Writing these blogs is very much a polarised process in that their subject matter is arrived at by two very distinct routes. The first is almost entirely cerebral, beginning with the question ‘what shall I write about?’, this proposition usually prompting a rummage through various aspects of the jazz business that I find diverting, be it a player, a recording or a book, in order to create some sort of analysis of the component parts of the music. You could call it the ‘serious’ study side of things, resulting in the kind of extended explorations of, say, the pieces posted recently on the tryst between the Beatles and the UK’s modern jazzmen of the 1960s. While I very much enjoy constructed those kinds of essays I far prefer the other kind of writing, in which a topic is suggested by mere circumstance or co-incidence, such as the case with this piece penned due to the fact that this past week, quite by chance, the music of five quite different English jazz pianists has landed on my desk.
I have always loved the piano. Indeed, although I am firmly wedded to the tenor saxophone as my own musical vehicle (be it one that feels as bit like it’s got a flat tyre right now) I’ve always suspected that, were I ever given the chance to begin learning an instrument again, with all the appetite one has when they’re young, keen and committed, I’d plump for the piano. Of course, I play a bit of piano – most horn players do, if only to gain a better understanding of chords and voicing, relishing the keyboard’s ‘roadmap of harmony’ lay-out – but by no means am I competent enough to deserve the title of ‘pianist’. Nevertheless, ever since extreme childhood, long before jazz became a fixation, I was drawn to the instrument. In ‘Upward, Backwards and Free: A Journey Into Jazz’, the still-to-be-published book I wrote last year, I tried to explain this fascination in some depth, arguing the fundamental reason for choosing the piano over any other musical tool thus;
‘It really is The Most Complete Instrument, a veritable Orchestra In A Box, on which you can conjure a total performance, uniting all the basic components of music - melody, harmony, rhythm – without needing anyone but yourself. Yes, you can argue that the guitar might vie for this title – especially given its sheer portability – but when you remember that that instrument is sometimes referred to as ‘the piano you can hold in your lap’ then you know which really comes out on top.’
It follows therefore that, given every option at their fingertips – quite literally – some of the richest seams of British jazz, both improvised and composed, have been mined by pianists, some of the most original, provocative and, sadly, forgotten of whom I’ve listened to again this past week.
Magic Exploding Cadenza
Let’s begin at the ‘populist’ end, with Dudley Moore, whose debut LP ‘Plays the Theme From Beyond The Fringe & All That Jazz’ I treated myself to in a rare example of my buying a ‘new’ record (I’m firmly into second-hand bargains). Actually I had this album years ago but somewhere in the middle of numerous flat and house moves, it went AWOL, so to be reunited with it once again was indeed a treat, offering as it does just over thirty minutes of Moore’s romping reconstructions of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Jule Styne. Taped for the US Atlantic label in 1962 (and initially released only in America too – a fact histories of British jazz tend to ignore, probably given Moore’s alleged ‘jazz-lite’ reputation), it’s a charming record, full of what might be termed the pianist’s ‘early’ style, still drawing heavily on both the influence of Errol Garner and the repertoire of the Great American Songbook.
Lovely though this album is if I have a preference for Moore it’s for his two mid-1960s Decca sets ‘Genuine Dud’ and ‘The Other Side of Dudley Moore’, which contain to my mind his best – and deepest – music. By this stage, despite the immense popular success of his comedic duo with Peter Cook (and maybe in some ways prompted by it) Moore’s own compositional style had blossomed forth into great freedom, meaning that, tucked in between the jolly wheezes of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ and ‘Samantha’ were such dark, disquieting and singular sounding pieces as ‘Sad One For George’, ‘Field Day For Shirley’ and the extraordinary ‘Lysie Does It’, which contrive to slip in between the cracks of popular pianism harmonic ambiguities which rival those of, say, Andrew Hill or Jaki Byard.
Perhaps it was the remove at which popular success placed him from the ‘jazz world’ that made Moore such an incredibly personal composer? Or maybe it stemmed from his days as a classical organ scholar? Or possibly it was just his own strength of personality that made him a musician remarkably free from fashion. Fortunately, I was able to explore all these arguments in 2017 when the now defunct (and hugely controversial) Harkit Records asked me to annotate a double-CD anthology of the ‘best of’ Moore’s 1960s output, titled – groan! - ‘Have Some Moore’.
The choices of representative pieces on that collection were actually not my own, the producer opting (to my mind) for far too much ‘standard Dud' than 'compositional Dud', robbing those who may have been drawn to the catchy album title of exploring the more sober, serious side of the pianist’s output.
Containing tracks lifted from the Atlantic album mentioned above, the two ‘classic’ mid-Sixties Decca’s and, finally, Moore’s eponymous 1969 album (with Jeff Clyne depping on bass), ‘Have Some Moore’ did play the odd trick hand though, such as the the incredible (for that it what it truly is) ‘120 – Plus Optional Magic Exploding Cadenza’ which succeeds in barely a few minutes to smuggle sonic textures that are pure 20th Century avant-garde into what is ostensibly a straightforward piano trio recital. If you own this track, try it on your friends in a ‘blindfold test’ - you’ll be surprised at the reaction and the guesswork.
Re-evaluating Moore, I suspect that the reason he could ‘get away with’ such bold transgressions was that he was, first, foremost and consistently, a highly sincere musician, one unprepared to see jazz as either remote high art or a field in which all the big hitters were automatically to be awarded genuflected admiration. Indeed, rereading some of his 1960s interviews, he was more than happy to criticise such gods as Miles Davis and Bill Evans (whose style he fitfully borrowed from in these years). Even more pointed were his comments captured in a remarkable three-way discussion with Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson published in ‘Jazz Journal’ in 1963, in which he openly lambasted Art Tatum for being ‘cloying’. Brave man…
...but, as we’ve seen, a sincerely creative one. Sincerity, albeit housed in a personality diametrically opposite to that of Moore, was the abundant quality of Gordon Beck’s music too. Again, in his case, I’ve arrived at a recording regarded as a ‘British Jazz Classic’ by a sideways route. Back in 2017, Turtle Records contracted me to annotate a three-disc boxed set of material culled from the pianist’s own tape archive, ‘Jubilation; Trios, Quartets and Septets in Session: 1964-1984’, much of which came from BBC ‘Jazz Club’ broadcasts. A project which I approached with no little trepidation – I wasn’t really sure I was the right man for the job – ended up being a delight, with one of the sessions in the collection, dating to October 1968, proving to be a more-or-less contemporary radio run-through of the Beck trio’s then recent LP release ‘Gyroscope’, the original version of which has just this week come my way.
Joined by GB Trio regulars Jeff Clyne (he was everywhere in the 1960s!) and drummer Tony Oxley, this is a recording that still sounds daring to this day, fuelled by, as Beck put it in the original sleeve note, ‘[my] need to explore the ‘Free Form’ area’.
Stylistically, Beck is about as far from Dudley Moore as one can imagine, although, like many musicians in the 1960s, both men arrived at almost the same place on the musical horizon in search of greater freedoms, even though their respective journeys had started in quite differing places. Listened to back-to-back ‘Gyroscope’ (1968) and ‘Dudley Moore Trio’ (1969) are both a reflection of the wider interactive freedoms ushered in by Bill Evans’ seminal trio records of the early 1960s. In that sense, as personal as each is, there cannot help but be an echo of a certain pattern within their contents. Each album confirms the belief that both men were happiest (if such an emotion could ever apply to the pathologically gloomy Beck) playing their own music. Looking back, Moore had been a square-peg in the big bands of Vic Lewis and John Dankworth, while Beck, despite his lengthy, much-trumpeted association with American altoist Phil Woods, always seemed more comfortable in settings of his own choosing. How much of that was down to his nervy character remains moot; however, one story told to me by the late drummer Allan Ganley revealed that Beck was indeed his own worst enemy where being a ‘sideman’ was concerned. Apparently, at the very first rehearsal of the 1962 Tubby Hayes Quintet – in which the pianist was very much the ‘new boy’ - Beck confessed to Ganley that he ‘wasn’t going to last in this band’.
‘He was right,’ Ganley laughed. ‘Tubby couldn’t get on with his comping. He said [Gordon] kept putting things in funny places’.
It’s possible to see something of a pattern emerging with the above accounts, one graded in a sort of ‘awkwardness’ graph; Moore knocking Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, Beck failing to capitalise on the gift of international recognition with Phil Woods. But for real purist dogma you need to look a little deeper into the back-pages of the Brit-Jazz story to the work of Mike Taylor, a player whose early death in 1969, aged just thirty, has combined with the almost mythic rarity of his recorded legacy (just two Columbia LP’s taped in 1966 and 1967, now firmly in the hen’s teeth category) and the anecdotal evidence of those who knew him (Jack Bruce et al.) to elevate him into nothing less than a cult figure.
I first came across Taylor on a wonderful compilation album put out by the Columbia label in the year of his death - ‘Jazz Explosion’ - which contained, in among the Tracey’s, Rendell-Carr’s and Harriott’s, a trio track of such quietly intense concentration that it made almost everything which surrounded it sound rather overblown and unambitious. That track was Taylor’s ‘Abena’, lifted from his second album ‘Trio’, taped, bizarrely, with two basses (Ron Rubin and Jack Bruce) and drummer Jon Hiseman. The album itself is one of the deepest, most unsettling and least-time-trapped recordings in 1960s British jazz. Indeed, played now, some fifty-four years after it was made, it still sounds contemporary, something that was confirmed to me when I played it to a pianist friend of mine a while ago and she mistook it for Gwilym Simcock.
Taylor’s meagre recorded yield had recently gained a few extra kilos in archive weight with the discovery and issue of a live set by his quartet taped at the Studio Jazz Club in – of all places – Southend-On-Sea in January 1965. The date is key. In fact what makes ‘Mandala’ (Jazz In Britain) so startlingly important is that, hearing Taylor’s quartet, headed by the plain, Lacy-esque soprano of Dave Tomlin, and knowing what else was going down on the British jazz scene at this time, one can hardly believe such radicalism was being played out in a suburban club, rather than some bastion of London’s growing counter-culture. To call the album shocking is almost an understatement. Listening to the opener, an extended Taylor composition titled ‘Son of Red Blues’ is a breathtaking experience, the incessant, ceaselessly inventive drummer of Jon Hiseman pummelling the listener into a state of near-aural paralysis. It may seem like feint praise (or at the very least Larkin-speak) to call this album ‘engaging’ but that is precisely what it is; its fascinates, pulls you in, keeping your attention at every point through a combination of its oddly infectious ‘live’ quality and the genuinely unusual ensemble texture. At times, it may remind you of another piano-playing Taylor – Cecil – but what emerges ultimately is a music of great power and originality, both of which seem remarkably palpable for a recording that has lain unheard for over half a century.
And that takes me to a sleeve note I have completed this week, intended for an album of previously unissued material by another maverick talent Michael Garrick.
In some senses, Garrick is a bit like a combination of all the pianists discussed above. Like Dudley Moore he wasn’t above off-colour humour, generally made an awkward fit as a sideman and loved composing his own material, as had Gordon Beck, and, much like Mike Taylor, was consistently intent on ploughing his own furrow no matter what anyone else was doing. Actually, Garrick was so determined in this latter regard that, drawing on native ‘culture’, as he once told me, he was willing to risk coming up with ‘an inferior product.’
It was this quest for ‘Englishness’ in his music that led Garrick variously to fuse his first love – straight-ahead post-bop – with poetry, liturgy and choral music, all of which he did to various effect on a series of albums for the Argo label from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. As someone who came to the whole notion of ‘nationalism’ in jazz with a somewhat jaundiced eye, not to mention possessing a somewhat in-built resistance to alleged musical fusions, some of which had the quality of a shotgun wedding, I have to admit it took me some time to explore Garrick’s work in any depth, yet within his Sixties LPs I eventually discovered such affecting performances as ‘Little Girl’ and ‘He Ran Out Crying’ (both featuring the incendiary Jamaican altoist Joe Harriott) and the truly beautiful trio album ‘Moonscape’, which, much like Mike Taylor’s ‘Trio’ mentioned above, is a good play should you want to test out jazz-loving friends in a benign guessing-game.
I knew less about Garrick’s poetry ‘n’ jazz experiments, which comprise half of the forthcoming release of previously unheard material. As an annotator, I’ve never really believed that it’s my job to spout partisan puff on an album sleeve, much less to mislead the listener as to what they’re going to hear, and in this instance I’ve not pulled my punches. Some of the material in question is very far from jazz as I understand it, occupying a sort of Radio Three never-land out there between pastoral folk-song and Oxbridge pretension and in my notes I’ve said as much (I’m with reviewer Mark Gardner, who when appraising an existing Garrick record featuring poet John Smith, thought the latter hopelessly ‘square’). I hope, however, that anyone who reads my words when the album appears later this year will spot, in among the journalistic objectivity, a very real respect for Michael Garrick’s zeal. True, things like ‘Rustat’s Gravesong’ may be as far from ‘Muskrat Ramble’ as it’s possible to go without actually severing the links to the jazz tradition altogether, but at least Garrick and co. can be praised for not churning out another interminable variant on ‘I Got Rhythm’. Actually, when they do turn their collective hand to such a task, as on the rollicking ‘Good Times’ which opens the recording, the effect is altogether rather refreshing for being set among what is otherwise pretty earnest, not to actually say God-bothering, stuff.
The final pianist I’d like to focus upon arrived on my desk this week by proxy, appearing as a sideman with the Jazz Couriers, co-led by Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, namely Terry Shannon, a player who, come to think of it, always appeared to arrive anywhere as part of someone else’s outfit rather than under his own steam.
For my money (and more significantly that of many fellow jazz pianists of the time) Shannon is the greatest exponent of Hard Bop piano this country ever produced, one whose story I might one day tell in greater detail.
For the purposes of this piece, though, a thumbnail sketch will suffice. Born in 1929, and lifted out of a comfortable day job at the Esso corporation by clarinettist Vic Ash in 1956, Shannon had already won his musical spurs as a semi-pro gigging around the capital with the likes of Dizzy Reece, Tubby Hayes and Jimmy Deuchar, all of whom were knocked on their ear by the young Londoners innate grasp of the latest line in modern jazz pianistics. This can be heard on a whole series of recordings from the mid-to-late 1950s, made mostly for the Tempo label under the auspices of man-about-UK-jazz Tony Hall. Listen for example to ‘Bluebird’ with Dizzy Reece, the funky ‘Blues For Tony’ by Caribbean tenorman Wilton ‘Bogey’ Gaynair, or the splendid trio of titles set down in 1957 by a quintet co-headed by Scots trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar and vibraphonist Victor Feldman (‘Wail’, ‘Wailing Wall’ and ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’). And, of course, there are Shannon’s always apposite contributions to the four albums made as a member of the Jazz Couriers, not to mention his appearances on various live Tubby Hayes sets that have surfaced in recent years.
The sleeve notes for the Tempo albums, almost always by Hall himself but every so often by Benny Green or Mike Butcher, veritably glow with praise for Shannon’s work, which made Hard Bop a far more elegant art than it was to be in the hands of others. Even fifty years later, recalling his efforts to make Tempo ‘sort of British Blue Note’ Hall was still lavishing praise on the pianist, thinking him ‘Britain’s Horace Silver or Sonny Clark’ . Despite all this, he considered Shannon ‘very underrated’.
Hall is spot on about the alignments with Silver and Clark. He was also spot on about how Shannon went by almost unnoticed. Yet one cannot overlook the fact that he got the thumbs up from Britain’s jazz numero uno Tubby Hayes for the best part of a decade beginning in 1957, about as significant an endorsement as could then be given in parochial jazz circles. Indeed, when the Jazz Couriers split in 1959, both Hayes and Ronnie Scott praised Shannon’s invaluable input into the band, singling out his harmonic knowledge as having a vital impact of their own musicianship. And it was this, Shannon’s ‘natural’ ear, that led Hayes to overlook his almost total inability to sight-read music, the saxophonist using his services in all manner of settings in the early 1960s, ranging from commercial broadcasts with large string sections, big bands and even television variety shows, like the ill-fated ‘Tempo 60’.
All those who knew Shannon recall him as a gentle, unpretentious man, remarkable free from the over-driven need to be a ‘character’ that sometimes sabotaged British modernism in these years. They also remember him as highly prone to nerves and stage-fright and that self-effacement was an ever constant motif, possibly contributing to him never recording a session under his own leadership (there were odd BBC ‘Jazz Club’ broadcasts, although none of these appear to survive). ‘He underrated himself more than anyone,’ said Tony Hall in one interview. Certainly Shannon’s swift exit from the London jazz scene, after being a ubiquitous figure for close to a decade and a half, had something of the air of defeat to it. One musician who knew him even recalled having a conversation in which the pianist lamented the lack of cohesion in English rhythm sections as the reason for his flight from the front rank, the ever-modest Shannon thinking his own career highlight had been the 1958 ‘Blues In Trinity’ album, led by Dizzy Reece, on which for one of the few times on record, he had been partnered with a genuine US jazz great, the drummer Art Taylor.
Rumours also abounded about addiction problems and alcoholism, about which it’s not my place to speculate. One truth was that relocating to rural Lincolnshire, Shannon all but severed his ties with London and jazz. A few tried to stay in touch; there were infrequent phone calls to Tony Hall, one of which appraised the former Tempo producer that Shannon had inherited a substantial sum of money and invested it in a whole bank of keyboard technology. News of occasional local gigs filtered back to London and, in the mid-1980s, another former colleague, the saxophonist Jackie Sharpe, even lured Shannon down south to play a short stint at the Pizza Express in Soho’s Dean Street with his sextet, a gig which, according to some, saw the pianist racked by genuine fear that his old nefarious demons might once more engulf him now he was back ‘in town.’
In his sleeve note to the Mike Taylor ‘Mandala’ album discussed above, Duncan Heining makes great play about the easy, lazy convenience of appending his subject with the word ‘enigma’. Terry Shannon has suffered much the same fate, one all the more tragic since, unlike Taylor, who died over fifty years ago, he is still alive, aged ninety-two.
Until recently, Shannon’s exact whereabouts had been something of a mystery. Resident in Wragby, Lincolnshire since the 1970s, he steadfastly refused to answer any correspondence (this writer tried, even sending Shannon the extensive essay he’d written on him for ‘Jazz Journal’ in 2007), and appeared to have dropped permanently off the radar altogether since the turn of the last decade. It was even rumoured he’d passed away. Then, out of the blue, in 2017 one of Shannon’s closest friends, one Ken Taylor, corresponded with the excellent Henry Bebop website, revealing that the pianist had relocated to Kent and was still playing, in private at least. Further to this, Taylor revealed that on one afternoon in 2018, he had escorted Shannon around Soho, revisiting the sites of former haunts like Ronnie Scott’s Gerrard Street premises and the Flamingo in Wardour Street. A year later, the musical director of Ronnie Scott’s James Pearson confirmed that Shannon had been in touch regarding attending some of the 60th anniversary presentations staged in Dean Street’s ‘Gerry’s Club’ (which aimed to recreate the atmosphere of the ‘old’ Ronnies) but had been unable to attend owing to last minute complications.
And that is as close as I’ve ever got to meeting the man I regard as one of the finest jazz pianists the UK had ever produced. Surviving into extreme old age, Shannon is now one of only two regular Tubby Hayes sidemen (the other is drummer Spike Wells) remaining and, when one sees the photos of him shared by Ken Taylor, the lined features and straggly hair are a sharp reminder of the passage of time from the era in which the young, handsome and besuited Shannon – bearing a striking resemblance to the actor John Alderton – was one of the UK’s sharpest modernists.
The problem with all this romance though – of calling Shannon ‘forgotten’, ‘underrated’ and the like – is that it rather ignorantly sells him short. Indeed, I myself have all too often fallen foul of concentrating on the ‘what if’ of his career rather than the ‘what was’. Stories like that of Tony Hall being unable to raise the finance to tape a trio album by Shannon only further the legend of his being not simply an underrated talent but a somewhat cursed one too. The lesson served in all of this, though, is one that historians like myself, for all our retrospective enthusiasm, would do well to heed. And, as ever, it comes not from today, but from the past, almost exactly six decades ago to be precise, when Shannon found himself in New York while touring with an all-star edition of the Vic Lewis Orchestra (it’s rarely noted that the pianist got to American a whole year before his boss, Tubby Hayes, enjoyed his own, rather noisier, US debut).
The story came to my attention only last week, when a kind soul provided copies of the UK music weekly ‘Disc’ in one of which (April 30th 1960) regular jazz correspondent Tony Hall – yes, him again! - provided a breathless account of the Lewis’ band’s stop-over in the Big Apple. In it, Hall reports that during this brief sojourn Shannon actually got to meet one of his idols;
‘When I met Horace Silver, he said how much he had enjoyed my playing. Apparently he had heard me on some recordings by Dizzy Reece, Tubby and the Jazz Couriers. He asked me to tell Tubby too.’
Shannon and Silver clearly hit it off, forming a fleeting mutual appreciation society. ‘Horace is a quietly-spoken, really nice guy,’ said the Englishman. ‘And not just because he said he liked my playing! Horace himself is a tremendous player. He never stops swinging all night.’
And nor, in his way, did Terry Shannon. In fact, I find it a trifle embarrassing to think that after years of arguing his importance and championing his work as an ‘overlooked’ or ‘underrated’ player the evidence for him being neither was hidden almost in plain sight. What better endorsement of his talent could there be than that of Horace Silver? And, when someone like that is handing out the praise, it’s high time that people like myself – and all those who’ve tagged Shannon with those damning second-hand opinions – just shut up and listen. To his music, naturally.
Photo: Club Sandwiched: Terry Shannon on piano with the Tubby Hayes Quartet featuring Jeff Clyne and Bill Eyden, 1961.