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Reel Recordings

Monday, May 30, 2011

Tim Owen with our first look at Reel Recordings, the Canadian label that specialises in British jazz of the 1960's and 70's. Tim examines releases by Splinters, Harry Miller's Isipingo & Bob Downes.

Since 2007, Reel Recordings has been run by Michael and Miki King out of Dundas, Canada. You don’t have to dig far into their website to discern the pair’s affection for the Jazz and progressive fusion scene of the ‘60s and ‘70’s United Kingdom: Kevin Ayers, Lol Coxhill, Ray Russell and Trevor Watts are representative names; all four are represented on recordings with the Reel imprint, and all are listed as ‘friends’ on the website. Reel is clearly a labour of love sustained by a very personal involvement in the music.

In a handy manifesto (, Michael and Miki enthuse about recordings, both amateur and professional, that have “captured, or constructed, musical performances on time continuous analogue electro-magnetic tape”. Reel specialise in unearthing such treasures and bringing them to the modern marketplace, in the process “celebrating the riches of reel-to-reel tape in providing the dedication and respect it warrants.” They boast a “minimalist chain of tonally neutral Hi-End components (that) incorporates vintage tube buffering and real time analogue to CDR production master burns”, and promise that each CD with their label is “a disc manufactured and glass mastered in real time (x1) for ultimate accuracy.” This attention to detail is carried over to the Digipaks that house Reel’s CDs, each of which incorporates images of the source tape reels and/or boxes, alongside contemporaneous photographs of the recording artists.

The three titles under consideration here all contain music recorded in London between 1972 and 1979. The earliest, “Split the Difference”, documents a May 1972 performance at the 100 Club by an ensemble operating under the collective name Splinters. The other two are compiled from one-off or selected studio recordings from a particular period. The studio recordings are, as the Reel manifesto suggests they should be, rendered with clarity and a pleasing naturalness, while the live Splinters date sounds just as it should, with effective instrumental differentiation and a healthy dose of nightclub atmospherics.

“Split the Difference”
(Reel Recordings)

Personnel: Tubby Hayes, tenor sax and flute; Trevor Watts, alto saxophone; Kenny Wheeler, trumpet and flugelhorn; Stan Tracey, piano; Jeff Clyne, bass; John Stevens, drums; Phil Seamen, drums.

Splinters were a co-operative ensemble convened by Stan Tracey to bring together musicians with different backgrounds, and sometimes of different generations. On this occasion Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen represented the older generation for whom free music was something they had to accommodate and, as they show willing here, to adapt to. For the other participants, namely Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler, Jeff Clyne, and John Stevens, improvisation was their art. In the disc’s liner notes, Trevor Watts recalls the great Tubby Hayes being “very open at that point in his life”, and open to playing “not suddenly free music, but standards in an open way”. Splinters music was certainly open at the 100 Club; there are just two pieces here; an opening 47 minute set, here titled “One in One Hundred”, then the 30 minutes of “Two in One Hundred”.

Tubby Hayes gets his due deference but – having made his mark in the opening moments – he by no means dominates. Kenny Wheeler sounds out in this opening swell. His mature sound is instantly identifiable here; at other times he varies his intonation, with bite and even aggression. The pairing of drummers Phil Seamen and John Stevens gives rise to some remarkable passages. Seamen plays ‘time’ throughout, just as he had some ten years earlier on the ground breaking Joe Harriott Quintet sessions that produced the “Free Form” and “Abstract” albums. John Stevens plays around him, though they do occasionally lock horns: there’s an awesome double drums solo around twenty minutes into “One”. Sadly Seamen died soon after the Splinters gig, in October 1972. Jeff Clyne’s bass is wonderfully elastic in this context, and only pianist Stan Tracey seems ill served by the heightened emphasis on rhythm. He has to wait a good half hour before a lull allows him to be heard effectively, and there are few others subsequently, though everyone falls silent to listen when, just before the end of the piece, Hayes’ switches to flute. There are surprisingly few moments where the saxophonists to go head to head, though Tubby Hayes and Trevor Watts do face off vividly once or twice during “Two”. Watts’ dialogue with Kenny Wheeler some fifteen minutes into the same track is a highlight of the session. In addition to playing, Watts had a hand in setting up the recording of this session, and he did a great job, achieving a vivid, democratic sound balance with clear differentiation of each participant. Only Stan Tracey seems under represented.

Harry Miller’s Isipingo
“Full Steam Ahead”
(Reel Recordings)

Collective personnel: Mike Osborne, alto saxophone; Stan Tracey, Keith Tippett, or Frank Roberts, piano; Mongezi Feza, pocket trumpet; Mark Charig, trumpet; Nick Evans, Malcolm Griffiths, or Paul Neiman, trombone; Harry Miller, bass; Louis Moholo, drums

The London-based, South African-born bassist Harry Miller was a vital presence on the 60s/70s London Jazz scene, at which time he gigged and recorded prolifically for artists, notably Chris McGregor and the big band Brotherhood of Breath. Miller also contributed to the 1969 John Surman ‘Flashpoint’ session for German TV, recently released on an excellent CD+DVD package and reviewed elsewhere on this site.

The Reel album adds to a slim discography of recordings by Miller’s own ensemble, Isipingo. Its five tracks were recorded separately over three sessions between 1975 and 1977, with few changes in personnel. Drummer Louis Moholo is a crucial constant, as is Mike Osborne (alto saxophone),and, in the latter years, Mark Charig (trumpet). Malcolm Griffiths, Nick Evans and Paul Neiman pass the baton on trombone, while the occupant of the piano stool changes each year: Stan Tracey in 1975, giving way to Keith Tippett the following year, and Frank Roberts the next.

All of the compositions are Miller’s. The first couple, “What Hey!” and “Good Heavens Evans!”, were from the same 1975 session, and feature Louis Moholo’s fellow Blue Note Mongezi Feza on pocket trumpet. Sadly Feza died, age 30, in December the same year, and these tracks are particularly important since his playing here is phenomenal. “What Hey!” is characterized by a classically joyful SA-style refrain; “Good Heavens Evans!”, by contrast, seems anguished or mournful at times. The three following tacks constitute a breathless sequence of high energy, up-tempo blowouts, with Charig and Osborne both on excellent form. The CD ends with a live track, “Dancing Damon”, recorded at the ICA in August 1966. While on one level Miller’s compositions act as conduits for democratically apportioned soloing; on another level the song is everything. Key to the Isipingo sound are Louis Moholo’s rhythmic ebullience and a balance of earthiness and smoothness across the brass and reeds. Anyone seduced by the Blue Notes should also appreciate these wonderful sessions.

Bob Downes Open Music
“Crossing Borders”
(Reel Recordings)

Collective personnel: Bob Downes, alto sax, tenor sax, flute, Columbian pan flute, bass flute, Bahian cowbells, vocalizing; Brian Godding, electric guitar; Paul Rutherford, trombone; Paul Bridge, Barry Guy, or Mark Meggido, bass; Dennis Smith or John Stevens, drums.

“Crossing Borders” is the work of an Englishman with an outer-national imagination, a hippy if you will, which was no easy thing to be in the post-punk era during which the sessions compiled on Crossing Borders were held, all at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, in either ‘78 or ‘79. Hippy or otherwise, Bob Downes is an impressive multi-instrumentalist, primarily a saxophonist (alto and tenor) and flautist (Columbian pan flute, bass flute, and plain old flute). His compositions here all have exotic connotations, as suggested by their titles, and all deploy a rich instrumentation evocatively. For “Jungle Chase”, for instance, Downes alternates between alto and tenor saxophones, flute and pan flute, and some special handmade cowbells that he flew to Bahia “for the sole purpose” of obtaining. Barry Guy and Dennis Smith seem to know the territory, impressionistically fleshing out the contours of the journey’s various twists and turns. It’s interesting to encounter Guy in this context, since his identification with free improvisation was already concrete by this time, but his sympathetic imagination certainly makes him an ideal choice. “South American Indian” is a brief, absorbing solo feature for Downes on bass flute and vocals. Two of the subsequent tracks pair Guy with fellow double bassist Mark Meggido. The doubling allows Mark Meggido’s generous pulse to offset Guy’s deeply textural playing.

Electric guitarist Brian Godding, who had by ‘78 recorded with both French prog outfit Magma (on “Kohntarkosz”) and Keith Tippett’s Centipede, is a key presence on the three later tracks. “Sad Senorita” threatens to stray into cliché but transcends it, partly thanks to Godding’s jousts with Downes’ alto which punctuate the various reinventions the track undergoes before its end. Godding then begins “Basking in the Sun”, which evokes a lazy saunter along a Rio beach, with licks of pellucid sweetness. That particular track may be nothing special, but Godding’s light touch and refreshing originality suit Downes’ music perfectly. A similar languor pervades many moments here, and it’s a rare mood in the jazz of this, or any other period. Downes’ music goes against the grain of expectation in many ways, and there’s no doubting his conceptual originality. The music on Split The Difference” and “Full Steam Ahead” is arguably more successful because at this point in time they encapsulate what we hear as the timeless originality of the jazz revolutions of the period. Downes’ music isn’t ‘classic’ jazz in the same sense; it sounds rather dated in some ways; yet I found much to enjoy in the unforced freshness of his music. This release, incidentally, follows the reissue, on Esoteric, of two albums, “Open Music” and “Electric City”, originally released by Vertigo in the early 1970s. And Downes’ official website – you will find the link to it on the Reel website, under ‘Friends’ page – announces the release of new music from a new Open Music trio.

Tim’s Star Ratings;

Splinters 4 Stars

Isipingo 3.5 Stars

Bob Downes 3 Stars




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