Joe Harriott revisited: Free Form (1960) Jazzland Stereo

Previously posted in 2013 for mono format. It was early days, could do better,  so I decided to rewrite rather than just repair.  This update expands on the musical contribution of Harriott, with more links, new pictures, new rips, more musical insight, possibly better jokes, you decide.

Selection: Calypso Sketches (Harriott)

.   .   .

An interesting hybrid composition, Harriott’s West Indian roots confected with the search for new musical expression from jazz treading water in the late ’50s, in need of new inspiration.


Shake Keane (trumpet) Joe Harriott (alto saxophone) Pat Smythe (piano) Coleridge Goode (bass) Phil Seamen (drums) recorded London, England, 1960, engineer Adrian Kerridge.

Jamaica-born Joe Harriott was one of several Caribbean jazz musicians who arrived in Britain in the 1950s, including Dizzy Reece, Harold McNair, Harry Beckett and Wilton Gaynair.  All apart from Beckett were pupils of the Alpha Boys School, Kingston Jamaica, famed for its musical tuition

Harriott was one of the few British jazz players to  receive international recognition, along with trumpeter Dizzy Reece and our very own counterweight to Cannonball, our self-described corpulent saxophonist and Man in a Hurry,  Edward Brian Tubby” Hayes.

Recorded under the personal supervision of Denis Preston, one of the few independent producers on the British jazz scene of the 50’s and 60’s and the mastermind behind the independently produced EMI Lansdowne Jazz Series through his company Record Supervision Ltd.  Business-savvy too.


At the outset a bebopper of the school of Charlie Parker, altoist Harriott and his quintet were a leading  light of the London’s burgeoning West End jazz scene of the late ’50s, delivering solid audience-pleasing mainstream post-bop of the American persuasion at the Flamingo, Star Club or the Marquee. I missed this era owing to being in short trousers at the time.

Riverside/Jazzland’s Orrin Keepnews seemed willing to take a chance on publishing British jazz artists in the States, our finest players: Don Rendell, Joe Harriott, and Tubby Hayes. Cover art not being Jazzland’s greatest strength, we go from jazz-club date, to cheesecake date, to a jazz message – not from Mobley but from  Dickensian Britain: “Lawks a-Mercy be orf with you, rascal!”  So British.

In addition to Harriott’s Free Form, Jazzland offered the oddly-titled for an export to America, Southern Horizons (pictured centre above), two Harriott sessions recorded in London in ’59 and ’60. As far as I know London swings, but has never swung below your Southern border, Gringos. The Southern reference is to British jazz pianist-composer Harry South, though your average Nuyoiker wouldn’t likely know that, hence the Union Jack  clue and almost demure English-rose cover girl, one button short of a wardrobe malfunction. I know, it’s about selling records…

In the early 60s, Harriott  began to  chart his own course with the concept of “free form”, not the New Thing  of Ornette Coleman, but something also new, a replacement of conventional melodic and rhythmic narrative by abstract forms and non-linear progressions, mirroring the evolution of painting from conventional representation to the abstract, the lines, shapes and colours of so-called “modern art”.

Three albums recorded between 1960 and 1963 laid out Harriott’s Abstract Manifesto, one on Jazzland (selection), and two on UK Columbia Magic Notes, Abstract, and Movement.

Harriott’s destination was not the experimental free jazz, or free-for-all jazz of the later ’60s, but nicely summed up by the cover of “Free Form“, a tightly-constructed abstraction, angular and geometric excursions cutting quickly from one tempo and direction to another, melody from disembodied fragments, solos comprised of flourishes, repetition, group improvisation. He does not employ tools like dissonance, the music flows, jaunty motifs and quirky melody,  searching neither for the groove nor spirituality, but for something else harder to pin down: abstraction.

Though Harriott could play fast and was fluent in vocabulary of bebop, the subsequent solo space offered each musician in the quintet the opportunity to throw in any ideas that sprang to them, not constrained to improvising  around the main theme. The only convention not overturned was the drum-solo, which in retrospect, sounds dated: the drummer should be soloing throughout.

In retrospect, Harriott succeeded in putting “surprise” back into Whitney  Balliett’s definition of jazz, “the Sound of Surprise“. To borrow from the very excellent  HenryBebop jazz writer’s site:

“The three LPs of ‘abstract music’ that Joe made (Free Form, Abstract and Movement)  are considered by many to be the peak of his musical career on record.


Phil Seamen had replaced Bobby Orr on drums for most of the albums and the group’s methods became more adventurous with the passing of time.


The music was not to everybody’s taste, it had come too far from conventional jazz for many people. With it’s use of strings of short fierce stabbing notes, it’s dispensation of fixed tempos or harmonies and collective spells of group free improvisation or silence it left many listeners baffled.”

Seems not everyone was up for surprises, the price paid by those who push boundaries. The seed Harriot planted however grew into distinctive oeuvre (look it up), cutting the chord from mother America, quintessentially British jazz, heading towards the quirky eclectic compositions found in Michael Garrick, Ian Carr/ Don Rendell pieces of the mid to late ’60s, before the game was up and, having seen the Weather Report, most everyone took a raincheck and retired to the Jazz Rock Café for a large and very long drink. Decades long.

In the mid to late Sixties, after Abstraction, Harriot turned to Indo-jazz fusion, a  novel genre at the time which sought to  partner the jazz aesthetic with Indian classical music and its attendant spiritual mysticism. This movement extended to the  mid-’70s with indo-jazzrock fusion like John Mclaughlin’s Shakti. By now in long trousers, I did see them.

Soon everyone in London was greeting each other palms together in front of the third eye, bowing the head. No air-kissing then.

Returning to the groove came  collaboration with Indian guitarist Amancio da Silva giving birth to the iconic Lansdowne album  Hum Dono – another essential disc of every jazz-DJ’s premium collection (British DJ’s ‘s bankable  One Thousand Pound Note vinyl).

Harriott had touched many bases, who knows where he could have gone next, but his journey was cut short sadly by cancer, in 1973. The oft-quoted epitaph on his headstone read:

Parker? There’s them over here can play a few aces too.”

Vinyl: Jazzland JLP 949 US pressing

A session  recorded in London at Lansdowne Studios, Holland Park. I guess Preston would have shipped a multi-track tape off to Keepnews, who had Abbey re-master  press it for vinyl release in the US in both mono and stereo.  The audio quality is on the bright side, not quite the rich spaciousness of some of my other Lansdowne recordings, or may be that’s how it was envisaged.

From its catalogue number, JLP 949 Free Form would have been released in late 1961, which is around the time of the transition from deep groove and no deep groove. This copy has no dg side 1 and a narrow dg side 2, similar copies found on line, the discogs entry for stereo  has the same distinguishing marks. Many titles around this catalogue number are both dg and no dg. The only promo I could find of Free Form was mono and significantly, not deep groove:

Some of my Jazzland record pressings are not the quietest, with a tendency towards excess background surface noise. Their choice of pressing plant, as for US Riverside,  was varied and some open to question but as with all these things, you want vintage original, that’s the only way it comes. 

What is interesting, which I missed first time around,  is Side 2 has a small pin-etched “AB” at 10 o’clock:  bingo! Abbey Mfg.  – Quality Street!

In case you hadn’t already got the message, the back jacket has a large…abstract…painting, paint strokes, like an Rorschach ink-blot test. If you stare at it long enough you will see … birds sitting on tree branches, or is that just me?

Our resident shrink at LJC weighs in: “Verhy interesting, Andrew, you zee lidl birdies, hmm, but not ze nakid ladies I zee, eh? “

Collectors corner: the LondonJazz Concierge is on duty

The LJC Jazz Concierge Service is on hand to help improve visitor’s day. Just throw the car-keys in at reception, we also do valet parking, any collateral damage is at owner’s risk.

Reader David B loves Harriott but was in two minds: should he seek out the mono or the stereo?  Take the ink-blot test again if it helps. He wisely sought LJC counsel, and  fortunately I have both formats.

Neither vinyl condition is perfect, some light scratches  intrude occasionally and briefly, this is not a beauty contest, it is about format preference. Also I noticed a big difference in the gain between the two formats. The stereo was very quiet, had to turn the gain up nearly double compared to the rip of the mono. As a result, one may be unpredictably louder. Again, this is not a volume contest but about format preference, but if these factors expose weaknesses, so be it.

Without comparison, you know something, but nothing about what something could be. I recommend comparison. It’s a lot of fun, you learn a lot through it, and  carry that knowledge forward to guide future choices. At a high-end hi-fi show I attended recently in Windsor, Mike Valentine of Chasing The Dragon, gave us a beauty parade of different resolution samples starting with basic CD 44.1kHz though to 192 something, direct cut disc and reel to reel tape, audiophile Nirvana, every step audible improvement. You have to hear it to really understand the first sentence of this paragraph.

Here is the Free Form track Formation, the mono, and the stereo, for comparison.

JLP-49: Formation (Harriot) – mono issue.

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JLP-949S: Formation (Harriott) – stereo issue

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My thoughts: Lansdowne Studios, London were a very fine studio, great engineers, I have some electrifying recordings from them. For 1960, the stereo image is greatly superior to some of the hard-panning from certain US engineers I could name who still “thought in mono” at that time. And I have great American pressings, it is not a red-coat grudge match.

Both mono and stereo are very bright, strident even and lacking “body”. Perhaps that is what artists intended  and engineers on both sides of the Atlantic, but if there is something wrong, it is quality lost in translation, from tapes from England to mastering and pressing of those recordings for Jazzland.

In this case, I prefer the mono over the stereo, for a host of reasons, but I am not sure either does justice to the recording, but I wasn’t there and that is the two flavours it comes in, choice is yours.

Any thoughts about Joe Harriott, the music, the format, weigh in, the floor is yours, what do I know?

10 thoughts on “Joe Harriott revisited: Free Form (1960) Jazzland Stereo

  1. Love the post! Joe Harriott is largely unknown, even among serious jazz fans. While the Jazzland albums are exceedingly hard to come by, US pressings of “Abstract” pop up regularly. I make it a habit to buy every clean pressing I find – and then find a good home for them with my jazz collector mates. Keep spinning!

  2. The stereo mix seems quite well considered here, perhaps the horns playing together in real space in front of a stereo pair?

    I wonder if these rather hotly cut records would sound better played on a microline stylus like the AT 440ML.

  3. Hi,
    No multitrack sent over to US, only a couple of quarter inch dupe tapes (or possibly one 2-track stereo dupe that was folded to mono for the US edition. Has anyone checked if the US and UK monos sound the same?)

  4. I only have the CD reissue of this (and ABSTRACT) but will admit that I rarely play them — possibly because from memory the sound is rather brittle. I must dig them out and reassess.

    Harriott is an important but tragic figure in the British jazz scene and although it has been a long time since I read it Alan Robertson’s biography FIRE IN HIS SOUL (2008) is worth looking out.

    • I concur with you regarding the book. A couple of short fragments from there:

      (1) On one occasion in the Star Club, Joe and I were having a pint when some of the Basie Orchestra walked in to have a jam with the Alan Clare Trio, having previously finished a gig. The Basie boys commensed their jam session. Joe sat very still and quiet. After about three numbers Joe got his alto sax out of its case and stood at the end of the line of players. In his usual ‘aloof’ manner, he nodded to the other players and joined in. I wish I had a picture to see their faces when Joe took his solos. He was brilliant and so were the expressions on their faces. He carried on doing a few more numbers and they were still very impressed. He then came offstage, nodded to the musicians, put his sax away, came over to me and said: “Let’s go.” That was Joe.

      (2) Del Turner was stationed as a serviceman in RAF Honnington from 1957 to 1964 and organized the jazz club. ‘We got all the big names from the London jazz scene. I got to know Joe quite well. We had him at Honnington quite a few times. One Christmas we took him over to the sergeants’ mess. There were lots of sergeants there, pretty drunk… and in walks Joe: black, very smart, debonair and very serious.’ Turner recounted the conversation: ‘Who’s he?’ “He’s Joe Harriott, the great sax player.’ ‘Tell him to play something.”He wants you to play, mate.’ Harriott took out his sax, got up onto the table and played ‘the most ravishing version of ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ I’ve ever heard in life. He just tore it apart. There was a silence in the mess throughout his playing which extended seconds after it. At the end the whole place was erupted. The majority weren’t even jazz fans.’

  5. i almost always prefer mono, for the stupidest reason.

    i hate how early stereo is instrusively advertised on the cover. mono is usually stately and modest. stereo is usually in huge letters or all across the top, or otherwise smashed into the artwork somewhere and ruins the aesthetics! impulse and atlantic are notable exceptions.

    • also, ever since my first visit to britain last winter, i have felt weirdly pulled towards these ‘british’ sessions. haven’t gotten any, but i have been looking. britain fascinates me for a few reasons.

  6. I have the stereo issue of this LP.Both sides have the pin etched AB but it’s still a lousy pressing even though it’s been in my collection since new and ,visually,looks great!

    Joe stayed with an acquaintance of mine,Don Vincent, in Andover ,Hants, for a time towards the end of his life, and played in a local pub as often as he could with Jeff Dawe’s trio.Jeff is a pianist who now lives in Blagnac ,France,and I assume is still teaching and playing although I lost touch with him ages ago.In those days Don Vincent used to run the Andover Jazz Society and hold regular record sessions at his house.

    I saw Joe play live on many occasions prior to this and his playing always impressed.

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