Selection: Kingside Breakthrough (Wakeman)
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Audio note: As I am not currently able to access vinyl, the above selection is a 320kb MP3 reduction, from a 16-bit WAV file kindly supplied by Gearbox. As a result I refrain from any comments on audio quality. I will update in future, date unknown.
Jazz Workshop 1969
Alan Wakeman, tenor sax, clarinet; Alan Skidmore, tenor sax, flute; Mike Osborne, alto sax, clarinet; Paul Rutherford, Paul Nieman, trombone; John Taylor, piano; Lindsay Cooper, bass; Paul Lytton, drums.
Jazz in Britain 1979
Alan Wakeman, tenor sax, soprano sax; Alan Skidmore, tenor sax; Art Themen, tenor sax; Henry Lowther, trumpet; Paul Rutherford, trombone; Gordon Beck, piano; Chris Lawrence, bass; Nigel Morris, drums.
Gearbox: ‘The Octet Broadcasts’ consists of two separate BBC radio sessions that took place in 1969 and 1979, featuring two one-off, yet distinctive ensembles that represent a ‘Golden Age’ of British jazz from that particular era….an enticing fusion of hard bop, free jazz, pastoral melodic lines, and transcendent soloing.
Alan Wakeman has been active part of the British music scene since the 1960s. His playing and compositional style is much influenced by those who break tradition, yet still manage to maintain it, including Ornette Coleman’s double quartet, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane’s Ascension.
From a recent interview Alan Wakeman with Martin Chilton for London Jazz News:
Chilton: ”Wakeman says the sessions reflected the Ellington concept of the musicians making the music. “Writing for jazz ensembles has always necessitated leaving space for improvising,” remarks Wakeman. “If you can present a musician in an atmosphere he feels at home in, he’ll sound at one with everything that’s going on. Duke Ellington expanded on the small band concept of freedom within the ensemble to presenting complete arrangements dedicated to one musician and his exclusive approach. I just tried to carry on the tradition – freedom within a ‘helpful’ structure.”
Jazz broadcasts by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) were a feature of 60’s- 70’s radio, set in a somewhat high-minded tone compared to it’s more commercial youth-oriented output, notably in the area of Progressive Rock, and “Top Of The Pops”.
The Introduction and Conclusion here is by Charles Fox, jazz critic, author, broadcaster and journalist. Fox’s lifetime memorabilia, bequeathed to the National Jazz Archive, included Christmas cards from Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Evans, a personal diary from 1966 with an appointment with Ornette Coleman on Easter Monday, in addition, hundreds of casette tapes of broadcasts about jazz. On this session however, his contribution is mainly reading out for radio listeners the names of all the musicians and their instruments, not the best use of space, which you probably won’t wish to repeat each play.
Of the musical content, Fox notes the title references to chess, used thematically for the tracks of the 1979 session, the origins of chess in 5th Century North West India, and one of the tunes being based on an Indian raga. None of which is especially illuminating, but a reminder of the flirtation between jazz and Indian music at this time (clasps hands together, bowed head, points to third eye…) The chess references are fairly oblique, chess being essentially a two-player adversarial combat game, popular in the decades before mobile phones offered low-brow solitary alternatives like Donkey Kong. However it adds an interesting conceptual-dialogue unity.
The first track of the 1979 session is titled Chaturaṅga, the original Indian name of chess, which translates as four divisions of the military: infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry, represented by the pawn, knight, bishop, and rook. This little nugget of information may serve you well in a pub quiz, if pubs ever re-open.
The substance of the music is a fusion of arranged Ellingtonian small big band sections meeting improvised and dissonant passages, interspersed with brief moments of chaos. British Jazz, drawing on but freed from its American roots. The chaos sounds a hat-tip to the climax of Pithycanthopus Erectus, 23 years its’ junior.
Wakeman’s octet is comprised of (or padded out with) famous-name jazz luminaries of the day, many of who perform mostly as foot-soldiers in the arrangements, including three tenors -Wakeman, Alan Skidmore and Art Themen. The star’s in the improvised sections that I could pick out are Henry Lowther’s commanding trumpet, Gordon Beck’s articulate piano, and Wakeman’s own blistering saxophone attack. Getting to these high spots requires navigating an array of pastoral pieces, church hymnal pieces, meandering openings, a lengthy self-indulgent arco passage, a deliberately uneven composed mix. Very British Jazz.
The 1969 sessions are potentially more interesting but I have had a chance to listen only to the first track, more dense, sounds more modern than the 1979 session. More to discover.
Alan Wakeman can also be found in the line up of Graham Collier Music, Songs For My Father and Mosiacs, both issued in 1970, providing a bridge to British Jazz of the period to attune your ear. It is a long way north of the swinging jazz of the Tubby Hayes era, and a million miles west of jazz rock fusion which dominated the decade. Which is why these British Jazz records as originals are relatively rare – because they didn’t sell. Good for Gearbox adding more availability.
Mastered from the original tapes using Gearbox’s all-analogue and vintage machinery, and released in a wide variety of formats. The question is the quality of the original source BBC recordings – made for radio broadcast, not revealing audiophile replay systems. Anecdotally, the upper-most register may or may not be present, the common practice of engineering being to eliminate the frequencies “that can not be heard (allegedly)” Some previous BBC Gearbox titles reproduce a mono 60’s radio broadcast, because, basically, that is what they are.
The front cover abstract design incorporate two sets of eight tonal centres, clever. The back cover is umm.. 60s retro “shapes” straight out of the Conran school of furniture design.
Pictures will follow, plus re-evaluation of sound quality.
Collector’s Corner: Other Reviewers
“British jazz at its best” – Stuart Nicholson, Jazzwise
“There is no-one who can touch us quite so deeply on a ballad, or raise the temperature on stage with such reckless abandon when the mood takes him.” – Mike Westbrook
“The next young generation of British jazz” – Melody Maker, 1970
“The horns come charging out, and Beck’s piano, which starts with an almost free intro, goes into houserockin’ mode, taking up the majority of solo space as the horns sway and harmonize like background singers.” – Phil Freeman, Stereogum
UPDATE August 28th – little did I know that several other of the tracks have already been uploaded to Youtube. Duh! Apparently by Alan Wakefield himself, or Gearbox. Seems a sensible idea to host those Youtube links in one place here, for posterity.
My thanks to Gearbox for fearlessly giving me the opportunity to review this flagship new LP. I will revisit and update when I have access to the original vinyl. Nice to see Harry M get full credit for one of his marvelous photos.
Stay fairly safe, people.