his interests rubbed off on his two sidemen, amongst them birdwatching and calligraphy. Lyttelton recalls taking Pyne to the RSPB reserve at Loch Leven to watch the geese: "It began with this cacophonous noise like a Paris traffic jam. Then suddenly the sky was darkened as thousands of Greylags and Pink-Feet came in to feed. Mick threw up his hands in mock horror and stumbled away shouting 'It's Hitchcock! It's Hitchcock!' "

The Lyttelton band during Pyne's stay was full of characters. "Mick was a very good cartoonist and a devastating mimic," Lyttelton remembers. "When we were travelling he and my alto player Bruce Turner would do a complete version of Pinter's The Caretaker, inventing the lines as they went along when they forgot them." The Pyne and Green families became intertwined and their children often exchanged houses to stay for the night.

Like his brother Chris (the ex-Lyttelton trombonist who died last month), Mick Pyne was taught piano from the age of three. He also learnt the violin and when he was 13 took up the cornet. In 1961 he moved to London, where he worked with Tony Kinsey's trio and quartet for two years. He heard that there was a job going in the blues singer Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. When Pyne found out that it was for a tenor saxophonist, he taught himself to play the instrument in two weeks. He stayed with Korner until 1965, freelancing in London as a pianist. The American tenor saxophonist Stan Getz heard Pyne in a club and was so impressed that he took Pyne as his pianist on a tour of Sweden and Denmark in 1964.

Lyttelton gave Pyne plenty of exposure on his records, recording an impressive set of duets with the trumpeter in 1974 and having him play cornet in the Lyttelton Baroque Jazz Ensemble. Pyne also played cornet and piano on a 1977 album under his own name where he created three extraordinary duets with himself. A 1987 album by his quartet with the tenor saxophonist Don Weller showed the more contemporary side of his playing, but his ultimate achievement was a 1988 double album of piano solos, The Artistry of Mick Pyne. "I thought his version of 'Over the Rainbow' was stunning, so beautifully worked out and arranged," Lyttelton said. "When I saw him next I asked him about it and he told me that it wasn't arranged, but completely improvised on the spot."

Of the album Ronnie Scott said, "At a time when the media is busy ludicrously over-praising a sort of soulless pseudo-jazz and having you believe it's the trendy new thing, take comfort and warm your ears - there are musicians like Mick Pyne."

For a time Pyne played for Keith Smith's Hefty Jazz as well as Lyttelton, but when being in both bands at once became too much in 1985, he decided to stay with Smith, and became a vital part in the band's package shows of Broadway musical songs played in the jazz style. Here he worked frequently with the gifted singer Elaine Delmar. He also discovered time to work for Georgie Fame and for the jazz groups led by the drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. He recorded with many American musicians including Jon Eardley, Cecil Payne and Philly Jo Jones.

On the night of his death he had played for Hefty Jazz and Elaine Delmar at Great Yarmouth. During their drive back to London afterwards, he and the band's bassist Harvey Weston had laughed for most of the way at the antics of the musicians on a tape of Spike Jones's recordings.

Michael John Pyne, pianist and cornettist: born Thornton Dale 2 September 1940; died London 24 May 1995.

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