Harold McNair: self-titled (1972) B&C Records

Selection: The Hipster (McNair)

. . .

Spike Heatley, bass; Tony Carr,  drums; Harold McNair, flute, tenor saxophone; Bill Le Sage, piano; recording engineer (1968 session) Barry Sheffield,

In 1968, engineer Barry Sheffield co-founded Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court, Soho, coincidentally just around the corner from the offices of B&C Records in Soho Square. Small world, tin pan alley. As well as Harold McNair Quartet, Sheffield’s credits at this time include recording doom metal  band Black Sabbath, and polar-opposite, the quintessentially British Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.(Canyons Of Your Mind anyone?)

McNair was one of the Alpha Boys School from Kingston, Jamaica, alongside Joe Harriot, Dizzy Reece and Harry Becket. He moved to Britain in the ’60s with the other boys, and rose up the British jazz scene as a formidable flute, alto and tenor sax player, performing regularly at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club. Of special note, the Harold McNair Quartet is credited with two tracks (Harry Flicks and Tangerine) on the fabulous Zoot at Ronnie Scotts album recorded live in London, November 13 to 15th 1961. I had overlooked McNair’s presence on the album, rediscovering it only while researching Harold for this post. A McNair “album” hidden within another album I already had, that is a bonus!

The impeccably well-researched British jazz archivist Henry Bebop picks up the story:

” In London in 1960 McNair worked with Stan Tracey and played a residency at Ronnie Scott’s before returning to the Bahamas. After work in New York with Quincy Jones he returned to London mid 1961 for club bookings and work with Charlie Mingus in the film All Night Long. He led his own band in the UK in the early 1960s and also worked with the Phil Seamen Quartet in 1966 as well as freelancing extensively…..His Parkeresque alto, Rollins-influenced tenor and superb flute playing impressed the London jazz scene in the early 1960s but he probably arrived too late for many.

His flute was heavily featured on the soundtrack for Ken Loach’s film ‘Kes’, as was his tenor saxophone on the original 1962 soundtrack theme from the Bond film ‘Dr. No’. “

Playing on a big film soundtracks earned him good session fees I hope, but musically, ask anyone, who played tenor in the John Barry Orchestra sound track to Dr. No Your starter for ten… blank… Dr No’s main theme is a twanging guitar, ending with congas in a calypso. But film and TV session fees is what kept musicians roof over their heads and food on the table. All paid work is good.

In the studio, McNair led three British albums, the first, self-titled (1968), then a big band with orchestration – Flute And Nut (1969),  and a nod in the direction of fusion, The Fence (1970) , also issued on B&C Records. The rhythm section contains three stalwarts of British jazz of the time, musicians who have graced many bands and sessions with their talents. No more titles were forthcoming as McNair’s career was cut short in 1971, by cancer, at the age of only 39. Who knows what might have followed, but nature is indifferent to merit.


McNair’s flauting, if that is the right word, is powerful, wordless voicing strongly reminiscent of Roland Kirk. Anyone mention Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, go stand in the corner (on one leg). This is jazz, not prog-rock.

The selection The Hipster is part of the essential Jazz Club Scene playlist, alongside Paul Gonslaves Boom Jackie Boom Chick, similarly carried by a wickedly driving piano groove. Whilst all the tracks have merit, The Hipster is so stand out it is impossible not to choose it. It can also be found on the Giles Petersen compilation Impressed 2. As I have previously posted The Hipster, as part of the Giles Petersen early noughties jazz compilation doubles, it seems only fair to add a fresh selection from McNair:.

Bonus Track: Lord of The Reedy River (Donovan) Yes, the gap-toothed mop-hair folk-idol Donovan!  Just call me  Mellow Yellow. (The Lord in the Reedy River title is a swan)

. . .

Flute has never been my thing, something I would generally avoid, but McNair has totally won me over, hard and swinging. Arranger John Cameron said of McNair:

 “once he got the feel of a chart, his interpretation and resonance were magic. And I loved the different sounds he got on the flute—the spitting, growling and singing vibe….. I don’t know why Harold didn’t become a huge star globally. His saxophone playing was really something, but his flute playing was the best jazz flute I had ever heard. I still rate it the best ever in jazz.” (Mark Myers interview)

Vinyl: B&C Records CAS 1045 (1972)

This self-titled album was issued posthumously in 1972, by B&C Records, mixing tracks from the Harold McNair Quartet ” Harold McNair ” 1968, RCA Victor SF 7969  self-titled album with the previously unreleased track “Spacecraft”, recorded in 1970

Harold McNair RCA Victor 1968

The original RCA Victor title is approaching Holy Grail territory – Discogs has only one seller, asking a modest  £500. The three standards on Side 2 of the RCA Victor edition have been replaced with the Spacecraft recording, sparing you Secret LoveOn a Clear Day You Can See Forever,  and Darn That Dream.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the recording, very strong piece of engineering for a relatively unknown label. Turns out that original recording in 1968 was in fact for Decca, likely at  Barry Sheffield’s newly opened Trident Studios in Soho.

B&C Records, Soho, London: B & C stands for ‘Beat & Commercial’. It has close links to the label Mooncrest. but its closest link was to Tony Stratton-Smith and his Charisma Label. B&C shared its CAS catalogue number with Charisma. Stratton-Smith was best known as manager of rock groups The Nice, Van der Graaf Generator and Genesis. I recall seeing The Nice, someone climbing all over his organ. I guess I could have phrased that better.

Collector’s Corner

My favourite London record store (don’t ask) had just bought a good jazz collection of around 150 titles, including the three Harold McNair titles. At the same time as the McNair self-titled album, I picked up a copy of his last album, The Fence., but  passed on Flute and Nut due to the overwhelming presence of orchestral arrangements. Among the other albums on the wall  was the original Rendell Carr  “Live” album, as well as the early  Nucleus Ian Carr titles.

The Live album had sold more or less instantly, at just short of £300. I commented to the man behind the counter that surprised me, given the Jazzman reissue could be bought for less than £20 and was in my opinion sonically indistinguishable. It’s the collector thing, he said almost wearily. Some people just want the original. I nodded sympathetically. “A piece of history.”. On the wall, an original copy of Jimmy Hendrix Are You Experienced, Black Sabbath, and many other ’60s iconic albums.  He spends all day selling pieces of history.

Access can be had to millions of songs at the press of a button, unlimited choice,  but some people want a piece of history. That’s rather nice, and I guess I must be one of them. Nice, Monday is antiques day – brocante – on Nice’s Cours Saleya flower market: sets of silver spoons, art deco posters, odd light fittings, and on one stall, records. With expectations set to near zero, I thumbed through the section optimistically labelled “Jazz”. Lo and behold among the fusion dross and 80’s reissues, a Fontana 10″ OST,  Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud, with a significant price tag.

Miles Davis, Lift To The Scaffold, recorded in Paris, December 4, 1957, original LP 10-inch issue: Fontana 660.213 MR,. Barney Wilen on tenor saxophone, René Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass,  Kenny Clarke on drums. Saxophonist Barney Wilen grew up in Nice, will have strolled through the same streets here. As I studied the record, maybe he was looking over my shoulder, smiling.  Feeling brave, I didn’t actually need the record as I already have a 12″ later issue, I made a speculative proposition, two thirds of what he was asking. After a long pause, the Discogs price history photocopy with the record, I was surprised but we agreed the price. (Noted below, a second pressing)

Ease out the record out of the cover, and air from the 1950s escapes, a waft of French perfume, a whiff of Gauloise, aroma of the boulangerie, exhaust from a 2CV.  Miles and the boys turn out the studio lights, a black and white screen flickers, fragments of music rise.

It’s a physical thing. My turn to take home a piece of history. Well, almost a piece of history, there were earlier 10″covers, earliest without film awards in small text above the title. Mine looks to be 1959 rather than 1958. Oh well. Close enough.

1958 1959 covers

I wish I’d never started this, the First Pressing Fundamentalists are circling!

Digging a little deeper (isn’t that how it often happens?) the labels of the very first press 1958 differ from the later pressing:
Same pudding bowl pressing die, but different label typesetting and paper colour between 1958 and 1959. There may have been three sequential cover print runs, but only two label print-runs. The money question is whether the vinyl matrix codes indicate the same master cutting, so effectively sounding the same.

16 thoughts on “Harold McNair: self-titled (1972) B&C Records

  1. I’ve been researching Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud lately. Oh if only it were as simple as three cover variants and two label variants! Brace yourself for some First Pressing Fundamentalism…

    Labels are the easiest to deal with: I’ve been able to identify three variants: the two you’ve pictured Andy (the pale green/red one being the earlier) plus another pale green/red one that has condensed typography rather like that on the dark green variant. BTW on your copy is all the text in silver or grey? Same question about the circle that contains the “33T/M”? It’s hard to tell the difference on photographs. They’re all lovely labels – much nicer than the UK Fontanas.

    Deep breath… Cover variants. I concur with Dott about the three basic versions as per Andy’s picture. However, there is an additional complication because the text below the photo credit in the bottom left corner of the front cover is sometimes in French “Fabrique en France” and sometimes in English “Made in France”. The version with this wording in French and no other additional wording about the Prix Louis Delluc or Academie Ch. Cros is the earliest in my opinion. BTW, for all but the first version, there is addition wording about the Prix Louis Delluc on the rear of the cover above the Fontana logo.

    Two further complications: first there appear to be very rare instances of early copies having a sort-of horizontal French equivalent to an obi in what looks like brown card or paper to advertise the Academie Ch. Cros prize. Second, in a cruel twist of fate, there’s actually a way to identify the month and year in which the covers were printed which opens the prospect of extremely fine grained identification of the earliest copies. At the bottom of the rear cover there is a credit to the printer F. Richir which usually ends with a two or three digit number. The first one or two digits identify the month and the last digit identifies the year. For example 98 would be September 1958, 108 would be October 1958 etc. The latest date I’ve found on a cover so far is 99 for September 1959 but I would be interested if anybody has seen later ones. My theory is that they stopped at the end of 1959 and any covers without a date were printed later than that. The earliest code I’ve seen is 18 for January 1958 and I reckon this must be the first given that the recording sessions were on 4-5 December 1957.

  2. Re. your comment about Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. I was a great Jethro Tull fan in the late-60s/early-70s, I will admit that. But Ian Anderson did shamelessly rip off Roland Kirk, didn’t he:

  3. Good to know you’ve found your way to The Hipster! It’s one of those real earworm tunes. Might lead you to the Florian Pelissier cover version since you seem to have a penchant for things French.

    It would also be remiss of me to fail to mark your card with McNair’s rarest LP: Affectionate Fink. Now that’s a really tough one to track down.

    • I was just about to write that! Affectionate Fink is the bomb. With Ornette Coleman’s backing band! I found one last year for €500. I grabbed it, and any momentary buyer’s remorse was neutralized when I spent a weekend listening to it for four days straight. It’s that good.

  4. Harold McNair album The Fence – brilliant album.Highly recommended. Found a battered copy recently in a charity shop His playing was highly inventive and energised and he was capable of using many techniques in order to deliver effortlessly long driving solos – I think this is the best jazz flute Ive heard. In excellent company with Rick Grech and Danny Thompson basses, Tony Carr percussion,Terry Cox Drums,Alan Branscombe and Keith Tippet pianos/Hammond Organ and Colin Green guitar. Tippets piano and Greens guitar are particularly outstanding. I was intrigued to see a big square paper torn patch completely ruining the front cover of the album causing me to put it back in the rack initially.However, I discovered that this had originally been occupied by an envelope containing a free purple balloon (rather than a reduced price sticker)!The envelope and ballon were long gone,but a nice idea, maybe life was better back in 1970 ! Great album.

  5. Well, if jazz flute has never been your thing and McNair has flicked that switch in your brain, then you have to check out Yusef Lateef.

    Barry Harris is something else on that album.

    • This and about six of Lateef’s Savoy lps, all brilliant. I have a live (in Los Angeles?) early Barry Harris trio album, it was the surprise of the year finally getting around to listening to it, wonderful. Does anyone else remember the sign on the window of Rays Jazz Shop covent garden. “We have records by everyone from Barry Harris to Harry Barris”.

      • Yes, I’m old enough to remember that ! The adverts for Ray’s included in the old Jazz Journal also used to include that one plus other similar witty quips.

  6. there are at least three versions of this issue.
    third: “PRIX LOUIS DELLUC 1957”
    second: “PRIX LOUIS DELLUC 1957”
    first: no text
    I’ve had all three versions which differ for the text only.
    it’s a great record with a great history behind.
    the only fault is the soft cover, rarely in perfect shape.

  7. Nice catch! The first issue is withouten text “prix Louis delluc 1957” on cover,so this is as far as I know a second pressing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s