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Archive treasure from Harry Beckett

Harry Beckett 2Harry 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.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. padraigcolman #

    This brings back happy memories! I saw Harold Beckett play live many times. Also saw Herbie Goins and the Nighttimers.Saw Mike Carr supporting Dexter Gordon in the 60s. Graham Collier once spoke to me. He said, “haven’t we met somewhere before?”

    June 10, 2016
  2. Nice piece Richard and the instantly recognizable Harry is much missed. I first really heard him as a contributor to the debut LP by the under appreciated Manfred Mann Chapter 3 (which had a horn section to die for) whereon he plays a very fine wistful solo on the lengthy fade to the longest track (title escapes).

    I must have heard that radio session back in 1974 and the names of the band members are redolent of that era. Whither in particular Alan Wakeman who, if memory serves, had a bizarre twin career at the time as, one the one hand, a jazzer (I think he led a fine trio called Triton) but on the other as David Essex’s horn man of choice!

    June 10, 2016
  3. Chris Walsh #

    My abiding memory of Harry Beckett’s playing is his superb solo on the closing part of Mike Westbrook’s Metropolis. Haunts me to this day.

    June 10, 2016
  4. Thanks for this Richard. Anything new by Harry Beckett is great news and the album is a steal at £6. Harry is one of my favourite trumpet players. I saw him in all sorts of bands with Graham Collier, Stan Tracey, Mike Westbrook, his own outfits and as a guest with local players. Everybody writes about his distinctive sound. But I think he’s been overlooked for the quality of his compositions. He wrote little gems and I’m surprised they haven’t made the jazz repertoire – I’m thinking of “Warm Smiles”, “Cosy and Rosie”, “Forgive and Forget” and, my favourite from the marvellous Themes for Fega, “Cry of Triumph” on which I think he sang rather than played the head. It’s also about time someone re-mastered and re-released Harry’s Ogun and Cadillac releases. There may be more such gems there too.

    June 10, 2016
  5. Guy Bensley #

    Only this morning I was cycling to work listening to his sublime contribution to Graham Collier’s Deep Dark Blue Centre. This new release will be a companion to Ogun’s 1975 ‘HB’s Joy Unlimited release, Memories of Bacares, which shares pretty much the same line up. I have it on vinyl and will be revisiting it as soon as I get home…

    June 10, 2016
  6. Colin Harper #

    Another purchase from me – thanks for the signpost, Richard! £12 for the LP – brilliant. Well done to whoever is behind the label for getting it out there. Trying to hear/collect British jazz from the 60s/early 70s is hideously expensive for those of us who weren’t there. Even the mid-2000s CD reissues of Harry’s 1970 and ’72 albums are now £30 second-hand… You blink and miss these things, then they’re too pricey to justify. Oh well.

    June 10, 2016
    • They are expensive if you want vinyl, but as cheap as chips if you are willing to settle for a download.

      June 12, 2016
      • padraigcolman #

        Is this a false memory or did I see Harry Becket as part of John Mayall’s band. I see passing references to him playing with Mayall but I can’t nail it down to a specific period.

        June 12, 2016
      • Colin Harper #

        That would be downloads without booklets – knowing that Richard wrote notes for an album that were beyond acquiring would be painful!

        Incidentally, I came across a reference from Harry in an early 70s interview (too late for inclusion in my John McL book) that he had briefly had a performing group – probably one of tghose loose arrangements/few gigs here and there things of the time – with McLaughlin in the mid 60s.

        June 13, 2016
  7. Gerard Tierney #

    Quite agree with the comments re Metropolis and Chapter 3 (the Chapter 3 piece was “Time”, I think, as used for title music of Charles Fox’s “Jazz Today” programme on Radio 3). The “aged 75” was not actually true – in fact Harry was 86! I had to photocopy his passport at a gig in Amsterdam with London Improvisers Orchestra just a few months before he died. It wasn’t vanity that made him change his DoB on earlier documents (when such a thing was easier), he allegedly thought he might lose gigs if people thought he was older! As if… (Typically, Harry wanted to know what time we’d be staggering back from Amsterdam on the Sunday because he had a gig that night!)

    June 13, 2016
  8. Peter Hamshaw #

    Well, I was probably at the same Beachcomber Herbie Goins gig – they were one of my favourite live groups (bands) but I never knew the identities of any of the musicians until now!

    June 13, 2016
  9. roger green? #

    Herbie Goins and the Nightimers had at least one single and one album but, as with the Blue Flames, “you had to be there”…which in my case was the Flamingo. Ronnie Jones did a damn fine job of fronting them after(before?) Herbie who is also on “Red Hot from Alex” But you know all that…. To me, those 3 bands ruled and whatever Rowlands says, Geno couldn’t get anywhere near them…….. cheers

    August 4, 2016
    • padraigcolman #

      Wonderful memories Roger,

      August 11, 2016
  10. Andrew Scott #

    Thanks so much for this Richard. Harry was one of a kind and besides being a great musician, was one of the funniest people I ever met. He was a key inspiration and provided me endless encouragement to finally record our cd DUDUVUDU celebrating the music of Dudu Pukwana, The Bluenotes, Brotherhood etc. that Harry was such an integral part of. It was Harry’s last recording session. As it happens, the DUDUVUDU group is playing at the Vortex next week on 11 August and the gig is dedicated to Harry. Here is the gig link and some quotes from the lovely reviews of the cd:

    The DUDUVUDU GROUP: Chloë Scott – Flute, Annie Whitehead – Trombone, Frank Williams – Sax, Dave Draper – Guitar, Pat Thomas – Piano, Nick Stephens – Bass, Josh Jones – Drums + Spec. Guests

    Some of the great reviews:
    “Pukwana’s recordings often captured the raw quality of his performance and this is brought joyfully back to life in the spirit of upbeat township jive.” ***** 5 Stars!
    “Duduvudu pays joyous tribute to the gospel and blues roots and spirit of his music. 4Stars!!”
    “Duduvudu captures Dudu’s joie de vivre . . . interplay between the horns is outstanding – put a spell on you – Dudu did”
    “The music that leaps off the CD is alive, vibrant and full of the character that wrote it all . . . A terrific celebration of the man’s music”

    I also have some nice footage of a long interview that I did with Harry about Dudu’s music and the impact he had on Harry and all of British jazz.

    August 4, 2017

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