A Memory of Don Rendell – 04/03/1926-20/10/2015

Playing the tenor saxophone, Don Rendell (who died on 20 October aged 89) cut a distinctive figure, with his tall, slightly hunched stance, the mouthpiece forward in his mouth, and an expression that suggested the reed contained something acidic, like a segment of lemon. But there was nothing acidic about his playing or his tone — he always hinted at the singing melancholy of Lester Young, even when he later fell under the spell of Coltrane — and on clarinet, soprano saxophone and flute, he was his own man, immediately recognisable and distinctive. From a musical family, Don moved from the Southwest to London as a child, but was then evacuated to Wiltshire, during WW2.

By his late teens he was back in London and playing professionally, notching up the hours with Frank Weir and Oscar Rabin, before stepping firmly into the spotlight in 1950 with the John Dankworth Seven. His strong tenor lines were a counterpart to Dankworth’s more baroque inventions on alto, and he remained in the band for three years. Don was a natural choice for touring Americans, working with both Billie Holiday on her UK tour in 1954 and the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1956. His own groups, often called the ‘Roaring Band’, involved a variety of personnel, including Graham Bond on alto.

The Rendell-Carr Quintet, which Don co-led with trumpeter/author Ian Carr, became one of the 1960s’ most inventive and original groups, with Don contributing several compositions, of which ‘Tan Samfu’ on Dusk Fire is the highlight, though Don’s flute on ‘Ruth’ and his clarinet on ‘Spooks’ perfectly match improviser and composer. After the quintet broke up, Don led his own bands for the best part of 40 years (often sharing the frontline with Stan Robinson) and kept up with his old Rendell-Carr colleagues in Michael Garrick’s sextet. He became a much-loved teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall.

My own memory of sharing a bandstand with Don is indelible. In 1989 he depped in the big band at the Ritz Hotel, in which I played bass. Don took a breathtaking solo on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, going way beyond the normal few choruses, and before we knew it, he had a crowd round the stand egging him on. It was the only occasion there that a soloist’s sheer talent transformed a crowd of dancers into enthusiastic fans.

– Alyn Shipton

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