Barbara Thompson obituary

Formidably talented saxophonist at the heart of many jazz line-ups who blazed a trail for female instrumentalists

The early 21st century’s fast-moving story of genre-fluid, culture-crossing musical innovation nowadays takes for granted the contributions of a growing cohort of powerful female saxophone players. But not so long ago, a woman was a startling rarity on an instrument whose evolution in modern music, from the 1920s onwards, had been almost exclusively driven by men. Barbara Thompson, who has died aged 77 of Parkinson’s disease, was one of the most inspirational exceptions.

Thompson’s formidable instrumental skills encompassed a tenor-saxophone voice that could range from the sensuous lyricism of Coleman Hawkins or Stan Getz to the power of John Coltrane’s turbulent soliloquies; nimble bebop fluency on the alto sax; and a dulcet-to-abstract tonal range on the flute. As a prolific composer, she wrote classical concertos and choral works, TV themes (including A Touch of Frost) and settings for poetry. She made friends and fans all over Europe (particularly in Germany), and across generations. The composer and trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, as part of her Polyhymnia project for International Women’s Day in 2015, composed a suite simply entitled Barbara in tribute to her formidable elder’s work and influence.

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