Songs in the Key of 'H'

<h1 itemprop="headline">Songs in the Key of 'H'</h1>

The extraordinary life of Malcolm Cecil (1937-2021)


When Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes were deciding the personnel for their soon-to-be-launched co-led quintet The Jazz Couriers in March 1957 there was no question about who they wanted to play bass with the group; Malcolm Cecil. Just twenty years of age, London-born Cecil had already been a professional musician for four years, having played in an earlier line-up headed by Scott and with bands led by tenorist Tommy Whittle, vibraphonist Lennie Best and the maverick Jamaican trumpeter Dizzy Reece. As the Couriers set the capital’s tiny modern jazz scene ablaze that spring – playing the opening night of the new Flamingo premises in Wardour Street that April, as well as making an early appearance on BBC-TV’s new ‘youth culture’ show ‘Six-Five Special’ - it looked likely that, as well as further elevating the visibility of the band’s two frontmen, the new outfit would bring Cecil to the prominence he so richly deserved. Alas, it was not to be.

One of the most technically able of British jazzmen on his chosen instrument, he might have gone on to make an even greater contribution to the Courier’s music (he was replaced with the altogether more workhorse-like Phil Bates) had he not been lured away by the richer pickings of the commercially successful trio of Welsh pianist Dill Jones – a band that even had its own television series at one point – and then had his musical career summarily interrupted by call up for National Service in the RAF in 1958.

Cecil’s early life appeared to mark him out with a clear artistic future. Born on January 9th 1937, he was playing piano by the age of four, appearing as a child actor at the Old Vic around the age of twelve and had turned to music as a profession aged sixteen. However, at the urging of his parents, he also began studies at London University, achieving a degree in Science, an academic accolade extremely rare among his immediate circle of London ‘modernists’.

As is so often the case with jazzmen of his nationality and generation, there is precious little to show on-record of Cecil’s early work. He’d left the Jazz Couriers before they’d taped a commercially available album and had barely managed to fit in a single session with Dill Jones before being called to serve Queen and Country (hear ‘Carolina Shout’ on the marvellous 3-CD set ‘Too Hot: The Best of Mainstream British Jazz’ issued on the Castle label in 2004). Still, his years away from the jazz hub that was late-Fifties London were far from wasted. Stationed in the North East of England, working on radar tracking systems, he became ever more fascinated with electronics, moonlighting from his military duties on what constituted the Newcastle jazz circuit, meeting brothers Ian and Mike Carr and joining the first edition of their precociously accomplished hard bop quintet the EmCee Five.

Lost time

After being de-mobbed in February 1960, Cecil returned to London, finding himself ideally placed to capitalise on the ever broadening remit of British modern jazz. In fact, when looking at the bassist’s workload at this time, it was as if he were making up for lost time. A regular at Ronnie Scott’s original club in Gerrard Street during its first year of operation, he worked with all manner of rising jazz stars, from altoist Peter King through to pianist Stan Tracey whose ‘house’ trio proper he joined in 1963.

Prior to this he’d been involved in a remarkable run of work with several prominent leading lights of local modernism, appearing on both tenorist Dick Morrissey’s debut album ‘It’s Morrissey Man!’ and drummer/composer Tony Crombie’s ‘Whole Lotta Tony’ LP in 1961, spending two years with the Jazz Five, co-headed by clarinettist Vic Ash and baritonist Harry Klein (including two weeks opposite the Miles Davis Quintet on the trumpeter’s first-ever UK tour in 1960) and briefly playing an actor/musician role in a touring production of the controversial Jack Gelber play ‘The Connection’ that hit London in spring 1961 (alongside US Blue Note recording stars, altoist Jackie McLean and pianist Freddie Redd).

Cecil’s unusually broad-minded musical outlook also began to reveal itself in full during these years, both on record and in his live engagements. In 1961, he depped on a Danish tour by the Chris Barber band, a highly controversial move at a time when deep enmity existed between the camps of ‘Trad’ and ‘Modern’ jazz within the UK. A year later he appeared with guitarist Alexis Korner’s unclassifiable Blues Incorporated, and in 1964 featured on the first British-made recording by the equally eclectic Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin (‘Wranglin’, Island Records). A short while later, he was anchoring Ronnie Scott’s no-holds-barred bop quartet on the album ‘The Night Is Scott...and You're So Swingable’ (Fontana, 1966). All these styles, no matter how diverse, were valued grist to Cecil’s creative mill.

It was small wonder he was in such demand though. Listened too now, nearly sixty years later, his improvisations on albums by the Jazz Five and the Dick Morrissey Quartet still sound highly impressive, their surprising agility a wake-up call to all those who think that springy, athletic bass soloing only began in UK jazz circles after the arrival of Ron Mathewson, Dave Holland and co.

Like Myself

Cecil also cut something of an unusual figure, one seen never forgotten. Lean, lanky, bearded and bespectacled, he already had something of the young professor to him, but he further upped the stakes of memorability by possessing a highly unusual quirk, one those who saw him live at Ronnie Scott’s and other venues will readily recall. When playing he’d press either the scroll of the bass or the instrument’s neck into his forehead, apparently aiding his hearing. Some wags suggested that one day Cecil would fall victim of this novel practise (‘the only head-tuned bass in the business’ quipped Alan Dell on one BBC radio slot), getting tangled in his own strings like a fly caught in a spiders web, but it never happened even when the music was at its most intensely demanding. And it wasn’t just his stance when playing that was original.

Whatever he played, Cecil always sounded like himself. Asked who his favourite bassist was, he’d reply ‘I’m trying to play like myself’, responding when pressed that he was more inspired by Milt Jackson, Miles Davis and Bill Evans.

The unearthing of various live tapes of UK-made modern jazz from these years, now regarded as something of a golden era for the music, have provided further evidence of Cecil in action. He can be heard on various discs with multi-reedman Roland Kirk, trombonist J. J. Johnson and tenorist Stan Getz (the ‘Live in London’ series on the now defunct Harkit Records) and also alongside regular employer Ronnie Scott (‘BBC Jazz Club 1964-66’, R&B Records).

Working with Kirk was particular fun. With little in the way of pre-planning Stan Tracey and his trio had a challenging time trying to match their guests wayward muse. ‘What key is this in?,’ Cecil shouted over as Kirk began his set one night. Barely pausing for breath, the American hollered back ‘H!’ Black, blind and anything but conventional, the instrument-festooned US star would also baffle his accompanists with requests for a vamped introduction using a ‘prejudiced 13th chord’. ‘What’s that?’, his bassist would enquire. ‘It’s easy man,’ Kirk would reply. ‘Play either all the white or all the black notes.’

One of these recently-issued archive sets – ‘Vic Ash: The Complete Quintet and Jazz Five Recordings 1959-61’ (Acrobat, 2014) – finds Cecil in especially good form, containing an energised live version of his own fashionably hip composition ‘Still Life’, written after the band’s tour with Miles Davis, on which the bassist’s playing echoes the interactive methods of Bill Evans’ celebrated collaborator Scott La Faro.

Cecil was certainly always a forward thinker. Known to his fellow Jazz Five bandmates as ‘The Wizard’, he astonished them by building his own bass amplifier, at a time when such things were largely unheard of. ‘He was an electronics genius,’ recalled Vic Ash in his autobiography ‘I Blew It My Way’ (Northway Publications, 2006) and it was to be this extra-musical skill that would save his career when, following a devastating lung collapse in 1966, Cecil was forced to face a radical lifestyle change.

On medical advice he move to a warmer climate, he left London to live in South Africa, before then relocating to Santa Monica, California, where, Ash recalled, ‘he built his own recording studio’ and ‘got a gig programming synthesisers for Stevie Wonder.’

Science fiction

This is a radical over-simplification; what Cecil actually did was to design and construct his own synthesiser, after befriending electronics pioneer Robert Moog. Frustrated by the limitations of session musicians, Cecil’s creation – TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra) – was intended by its designer to generate something close to a new musical language, and after it made an appearance on a project co-helmed with Robert Margouleff – the album ‘Zero Time’, released in 1971 – no lesser figure than Stevie Wonder turned up on Cecil’s doorstep expressing a desire to work together. Thus it was that, working out of New York’s Mediasound Studios, Cecil and Margouleff assisted Wonder in making his early 1970s masterpieces ‘Music of My Mind’, ‘Talking Book’, ‘Innervisions’ and 'Fulfillingness’ First Finale’. Following this Cecil also worked with Quincy Jones, The Isley Brothers, Weather Report, Bobby Womack, Gil Scott-Heron and many other notable hit-makers, giving him the kind of post-jazz career few of his old contemporaries could have ever envisaged much less reconciled. Cecil, however, was a very happy man. Later in life, he would often crop up on TV documentaries discussing Wonder’s music or debating the still controversial notion of synthesised sounds ‘replacing’ the human input. As had been the credo with his double bass playing, he consistently insisted that his thinking was never ‘just’ about the instrument but that it was the mind behind the machine that truly made the music happen.

Although he’ll be recalled principally for his innovative marriage of music and technology, rather than his world-class jazz bass playing, Malcolm Cecil deserves a special place within the annals of British jazz. Not only was he an incredibly adept player, almost an exception to the rule that appeared to state that local bassists be more spirited than accurate, he was also one of the scene’s most visible ‘characters’. Intensely intellectual (in one early interview he listed his hobbies as ‘musical theory, electronics, science fiction and inventing’) he was nevertheless a man of anarchic, almost ‘Goon’-ish, humour, very often centred on chanced word play. When in Copenhagen with Chris Barber, for example, he was confused by a pedestrian crossing sign flashing the Danish word ‘Vent’ - meaning wait – and was very nearly run down by a passing car. Pulled back to the kerbside by the band’s tour manager, Cecil said impishly ‘Well, the light showed ‘vent’ so I vent.’

Malcolm Cecil’s passing is yet another marker on the road winding from the now increasingly distant epoch of post-war British jazz. He may not have been a major innovator (bass-wise), or a bandleader of significance, nor was he even a player with an especially lengthy track record within the music (he was a London jazzman for less than a decade, all told) yet he was a familiar and widely-admired ‘face’ on a scene much less media-manipulated than its equivalent today. He was also an exceptionally shrewd individual, one who got out of the sharp end of the business just as many of his colleagues were slipping into noisy vocal cynicism about the impact of rock and free-improvisation. However, he wasn’t without his own, personal doubts. Indeed, he once observed that his life was governed by ‘the Cecil Infallible Rule’ - which he defined as ‘if there is any bad thing that can happen, it’ll happen to Cecil’. Looked back upon now, though, in the wake of his death, there seems more good than ill fortune on which to concentrate. A fabulous musician, gifted with a scalpel-sharp brain and creative skills both instrumentally and technologically, his was a career with nary a wasted opportunity, littered with than a few good things along its seven decade path.

Malcolm Cecil

b. January 9th 1937

d. March 28th 2021

Photo: Black and white notes: Ronnie Stephenson, Roland Kirk, Malcolm Cecil and Stan Tracey, on stage at Ronnie Scott’s, Gerrard Street, Soho, 1964.