Graham Collier

October 17, 2005

Cuneiform Rune 213/214

More important for jazz in its day than Wynton Marsalis winning the Pulitzer prize for music, London-based bassist Graham Collier’s Workpoints was awarded the first-ever commission for jazz from the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1967.Workpoints, the CD, preserves a 1968 live version of the four-part suite plus two shorter numbers performed by a dozen of the United Kingdom’s best jazzers of the day. Coupled with it is Live in Middleheim, a Collier sextet date from more than seven years later. Featuring “Darius”, another of the bassist’s extended works and four other tracks, it’s looser and features guitar and the dreaded electric piano that are absent on “Workpoints”.

Sociologically, it’s not surprising that the Tynemouth-born Collier won the commission in 1967, in a period of elevating and taming jazz for the concert hall. Then 30, he had spent three years as a musician in the British Army, then won a down beat scholarship, attended and became the first British graduate of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Since then, he has written for ensembles ranging from wind quartets to symphony orchestras and in a wide range of other media, including theatre, film and radio dramas. An author of books on playing jazz, plus a teacher and workshop leader both in the United Kingdom and overseas, he has also led many large ensembles that gave exposure to younger musicians.

What about the music? Well, it swings and it perfectly defines British jazz in that era, with the almost military precision that goes into the rhythm section work and the arrangements featuring cross cutting between brass and reeds. While complete into itself, you can hear echoes of the energy of Charles Mingus, the pastel coloring of Gil Evans, and at times, Afro-Cuban styled bluster reminiscent of Stan Kenton’s bands.

More modal and less consistent in the writing, Live in Middleheim’s suite is like an Ellington small group session, a miniaturization of what was usually done with the big band. But it’s less satisfying than “Workpoints” for a variety of reasons. In attempt to appear hip, Collier partially adopts the modal style of fusion combos like Nucleus to his sextet writing. But the free-floating Bitches Brew-era undercurrent clashes uneasily with individualistic manner of voicing single instruments as if they were sections themselves and the Free Jazz aspirations of saxophonist Art Theman.

Superior in conception and execution, “Workpoints”’ backing riffs mixed with vamps from the bongos, drums and vibes in the exposition show just how all-pervasive Kenton’s influence were in those days. Dave Aaron, who elsewhere shows off an ethereal if “legit” flute style, here builds up an alto solo with little peeps and vibrating trills, backed with tambourine slaps and plucked bass lines. Eventually his crescendo of screeching slurs ushers in bottom-feeding baritone saxophone work from Karl Jenkins and John Surman, providing a sort of muscular swing that is as distant from Jenkins’ later work with the Soft Machine as Surman’s present Ur-Nordic stylings is with his playing here.

Development of the theme shifts with gentler cadenzas from the brass section as drummer John Marshall, another future Soft Machiner, rattles and punches his kit and Frank Ricotti lays into his vibes. Pointedly, Canadian-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, whose tastes lie in that direction anyway, nudges the other brassmen to a fantasia of rubato slurs and circling phrasing as percussion rumble and the rest of the band riffs. Muting his brassy, open-horned flourishes from heading further northwards, trumpeter Harry Beckett slows the tempo by biting off his trills. Vibes again introduce a contrapuntal trombone duo, further divided as Chris Smith stays high-pitched and Mike Gibbs sounds adagio low tones. Holding on to the melancholy theme, the only distraction is harsh chords from Jenkins – this time on piano – and overriding Buddy Rich style drumming from Marshall.

Summing up, the fourth section expands the variations, but verifies the rearward thinking of members of the rhythm section who solo here. Ricotti’s rhythm and single note placement have more in common with Lionel Hampton in the 1930s than what contemporary mallet men were playing, while Marshall spends an inordinate – and unnecessary – amount of time nosily leaning on his bass drum, floor tom and clacking cymbals. He may think he’s playing for invisible 1940s jitterbuggers. Only the composer’s rhythmic ostinato advances the piece, which climaxes with swooping baritone pushes from Jenkins and treetop-high brassy notes from Beckett.

Rhythm section retrogression also holds back “Deep Dark Blue Centre”, Workpoints’ other extended composition, more than18-minutes in duration. Again only Collier’s throbbing ostinato seems placed in the late 1960s, giving the writing with its Evans-like neutrality, a Mingus-like impetus due to the upfront bass. Aaron’s scene-setting alto saxophone vamp soon gives way to rubato inflections from Beckett and trilling chromatic trombone lines. Backing this are polite wah-wahs from the brass, snorts from the baritone saxophone and ascending drum rhythms. Around the half-way mark the piece slows down for no obvious reason, then picks up again as the bass walks at twice the speed as the rest of the band. Beckett’s muted flugel and Gibb’s equally muted trombone, followed by some polyphonic cuts from both soprano saxophonists, sum up the moody theme when it’s not being sabotaged by overly busy drumming and redundant vibe shimmers.

Beckett and Collier himself are the only holdovers in the sextet performances that make up Live in Middleheim, but the confusion that affected 1970s jazz seems rife as the band plays another series of Collier compositions. Themen’s modern mainstream stylings encompass Free Jazz techniques, which lead the sextet one way, but Roger Dean’s electric piano comping calls forth BITCHES BREW ERA Miles Davis, and all his imitators. Guitarist Ed Speight suggests the schizophrenic uncertainty of the time all by himself. Some of his solos are in a straight, flowing Jimmy Raney style, others are filled with extended phrases, as if he was Alvin Lee of Ten Years After.

Curiously, the almost 35 minutes of “Darius” are oddly divided as well, since the combo plays parts one, three and four of the suite and then reprises one. Exhilaration doesn’t really manifest itself until “Part Four” however, when the tinkling electric piano chording and low-intensity strumming open up into ringing guitar tones and drum rumbles. These provide a perfect backdrop for hummingbird-like speedy trumpeting from Beckett, whose darting grace notes meet modal soprano saxophone interjections from Themen. Odd-metered flams and rolls from drummer John Webb and broken octave accompaniment from Dean and Speight don’t upset the mood.

Earlier, the piece gets off to a ragged start with everyone seemingly playing at once, and as Webb’s rattling drumming appears unconnected to wah wahs and bleeps from Beckett and flutter-tonguing from Themen. The composer’s attractive horn voicing saves the next section, although the double counterpoint from the tenor saxophonist and trumpeter need Collier’s reassuring bass thump to give them the bottom almost sabotaged by rambling electric piano fills and the drummer rushing the beat. Webb stays excessively busy, throughout, even when Speight unleashes a fleet-fingered single note solo. Reprising the initial theme with a trumpet cadenza, set off by whirling reed tones and winnowing guitar licks, the final examination of “Darius” brings the suite to a satisfactory finale. But it does so by skirting irritating electric piano coloration for a series of summary tremolo phrases from Beckett.Elsewhere there’s a point where Themen’s tenor gushes out a sequence of shattering honks and flutter-tongued slurs as the rest of the band vamps beneath him. Too many of the other tunes lose themselves in ballad summations or bluesy, quasi-rock patterns.

No better or worse than other British neo-fusion exhibitions of the time, performances on the second CD will be of most interest for those who already know of Collier’s talents. As a composition that’s historically as well as musically memorable, though, “Workpoints” should be noted, as it defines a strand of orchestral jazz composition from the U.K. It’s a genre that’s often overlooked because of the greater availability of Fusion and Free Music sessions from the 1960s and 1970s.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: Workpoints: 1. Deep Dark Blue Centre 2. The Barley Mow 3. Workpoints Part One 4. Workpoints Part Two 5. Workpoints Part Three 6. Workpoints Part Four Disc 2: Live in Middleheim: 1. Little Ben 2. Under the pier 3. Darius Part One 4. Darius Part Three 5. Darius Part Four 6. Darius Part One Reprise 7. Clear Moon 8. Mackerel Sky

Personnel: Disc 1: Kenny Wheeler, Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther (trumpets and flugelhorns); Mike Gibbs (trombone); John Mumford (trombone and cowbell); Dave Aaron (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones and flute); John Surman (soprano, and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet and piano); Karl Jenkins (soprano, and baritone saxophones, oboe and piano); Frank Ricotti (vibraphone and bongos); Graham Collier (bass); John Marshall (drums) Disc 2: Harry Beckett (trumpet and flugelhorn); Art Themen (soprano and tenor saxophones); Roger Dean (piano and electric piano); Ed Speight (guitar); Graham Collier (bass); John Webb (drums)