Of all the performances I was able to catch at this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, the one that will probably stay with me longest was the evening at Cadogan Hall titled An Evocation of Kenny Wheeler, featuring Dave Holland, Norma Winstone, Ralph Towner, Stan Sulzmann, Nikki Iles, John Parricelli, Henry Lowther, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Percy Pursglove, Louis Moholo and others, including the members of the London Voice Project. The proceedings began with a group of half a dozen trumpeters playing from the gallery above the stage and closed with a poignant recording of Wheeler playing solo, that softly burnished trumpet sound and those vaulting phrases bringing tears to more than a few eyes.
A significant absentee was the pianist John Taylor, whose death in July came 10 months after that of the trumpeter, his collaborator for four and a half decades. I went home and played Taylor’s debut album, Pause, And Think Again, released in 1971 on the Turtle label. Wheeler is prominently featured on this elegant and still striking record, recently reissued as part of a box set called The Turtle Records Story: Pioneering British Jazz 1970-71.
As that subtitle suggests, the story of Turtle Records was a short one. The box contains its entire output: just three albums. Taylor’s is one; the others are Mike Osborne’s Outback and Howard Riley’s Flight. Together they provide a valuable snapshot of British modern jazz at a particularly interesting stage of its evolution.
If Taylor’s music is characteristically considered and lyrical, Osborne’s — with Harry Beckett on trumpet, Chris McGregor on piano, Harry Miller on bass and Louis Moholo on drums — is much looser and more overtly impassioned. Riley’s trio, with Barry Guy on bass and Tony Oxley on drums and electronics, is a more cerebral unit, its music offering a greater challenge than that heard on the pianist’s earlier albums for CBS, Angle and The Day Will Come.
Turtle was founded in London by Peter Eden (pictured above), a record producer whose credits already included the early Deram albums by Mike Westbrook, John Surman, Alan Skidmore and Mike Gibbs. He moved on to Dawn, a Pye subsidiary, where his artists included Mike Cooper, Mungo Jerry, and the Trio, as Surman, Barre Phillips and Stu Martin called their group. And then, frustrated by the inadequacies of the major labels, Eden made what must have seemed the logical next step, striking out on his own.
All three Turtle albums had the benefit of excellent recording quality, good pressings and almost excessively lavish packaging. The gatefold sleeves of the Riley and Taylor albums featured semi-abstract artwork, making them look like the products of the progressive rock bands of the time. Eventually, not surprisingly, they became collectors’ items. The new box set miniaturises the original artwork and contains a booklet featuring highly detailed sleeve notes by Colin Harper, incorporating the views of several of the participants.
Eden was a modest and unobtrusive man of great discernment. He chose to work with highly creative musicians and let them get on with it. The contents of the box set show how well he succeeded, even if the market did not agree.
* The Turtle Records Story is released by Cherry Red.