NUCLEUS

Live in Bremen
Cuneiform Records Rune 173/174

Arguably the second best rock-influenced band that had its origins in Newcastle, England — after Eric Burdon and the Animals, of course — Nucleus made a reputation for itself as one of the most resourceful British contributors to the jazz-rock fusion world of the 1970s. This two-CD live set recorded in Bremen, Germany in mid-1971, points out some of the reasons for its success, as well as why the band members eventually changed course.

Essentially the creation of trumpeter Ian Carr, Nucleus came about when the trumpeter decided he wanted to experiment with rock rhythms added to extended instrumental solos. Until then a dyed-in-wool jazzer, Carr co-lead a quintet with tenor saxophonist Don Rendell in the 1960s. Yet except for drummer John Marshall, who later worked with bassist Eberhard Weber’s Colours and John Surman’s groups, the rest of Nucleus was made up of musicians, who probably spent more time gigging with rock bands and doing studio gigs then playing even mainstream club jazz.

Return to Forever and Weather Report didn’t exist and BITCHES BREW hadn’t been released when the band was organized, the trumpeter has boasted. But that means that the group’s closest antecedents were rock fusion bands like Soft Machine, which Marshall, bassist Roy Babbington — later a popular jingle composer— and oboist/electric pianist Karl Jenkins later joined — and more obviously Traffic, which at that time was known for its extended vamp numbers.

Unfortunately, that meant that the rest of the band usually lacked the solo muscle to take the spotlight away from Carr, who later in the decade would re-form the band under his own name. This is most apparent on “Dortmund Backtrack”, “Bremen Dreams” and “Elastic Rock”, which like most of the other selections on the CD form a continuous suite. Stop-time, well-modulated valve exploration mark the brassman’s work at the end of the first selection, which soon segues into the next one. That becomes a short, nearly unaccompanied solo showcase, occasionally seconded by subtle percussion and single- note guitar accents. Carr was obviously experienced enough at that time to not fear offering a showcase both adagio and muted. Soon after he sounds some definite triplets though, the rest of the band returns, with Russell’s chicken-scratching rhythmic patterns and Jenkins contributing slinky electric piano fills.

Auckland, New Zealand-born Brian Smith, who was later with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s large fusion band, takes what for him was probably a soulful solo. Yet his approximation of sheets of sounds are so polite that they have the same relationship to the soul blues of someone like David “Fathead” Newman as kiwis do to collard greens. Russell seems to be spinning out then-popular fingerpicking country rock licks and the horn backing resembles what would have come from Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Smith, who moved back to New Zealand in the 1980s, does produce some bite on “Oasis/Money Mad”, but elsewhere, especially on “Torrid Zone”, a ballad with a “Maiden Voyage” cast, his airy soprano saxophoning eases perilously close to New Age/Smooth Jazz blandness. Then there’s “Kookie and the Zoom Club”, the band’s nearly 17-minute showpiece. Making too much of screaming lead guitar runs and wah-wah pedal use, not to mention classic fuzz bass riffs and electric piano washes, it’s so reminiscent of some Traffic tunes that you expect Steve Winwood to pipe up with a vocal any minute. As it is, Carr’s Harmon-muted tones take the place that Chris Wood’s flute would have had in a Traffic piece.

Not that there aren’t good parts to the two discs. The slinky, relentless beat always keeps things rhythmically strong. Russell has one solo in particular where he manages to combine British blues power with Far Eastern off beats. And while Jenkins’ oboe may have been novelty, no other band of the time was trying out that innovation. Still, the group was so much Carr’s invention that it’s no surprise that he was featuring his name above the title by the end by the 1970s.

Since then the trumpeter has continued playing in different contexts and writing — he wrote an excellent book on Miles Davis and a disastrously fawning one on Keith Jarrett. The others band members only occasionally surface.

Nucleus was an honest response to the currents floating around at the time, which now seem nostalgic, compared to 2003’s Corporate Rock and jazz’s strutting neo-cons. In the end though, how much you loved the electric, instrumental music of that era will influence how impressed you are with this album.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Song For The Bearded Lady 2. By The Pool 3. Kookie and the Zoom Club 4. Torrid Zone 5. Zoom Out CD 2: 1. Snakehips’ Dream 2. Oasis/Money Mad 3. Dortmund Backtrack 4. Bremen Dreams 5. Elastic Rock 6. A Bit for Vic 7. Persephone’s Jive

Personnel: Ian Carr (trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion); Karl Jenkins (oboe, electric piano); Brian Smith (tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, percussion); Ray Russell (guitar); Roy Babbington (electric bass); John Marshall (drums, percussion)