Harry Beckett was ordering a drink at the bar of the Beachcomber Club in Nottingham one night in 1965, relaxing between sets with Herbie Goins and the Nightimers, when I plucked up the courage to address him. The Nightimers were an excellent jazz-inflected soul band — their personnel also included former Blue Flames Mick Eve on tenor saxophone and Bill Eyden on drums, with Mike Carr on Hammond organ — and I wanted to tell their trumpeter how much I’d enjoyed his solo on their set-opening version of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”. Showing the good humour and courtesy which would become familiar over the years, Harry was happy to chat to a new fan.
A few years later I felt privileged when he asked me to write the sleeve notes for two of his early albums, Flare Up (Philips, 1970) and Themes for Fega (RCA, 1972), which featured the likes of Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, John Surman and John Taylor. The last time I saw him, a short time before his death in 2010, aged 75 (actually 86: see Gerard Tierney’s comments below the line), was at the Red Rose in Seven Sisters Road, on a night when he and Ingrid Laubrock were guest soloists with Spring Heel Jack.
One of the most distinctive London-based improvisers of his generation, he enjoyed a reputation within the jazz community that was never matched by wider public recognition. His membership of bands led by Graham Collier and Chris McGregor, as well his various solo projects, meant that his work was quite effectively documented, but much remains to be exposed to today’s listeners, particularly sessions recorded for BBC Radio.
A new vinyl album titled Still Happy represents the rescue from archive obscurity of a session recorded for Radio 2’s Jazz Club in 1974. It contains three tracks, totalling just under 30 minutes of music, and features some of his regular musical companions: the saxophonists Alan Wakeman and Don Weller, the electric pianist Brian Miller, the bass guitarist Paul Hart, the drummer John Webb and the conga player Robin Jones.
This was the era of Bitches Brew, Weather Report and Nucleus, and Harry’s music reflected the trend towards 8/8 rhythms and one-chord vamps. The rhythms here are funky and the tunes (“Bracelets of Sound”, “Still Happy” and “No Time for Hello”) are straightforwardly melodic and memorable. The title track in particular builds up a terrific head of steam as the session gathers pace.
Harry’s work on trumpet and flugelhorn possessed characteristics that, although immediately identifiable, are hard to summarise. Superficially there was a variation on the little-boy-lost quality that Kenneth Tynan ascribed to Miles Davis, blended with some of the untethered lyricism of Don Cherry: an unusual combination of deep poignancy and an irrepressible optimism. Two other factors, however, were of equal importance. The first was the Barbadian-born Harry’s very personal intonation, something he shared with a number of musicians of Caribbean origin who turned to jazz in that era. The second was his freedom from the restrictions of rhetoric, by which I mean that his solos did not proceed in the expectation of climax or even resolution but existed from moment to moment, climaxes sometimes arriving and disappearing within a single phrase, so that the improvisations were ordered on a kind of micro-cellular level. By 1974, too, it was impossible to miss the closeness of his engagement with the prevailing rhythmic flow.
Harry’s presence is greatly missed, along with the unique voice of his trumpet. There can never be too much of his work available on record, particularly when it is of the quality of this release, which is warmly recommended.
* Still Happy is released on a new label called My Only Desire. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who can identify the origin of the photograph above.