Barbara Thompson: Playing Against Time

BBC 4 Documentary, Duration: 1 hour, 20 minutes |

For over forty years, virtuoso saxophonist/composer Barbara Thompson has been Britain’s most brilliant and best-known female jazz musician. Her original compositions and soaring flute and saxophone improvisations have attracted large and enthusiastic audiences beyond the confines of contemporary jazz. She has released many albums and toured regularly throughout Europe, mainly with her own band Paraphernalia. But in 1997, the same year that she received an MBE for her services to music, disaster struck. Barbara was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Playing Against Time is a feature-length documentary about Barbara’s inspiring and creative struggle with this disease, whose physical effects are particularly cruel, and visible, in the life of an improvising jazz musician.

Funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust, the film has been made at intervals across a period of five years, beginning in 2005 with Barbara still performing with Paraphernalia on a ‘farewell’ European tour. After which, apart from one remarkable filmed appearance with her band at Ronnie Scott’s in 2008, Barbara has put most of her carefully-managed energies into writing music for others to play.

Encouraged and supported by her husband, the virtuoso jazz-rock drummer Jon Hiseman, the film follows her progress during this period, interweaving medical and musical sequences as she struggles to sustain an active musical life, while seeking out and investigating new drugs and treatments for a disease for which a cure seems tantalisingly close. The film has been made with the full co-operation and participation of Barbara and Jon, both of whom talk about their experience with eloquence and humour. We also see several sequences showing Barbara at the height of her powers from Jazz, Rock and Marriage, an earlier documentary about Barbara and her husband, made by Mike Dibb for BBC2 in 1979.

Playing Against Time is an unusual and enlightening exploration of Parkinson’s disease as seen through music, and about the increasing importance of music and rhythm in our neurological understanding and treatment of this and other degenerative diseases. The film includes important medical contributions from Professor Ray Chaudhuri, Barbara’s specialist consultant and a major authority on the disease, and Professor Tip Aziz, the UK’s foremost authority on deep brain stimulation.

Barbara’s compositions range across the jazz/classical divide, from orchestral to choral and chamber groups, from the serious to the playful. In this film we watch her as she moves with ease from playing along with fellow Parkinson’s sufferers singing bitterly humorous songs about their condition, to her working with the virtuoso tuba player James Gourlay on a challenging new Tuba Duo and Concerto, to workshopping one of her dynamic saxophone quartets with students from the Royal Northern College of Music.

Early in 2010, after long delays caused by NHS funding problems, Barbara was at last fitted with a new system of intravenous drug delivery which has enabled her to control her condition to the extent of allowing her (at least for a while) to return to the European stage. Playing Against Time thus ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with Barbara appearing with her husband Jon’s veteran rock band Colosseum in an open air venue in Vienna, where she triumphantly belts out saxophone solos to a hugely enthusiastic audience.

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