Saturday 21 May 2016

Task 39: Learn to play the saxophone riff from Al Stewart's Year of the Cat

I first described this challenge in a blog back in July 2015, when I explained why I'd decided to include it on my sixtyat60 list. At that time I had a small coterie of chaps questioning whether I'd be able to do it. One such chap had just seen Al Stewart in concert at the Royal Albert Hall and wrote to another chap: 'Having seen the contortions the sax player went through playing that solo, I wish her luck and your money is safe’. 'Gentlemen' I said in my blog,' The gauntlet has been well and truly laid down.' 

I may have appeared feisty and upbeat in my response, but in truth I knew that this was likely to be the toughest challenge in my whole sixtyat60 list. Why?  Firstly, I've never played a wind instrument before and have had to learn every technique from scratch. Secondly, the riff that I'd chosen to play is quite a tricky one - the notes are very high and the sax player needs a lot of confidence to really hit them. I'd set myself a fat task indeed.

I started attending for weekly saxophone lessons with Sarah. Oh my word, what a different experience it 's been to my piano lessons during childhood, when I used to wish bubonic plague on myself every Tuesday morning to avoid being torn off a strip by Miss Sinker (can you guess her nickname at school...?) yet again. Sarah has proved to be endlessly patient, optimistic, cheerful, reassuring and encouraging, and most importantly of all, her lessons have been fun. Added to which she's an amazing saxophone player (she won Instrumentalist of the Year at the British Blues Awards last year) and a real inspiration.  Here she is in full flow.

Although my first few sax lessons went pretty well (it was definitely an advantage that I can at least read music), I soon hit an extended plateau of zero progress. I practiced and practiced and practiced - and I squeaked and honked and stumbled. The dogs hated every moment of it. Alfie howled every time I played a note. Then Mabel howled in sympathy. Then Andrew ho...only kidding, actually he was very long-suffering (or perhaps he's just getting more deaf?)

But finally, at the beginning of May, Sarah felt that I was ready to play the full Year of the Cat riff under recording conditions. I arrived at her house on Tuesday with my heart in my mouth. I was wearing the kind of outfit that I thought Al Stewart's saxophonist Phil Kenzie might don when performing with Al. I had planned to wear a hat like Phil's (see photo at top), but headphones put a stop to that. Probably no bad thing as I look like Bonny & Clyde's elderly aunt in it. Although on reflection I look even worse wearing the headphones.

For the next hour Sarah multi-tasked with filming, sound recording and sage advice whilst I just focused on playing the riff over and over again until we got a take or two that were good enough to go. Yay!! What a relief to have it in the can at last. And now I shall continue with saxophone lessons without the spectre of the Riff hanging over me. Rumour has it that I may attempt to take my Grade 1 exam one day - but don't tell anyone. 

And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Year of the Cat Riff....

My sincere apologies to Phil Kenzie for daring to desecrate that magnificent solo of his. Sceptical chaps, have I done enough to pass the riff test?  Thank you to Sarah and her husband Rob for the brilliant job they've done in editing the video clip for me. And a thousand thanks to Sarah for all she's done to help me coax those notes out of my saxophone - she's truly a miracle worker.



A total of 54 tasks completed - 6 more to go - 10 days left.........


I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Shooting Star Chase children's hospice care in memory of a special little girl called Thea Redford. 

For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at


  1. Hi, would you happen to have the 2nd page to the sax solo?

    1. Hi Kevin, thank you so much for your interest! So sorry but I can't lay my hands on the 2nd page, if I do manage to find it, I'll add it to the blog and let you know.