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Recording of the Week, Journeys In Modern Jazz: Britain


With the British jazz scene being in such rude health these days, Universal have turned their attention to the deep back catalogues of the original British jazz explosion of the sixties and seventies. Original pressings of the key recordings have long been collector’s items, and as such are prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of music lovers - reissues have been patchy at best over the decades, so it’s very welcome news to see them embark upon a series of reissues, drawing on recordings from Decca, Deram, Argo, Lansdowne, Fontana, Philips, Mercury and Verve. The first two releases are Don Rendell’s 1972 opus Space Walk, and this two-disc compilation Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain 1965-1972.

Although the UK scene was inevitably in the shadow of, and influenced by, the innovations coming out of the US, this collection ably demonstrates how British jazz managed to find its own voice and personality. There was no YouTube or Spotify back then, and it wasn't until the sixties that US jazz artists properly started to tour the UK, so British artists were often reliant on a handful of imported LPs as reference points, leaving them to come up with their own take on the genre. The set is prefaced by Tony Higgins’s fascinating 22,000 word booklet essay, and quotes pianist and composer Michael Garrick on his thoughts about what made British jazz so unique: “I was moved by the melancholy that inhabits a lot that [English] literature and its closeness to the realities of life. I thought there’s richness in English culture which is being ignored by all the jazz I’d heard; English musicians were just inhabiting the Americans who were obviously much better at doing what was their own thing. If we were going to be true to ourselves, I felt that we ought to draw on our own culture.”

Alongside appearances from Garrick himself this collection features contributions from virtually all of the big names of the period, including Mike Westbrook, John Surman, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Alan Skidmore, Harry Beckett, Ian Carr, Joe Harriott, Tony Coe, Neil Ardley, Dick Morrissey, Phil Seaman, John Taylor, Mike Taylor, Dick Heckstall-Smith, and Stan Tracey. One area that marked out the Brits from the US jazz of the period was their writing for big band. Aside from notable exceptions like Charles Mingus, Don Ellis, Maynard Fergusson, and Stan Kenton, the major innovations in US jazz were largely being made by smaller groups, whereas in the UK the big band was viewed as a medium ripe for reinvention. Have a listen to Mike Gibbs’s ‘Some Echoes, Some Shadows’, a stunning piece for large ensemble, a convincing example of jazz-rock in a big band format if I’ve ever heard one. With guitarist Chris Spedding leading the charge backed up by John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, and even that firebrand of European free improvisation Tony Oxley on drums, the piece confidently transitions through numerous sections and textures without resorting to the usual big band cliches. Kenny Wheeler with the John Dankworth Orchestra’s ‘Don’s Theme’ is another fine example. Composed during a period when, thanks to dental surgery, Wheeler was out of action as a player, he poured all his creative juices into writing luminous pieces such as this.


There’s plenty to admire in the selections from smaller groups as well, such as Colin Bates’s ‘Brew’, a swinging 12-bar blues in 6/4-time. Bates’s style has touches of his idol Lennie Tristano’s modernism in some of his machine-like piano runs, but also the easy lyricism of Oscar Peterson - let’s hope the debut album of the same name is on the schedule for the full reissue treatment. Another discovery is West Indian cornettiest Harry Beckett’s ‘Third Road’, an exciting slice of early fusion, clearly indebted to Miles’s early fusion work but with a charm all its own.

It’s good to see one of the key movers on the British fusion scene, Neil Ardley, included with his remarkably intricate composition ‘Greek Variations: VI Kriti’, a piece that slipstreams through seemingly disparate sections without missing a beat, and includes notable contributions from Barbara Thompson’s sax and flute, Ian Carr on Flugelhorn, and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce. (A personal factoid - as a young lad I was an avid birdwatcher, and long before I was familiar with Ardley’s classic fusion LPs like Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, his guide book ‘Birds of Britain and Europe’ was my preferred reference when out twitching - Ardely supplemented the meagre wages of a jazz career by writing and editing over 100 books in his lifetime.)

As a compilation Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain flows remarkably well, a credit to Tony Higgins’s skill as a curator. Newcomers to British jazz couldn’t wish for a better introduction to the main players on the scene, and whets the appetite for the gems about to be re-discovered from the archive.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Available Formats: 2 Vinyl Records, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Don Rendell Quintet

Available Formats: Vinyl Record, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC