Selection: The Hipster (McNair)
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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)
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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
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 Love, On 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.
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.
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.