Skip to content

Archive for

Fat John & John Burch

Fat John Burch

In the UK between about 1962 and 1964 you could detect, beneath the excitement of the Beat Boom, the emergence of a music that made anything seemed possible. Largely inspired by the Charles Mingus of Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah!, a new generation of British musicians applied jazz techniques to the form and spirit of the blues in an effort to give their music a strong emotional impact. The nodal point for this was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, in which a guitarist who loved the music of the Delta chose to surround himself with a shifting cast of younger players who were listening to Mingus, Coltrane and Ornette. When these musicians moved on, some of them became a powerful force in the British rock movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The transitional period didn’t last long. Some of its most interesting bands never got beyond the clubs and pubs and the occasional BBC radio broadcast, and didn’t even get as far as releasing a record. That’s partially rectified by the appearance of new collections of mostly unheard music from two of them: the Fat John Sextet, led by the drummer John Cox, and the octet of the pianist John Burch.

Cox, born in Bristol in 1933, wasn’t all that fat; he was useful drummer who started out as a bandleader in London with a group playing “half mainstream, half trad”. That changed quite quickly. In 1962, with John Mumford on trombone and Dave Castle on alto, they had a Monday-night residency at the Six Bells in Chelsea, playing music of a more contemporary cast. Art Blakey’s “Theme” was among the three tracks they recorded at the Railway Hotel in West Hampstead for a Decca compilation titled Hot Jazz, Cool BeerIn December 1963, when they recorded an unreleased session at the Pye studio just off Marble Arch, the line-up featured Chris Pyne on trombone, Ray Warleigh on alto and flute, Tony Roberts on tenor, Pete Lemer on piano and the great Danny Thompson on bass.

Those two sessions make up Honesty, a new 2CD set that is, I think, the only memorial to John Cox’s career. The 75-minute Pye session includes such standards-to-be as Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie”,  Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and Junior Mance’s lovely “Jubilation”, indicating that the prevailing wind was blowing from a hard-bop direction, with occasional gusts of soul. More than half a century later, it holds up well. And while any opportunity to hear Warleigh’s eloquence is not to be missed, it’s also good to be reminded of what a very expressive player Tony Roberts has always been, and how scantily represented he is on record (Henry Lowther’s Child Song and Danny Thompson’s Whatever and Whatever Next being the only examples that spring to my mind). This is fine post-bop jazz with a hint, in Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul” and the Latin rhythms of which Cox was fond, of how the music would have sounded in a more informal live setting .

Pyne, Warleigh and Thompson had all been members of Blues Incorporated. So had Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who appear on Jazz Beat, by the Johnny Burch Octet. A fourth member of both Burch’s and Korner’s bands, the saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, was committed elsewhere when the band recorded a BBC Jazz Club session in 1963. Stan Robinson depped for him, joining a front completed by Mike Falana (trumpet), John Mumford (trombone), Bond (alto) and Miff Moule (baritone), with a rhythm section of Burch (piano), Bruce (double bass) and Baker (drums).

The music here has a rougher edge (and has survived with an appropriately raw sound quality) and at times it can be electrifying. I remember hearing this broadcast, and the version of “Early in the Morning” — a work song borrowed from Murderers Home, the Alan Lomax recording of prisoners’ songs at Parchman Farm — stayed with me through the decades until I heard it again. Apparently arranged (very effectively) by Baker, it was also in Blues Incorporated’s repertoire. Here it inspires good solos from all the horns and an absolutely incendiary one from Bond, very much on the form he showed a year or two earlier on Don Rendell’s Roarin’. Brewing up a fusion of Cannonball Adderley’s soulfulness and Eric Dolphy’s out-there angularity, he shows here what was lost when his instincts and appetites led him elsewhere. Burch’s nice arrangements of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” and Jimmy Heath’s “All Members” are other highlights of this session. Two years later Burch led a different line-up on a BBC Band Beat session. The mood on tracks like “The Champ”, “Oleo”, “Milestones” and “Stolen Moments” is relatively restrained by comparison with that of the Bond/Bruce/Baker line-up, but there is fine work from Hank Shaw (trumpet), Ken Wray (trombone), Ray Swinfield (alto) and Peter King on tenor, and the bass is in the hands of the young Jeff Clyne. The approach is more polished, and the fidelity is higher.

The vinyl version of Jazz Beat has eight tracks, three from the first session and five from the second. The CD has six from 1963 and lots of outtakes from the later broadcast, including Tony Hall’s introductions. I wrote the sleeve note but since no money changed hands I feel no embarrassment in drawing your attention to a release that, along with the Fat John CD, helps to fill an important gap in the history of British jazz. Within a short time, of course, some of the people featured on these records were taking their place in bands heard around the world.

Neither of the leaders is still with us. To judge from Simon Spillett’s notes for Honesty, Fat John led an eventful life after his career in jazz came to an end. Burch, a year older than Cox, died in 2006, his life having been made reasonably secure by the royalties from a song called “Preach and Teach”, which appeared on the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, Georgie Fame’s No 1 hit, earning as much in songwriting royalties as the A-side. Many deserve a break like that; few get it.

* Honesty is out now on Turtle Records. Jazz Beat is on the Rhythm and Blues label: the LP came out on Record Store Day and the CD is released on April 26.

A thought on ‘Rock Island Line’

Rock Island LineWhile watching Billy Bragg’s enjoyable BBC4 documentary on “Rock Island Line” this evening, and listening to his interviewees talking about what it was that made Lonnie Donegan’s recording so compelling back in 1956 that it inspired and facilitated an entire musical revolution, I found myself trying to isolate the qualities that had so inflamed my own imagination as a nine-year-old.

Of course there was that thrilling rhythm, imitating the gathering momentum of a locomotive. And there was the urgent informality of Donegan’s vocal delivery, so different from the crooners who dominated the airwaves in the middle 1950s. But there was something deeper at work, and I think it was this: a dominant feature of the song’s melody is the interval between the tonic and the flattened third. The tonic is the note you hear several times as he follows “Well, the Rock Island…” — all sung on the tonic — by rising to the flattened third on the next word, sung with a heavy emphasis: “…Line…”

A little later on in our musical education, we learnt that the flattened third is one of the two “blue notes” in a major scale (the other being the flattened seventh). In this case, since Donegan sings “Rock Island Line” in the key of D, the flattened third is F natural. And that F natural, I reckon, is the first blue note most of my generation ever heard, or at least noticed, and its impact was immense. For all of us, from everyone who joined a skiffle group, whether they quickly found another hobby or became John Lennon, that note was the portal to everything that followed, for within it was encoded the sound, the flavour, the spirit and the soul of the blues, the music that, in all its forms, would shape a new culture.

My theory, anyway.

Guidi plays Ferré

Giovanni Guidi Avec le Temps

From left: Francesco Bearzatti, Giovanni Guidi, Thomas Morgan, João Lobo and Roberto Cecchetto (photo: Clément Puig)

Léo Ferré’s “Avec le temps” is one of the most exquisite sad songs ever written (Avec le temps va tout s’en va / On oublie le visage et l’on oublie la voix…). Giovanni Guidi is a lyric poet of the piano. The combination of the two, assembled for the title track of Guidi’s new album, is a natural. The pianist’s touch is at its most effecting on a piece like this, with never a note wasted as he searches for the song’s essence. But it’s not just him and Ferré. It’s Thomas Morgan, the double bassist who combines Gary Peacock’s ardent fluidity with Charlie Haden’s deep soul, suffused with a pensive quality that is all his own. It’s also João Lobo, who adds a dimension that makes this group something more than a conventional piano trio, his discreet splashes, scrapes and sussurations disrupting the perfection in a subtle and highly creative way.

It’s a seductive start, but the album has much more to offer. On the second track, guests appear. The first is the guitarist Roberto Cecchetto, whose opening duet with Morgan on the modal “15th of August” reminds me of Gabor Szabo and Al Stinson in that great Chico Hamilton group of the early ’60s. The comparison extends to the other guest, Francesco Bearzatti, who turns up later in the same piece, playing tenor saxophone with some of the contemplative quality of the mature Charles Lloyd, like a Coltrane who finally found that inner peace. Lobo’s playing behind Morgan’s thrumming figures on the closing section of this is so stunning that you just don’t want it to stop.

Gradually the album travels further out, very interestingly so as Bearzatti’s Aylerish squalls on “Postludium and a Kiss” add another disruptive element to roil the prevailing balladry before, in a thrilling process, the other musicians rise to match his energy. “No Taxi”, by the trio, turns in another direction, towards a meeting of Thelonious Monk’s angles and Lennie Tristano’s seamless flow, with Bearzatti playing the Charlie Rouse/Warne Marsh role. “Caino” is a pre-dawn tone poem, with fine shading from Cecchetto’s guitar, and “Johnny the Liar” feels like a continuation of the same dream-state. “Ti Stimo”, a Guidi favourite, has a lovely rustic simplicity that Bill Frisell would enjoy, and “Tomasz” — a dedication to the late trumpeter Tomasz Stanko — finds the trio summoning the ravishing beauty heard on their previous albums, City of Broken Dreams and This Is The Day, both released, like this new one, on ECM.

As far as I know, Guidi, Morgan and Lobo have played together in London only twice, both times at the Rosenfeld Porcini art gallery. Someone should bring them back as soon as possible. This is one of the finest groups in contemporary jazz, and Avec le temps is not to be missed.