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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.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks Richard for another great post deepening our knowledge of this precious era of British jazz.
    I knew John Burch as an educator and generous teacher of jazz piano. And will never forget an incident in the 80s when we were standing just inside the curtained doorway to the main room at Ronnie Scott’s club, when Gordon Beck walked in, saw Ronnie and within seconds a terrifying argument full of blue language and smoldering threat of violence appeared to break out between them. John like me was completely taken in and leapt to intervene and calm things down.. but it was all a complete joke to wind John up as Ronnie & Gordon cracked up laughing.

    April 18, 2019
  2. William Clifford #

    Thanks Richard for giving the Johnny Burch octet the wider recognition they deserve. We used to see this band regularly in pubs and small clubs. When we’ve talked about them, people almost can’t believe the line up especially if they’re aware of what bands they all later played in.

    April 18, 2019
  3. Colin Harper #

    Wonderful stuff, Richard. I was slightly involved in the Fat John release – and I couldn’t agree more that Tony Roberts is a beautiful player who is under-represented, and certainly under-known, on record. He did, though, appear on all three albums by the John Renbourn Group spanning 1973-82, on various wind instruments, and he can be heard to great effect on this quasi-bootleg featuring the Danny Thompson Trio’s second (of two) 1967 BBC broadcasts, here with his own haunting (untitled) composition. The ‘official’ release of the first broadcast, several years ago, came with one of the most disgraceful sleevenotes I’ve encountered – a man saying at length how well-in he was with the London jazz scene yet had no idea who Tony Roberts was. Bizarre.

    April 18, 2019
  4. Tim Adkin #

    Sounds great and a lovely post Richard. Tony Roberts can also be found on at least 2 albums by the perennially underrated Ray Russell – ‘Live at the ICA’ from circa 1971 which, if memory serves, had some Charles Shaar Murray endorsement along the lines of ‘If Picasso is good for the eyes then Russell is good for the ears’ and also, from 1970, ‘Rites and Rituals’ on CBS. He’s also on Ian Carr/Nucleus’ rather fine ‘Solar Plexus’ an album, I think, you reviewed with some enthusiasm way back in 1971…. as you, and Colin, say Roberts is a fine,if under appreciated, player.

    April 18, 2019
  5. The influence of these musicians, bands and their music on my own career cant be emphasised enough. Good to see these releases out and even a mention of Tony Hall. Thanks for the review and reminder of when ‘popular music’ had substance.

    April 18, 2019
  6. Jeff Allen #

    Tony Roberts also appears on the Songs for my Father album by Graham Collier from 1970, i think. On Rubato number 6, surrounded by the 2 supercharged Alans Wakeman and Skidmore, Tony ploughs a different furrow, and If I have a favourite recorded solo by Tonys on this track could be one of the most exciting

    April 18, 2019
  7. Colin Harper #

    It should be said that Tony Roberts is a remarkably humble, self-effacing person – the very opposite of a musician who promotes him/herself. I daresay this personality trait, which one can hardly criticise, has had some bearing on his level of wider notoriety.

    April 18, 2019
    • Mick Steels #

      I understand Tony is still active as a musician which is wonderful, because I remember him quitting the music scene in the early 70s in apparent disillusionment with it

      April 18, 2019
      • Colin Harper #

        Yes, he’s ‘still at it’ in his words, down in Devon. Indeed, he was the source of the 1963 Fat John session that appears on the 2CD set – like a Zen master waiting on a hilltop for decades, knowing that a music-releasing acolyte would climb up there eventually…

        April 18, 2019
      • GuitarSlinger #

        If he was ‘ disillusioned ‘ with the music scene in the 70’s [ when things were bad enough ] I can only imagine how he must feel about it now that the ‘ scene ‘ along with the business is a thousand times worse . As I advise those who seek my council / mentorship ;

        When the business of music was good the music business was a bad place to be . Now that the the business of music is horrific the music business has become a giant black hole waiting like a trap door spider to devour its victims .

        Suffice it to say though Mr Harper’s assessment is spot on . Modesty does not serve one well in the music business where as Peter Grant had advised me back in the day ;

        ” In the music business nice people don’t finish last . They simply never finish ”

        As for the era of British jazz being addressed here ; Though granted it spawned a whole host of incredible musicians ( most of whom strayed away from jazz unfortunately ) I’ve alway wondered why it was left to die on the vine just as it was about to evolve into something I’m betting would of been truly extraordinary

        PS; Then Zen Master analogy . Brilliant . May it prove to be true .. for many of us currently sitting on the mountain top watching the chaos below us ensue

        April 23, 2019
  8. Ken Church #

    The Alan Humm quartet – in which I played Vibes – used to play as the warm up and interval band for the Johnny Burch Octet at the Plough in Ilford, Essex in the early ’60s and what a fantastic group John lead. I’m so knocked out to see this CD appear particularly as Graham Bond and Dick Heckstall-Smith (plus Malcolm Cecil on bass) and me on drums made up my own quartet playing on all the American Bases and this really brings it all back, mind you, it only seems like yesterday anyway!!!

    In October 1963 I bought Tubby Hayes’ Trixon Vibes (when he got a new set at Drum City, Shaftesbury Avenue who were the Trixon agents) and have been playing them ever since, now of course a real collectors item.

    Eventually Alan and I took over running the Plough jazz club and many of the UK’s top musicians – Don Rendell, Ian Carr, Kenny Wheeler etc., etc. – guested with our quartet (Bryan Spring was our drummer by then), and what a great scene it was at that time, and has never been bettered in my opinion.

    As a matter of interest I’m still playing Vibes – at the age of 84 plus tennis and cycling! – and have a few clips on Youtube.

    Hope this is of some interest.

    December 20, 2019

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