John Harle is an Ivor Novello award-winning composer, record producer, and saxophonist whose work spans across musical genres from classical to contemporary pop.

John is the composer of operas, musical theatre shows, around fifty concert works and over 100 film and TV scores including the theme to BBC1's Silent Witness and the epic score to Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. He is the recipient of an Ivor Novello award and two Royal Television Society awards for Best Music.

Starting at the National Theatre in the late 1970's,  John was an actor/musician, composer, musical director and instrumentalist for many years, including acting parts in plays by Edward Bond and Isaak Babel, musical directorships for Harrison Birtwistle and playing in the celebrated Guys and Dolls band for director Richard Eyre. John's own shows, A Quick Deco and To Those Born Later were featured at the National Theatre Platforms, The King's Head Islington, Hampstead New End Theatre and The Arts Theatre with actors Caroline Quentin, Jim Carter and John Golder. John's show Berlin Nights ran at The London Symphony Orchestra Pops series at The Barbican, featuring actors Ute Lemper and Albert Finney.

He was artistic advisor and producer to Sir Paul McCartney for six years, and other major collaborations have included albums and tours with Elvis Costello and Marc Almond. 

A prominent media figure, he is a regular contributor to Radio 4 Front Row, and was a castaway on Desert Island Discs. He also contributes written articles to major publications.

© Nobby Clark

John’s tribute album to Duke Ellington, The Shadow of the Duke was followed with collaborations with jazz artists such as Herbie Hancock and Andy Sheppard.

John was solo and lead saxophonist with the Michael Nyman Band for fifteen years, and was Musical Director of the band on tours in the US, UK and Japan.

He has been musical director and producer for Moondog, Herbie Hancock, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Elmer Bernstein, Imelda Staunton, Ute Lemper, Lesley Garrett, Albert Finney, Kathryn Tickell, Michael Nyman, Sir John Dankworth, Dame Cleo Laine and Marc Almond. He is the founder and producer of Sospiro Records.

As a saxophonist, his early work gained public acclaim with his Saxophone Concertos album on EMI Classics which is widely seen as the definitive recording of the major classical works, and his playing has been the catalyst for an outpouring of new concertos by composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Marc Anthony Turnage, Sir John Tavener, Sally Beamish, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars.
John’s performance of Birtwistle's saxophone concerto Panic at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 1995 was cited by many critics as the most controversial premiere of a new musical work since Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in 1913.
He has performed with countless orchestras and conductors worldwide and has sold over half a million CDs in the classical field alone.

John was appointed the youngest ever Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, starting the saxophone department at the age of 26, and his teaching has produced many of the leading players of today. He is now Professor of Saxophone and Composition at The Guildhall School, where he leads his own Master of Music course, as well as teaching academic modules in Musical and Cultural History.

He is the author of The Saxophone (Faber Music), the definitive reference work on saxophone playing and performance.

John is currently songwriting with Marc Almond (Soft Cell) for an album of pop torch songs for Sony/BMG, and writing a musical theatre piece, Mr Punch, with writer/director Patrick Marber. He is also arranger/producer for the new saxophone star Jess Gillam in a five album collaboration with Decca Classics.

He is the father of writer and curator Dr. Matthew Harle and Columbia Records composer/ producer Danny L Harle.


“Harle gallops across his musical terrain with the attitude of Axl Rose. Terrifyingly extreme and magnificently audacious, Harle is a powerful force in British Jazz and Pop, and has the integrity, passion and vision to challenge listeners”

“John Harle's music is complex, darkly humorous and full of ear-catching quirkiness. You're bowled over by the variety, energy and sheer size of his music. It merits every ounce of the effort put into it”

“The music of John Harle is very fast moving, urgently collaborative, often witty, sinewy, ironic and urban”

“Three gorgeous songs by John Harle sung by a totally credible Elvis Costello are only the most conspicuous highlights of saxophonist Harle's genre scramble 'Terror and Magnificence'. Harle’s own commanding musicianship and audacious composing act as this record's solid cement”

“He's an omnivorous enthusiast, a truly unfashionable state of mind in a self-conscious age of irony, but something which links him with the late American master, Leonard Bernstein”

“Terror and Magnificence is very probably one of the finest suites to have come from the pen of a British composer in recent years. Harle is a virtuosic saxophonist but his writing talent is clearly as significant. A triumph all round”

“It was like sitting down for dinner in a reliable restaurant and being presented with an hors d'oeuvre of cold sick. Among others I would have been happy to have chained Harle and Birtwistle, whose work has been called 'sonic sewage', naked to the railings outside as punishment”

“We all know that Marc Almond can sing but it still comes as a shock to hear his thrillingly drawn-out climax to Harle's "The Arrival of Spring", emoting words adapted from William Blake with operatic oomph”
THE INDEPENDENT (on 'Art Music') ****

“Harle is a renaissance man that defies categorization; there are moments of unearthly beauty - eerie, magical and oddly timeless”

“Harle's style has an integrity all of its own”

"The composer John Harle and his librettist David Pountney have made an opera of the proper sort, and one which almost breaks the rules of the genre by appearing to work as drama as well as music. Spells are cast, angels are summoned, and the characters exchange views on the music of the spheres and other recondite matters, but as singers and actors in a theatrical space they succeed in holding your attention. Angel Magick proved to be a resounding success."

© Nobby Clark

“Harle's compositions are testament to the extraordinary versatility of this brilliant saxophonist”

“This masterful album - wonderfully scary stuff”
THE SUN***** (on 'The Tyburn Tree')

“Beautiful and dramatic music”
INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY (on 'The Tyburn Tree')

“A treat for the ears - epic, sweeping”
MUSIC OMH (on 'The Tyburn Tree')

“Lushly harmonised and ecstatically passionate”

“Harle's rich, extravagant settings could have been written for the late 1960's Scott Walker”
THE ARTS DESK **** (on 'Art Music')

“John Harle's lurid The Little Death Machine, premiered in the late-night Prom, was full of spark as the saxophonist composer's solo soared, blasted and panted over ghoulish riffs, swooping samples and a manic orchestral dance groove. This now formidable creative figure often functions best in mixing genres”

“This is a fascinating and beguiling album. Harle shows no sign soon of losing his magical powers of communication”
JAZZ VIEWS (on 'Art Music')

“Marvelously vigorous, ironic and atmospheric”
THE TIMES **** (on 'The Tyburn Tree')

“A stunning contemporary production”
PROG MAGAZINE **** (on 'The Tyburn Tree')

“Equally at home in all genres as composer and player, he is one of the most accomplished of that new generation of musicians that has successfully breached music's artificial and still too strictly observed boundaries”

"This summer's Proms presents its first operatic commission in the shape of an innovative piece by saxophonist and composer John Harle. To a libretto by David Pountney, and using a flamboyant cast of singers, an actor, dancer and 22-piece orchestra incorporating the viol consort Fretwork, Harle's Angel Magick, subtitled A Scientific Ritual in Seven Parts, explores the strange world of Elizabethan astrologer and alchemist John Dee.
Already premiered in a preview to considerable acclaim at the Salisbury Festival, Angel Magick seems to be just the right sort of forward-thinking new piece the Proms needs."

“Harle is a saxophone legend”

“He must be the most sought-after saxophonist in the world now.”

"I could listen to John Harle play almost anything for hours"

“You MUST see the virtuosity and charisma of Harle as a musician - exciting, edgy performances from the hottest saxophonist around today. Seeing is believing”

“Hearing Harle, you can understand why composers are surprised and delighted by his artistry. His keenly imaginative playing directly echoes the inflections of the human voice, and his fine control of tone eliminates the sloppy wailing of some saxophonists that is such a pain”

“This is the most beautiful alto-playing since Johnny Hodges; and the most beautiful soprano-playing ever” 

“British-born Harle is one of the most outstanding saxophonists today - a leading classical exponent of the saxophone in Europe and a formidable jazz composer and soloist - he gives the sax new credibility”

“It hit the audience between the eyes - it reached the soul of the saxophone”

“Mr Harle has become an eminent modern musician. He's a dazzling player, with an immense range of tones, and a magnetic musician”

"No-one else creates a sound quite like this: apparently floating weightlessly, yet robust”

“A dazzling workout. Technical and emotional mastery - all of which were as child's play for John Harle”
THE NEW YORK TIMES (at Carnegie Hall)

“Thanks to Harle, the saxophone has grown in status in the twentieth century. It may yet emerge as the paragon of wind instruments - their finest singer”

“John Harle adapts to any musical style that comes his way. He plays with originality, intelligence and fire”


Ivor Novello Awards

IVOR NOVELLO AWARD for Best Soundtrack 2013 - for 'Lucian Freud - Painted Life' (Blakeway Productions for BBC2).

The Royal Television Society

RTS AWARD for 'best original music for television' 2012 - for 'Lucian Freud - Painted
Life' (Blakeway Productions for BBC2).
RTS Nomination for best music for television 2009 - The Commander (LaPlante/ITV1)
RTS Nomination for best music for television 2005 - Summer in the Suburbs (BBC2)

RTS AWARD for best theme for television 2003 - Silent Witness (BBC1)
RTS Nomination for best music for television 2002 - Defence of the Realm (BBC1)


Grammy Nomination 1999 - Terror and Magnificence

Billboard USA

No.1 Crossover Album 1999 - Terror and Magnificence

Mercury Music Awards

MMA Nomination - 1999 - Terror and Magnificence

UK Advertising Awards

Nomination for Best Original Music - 1999 - Flying (TBWA/Trevor Beattie/Nissan)

UK Dance Charts

No. 1 Position - 1996 - Flying (Remix)

Cannes Film Festival

Best Artistic Achievement in a Feature Film - 1988 - Prick Up Your Ears - with Stanley Myers


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All photo credits: John Harle © Nobby Clark