Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Ian Carr + Don Rendell, c. 1966                                                                               Jack Goodwin©2010

In 1912, a writer on The Studio, a prestigious art magazine published in London, described the 65 year old Arthur Douglas Peppercorn as “our English Corot.” By the time the author had finished his piece he had quite plainly worked himself up into such a patriotic frenzy as to persuade himself, if not his readers, that Peppercorn was, in fact, superior to Corot in almost every respect. Loyalty to the home-grown is an admirable stance, but it creates obvious pitfalls, and not least any objectivity of judgement.

As a sixteen year old, I bought the story and my first Peppercorn. It was on the market at a suspiciously low price – a peppercorn price, you might say - but the dealer showed me a bound copy of The Studio and I was hooked. There were other factors. I was intrigued by the name, which was sturdily unScottish, and therefore quite exotic. What completed the rout was learning that when Peppercorn was 70 a devastating fire swept through his studio and destroyed almost 100 of his major canvases. For the rest of his life – and no one seems quite to have settled whether he lived until 1924 or 1926 – he worked almost frenziedly to recreate as many of them as possible, the brushwork ever freer, the results tipping towards a kind of pictorial abstraction, repositioning Peppercorn as a kind of English Impressionist. I have what is said to be the last picture he ever painted, a near-monochrome canvas that from a distance suggests a perspective down a long avenue of poplar trees.
The other patriotic enthusiasm I contracted in 1970 was for trumpeter Ian Carr’s pioneering jazz-rock group Nucleus. I don’t know if I ever said it aloud, but by the end of the year I was more or less convinced that Carr, who some older hands claimed was derivative of Miles Davis, was in fact superior to the American. Familiarity sometimes breeds admiration rather than contempt and the simple fact of being able to see Nucleus live, at several British venues that year and next, was enough to persuade me that this was the real thing. I didn’t see Miles Davis until 1973, a performance of such perfunctory cynicism and grinding crudity that I felt wholly vindicated in the view. A Brit – in fact, a natal Scot, born in Dumfries and grown up just over the border in Newcastle – had trumped the Yanks. At the time I was living in what was effectively an American garrison town, with enough Polaris missiles outside my bedroom window, and as our school Ban the Bomb cadres kept reminding us, to kill every man, woman and child on the planet twice over. (I attribute a lot of my philosophical and spiritual difficulties of later years to the knotty paradox of being killed twice over, though a Scottish childhood in the early 1960s did often feel that way.)
Carr had another thing going for him, as I learned when I met him some time later. He was a brilliant proponent of his own work, always ready to explain what his groups were about and how they got to their present configuration by independent thinking and not imitation of the electric Miles. It was somewhat confusing a little later to encounter Carr as Miles’s biographer, a book tinged with – though not yet overcome by, as in the case of his later study of Keith Jarrett – hagiography. Almost as valuably, Carr was also the Boswell of Britain’s contemporary jazz scene, in his 1973 book Music Outside, republished shortly before his death in 2009 and still readable and alert. It was from its pages that I compiled a list of musicians I had to see – Winstone, Ardley, Westbrook, Collier, Beckett, Bailey, Rutherford, Parker . . . ; Surman, Osborne, Skidmore made a stop in Edinburgh as SOS very soon thereafter – and to whom I have remained loyal in my listening habits ever since.
Then something slightly odd happened. I became aware that older fans regarded the jazz-rock of Nucleus as a falling away from the true language of modern jazz and that they held in reverence two earlier associations of Carr’s, with his keyboard-playing brother Mike’s EmCee Five and the Rendell-Carr Quintet, which he co-led with saxophonist Don Rendell between 1963 and 1969. I sought out some of that earlier music, some of which was passed on as illicit reel-to-reel recordings from live BBC broadcasts, and was immediately and profoundly disappointed, for what had felt vital, technically and musically assured, confidently present-tense about Nucleus seemed by contrast dull and, yes, derivative in the case of the Rendell-Carr Quintet.
Nothing in the creative arts ever seems quite so redundant as the phase of development just past, but there was never a doubt in my mind that Rendell-Carr was demonstrably inferior to almost any comparable American combo, while Nucleus continued to observe some principle of self-determination. Nothing on Shades of Blue, Phase III or even the excellent Dusk Fire quite matched up to Elastic Rock, Solar Plexus, Belladonna (a Carr record, I believe, rather than formally Nucleus) or even the later Snakehips Etcetera. I found I admired the writing – pianist Michael Garrick was responsible for the deathless “Dusk Fire” and even used the title for his book of memoirs – more than I did the playing and that impression stayed with me when some years ago I reviewed a bunch of Rendell-Carr reissues for another, now defunct jazz magazine.
It was, by my standards, a fairly harsh review, that at one point described the pitching of Don Rendell’s soprano as “approximate.” I’ve listened to those records several times since and more recent reissues like the new live one on Reel Recordings and I can’t quite overcome the prejudice, even though I recognise it as ungenerous. It annoyed the Rendell-Carr Quintet’s many fans in the UK, though I sensed a squeamish horror over speaking ill of the dead or dying – Ian was in very poor health at the time and was no longer active, though he had been the subject of a well-researched and positive biography by Alyn Shipton – underneath some of the reactions. It certainly infuriated Don Rendell. What infuriated me in turn was the removal – “for space,” allegedly, though I think there was a touch of editorial mischief, too – of a paragraph where I stated clearly that Rendell, who, some seven years older than Carr, was already in his 70s, had continued to evolve as a saxophonist and was now one of the strongest and most lyrical mainstream soloists that we have. Rendell is certainly more than a “survivor,” though reports of his unregenerate eating habits suggest he’s lucky to be here at all, a good man to parade before the cholesterol fascists who mysteriously continue to insist that our national diet is as lumpy as our musicians. I also pointed out that Rendell, who after Space Walk in 1972 and a couple of subsequent Spotlites had pretty much eschewed the studios, was a perfect example of a “local” player whose reputation was largely confined to the area in which he operated and not over-determined by a row of megalithic recordings.
It’s clear that while British jazz fans continue to treasure the Rendell-Carr records, which are hen’s teeth rare in their original formats, though now available again, it was the group’s live sessions that were remembered with most fondness. In fact, at least two of the records were taken from live dates rather than studio recordings. Any subsequent discoveries would obviously be regarded with the fascination accorded to lost codices of the Bible. Recently, a private recording of the group at the University of London Student Union in December 1966, recorded by Carr’s friend George Foster, has emerged and been released as Live at the Union 1966 on Reel Recordings, a Canadian label dedicated to salvaging and restoring reel and cassette recordings of British jazz and jazz rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Its boxy monaural sound is immediately redolent of the period – and what a year in Britain!: the World Cup, the Beatles more popular than Jesus, the Moors Murders trial, Aberfan, the HMS Tiger , talks on Southern Rhodesia – and there is a nice mix of familiar Rendell-Carr material and themes otherwise unrecorded by the group.
“On” didn’t appear on a studio record for another couple of years and it’s great to hear it in this form, not quite settled yet, but a bold opener for the group, and a clear statement that its stylistic loyalties lay with the new jazz of Ornette Coleman and, yes, Miles Davis. “Webster’s Mood” sounds as if it might have been Rendell’s preferred meat, though the swing has British pinstripe running through it. The same theme, along with “Ursula” and “Carolling,” appeared on Michael Garrick’s Black Marigolds LP, which also came out that year, establishing the pianist as one of the most inventive and thoughtful composers on the British scene. He’s certainly the key element here, cutting a playful path through his own arrangements, referencing Monk and (it sounds like) Mingus at different points, interacting creatively with drummer Trevor Tompkins and both starting bassist Dave Green and his replacement Tony Reeves, who took over when Mr Dependable had to head over to Ronnie Scott’s “Old Place” for a pre-arranged gig.

There has been debate recently, or at least a series of reflective articles in Jazz Journal, about the real quality of British rhythm sections of the period. Visiting Americans either expressed admiration or complete contempt, though usually the personality of the visitor concerned has more to do with what was said than the actual quality of London’s pool of players. This, certainly, was among the best sections available at the time, and while one misses Green’s songful playing in the later solo passages, the Garrick/Tompkins axis still sounds alert and both supportive and cheerfully subversive.

I can’t quite trade in my reservations about Rendell at this period and there are times when Carr seems to be playing self-consciously “modernist” phrases without having the supporting syntax to make them work in the service of the theme. I prefer this version of “Hot Rod” to the one that appears on, I think, Dusk Fire and what I like above all, is the impression of a group who have to take the audience on and insist on their own way of doing things at a time when jazz was still caught in the grip of the “trad” revivalists and the music business generally was looking for four more provincial boys with original haircuts and the kind of songs that would sell millions. But Coltrane and Dolphy had been through town, and so had Mingus, with his Scottish surname and his Scottish brawling instinct, and American records were everywhere, so there was no sense that Rendell-Carr were working in a parochial vacuum.

I spent most of the next decade travelling and discovering that wherever I went there was to be heard a strange balance in jazz between respectful imitation of American models and some element of local specificity, whether that was a use of native folksong by Swedish players, creative mishearing of the chords in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, unexpected instrumentation in France, a delightfully lumpy approach to rhythm in Germany that was sometimes so severe it sounded anarchic. Britain was, as in so many things, different. The “special relationship,” which as some of us have observed is a curious way to describe something that falls between colonisation and sexual assault, was at its strongest at the very moment ‘Swinging England’ was claiming to rule the fashion scene and the “British invasion” was rewriting American music demographics. Jazz hadn’t yet gotten over lend-lease aesthetics or devised a convincing nativism.

Even with long hindsight and plenty of conflicting evidence along the way, I still believe that with the advent of Nucleus – and in the subsequent work of Soft Machine, Isotope, Gilgamesh, Back Door – British musicians discovered a much more comfortable and creative hybrid of jazz language and rock energy than the Americans did and it was pretty clear that even Miles Davis, who combined a shrewd generosity towards players he admired with a knife-fighter’s defence of turf, recognised that British musicians on the parallel track were sometimes nudging ahead, largely because they didn’t have the same weight of professional inertia holding them back.

Ian Carr was vitally important to the new jazz in Britain not so much as a trumpeter and composer, as a man who could articulate what was new about it and what proportion was British. He remained throughout his life a passionate and articulate spokesman, sometimes at the expense of reasonable objectivity. Which is, of course, a glass house in which I should not be throwing stones. When I first saw Carr play, I was pretty sure that here was a man who could surely cut Miles into ribbons: more “technique,” a tougher beat, more complex lines. Ian’s back catalogue has mostly survived the studio fire of deletion and he showed no interest or need in recreating the past, despite an occasional reunion with Rendell and odd retreads of the Nucleus format. The UK’s peppercorn support of innovative jazz cast men like Carr into supplementary roles that often kept them from active and continuous writing and playing. An unfair exchange rate at a critical time meant that UK pop musicians were weighed against visiting American stars. We’re right to cherish what was done by that generation and justified in continuing to view their achievement through a warping lens of nostalgia and ownership. The Peppercorns aren’t saleable now and the Rendell-Carr/Nucleus discs are never going to show up in the great canon of jazz’s first century, but I wouldn’t trade any of them . . . except possibly for a real Corot (it’s said that of the 345 he painted, 537 are currently in American homes and galleries!) or anything by Miles, from the Parker days to Doo-Bop.

Brian Morton©2010

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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