“I love jazz but I don’t call myself a jazz man. I call myself a musician and I think I’ve proved I can cover quite a few bases”, declares London guitarist Tony Rémy. Rémy’s versatility is certainly notable for as well as being a highly regarded jazz musician he has played with rock star Annie Lennox, with funk legend Pee Wee Ellis and in Jack Bruce’s blues band. And his last album, Sweet Little Mystery, was a collaboration with vocalist Sarah Jane Morris on which they interpret the songs of singer-songwriter John Martyn.
Rémy believes that working in so many different contexts has enhanced his jazz playing. “Yeah, because every music you get involved in influences how you play”, he says. “Like you learn different types of chords you can put into your playing and you learn about where not to play”.
‘I consider Steve [Williamson] to be one of my big teachers. He was ahead of his time. When M-Base was coming out he was totally on top of that’
Sweet Little Mystery includes versions of some of John Martyn’s greatest songs, including Solid Air, May You Never and Head And Heart. “I never owned any of his records”, admits Rémy. “It was only when I started to research which songs to do with Sarah that I started to get into him and thought, ‘Wow, this is good!’ I’ve listened to a million YouTube clips of him and he never played a song the same way twice so he was basically a jazzer. He had an improvising head on him”.
Interpreting music by someone who was such a distinctive guitarist himself must have been challenging for Rémy. “Well, I had to get my head around not trying to be John Martyn and just being myself. He used some weird tunings so I reinterpreted his chords in standard tuning and added my own jazzy and bluesy influences”.
Rémy has been prominent on the British jazz scene since the late 1980s. He identifies saxophonist Steve Williamson, with whom he played in That Fuss Was Us, as a crucial early inspiration. “I consider Steve to be one of my big teachers. He was ahead of his time. When M-Base was coming out he was totally on top of that and when I started learning all this stuff it took me on another journey musically. Instead of just learning licks and going through the motions it opened my mind up to total improvisation where sometimes one tune lasts 25 minutes and the guitar solo 15 minutes so you had to be creative”.
Rémy diversified early in the millennium when he joined Annie Lennox’s band. “I was recommended to audition. So I went and she was there and we started talking about kids and dogs and how I grew up and at the end she said ‘Do you want to play anything?’ And I said ‘No, not really. But I assure you I can play’. And she said ‘I know you can’. So we didn’t actually play anything – and then three minutes later I got the phone call from the musical director and he said ‘You’re in the band!’”
Touring with Lennox Rémy saw a side of life that few jazz musicians experience. “I can’t lie”, he smiles, “it feels fantastic to fly first class and hang out in top hotels with good wages. But you realise that at some point you have to come back to Ryanair so it doesn’t go to my head!”
Rémy’s admiration for Lennox is striking. “She was exceptional. So generous and warm and a true professional delivering at 500% every night. I can’t speak highly enough about her”.
In South Africa with Lennox, Rémy met Nelson Mandela. “That was fantastic. They do this concert called 46664, which was Mandela’s prison number, and we were part of [the 2005 concert] and we met him”.
So what insights into the geopolitical crises of our times did the two men share? “He just said ‘Hello’. We didn’t discuss politics but it was great to be able to shake his hand!”
With Lennox also Rémy played at the Bob Geldof-organised Live 8 charity concert in 2005. “That was a big highlight of my career. To step forward in front of a hundred thousand people and play gives you another type of confidence. Sometimes I look at the video and think ‘Wow! I look like a rock star!’ It’s like your childhood fantasy”.
Of Herbie Hancock: ‘We just sat around the piano and worked out the idea for the track and he’d play something and I’d play along and we just interacted. It was such a creative day and he made it so easy’
Lennox and Rémy both guested on Hush, Hush, Hush on Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album Possibilities. “Herbie Hancock is one of my idols and when I got the call I was actually scared. ‘There’s going to be reams of sheet music and I’m going to have to sight read it!’ But he was so cool. We just sat around the piano and worked out the idea for the track and he’d play something and I’d play along and we just interacted. It was such a creative day and he made it so easy”.
Rémy also played with Jack Bruce & His Big Blues Band for many years, until Bruce’s death in 2014. “Jack gets his energy from being around good musicians so I got a free rein to just express myself. Usually in bands they’re telling guitarists ‘Can you turn down?’ but he loves guitar so he’s saying ‘Turn up, Tony, turn up!’”
Another of Rémy’s key musical relationships has been with former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. “He’s not just a funk man: he’s a jazz man, an arranger and a musical director and being in that band for more than 25 years I’ve seen how he puts things together. Some musical directors bark at people but he explains things in a gentle way and this amazing music comes out of that. And why I was able to take on the John Martyn project was because I’ve learnt from Pee Wee how to put things together and what instruments work with other instruments and the best combinations”.