Obituary: John Marshall 

    In on the ground floor of British progressive music in the 60s, Marshall played with such luminaries as Nucleus, Jack Bruce and Soft Machine

    John Marshall at Montreux in 1970. Photo by Harry Monty

    The virtuoso drummer and percussionist John Marshall has passed away aged 82, having recorded his last studio album Other Doors (Moonjune, 2023) in July and August 2022. His involvement in jazz began during his time as a student at Reading University where he was studying for a degree in psychology. He took drum lessons with several teachers including Allan Ganley and Philly Joe Jones.

    His first gigs were with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated followed by Graham Collier’s group where he played on Deep Dark Blue Centre (Deram, 1967) and the much vaunted Down Another Road (Fontana, 1969). Marshall, along with his fellow bandmate Karl Jenkins, then teamed up with trumpeter Ian Carr to form the iconoclastic jazz-rock band Nucleus.

    Marshall appeared on Nucleus’s first three albums – Elastic Rock (Vertigo, 1970), We’ll Talk About It Later (Vertigo, 1971) and Solar Plexus (Vertigo, 1971). According to Carr in his book Music Outside (Latimer New Dimensions, 1973), he was “the obvious choice on drums.” He went on: “He had developed in both jazz and rock traditions. . . He had also deputised for Trevor Tomkins with the Rendell-Carr Quintet. In John Marshall, we were very lucky to have a drummer who plays and thinks compositionally. In other words, he is always aware of the total sound of the group and has a thorough understanding of the various processes of building up and releasing tension. Also, John is one of the very few drummers who really understand rock music and can handle a very slow pulse.”

    Nucleus famously went on to win first place at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1970 and also played at the Newport Jazz Festival. Marshall left Nucleus in 1972 to join Jack Bruce’s band with whom he had already recorded on the bassist’s first major solo album Songs For A Tailor (Polydor, 1969) and later on Harmony Row (Polydor, 1971).

    During this period he played and recorded with a host of first-division band leaders and on some important recordings by Mike Gibbs (his first three albums), Mike Westbrook – Marching Song (Deram, 1969), Metropolis (RCA Neon, 1971) – and John Surman – Conflagration (Dawn, 1971) and Morning Glory (Island, 1973) on which he played a memorable role.

    At Jenkins’ suggestion, Marshall joined Soft Machine, appearing on the band’s album Fifth (CBS, 1972); he remained with the Softs until their demise. He rejoined the band during its revivification under various names such as Soft Machine Legacy and most recently under its original moniker.

    On Soft Machine Six (CBS, 1973) his five-minute solo on 5 from 13 (for Phil Seamen with Love & Thanks) was a masterclass in controlled precision and carefully crafted virtuosity. Six was voted LP of the year in the 1973 Melody Maker jazz polls and also in 1973 and again in 1974 he was voted top British drummer in those same Melody Maker jazz polls.

    Marshall was a highly respected drummer internationally and played on albums by Charlie Mariano, Eberhard Weber’s Colours, Volker Kriegel, Gil Evans, Jasper van’t Hof and many others. He appeared on over 24 albums by Soft Machine, Soft Works (another interim iteration of the band) and Soft Machine Legacy.

    In the 80s he rejoined Nucleus and was heard on Live At The Theaterhaus (Mood, 1985) and Ian Carr’s Old Heartland (MMC, 1988). In the 90s Marshall played on more Surman albums including The Surman Warren Brass Project (ECM, 1993) and Stranger Than Fiction (ECM, 1994). Curiously, the only occasion on which the drummer shared a record’s top billing was on the album Bodywork (33 Records, 1988) under the collective name of Marshall, (Theo) Travis and (Mark) Wood.

    His contribution to jazz was immense and his playing instantly recognisable and inimitable. His last gig was with Soft Machine at Ronnie Scott’s on 20 June 2022 and after the final recording with the band later that year he officially retired from playing. Sadly, his retirement was all-too short but he leaves a legacy of recorded work that qualitatively rivals that of any musician on the planet. A master musician, he will be sorely missed.

    John Stanley Marshall: 28 August 1941 – 16 September 2023. A 1988 Drummerworld interview contains further insights into Marshall’s life and work.