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Big Chief

It Don’t Make Sense


by Ian Mann

April 09, 2014


Gritty, honest, unpretentious music of the kind that made the band such a popular live attraction. Funky, bluesy, sometimes jazzy, but always infectiously enjoyable.

Big Chief

“It Don’t Make Sense”

(Janus Sounds).

The London based band Big Chief is a long running institution founded in 1976 with founders John Fry (saxes, vocals) and Tony Edwards (drums, percussion, vocals) still present and correct in the 2014 line-up. A wide variety of musicians has passed through the ranks of this hard gigging band and it took them twenty one years to record their first album “It Don’t Make Sense”, originally released in 1997 and now reissued by Janus Sounds with the addition of two live bonus tracks from the early 1980s, both featuring the band’s star instrumentalist, the late saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith (1934-2004).

Big Chief’s blend of jazz, blues and rock influences and sense of fun, they were emphatically a “good time” band, made them perennial festival favourites and I remember catching them at Brecon Jazz Festival some time back in the day.

This re-issue has been timed to coincide with what would have been Heckstall-Smith’s eightieth birthday. Born just up the road in Ludlow, Shropshire Heckstall-Smith is something of a local hero as far as I’m concerned and I recall seeing him perform with a local trio led by drummer John Gibbon in neighbouring Hereford. Of course I also remember Heckstall-Smith for his work with Colosseum, a band that also included Big Chief bassist Tony Reeves. Indeed with former Curved Air guitarist Mick Jacques also in the Big Chief ranks at this time “It Don’t Make Sense” offers something of a reminder of my prog rock past.

“It Don’t Make Sense” is largely song based with Fry and Edwards sharing the lead vocals although there are also a number of jazz based instrumentals including the group’s interpretation of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”. The vocal items have a strong blues base and in the main this is gritty, honest, unpretentious music of the kind that made the band such a popular live attraction - and indeed still does, this bunch of veterans is still working.

The album kicks off with “Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home” which combines John Fry’s bluesy vocal with a hard driving funk groove, the latter courtesy of Reeves on electric bass, Adrian Paton on keyboards and Gary O’Toole at the drums. The band often featured Tony Edwards’ voice and percussion alongside O’Toole as a regular kit drummer. Indeed the line up on “It Don’t Make Sense”  is a fluctuating one as musicians come and go. The jazz element on this opening number comes courtesy of Heckstall-Smith whose hot sax solo contrasts nicely with the cooler, bluesier tones of guitarist Jacques. 

Fry switches to tenor sax for Joe Sample’s instrumental “Hots It”, joining Heckstall-Smith to form a formidable twin pronged horn attack. Paton’s bubbling Crusaders style keyboards drive the song, locking in with Reeves and O’Toole to fuel tasty solos from Jacques and the horns. Paton also enjoys an extended solo of his own in which he deploys a variety of keyboard sounds from Rhodes to Hammond.

Fry returns to the vocal mic for Billy Nightingale’s ” Rock Awhile”, a convincing slice of blues infused rock ‘n’ roll with a honking, hooting and wailing sax break from Heckstall-Smith who trades solos with Jacques. These two link up well throughout the album.

Fats Domino’s “It Keeps Rainin’” features the softer vocal style of Tony Edwards who also replaces O’Toole at the drum kit. John Fry moves to tenor sax, joining his son Chris on trombone and Dave Chambers on alto sax in the horn section as Heckstall-Smith sits out. Stalwarts Paton, Reeves and Jacques remain with the latter doubling on mandolin. I must confess that I’m less keen on this particular item, it’s less blues and funk based than its predecessors and all a bit too “poppy” and MOR for me.

An instrumental version of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” features the same line up and is more successful, how could one fail to like anything by the Duke? The three horns combine well in a richly colourful arrangement and Jacques delivers a tasteful semi-acoustic guitar solo with Chambers also impressing on alto.   

John Fry takes the vocal on John Weldon Cale’s lascivious, New Orleans flavoured “After Midnight”, his gruff, authoritative voice well suited to the material. He also delivers the saxophone solos in Heckstall-Smith’s continued absence, again dovetailing well with Jacques. The guitarist also helps to lay down an appropriately fat, sinister groove in conjunction with Messrs. Reeves, Paton and O’Toole.

The New Orleans connection is even more apparent on the band’s version of “Work, Work, Work” , written by the Crescent City triumvirate of Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint and Naomi Neville. Edwards handles both the lead vocal and the drum kit with John Fry on backing vocals and tenor sax. Chris Fry and Chambers are added to the horn section and, for me, this piece is more successful than the Fats Domino number although I can’t help thinking it might have been better suited to the stronger lead voice of John Fry.

Horace Silver’s enduring “Song For My Father” always appeals and this version features Paton’s keyboards extensively, he’s something of an unsung hero throughout the album. John Fry and Chambers combine on tenor and alto respectively and there’s a wonderfully melodic electric bass solo from the masterful Tony Reeves. The intro nods in the direction of Steely Dan’s audacious steal of the opening bars for “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. 

“Big Chief” by Ulis Gaines and Wardell Quezergue is the band’s signature song and features John Fry’s vocals, a walloping groove and carousing horns (Fry, Fry & Chambers). John Dillon takes over the drum stool as Tony Edwards contributes percussion and backing vocals.

Dave Chambers’ “Flacka” is the only original tune of the set and features his alto alongside John Fry’s tenor and Chris Fry’s trombone. The sound of Paton’s Hammond is also prominent on this slyly funky instrumental.

Willie Dixon’s title track marks an excursion into hardcore blues territory, the song’s anti war message delivered by John Fry’s growled vocal and a sinister groove generated by Jacques, Paton, Reeves and O’Toole. Paton’s piano adds some neat instrumental flourishes but this is mainly about the song and the message.

The original album concludes with Big Chief’s version of Aaron Neville’s “Yellow Moon”, sung by John Fry and with a colourful arrangement featuring Chambers on flute and the muted trombone growl of Chris Fry. Reeves’  propulsive bass groove is augmented by Dillon on drums and Edwards on percussion.

The two bonus tracks are sourced from recently discovered cassette tapes of a live show in 1982 at The Pegasus in Stoke Newington, London and have been remixed by Tony Reeves. The sound quality obviously isn’t as good as the studio recordings but both pieces are notable for the presence of Heckstall-Smith who is fine form as he rasps his way through a second version of “Big Chief” and delivers a powerful solo along the way.

The second live item is the group’s version of Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, a tune known to some listeners as the theme tune for Barry Norman’s “Film” programmes. The sound quality here is pretty duff but there’s some exultant solo sax honking from Mr Heckstall-Smith, aided and abetted by John Fry, that more than justifies its inclusion. The audience of more than thirty years ago absolutely loved it. 

“It Don’t Make Sense” isn’t the most profound album to have been reviewed on the Jazzmann, and I’m sure Big Chief wouldn’t claim it to be, but it is great fun and well worthy of re-issue. This is the sound of seasoned professionals having fun playing material with which they clearly have a great affinity and the standard of the musicianship is excellent throughout. The group exhibit a love and mastery of several genres of American music with the sounds of New Orleans forming the root. Unpretentious, funky, bluesy, sometimes jazzy but always infectiously enjoyable.

A further release of previously unheard Big Chief material featuring Dick Heckstall-Smith is scheduled for release in September 2014.

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