Some echoes, some shadows; some journey

Some echoes, some shadows; some journey

Jazz rarely moves in straight lines. Some times it turns positive circles, feeding off its own past like one of those lizards who eat their own tail, never quite managing to turn itself inside out in the process. The retrospective aspect has been with the music for over half its life, traceable back to the day when some bright spark tasked with compiling material for the new fangled LP format decided to lump together an artists back catalogue and call it a ‘historic’ release. Thus it was from the 1950s onward the concept of jazz recycling – or ‘the reissue market’ in industry speak – has gained a momentum which in some instances far outweighs that of the general forward progress of the music. Jazz musicians themselves have always back-cycled things – borrowed licks, chord progressions, standard repertoire – but nobody does it quite like the record business. Just look at the current catalogue of icons like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, all of whom have their work reissued, repackaged and re-spun ad infinitum.

British jazzmen operating in the same halcyon era – the 1950s through to the mid-1970s - haven’t been nearly so fortunate. ‘It doesn’t sell’ is the standard executive response to the subject of re-releasing domestic jazz product. Still, every so often a brave initiative gets underway, usually masterminded by someone with passion by the bucketful, patience as deep-run as an underground river and the kind of blunt idealism that can make the impossible possible.

Back in the early 1980s Jasmine Records issued a small cache of vinyl facsimiles of the old Tempo catalogue – the 1950s imprint which had briefly made modest stars of Jimmy Deuchar, Dizzy Reece and Tubby Hayes, introducing a whole new generation of young jazzheads to their unrealized roots. ‘You can scrape away all you want to at the grey little variations on the jazz mode’, cautioned one reviewer of the newbies coming to this music afresh, ‘but until you start playing with the wit, nerve and cussedness that these sassy young dudes were 25 years ago, you’re still on the pavement.’

Scrub out 25 and replace it with 50 and you have pretty much a nutshell encomium on the latest round of reissues to hit the British jazz merry-go-round. Fifty years might seem a long way off, but in jazz it’s a relative stone’s throw. Indeed, on a jazz scene cluttered with those loudly ‘re-imagining’ the idiom, Decca/UMO’s Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) (CD, Vinyl, download) is a welcome reminder that we’ve been here before. Many times. Sometimes with far more natural results.

‘Digging deep into one of the most collectible catalogues in the world of British Jazz’ as the outer package sticker has it, this new offering is a fourteen track, 2 CD collection ransacking some of the best (and most obscure; the two aren’t always related) of British post-bop from the Fontana, Deram, Mercury, EMI-Columbia, Argo, Philips and Verve labels, all of which are now under the enormous umbrella of Universal Music Operations Limited. In some senses, this sort of super-conglomeration was exactly what all these proudly independent labels, all run by quite different souls, might have benefited from at the time they were operating – creating lobbying power, a collective weight and a public presence their individual streams could never quite generate. But then look at what that sort of streamlining did for the British military aviation industry during the same time frame, robbing individual marques and makers of their identity for the sake of what exactly? Financial neatness? Saleability? Nice modernistic-sounding nomenclature laying the ghost of so much parochial thinking?

The rationale behind this thinking wasn’t just economic; it was geopolitical. Reshuffle the pack who produced warplanes and you could almost fool the world into thinking you’d retained your global might. You’d fabricated the facade of a genuine contender; you could punch above your weight. But what did you really have? The product of a country fast sliding down the international leader board whose promise of ‘White Heat’ had gone firmly off-the-boil.

Fortunately we’re talking art here, rather than aircraft, of which the UK of the late 1960s/early 1970s was said to be a crucible. That said, there is at least something of a British Aircraft Corporation flavour to a label initiative that bills itself under the neat handle of ‘British Jazz Explosion’, what Decca are in effect detonating with this new, eminently listenable double album. It’s a sampler of sorts, not just of the Wilson/Heath handover era it brackets but of future reissues planned by the company, all welcome, some of which are highly significant to the overall trajectory of the development of jazz in post-Profumo, Beatle-dom Britain and the years immediately beyond.

Their own contribution

Actually, the title of one of the collections best-known tracks, ‘Some Echoes, Some Shadows’ is highly apt. As well as applying to the music heard – faintly reminiscent of other jazz, yet emerging into a light all its own – it also fits what you might call the corporate history of this project which begun not as you suspect in the three-day-week 1970s but as recently as the early 2000s. Indeed, Journeys In Modern Jazz Britain (1965-72) is, essentially, a very overdue entry into an earlier British jazz reissue programme Universal undertook from 2002 to around 2006. That had been spurred by two things; first, the on-the-face-of-it unlikely hit status of crate-digging, eclectic-is-my-game DJ Gilles Peterson’s Impressed compilation, issued on both CD and vinyl (prescient, that), which in Peterson’s own words celebrated the ‘idiosyncratic style’ of British modernism from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. The choice of artists and tracks provided a healthy, if somewhat narrow, taste of what was going down in London in these years; Michael Garrick, Joe Harriott, Ronnie Ross, Harry Beckett, Graham Collier, the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet, Tubby Hayes. ‘If...the likes of Michael Garrick and Joe Harriott are recognised for the pioneers they were then my job is done,’ Peterson wrote in a brief introductory note. Actually, it was more like a beginning than an ending. In 2004, such was the demand for the first Impressed album, Universal issued a second, this time enrolling Stan Tracey, Neil Ardley, Mike Taylor, Harold McNair and the New Jazz Orchestra into the fold. That same year, BBC Four televised its Jazz Britannia series, a three part look at the history of post-war UK-made jazz, much of its soundtrack drawn from the Impressed compilations. Clearly a movement was building.

If Peterson was the man with his name above the titles, then the real force behind these albums (and much of the narrative thread of the BBC series too) was Tony Higgins, whose love, knowledge and contextual understanding of the path of British modernism post-1960 made what could have been little more than grab-bag-styled mix tapes into cogent, over-arching thematic audio documentaries, tying the whole together with lengthy booklet essays that were as much about the social milieu of 1960s Britain as they were the music. For young jazz fans (and rampant nostalgics) like myself, these notes alone were enough to get hooked. And it was Higgins who was to help helm the series of individual vintage British jazz album reissues that Universal began to issue in 2005, under the read-it-carefully banner of Impressed Repressed.

It was, sadly, a short-lived enterprise, one with both bullseyed victories and irritating near-misses. While forgotten gems like pianist Mike Taylor’s ultra-rare (and impossible to date) Trio, Don Rendell’s Space Walk and Michael Garrick’s Troppo – all making their debut on CD – were welcome reappearances, the series’ handling of Tubby Hayes Fontana catalogue, the Coltrane/Impulse! motherlode of British jazz, was just plain botched; unproofed booklet notes, miniscule graphics, audio dubbed from poor quality vinyl. Sales figures were patchy; Hayes’ albums had flown off the shelves initially (especially 100% Proof and Mexican Green, his conjoined mid-Sixties masterpieces), but interest in artists like Mike Taylor, in a commercial sense, remained commensurate with that the first time his records had been issued forty years before. ‘British jazz doesn’t sell’, they were saying. Again.

One of the last projects Tony Higgins lined up on the drawing board while working with Universal was a third volume of the Impressed compilation series, this one perhaps even more intriguing than the previous brace, zoning in on forgotten names like pianist Collin Bates and bassist Johnny Hawksworth alongside the expected Tubby Hayes’s, Dick Morrissey’s and Don Rendell’s. When Universal cut its losses, Higgins posted his choice of tracks (together with an evocative inner sleeve mock-up comprising various cuttings from Melody Maker of the time) on one of those free download sites. It both sounded and looked great and yet again – the same old Cinderella story for British modernism – jazz fans were left wondering what if?

Fast-forward a decade and a half and we have Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) which includes a good three quarters of Higgins’ selections for the never-released Impressed 3 plus a whole lot more, spread over two carefully (one might even say artfully) programmed discs, creating a collection that has some history too, to go along with its many echoes and shadows. The chosen names in themselves tell as story; Kenny Wheeler, Don Rendell, John Surman, John Warren, Michael Garrick, Mike Westbrook, Stan Tracey, Neil Ardley, Alan Skidmore, Dick Morrissey, Mike Taylor, Mike Gibbs – all key figures. But what about those who aren’t here? Some omissions, some mistakes, surely? Where, you might wonder, is Tubby Hayes or, for that matter, the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet, vital shapers in the style and sound of British jazz at this time?

Regular readers of this blog will find these concerns unsurprising; Hayes, is, after, all a special interest of this writer, while Rendell/Carr, through the penning of various sleeve notes for their live radio recordings over the past year, have become something between an irritant and a joy to behold. The latter, it was explained, have been comprehensively covered by a complete vinyl edition of their cult EMI/Columbia albums issued by Jazzman Records in 2018. Besides, they squeeze in to Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) by proxy, both men being featured soloists on a track by Neil Ardley (their drummer Trevor Tomkins is here too). Hayes, however, even if he isn’t featured per se, looms mightily over the whole ‘British Jazz Explosion’ plan. Indeed, it was the discovery and release of his previously unheard late Sixties quartet sessions in 2019 - Grits, Beans and Greens: The Lost Fontana Recording 1969 - which more or less set the whole idea alight (it has to be admitted that Decca weren’t exactly unaware of the potential of disinterred saxophonic treasure; Hayes’ forgotten sessions were released as a direct result of the success of UMG’s John Coltrane Both Directions at Once album the previous year). Following this, all of Hayes’ work for Fontana was compiled into a sumptuous boxed set (Tubby Hayes: The Fontana Albums 1961-69) late in 2019, dealt with separately as it were, as indeed the saxophonist’s singular presence seems always to demand.

Hayes, of course, was always a good barometer of the musical times, even-handedly dealing with those whose sense of jazz ‘progress’ ran somewhat counter to his own. Interviewed in Melody Maker in 1969 he sung the praises of young players like drummers Alan Jackson and John Marshall – both heard on Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) – telling the paper ‘Johnny Dankworth, Stan Tracey, Harry South, Graham Collier, Mike Westbrook – everybody is making their own contribution.’ That same year, again in Melody Maker, Richard Williams, one of the brightest and clear-headed of all young music journalists, identified 1969 as a sort of Year Zero, in which ‘the British jazz musician has finally begun the long process of asserting himself as a world power within the music’. It sounded like political spin; or at the very least as doctrinal declaration. British jazz was standing proud.

And it works

But beyond this sort of shared, broad idiomatic faith (which became more fervidly believable after the arrival of the Beatles) was there ever anything resembling a collective aesthetic; a common language - a British jazz ‘sound’? In his extensive booklet commentary, Tony Higgins speaks of ‘an English sensibility that could be described as ‘swinging pastoral’’, a comment he directs at the work of Neil Ardley but which could with varying degrees of aptness be applied also to Michael Garrick and Kenny Wheeler. Not everything heard here is nearly so fine-drawn; take any solo by John Surman or Alan Skidmore, for example, and you’re firmly into the realm of the post-Coltrane blow-out, one where muscle and grit meant just as much as they’d done back in the days of the Jazz Couriers.

As continuum music, there is as much past as there is present and (suggested) future in the music heard over these two discs. Sometimes it’s personal; on Stan Tracey’s big band piece ‘Matinee Days’ (from the album The Seven Ages of Man, recently reissued in full by ReSteamed Records) the trumpet soloist is Hank Shaw, one of the founder members of the Club XI, Britain’s first bona fide bebop club, one house band of which was run by John Dankworth who later employed Don Rendell, Kenny Wheeler and Mike Gibbs, all of whom turn up leading their own bands here. It may seem like totemic baton passing to later generations of listeners, used to dividing up British jazz into separate lanes, but when you realise that the latest track on this collection – the surging ‘A Matter of Time’ by Don Rendell – was taped a mere twenty-two years after the first recording by the Johnny Dankworth Seven, of which Rendell was a member, playing polite cool-school tenor, then you realise what a brief and eventful journey had interlinked the two.

So what of that shared aesthetic, that ‘British ‘ jazz approach? One could argue, in contrasting the contributions of the smallest and largest bands – Collin Bates piano, bass, drums trio and Mike Westbrook’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink concert band – one minimalistic, the other full-blown, showy, theatrical even, that there is no collective vision. Bates – a fascinating player who comes on like a darker Dudley Moore, his glassy touch sometimes also reminiscent of Jaki Byard, another roots-into-free piano maverick – is firmly of the old school where the function of jazz was concerned. ‘I do not subscribe to the theory that jazz is an esoteric artform shrouded in mysticismpsuedo-cultishness’, he is quoted as saying in the booklet. ‘Jazz should be listenable, it should swing…otherwise the medium will flounder and eventually be lost without a trace.’

These were oddly prophetic words as far as Bates’ own career went; after recording the edgy album Brew for Fontana in 1967 (the title track is included) he eventually retreated from the outer reaches to the inner cosiness of mainstream conformity, albeit with George Melly, whose idea of family-friendly entertainment was probably more outlandish than many an avant-gardist. Bates was also an Australian, with the well-known Antipodean knack for cutting straight to the point. When he says jazz is ‘not Art, but Entertainment’ you can almost hear the twanging, hard-line, rhetorical tone. But if Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) proves anything beyond its musical worth it’s that we can’t generalise or stereotype on nationality or 'roots'; Mike Gibbs was another child of colonial outreach – in this case, Rhodesia – and nobody embraced the idea that jazz could be both fun and surreally inventive quite as subversively as him. Look at Harry Beckett too; flighty, buzzing trumpet shot through with Barbadian sunshine, but below the surface of that chuckle-toned delivery lay something far less cosy. Canadians John Warren and Kenny Wheeler also refuted the ‘middle of the road’ anonymity so often said to characterise their country. A wider picture of renegotiation emerges from these examples; one in which themes of empire and dominion are thrown over, both in terms of British colonial identity and that of American dominance over the global jazz landscape. Both were fast changing as the Sixties drew to a close, the music heard on Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) playing like a kind of soundtrack to the times.

If there is one motif that runs through these tracks it is less one of pluralistic motivation as instrumental choice; there are a whole lot of big bands here – some very big – John Dankworth’s, John Warren’s, Stan Tracey’s, Mike Westbrook’s, the New Jazz Orchestra, Mike Gibbs’ – each suggesting that, while contemporary American modern jazz developments were largely made via small groups (Miles, Ornette Coleman’s, Herbie Hancock’s Sextet, Cecil Taylor’s) Britain never lost its abiding affection for the big band.*

And my how these bands roared! To the untrained ear, there might appear little to choose between the hard brass slabs of Mike Westbrook’s Concert Band and Stan Tracey’s, and this, at a time when British jazz was so often said to be coming into its own as a composers not a soloist’s art, might suggest as worrying reality. Superficially, yes, when John Warren’s team tear up ‘With Terry’s Help’ (probably the pick of the tracks of the entire album) and Stan Tracey’s pile into ‘Matinee Days’ there is more than a passing resemblance, albeit one tempered by Tracey’s greater harmonic know-how, but part and parcel of this is purely the instrumentation involved. Much of a muchness actually translates into much of everything, trumpets included. Sometimes Kenny Wheeler’s writing suggests Mike Westbrook’s which in turn suggests John Warren’s. You could call it tapping into the Zeitgeist, or feeling the ‘mood’ of the Sixties. Or you could just say each man was just curious, arriving at the same horizon from very differing vantage points.

What else you could do with the big band at this juncture is more ably shown by Neil Ardley’s ‘Greek Variations: VI Kriti’, with added strings, which sails along a sort of Aegean Third Stream (like an imagined Sketches of Greece with Ian Carr cast as Miles). Better still, hear the New Jazz Orchestra’s version of pianist Howard Riley’s ‘Angle’. Tony Reeves, the producer of the album from which it was taken – Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe (a rare showing for British jazz on the Verve label) – called it ‘avant-garde free playing, with a big band, and it works.’ It is and it does, although there are moments when the episodic nature of going from one to the other makes it sound rather like a portmanteau of defining Sixties jazz devices, almost as if one were switching between one of Oliver Nelson’s Verve albums and an Impulse! Archie Shepp LP at random. Even with a band as free-thinking as the NJO (and a leader as comfortably himself as Neil Ardley) fashion could still dictate.

Notions of before and after

The small band tracks are, if anything, more echo-filled. Just as there appears a thin similarity between bands like the NJO and Gil Evans’, Gary McFarland’s or Oliver Nelson’s, the the same comparison ratio applies to the quartets and quintets of Alan Skidmore, Dick Morrissey and Mike Taylor. Listened to with half-an-ear, Taylor’s band might be that of his piano-playing namesake Cecil, dotted with bone-dry soprano from Dave Tomlin which, again if heard fleetingly, could be Steve Lacy. Morrissey’s band too with its Hard Bop Bossa grooves might be something on a Blue Note B-side, Skidmore’s akin to the younger New York post-boppery of Joe Farrell, Woody Shaw and co. If this makes these players appear to be peddling ‘almost’ music then the message has gotten lost; each of them was creating something from the same cloth as their Stateside contemporaries only the design was different. A decade earlier Tubby Hayes had done much the same thing, coming up with a unique ‘English Hard Bop’ cocktail, a dash of Mobley, a splash of Rollins, all of it flavoured with heavy draught of London dance band. Nobody had complained because it sounded so similar to what was going on across the Atlantic. Fast-forward ten years and for all the talk of a ‘unique’ British sound, the idea of the macho tenor playing like an American giant was still highly seductive. Just ask Alan Skidmore, a player, like Hayes, both similar and different to his US role models.

Skidmore’s musical virility (a quality Mike Westbrook spoke of as having a catalytic impact on his band) calls into question the oft-heard notion of later generations of British jazzmen focusing on the pastoral. True, in the lovely ‘Old San Juan’ his band begins in plaintive Nefertiti-era Miles mode, but elsewhere (‘With Terry’s Help’) he’s more impatient to get into the meat of things, partly through the inspiration of the similarly energetic John Surman whose opening soprano solo is as close to white-hot as is possible to get on-record. If there’s one soloist who can be justly called the ‘most impressive’ on this collection it’s Surman, who makes similarly searing soprano statements on Harry Beckett’s ‘Third Road’ and the Mike Westbrook Concert Band’s ‘Waltz (for Joanna)’. The irony is massive; Surman wasn’t (as yet) exploring the introspective and the pastoral, as he’d do later in his career, but was raging like a bull, playing with all the heft and weight of an American saxophone colossus. Given this attitude it’s rather surprising that so few contemporary jazz critics saw the bloodline between him and Tubby Hayes. The language was different certainly (Surman’s positively post-Coltrane) but the general delivery was the same, the lines still crowded and fit to burst. Again, the notions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ seem rather forced when confronted with something so closely aligned, raising a nagging doubt about whether or not the whole idea of the late 1960s ‘British jazz sound’ isn’t actually a retrospective construct.

Furthermore, some veteran fans may smell more than a whiff of 2021-style ‘spin’ to how the whole ‘British Jazz Explosion’ is being marketed. Vinyl issues are one way of courting the potential millennial market, and there is, at times, an almost romantic, propaganda-like tone to the opening part of the considerable booklet notes (‘many others emerged throughout the 80s and 90s to take the legacy forward...’) but it’s odds-on that someone somewhere will question contemporary UK saxist Shabaka Hutchings’ declaration (on advertisements of the Journeys set) that ‘the recordings by people like Michael Garrick, Mike Westbrook and John Surman are what really inspired me.’ Really? Jazzmen often keep their influences secreted away, like guilty pleasures or shameful private passions, but I’m sure we’d have read this before somewhere if these recordings had been such a shaping force in Hutchings’ musical outlook, or for that matter in those of his immediate contemporaries. The record industry utilizing the endorsement of a currently fashionable name isn’t anything new, but in this instance one wonders, given the rarity (and unfashionability) of much of the music heard on Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72), how much of this stuff players of Hutchings’ generation truly know?

Perhaps, rather than exploring that inference further, it’s better to focus upon the truths of this collection. The fundamental one, articulated throughout Tony Higgins extensive accompanying booklet, is one of the value of mavericks. They’re all here, from players to producers to pressmen. If anything, it’s the souls who facilitated these recordings in the first place who emerge the deserving heroes. To reintroduce the leitmotif, British jazz didn’t sell big in the late 1960s and so those who produced it had either to be men of quiet vision or nerveless monomaniacs. Harvey Usill of Argo (who recorded Michael Garrick extensively) was the former type, ‘a gentleman among sharks’ as one musician recalled him. On the other hand Denis Preston, responsible for much of the Columbia catalogue of Stan Tracey and Joe Harriott, was, according to Neil Ardley ‘a Diaghilev-like figure.’ Tracey put it more pithily. ‘I don’t think he really understood jazz musicians...he tried to mould me into something else.’ One result of that attempt was The Latin American Caper, the only one of Tracey’s Lansdowne LPs about which he expressed genuine regret. Fortunately, when its sequel The Seven Ages of Man was taped the following year (‘Matinee Days’) Preston kept his creative input to a minimum.

Still sounds modern

On the first and last tracks of Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1965-72) it all ties together, goes full-circle, begins and ends neatly. Kenny Wheeler is the first soloist you hear on the album’s opener, ‘Don The Dreamer’, taken from his 1968 suite Windmill Tilter; he is also the last heard on the collections closing piece, Mike Gibbs’ ‘Some Echoes, Some Shadows’. Suddenly it all joins up; the patronage of an older, established facilitator (Dankworth was Wheeler’s boss); the opportunity to explore the possibilities of the large jazz ensemble; the subversion of textures and instrumentation that, almost by accident, finally gave British jazz a ‘sound’; the entire, timeless gesture of one generation of jazzmen handing something on to the next, which is, at root, the message of the glad-handing press puff just discussed.

There’s something else though; Wheeler’s ‘sound’ - the combination of his instrumental work and his composing and arranging – still sets the template for much of what we hear in today’s British jazz. Part of that legacy is disseminated via academia (Wheeler’s music is regarded as the go-to study in modern jazz writing, both in small and big band settings), yet otherwise it’s occurred more subliminally, colouring nearly forty years’ worth of ‘contemporary’ creative endeavour. In that, it still sounds ‘modern’. Thinking about that in real terms (consider how much from the early 1970s that now appears to our eyes and ears outdated, plain silly or possibly reprehensible, from fashion to television and beyond) it’s no little achievement.

To have reached not just a state of permanency for this type of jazz, but in essence a state of agelessness too is remarkable. And it’s that which raises the biggest question mark over the music heard on Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain (1956-72); whether or not music this old but sounding so fresh suggests an on-going debt to its original creators or it reveals the worrying grip of creative inertia. That’s an argument best settled elsewhere; what this collection does and does so irrefutably is enlighten and entertain. Solidly produced, extensively annotated and beautifully packaged its plus points (pin-sharp remastered audio restoration principally) far outweigh its relative downsides (needless repetition of personnel information in the booklet; the odd copy-and-paste gaff, including the incorrect assertion that trumpeter Steve Waterman played on John Surman’s Tales of the Algonquin, recorded in 1971; Waterman was born in 1960).

The only serious gripe is that there are no actual recording dates provided for any of the tracks, always a useful tool in gauging context and artistic foresight; dates are, of course, a vital part of charting any journey. That said, the music heard acts as a tour guide of its own. What it reveals along its course is both captivating and provocative. It probably won’t change your mind as to the overall trajectory of jazz, nor will it provide those who listen more widely with textures they’ve not heard before elsewhere. What it will do, though, is remind you that the idea of a ‘British Jazz Explosion’ is nothing new. Today’s young UK players are entering a new phase of musical evolution, their DNA going right back to this moment in time. The big bang which set this process in motion, well, that’s what we have here, wound back to the very moment of ignition. It makes for a mighty noise.

*In 1968, Melody Maker readers voted Tubby Hayes 100% Proof its British Jazz Album of The Year, favouring its Hermanesque, tradition-honouring shout to anything by, say, Don Rendell, Michael Garrick or the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

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