Wednesday, March 03, 2004


“Fleetwood Mac is subverting the music from the inside out, very much like one of John Le Carre’s moles – who, planted in the heart of the establishment, does not begin his secret campaign of sabotage and betrayal until everyone has gotten used to him, and takes him for granted.”
(Greil Marcus’ review of Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stone, October 1979)

That is certainly neither the first nor last time that Fleetwood Mac – or, to be precise, Lindsey Buckingham – will be yanked into perspectival cohabitation with British improv on this website. Kenny Wheeler himself would almost certainly deny being a mole. He has described his big band compositions as an attempt to “write soppy melodies, laced with a bit of chaos.” Frustratingly – not least, I expect, for Wheeler – in the 36 years of his big band’s intermittent existence they have only been documented thrice on record, and for the last 14 years the only one available has been the most recent, ECM’s Music For Large And Small Ensembles (1990). The mastertapes of the other two, 1968’s The Windmill Tilter – made, strictly speaking, under the aegis and with the personnel of John Dankworth’s big band – and 1974’s Song For Someone (Incus 10, as was), had long been thought lost.

Gloriously, however, the mastertapes of the latter seem to have resurfaced as Song For Someone, Wheeler’s greatest big band record and one of the key British big band jazz/improv records of the last 40 years, has now been remastered by one of its key participants, Evan Parker, together with Martin Davidson, and is imminently due for reissue on the psi label. Having waited the best part of 25 years for this music to be made available again, this author almost wept when he saw the CD in his mailbox (for that is the prerogative of the music lover) – it is the equivalent of Celine and Julie Go Boating popping up as a Sunday matinee at the Clapham Picture House – and as equally blown away by the record (Melody Maker’s 1974 Jazz Album Of The Year!) as he was when he first heard it.

Examining the list of musicians playing on Song For Someone, one is instantly drawn towards the question: “Could a record/band like this possibly be made/exist now?” As with Tippett’s Centipede or Guy’s LJCO, however, the seemingly disparate castlist represents a gathering of the musicians with whom the bandleader had worked most closely in different musical contexts. In the case of Kenny Wheeler, this meant incorporating musicians whom he knew from his hard-bop days in the ‘50s and early-mid ‘60s and with whom he had associated in the various large ensembles of Dankworth, Harry South and Tubby Hayes – for instance, Ian Hamer, Keith Christie and Alan Branscombe; on the surface some of the unlikeliest names ever to appear on an Incus record – combined with his hardcore improv associates such as Parker, Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, and those who at the time (January 1973, recorded a fortnight before my ninth birthday) had a foot in both camps (Mike Osborne, Chris Pyne, Malcolm Griffiths, Ron Mathewson, John Taylor).

In fact Wheeler admits himself in his brief sleevenote that the aim of his big band was to bring together “special musicians from and into different areas of jazz…that is, the idea of the musicians came first, then the music.” Nonetheless, the band still had to function as a big band, which meant that a cast of strong ensemble players had to be formed to work with (and sometimes against) the more flexible improvisers, but also that the ensemble players themselves were sufficiently flexible and open-minded to dip a toe into freer areas. Useful comparisons can be made with Tubby Hayes’ 1969 fusion of big band jazz and free improv, 200% Proof, in which many of these musicians, including Wheeler, were involved. In both cases the musical architecture proves both imposing and loose, ready to change mood at a second’s notice.

But with Song For Someone there is a more gradual and insidious process of radicalisation which makes itself apparent throughout the suite’s 43 minutes. The album begins with the hard-hitting big band blast of “Toot Toot”; a restlessly swinging minor key theme jacked up to the point of anxiety by the superb writing for the iron men who constitute the trumpet section (Greg Bowen on lead, Hamer, Dave Hancock and Wheeler) and its counterbalance with the brilliant use of the voice of Norma Winstone as another horn – fittingly, on the personnel listing, Winstone gets second billing below Wheeler himself, listed with the horns. Although instrumentally the personnel is reminiscent of Gil Evans – heavy on mid and lower range brass (five trombones and a tuba) and light on saxophones (just three) – musically the writing tends more towards the Bill Russo/Bob Graettinger side of things, with forceful brass (no mutes were deployed in the making of this album) and, the occasional flute notwithstanding, no woodwind doubling-up. Thus the writing has a very pronounced emotional impact.

There are also two electric pianos – played by Branscombe (who seems to be on the right channel) and Taylor (on the left), which may be an askew nod to electric Miles but are put to slightly less ambient use here. On “Toot Toot,” Branscombe (on acoustic piano) takes up the thematic lead immediately for his solo, ducking and diving with Oxley’s wonderfully insolent guess-which-accent’s-coming-next drumming (the sort of thing which makes me wish he still did more of the straight big band drumming – he is absolutely brilliant at it, as indeed he is in his better-known improvising environments. Then Wheeler takes over for one of his trademark elliptical-but-mournful solos, sprightly jumping octaves like an uncertain leveret hopping across the cornfields at dawn hoping not to get shot. Finally, Taylor muses briefly at his Fender Rhodes before the theme comes back in. Note, however, how Oxley’s drumming is already indicating to us that this album isn’t going to go the way you think it might.

“Ballad Two” begins with one of those sombre brass chorales – no wonder David Sylvian was so keen to work with Wheeler; there are certain melodic and harmonic overlaps in the former’s writing – which resolves itself into a slightly slower 4/4 saunter. There’s an elegant solo by who I assume is Dave Horler, on valve trombone (irritatingly the sleeve, as with the original, doesn’t list individual soloists – most are, of course, easily guessable, but clarification of the contributions of the trombonists in particular would have been helpful). This leads to a balletic aqueous duet by Branscombe and Taylor, then a more reflective solo from Wheeler’s flugelhorn and finally a statement from the gorgeously warm-toned tenor sax of Duncan Lamont – though hear the next warning sign as the trumpets peak with a dissonant chord, flinging Lamont, Taylor, Mathewson and Oxley into semi-free territory. Lamont, however, is unshakeable, insists on some order as he improvises intelligently on the melody (rather than the chords) and interacts very subtly indeed with the rhythm section (hear especially his deadpan responses to Mathewson’s occasional frenzied arco leaps) – in best Warne Marsh-with-Tristano style, he is left to take the piece out on his own.

Then there is the very brief and beautiful title track, almost unbearable in its air of grieving, Winstone’s voice and Taylor’s piano anchoring the brass from different angles.

More sombre electric piano rumblings lead us into the bright waltz of “Causes Are Events,” but no sooner has the first thematic statement climaxed than Parker roars out of the traps on soprano for a free skirmish with Oxley. Even with the benefit of three decades’ hindsight and familiarity with the different strands of Britjazz and Britimprov, it’s still a startling climactic change, more so to be reminded of just how feral Parker’s playing could be at this stage in his career – his soprano spluttering out gnarled curlicues, rhythmic momentum still, I think, having the upper hand over motivic development (though the latter, if you listen closely enough, is in evidence). Oxley’s response is restrained; shadow-boxing Parker’s testimony.

The band then returns, thematic statements alternating with freely improvising subdivisions – compare with the various bands-within-a-band approaches used by Westbrook on Metropolis, another project involving Wheeler – now giving way to a partly free improvisation led by what sounds like Chris Pyne on trombone (what, one wonders, did the late Keith Christie, veteran of several Humphrey Lyttleton bands and the Christie Brothers Stompers, make of all this? Quite a lot, I suppose, otherwise he wouldn’t have been there), later to a substantially more troubled conversation between the two electric pianos. It is as though the darkening clouds are slowly encroaching upon the music’s original brightness.

Even this does not prepare us, however, for the album’s centrepiece and masterpiece, the 15-minute “The Good Doctor,” on which Parker and Bailey appear in full flow. They in fact begin the piece with some low-key free duetting – a modified howlin’ wolf blues for coyotes lost on the postmodern prairie – and one of the piece’s several moments of punctum occurs as the great, ominous wall of low brass slowly ascends into view behind them, the thematic statement shared between Winstone’s voice and Bowen’s elegant lead trumpet, and improvised upon by Wheeler’s increasingly agonised flugelhorn. Bailey’s guitar at times sounds as if it is weeping.

Then the piece modifies into a 6/8 electric piano-driven groove. The second theme – part-Spanish, part-Eastern sounding – is stated successively by flute/valve trombone/voice (Lamont/Horler/Winstone), lead trumpet/alto sax/voice (Bowen/Osborne/Winstone) and finally by the whole brass section. The impact is maddeningly exciting and overwhelming, Oxley’s drumming all the time stirring up the intensity even further. Finally the clouds part briefly for another solo trombonist – unmistakably Malcolm Griffiths – to declaim as the brass and rhythm continue to build up and burn behind him.

As this section climaxes, Branscombe and Taylor take us into a more conventional, though still far more complex than it sounds, 4/4 minor theme. Oxley and Mathewson continue to stoke up the steam as Mike Osborne steps forward to solo on alto, eventually bursting into free territory as he furiously trades blows with Oxley’s forceful percussion.

(And, incidentally, while I’m here, wouldn’t it be nice if the Thom Yorkes or Damon Albarns of this world who profess an interest in leftfield music could donate some of their considerable income to Hazel Miller over at Ogun Records so that we could have a Mike Osborne box set in the style of the superb Harry Miller tribute box set issued some five years ago? No, but wouldn’t it?)

Now worlds away from “Toot Toot,” this would be enough to climax any normal post-Ornette jazz record, but the intensity now climbs to a virtually unbearable peak as, following another brass fanfare, Parker (on tenor), Bailey and Oxley thrash their way back in to blow a beyond-awesome free meltdown. It’s still an electric shock to hear it on headphones; as a ten-year-old I remember running behind the sofa when I first heard it (this having been the first I had heard of Parker, Bailey or Oxley playing) – I was actually scared of it. And when, at the piece’s end, great cliffs of brass return against which Parker howls and screams in the trusty Pharaoh-with-Mantler’s-JCOA tradition, it is as if the entire history of jazz – fuck it, the entire universe - is being pulled down with them.

Nothing for it now except the finale “Nothing Changes,” a song sung straight by Norma Winstone which could comfortably fit onto any Desmond Carrington programme – the necessary calm after the phenomenal storm. Again, a gorgeous harmonic path down which Winstone muses (the lyrics are hers) about the nature of radicalism and newness. We have experienced catharsis and overthrow and now it is time for consoildation and meditation. But what a fantastic singer Winstone is – the punctum here comes at 3:33; the way she sings and stretches out the syllable “sad” in the line “things that will sadden you” as if she could lament no more gravely.

Listen to the whole thing and you will wonder why so many kudos are given to the well-meaning-but-let’s-be-honest-Dankworth-was-doing-this-in-1960 Matthew Herbert Big Band (much as I love most other things which the good Dr Rockit does) when Song For Someone remains stunningly contemporary in outlook, construct and delivery – all the more so when you consider how close to impossible it would be for a record like this to be made in today’s comfortably sectioned-off tapestries of music. A band which by contemporary parallels might include, say, Courtney Pine, Jamie Cullum and THF Drenching…you might need someone with the diplomacy and adventure of, ooh, Lindsey Buckingham to pull that one off.

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