Harold McNair: The Fence (1970) B&C Records

Selection: Scarborough Fair (trad, arr. P Simon)

..  . . .


Harold McNair, flute, alto saxophone, electric sax; Danny Thompson, string bass; Ric Grech, bass guitar; Terry Cox, drums; Tony Carr, percussion; Colin Green, guitar; Alan Branscombe, Keith Tippett, piano; recording engineer Vic Gamm at Sound Techniques, Chelsea; producer Sandy Roberton.

WARNING: encyclopaedic knowledge of late ’60s Britsh Pop Music is essential beyond this point. However any without may find it “educational”.

The line-up on The Fence is a veritable who’s who of the then-new  generation of young British jazz, blues, folk, R&B and rock musicians. Notables include Keith Tippett–  session piano for prog-rock kings King Crimson, 1970. Another 60’s/ 70’s supergroup represented  is Pentangle, in the form of of Danny Thompson (bass) and Terry Cox (drums). Colin Green (guitar) a feature of Georgie Flame and The Blue Flames, and Alan Price – who is also associated with Tony Carr (percussion). Alan Branscombe played sideman with Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey, Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster, and toured in Europe with Stan Getz, some of whom you may have heard of.

According to various record reviewers, the uncredited organ player is one or other of the contributing pianists –  Branscombe  or Tippett. In fact the most likely suspect is  Stevie Winwood , fellow bandmate of bassist here Ric Grech (both in Eric Clapton’s Blind Faith). Stepping out of his previous incarnation, Traffic, he sounds the part, cooking away in a cheerful manner. Perhaps there were contractual issues with Winwood’s name appearing, or, Occams Razor,  someone just forgot.


True Confessions. as someone who dismissed flute as an instrument whose only virtue is it’s portability, I need to eat a slice of humble pie. A large slice.

Immediately I heard Harold McNair I was blown away. He has a driving  rhythmic pulse with high energy ideas and attack. His solo lines are structured devilishly like Jimmy Smith Hammond organ, rapid-fire sorties punctuated with stabbing climaxes in the upper register, cascading notes scattering in every direction. It is a helter-skelter fun-fair ride with no safety rail.

McNair is flute like no other, not to say there aren’t similarities with Roland Kirk, of course, but he’s an American. Completely different.

The selection Scarborough Fair lays down the familiar Paul Simon opening, much as you might with  the similar traditional tune Greensleeves (but Coltrane as Freddie Krueger, lurking in the background) The tune quickly gives way to a modal vamp based loosely on the melody, opening up large scale solo space. Characteristically modest, McNair gives solo space first to the other musicians, who aquit themselves well.

Only once the other soloists are done, flute steps in and warms up.  In first gear, McNair is bubbling and expressive, twittering and tweeting. As tension mounts, McNair moves up a gear,  starts vocalising through the flute, a fiendish reincarnation of Roland Kirk. When tension has  become almost unbearable,  a screaming banshee wail rips out, when I first heard it caused me to  jumped out of my seat  In climax, the power and the timing is incendiary!

McNair was a genius who turned that  harmless piece of  plumbing into a military-grade assault weapon. You have to love him, so sad we lost him so soon, but so glad his music is preserved forever on vinyl.

Vinyl: B&C Records CAS 1016

Gatefold: large expanse of wasted space (typical ’70s)  with small  inset pictures of various characters in possesion of pink balloons. Remember this, pink balloons, it will become useful to you later on in the story of The Fence.

Collector’s Corner

There is just one essential item missing with my copy of The Fence. See the little pink pocket at the top left corner? Can you see how the value of the album is enhanced when this item is present in the pocket? This seller has a great line in sharp patter,  (shame his caps-lock appears stuck!) worth a read:

I have to say, this was in the Seventies, a different social climate.  Today, that pink flaccid lengthy balloon looks like something I can’t mention in a family-oriented blog. So it’s probably just as well it is missing. Anyway, how could you authenticate it as genuine ’70s original rubber? Blow it?

Thinking of Harold McNair, Marc “Jazz Wax”  Meyers (an excellent  jazz writer)  featured The London Sixties Soho Scene in his daily post the other week. Someone looking over my shoulder,or  is it a case of great minds think alike? Screen grabs from Jazz Wax. (Health Warning: contains pictures of people smoking)

Marc Meyers Soho Scene

I’ll omit the plug for the Jazz Goes Mod series CD as The Evil Silver Disc is banished, this is a vinyl site,but you can find it yourself if you really try. Just ask Alexa.


Harold McNair – a picture I’d not seen before, deserves a place, one not sitting on The Fence.

Proof British jazz is alive and well, the other Sunday it was my great pleasure to enjoy a couple of sets by our very own Simon Spillett Quartet. Not quite Soho, Croydon actually, in South East London. The formidable  tenor saxophone of Simon Spillett; Alec Dankworth, son of Johnny Dankworth, on bass; Spike Wells (alumnus of the Tubby Hayes Quartet) on drums, Robin Aspland on piano, (highly regarded in jazz circles, apparently spent years touring with Van Morrison)

The quartet’s reading of Alone Together (Schwartz/ Dietz) was particularly fine. Bravo Simon and the boys.

Among all the bluster about audophile this and that,  “musicians in the room,”  stereo soundstage,  a live club (OK, pub) performance is a useful reminder what the real thing sounds like, musicians actually in the room about six feet in front of you. All-acoustic apart from the piano, electric of necessity.  The deep resonance of an upright string bass is like nothing I hear on records, the crisp attack of the tenor, and the sizzling sibilance of the cymbals. Oh, and everything else. Fabulous.




14 thoughts on “Harold McNair: The Fence (1970) B&C Records

  1. ‘On the Fence’ over this one. Had another listen to the CD reissue – it’s an enjoyable enough session, sort of ‘jazz pub rock’, very much of its time. Quite nicely recorded though.

    McNair’s first RCA album is superior, IMO.

  2. this record is a real mystery in my 50 years record seeking life, a mystery for me. I’ve never seen it, never heard the music, never interested to non American Jazz BUT for an unknown reason it was on my very first want list, compiled in early 70’s. I looked for it anywhere I could at the time but never found. I believe I have good memory and I remember where I bought almost all of my records. re The Fence I see fog only.

    • This is a first – I have a record you dont have! Having seen your extensive posts and extremely impressive record collection,I count myself lucky.

      I got a copy for a few pounds about three months ago from a charity shop but it was in poor condition I recognized some top quality musicians on there including McNair and Tippet .I was so impressed I found another copy in excellent condition on Ebay for a reasonable price.

      Its worth searching out (great music, well engineered and produced) ,along with a lot of other obscure British modern jazz from the 60s and 70s

  3. Good post – superb album!
    My copy doesn’t have the balloon

    Interesting theory that it’s Winwood on the Hammond B3.

    • I think it works for a number of reasons, the personnel on the record being one, but also that B&C was part of The Island Record set -up (Beat & Commercial, which was I think what Island’s initial distribution set up was called). So good call LJC

    • The Winwood theory might very well be true. Apart from B&C records being an Island Records subsidiary (which Winwood in the band Traffic was signed to at the time), Harold McNair , Ric Grech (bassist on this album) and Steve Winwood were all featured on the “Ginger Baker’s Airforce” live album the same year (very jazz/fusion kind of work). So it may very well be him on Hammond.

  4. Don’t back down now, the Flute sucks, shouldn’t ever be allowed in music, just like the saxophone should be banished from all rock n roll (talking to you Bowie & the Boss). My god what’s come over your LJC?

    • There is a great satirical site, where recently it was claimed that obese people were sueing manufacturers of knives and forks for their condition. I agree flute is mostly horrid. But, is it a problem of the flute, or the person playing the flute? I don’t know, but I love Mcnair.

      • I’ll advance a theory. I think it’s partly a problem with the instrument itself, and partly a problem of musicians getting mixed up about the purpose of the flute. You see, I think there are a clutch of instruments — flute, oboe, piccolo — that should never have been considered as solo instruments in jazz. (Yes, I know that at one time people thought this of the tenor sax.) As part of an ensemble these instruments are fine. But something about them when used as solo instruments always sounds dated and unnecessary.

        Perhaps it’s that the flute naturally lacks ‘attack’ and that to elevate it above other instruments and make it sound exciting its players always resort to theatricality and gimmicks?

        We’ve rehearsed the honourable exceptions to the flute rule before — Rivers, Dolphy et al — but I still think they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

        And dare I add that even in these hands it is still very, very easy indeed to have too much flute.

        Asbestos trousers now firmly in place.

        • Broadening the discussion a bit, the flute or similar sounding instruments have played an important part in the development of modern jazz in the post bop and avant garde arenas. I couldnt imagine Out to Lunch without Dophys flute and traditional African and Middle/Far Eastern flute and other wind instruments have been used successfully to explore new ideas, particularly in harmony etc by Pharaoh Sanders,AEC, and Don Cherry. An interesting Brit jazz avant garde flautist is Bob Downes who produced a couple of experimental type albums back in the 70s, one of which is pretty hard to get hold of. McNair remains my firm favourite though, especially on The Fence album .Few musicians can use the flute in a jazz ,blues and funk type of context so convincingly.As LJC says, McNairs attack ( effectively vocalizing through the flute) makes you jump out of your seat!

  5. Love that line about: “…a harmless piece of plumbing…” LJC and glad you enjoyed your trip out to see Simon Spillett.

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