Nick Stephens

December 5, 2005

Live at the Plough Stockwell
Loose Torque LT007

Fast Colour
Antwerp 1988
Loose Torque LT001

Two vibrant snapshots of London Jazz in the late 1980s, early 1990s, these discs show that just before the Limey version of Young Lions appeared, musicians of many different schools had developed a rapport with one another. By this time jazz-rockers, Free Musicians and boppers had been coexisting for a good many years, while the Brits had the added advantage of having internalized the Kwela and Township Jive rhythms expatriate South Africans players brought with them to the British jazz scene, after they fled Apartheid.

Probably the best-known of these expatriates was saxophonist Dudu Pukwana (1938-1990), featured on Antwerp 1988 and celebrated with “Do Do That Dudu That You Do” on LIVE Live at the Plough Stockwell. When the bands on both sessions adapt African-influenced patterns, they’re not doing it for novelty. Trumpeters John Corbett and Harry Beckett, trombonist Annie Whitehead and saxophonist Evan Parker had been part of South African pianist Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath with Pukwana, while bassist Nick Stephens and drummer John Stevens had long-time working relationships with the altoist.

Ironically with such heavy hitters as Parker, Pukwana and Stevens (1940-1994) on board, the Antwerp CD appears to be a unique all-star date, with the two CD-set merely the approximation of a typical two-set Saturday night pub gig. Not exactly… The tightness of the septet, which played at Stockwell’s The Plough every Saturday night, make this session the equal of the other, since Fast Colour rarely worked with Parker and Pinise Saul, who was also vocalist in Pukwana’s Zila band. While Whitehead, Corbett, who also played in the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, and saxophonist Chris Biscoe, a long-time associate of pianist Mike Westbrook, are proven qualities, and drummer Mark Sanders, featured on two tracks, would go on to record with the likes of Parker, one of the outstanding soloists is the little-known Jerry Underwood.

Underwood, who died in 2002 at 45, worked with avant-folkies like John Martyn, and in Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle as well as doing improv gigs. His solos throughout are impressive, especially on “One for Ron/Cunning Mingus”, dedicated to Ron Herman, who played alongside Stephens and Stevens in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and (obviously) bassist Charles Mingus. Revealed is an unapologetic, feet-planted-on-the-floor hard blower in Underwood, who spins guttural sounds, phrases and lines to their logical conclusion without showboating. He’s sort of the Brit equivalent of the late John Stubblefield, another powerful, but underappreciated tenorist, who worked with Mingus and the Mingus Big Band.

While Saul’s throat-twisting glossolalia, anti-Apartheid chanting, whistling and screams are a vital part of the performance, the preponderance of vocals frequently makes it seem as the band is backing the vocalist, rather than the singer being one part of the ensemble. Luckily there’s enough instrumental prowess on display to more-or-less make up for that. Whitehead confirms her skills with a few muted, flutter-tongued excursions that manage to be both tailgate colorful and bebop slick. With no sign of his Free Music persona in evidence, Parker is content to play second fiddle … er, saxophone … to Pukwana. When he does solo, Parker’s jagged timbres are firmly in the Free Jazz realm. Meanwhile, Stephens keeps up a steady beat, faithful to Township Jive as well as Jazz conventions.

As for Stevens, his loose-wristed, foot-pumping outings, especially on “John Dyani’s Gone”, are undertaken with locomotive style power, revealing the inner Buddy Rich that seems to have hidden inside the innovative Free Jazzer. Beckett’s double-tongued, soaring obbligato to the drum work is particularly apt, as he matches the percussionist phrase for phrase, smear for smear, no matter the tempo.

One was never exactly sure how much of Pukwana’s mature style came with him from South Africa and how much grew organically from the confluence with advanced Free Jazz stylists in the United Kingdom. Here his percussiveness in false registers is on display as well as intense, raspy irregular vibrations that at points mirror Eric Dolphy’s advances.

Recorded more than a year later, on the evidence of his compositions for his own septet, Stephens also appears to have internalized the adapted South African cross rhythms to his own end for LLive at the Plough Stockwell. While several of the tunes have punning pseudo-African titles such as “No Me Degas Nada”, the strength of the performance comes from this Anglo-African admixture, with band voicing and sudden tempo changes. Besides the brassy enthusiasm of individual horn soloists, some of most pointed bonding material comes from British-based Peruvian guitarist Mano Ventura. Mixing stinging jazz runs with Latin-styled rhythms, his string expansions complement the soloists or the rhythm section, depending on the circumstances. The only distraction – almost understandable in a 1990 context – comes from his over-reliance on too bright George Benson-like octave runs.

Throughout the eight tracks the septet delivers the type of closely arranged bravura performance that’s polyphonically sophisticated yet rhythmically open. Who knows, with a few of the tunes replete with insistent stay-in-your-memory hooks, the audience at the Plough may have been moved enough to execute the odd dance step to the foot-tapping rhythm. Linking the performance to horn-resplendent Yank funksters like Kool and the Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire, the crowd may not have realized that some of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished jazzers were letting their hair down – if they had any – with this gig. Consciously or not, through the musicians’ unshowy use of extended techniques, the two-CD set also points out the links between improv and so-called more popular forms such as funk and kwela.

Anyone interested in a peek behind the scenes at what went on during a top-quality British jazz pub gig in the late 1980s/early 1990s would be wise to seek out Live at the Plough Stockwell. Understanding that the emphasis on ANTWERP 1988 is directed towards a variant of South African jazz, not cerebral BritImprov for which Parker and Stevens are best known could draw you to that disc as well.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Fast: 1. Now Time 2. Way It Goes 3. John Dyani’s Gone 4 Don’t Throw It Away 5. Mbizo 6. Way It Goes/Now Time

Personnel: Fast: Harry Beckett (trumpet); Annie Whitehead (trombone and voice); Dudu Pukwana (alto and soprano saxophones); Evan Parker (tenor saxophone); Nick Stephens (bass); John Stevens (drums); Pinise Saul (voice)

Track Listing: Plough: CD1: 1. Just One Ornetto 2. Do Do That Dudu That You Do 3. Fayzed 4. No Me Degas Nada CD2: 1. West 11# 2. One for Ron/Segue 3. Cunning Mingus# 4. In Off*

Personnel: Plough: John Corbett (trumpet); Annie Whitehead or Alf Waite# (trombone); Chris Biscoe or Paul Mason* (alto saxophone); Jerry Underwood (tenor saxophone); Manno Ventura (guitar); Nick Stephens (bass); Brian Davison or Mark Sanders* (drums)