Putting Some English on Jazz

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Putting Some English on Jazz

Wouldn’t it be great if a music label celebrated the U.K.’s contribution to modern jazz and spotlighted some up-and-coming players as well? And what if that label took elaborate measures to ensure that the recordings sounded great—and what if, just like in the old days, that label released its all-analogue recordings on vinyl? Okay, and just to be greedy let’s imagine a discography that includes previously unreleased music by icons who put U.K. modern jazz on the map—musicians like Ronnie Scott, Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes, Don Rendell, and Michael Garrick, for example—as well as some key players who surfaced shortly thereafter, like Norma Winstone, John Surman, and Kenny Wheeler. What united musicians of these and later generations—and cries out for careful, passionate, and sonically meticulous documentation—was a desire to forge their own sound. “That generation of musicians in the 60s realized that just imitating Americans wasn’t enough,” is how pianist Howard Riley described the mood among his colleagues, and in fact some British jazz musicians deliberately chose not to move to America, preferring instead to work with players from their own country. Ultimately their success in carving out their own style suggests that an independent, questioning attitude toward the jazz tradition could be liberating and productive.

Because of England’s rich jazz history and the fact that it’s still evolving, I’m happy to report that the label that would do that tradition justice already exists. Formed in 2009, Gearbox Records has released over 25 recordings that include recent projects from British jazz players as well as some previously unissued recordings going back as far as the 1950s. The label’s discography includes both straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz from players old and new, jazz vocalists, and also some newer players who mix one part jazz with other styles. In England such cross-pollination has always seemed more common and less suspect than in America—and again it seems that a less reverent relationship to the tradition might in some ways be a blessing.

One old-school, back-in-the-day, long-established tradition that Gearbox Records definitely does embrace is the format on which the music is released. The label is dedicated to producing vinyl records that are recorded, mastered, and pressed according to painstaking standards—so much so that Gearbox has its own analogue vinyl cutting facility. “The studio was principally built for Gearbox Records to master and cut its own records exactly how it wants,” its Web site states, “with no digital in the signal path or even a digital-to-analogue converter to generate preview signals. It features an all-valve playback area— for vinyl and digital playback and for demonstrating great hi-fi provided by our partners Audio Note.” Components involved in the process include a vintage Lang Pultec EQ and limiter, Maselec master control and de-esser and Prism Maselec EQ, a vintage RCA KU-3A ribbon microphone, and a Studer C37 valve reel-to-reel tape source complete with both mono and stereo head blocks. The owner of Gearbox, Darrel Sheinman, says that “As non-physical digital music starts to take off to replace CD, the desire for people to have and hold things they love remains. The most complete way you can do this in music is through the vinyl medium, so gradually vinyl will replace CD sales once the turntable infrastructure re-builds, which is happening.” I should sneak in here that Gearbox LPs include a free lossless digital download code and that some Gearbox recordings (under license or through a joint venture) are available as CDs that contain bonus tracks.

More than a little curious to check out some Gearbox releases, I recently sampled some of their latest offerings. With the exception of what was originally a private recording of a Tubby Hayes concert, the records boasted superb sonics. In particular I was taken by the sparse small-group sound of Simon Spillett’s Square One and the much more layered soundscape of Kenny Wheeler’s brainchild, Mirrors. I should add that Gearbox has a penchant for records with a hip retro look and old-school graphics—and that these are limited editions with a history of selling out.

Fans of clean-sounding straight-ahead jazz should check out Simon Spillett’s Square One. A highly-touted young tenor saxophonist from England, Spillett cites Tubby Hayes as his chief influence and is also quick to praise John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Stan Getz. If after a few bars of the opening track you’re reminded of the classic Blue Note sound, that makes sense: “Shepherd’s Serenade” was composed by Dizzy Reece, a British jazz musicians who recorded it for his first Blue Note LP, a session that also included Tubby Hayes. Square One is a mix of bop, blues, and ballads by a quartet that offers a fresh take on 1960s-sounding jazz. The sweetest performance is the Armando Manzanero ballad “Yesterday I Heard the Rain”; much edgier is a succinct and fiery reading of “A Night in Tunisia” that sounds like a perfect set-closer. Square One is a dry recording with a nice sense of space, fat bass, and a crisp drum sound, plus strong tonal balance. Another nice touch: the tastefully period cover art hearkens back to the days when jazz musicians and their album covers won all the style awards.

Another gem is the Tubby Hayes Quartet’s Seven Steps to Heaven: Live at the Hopbine 1972, for which Spillett, who writes about jazz as well as playing it, did the liner notes. Since the recording wasn’t slated for official release and four decades have passed since the performance, the notes required some detective work, including who played what. What’s obvious, however, is the chemistry among the players on the night the music was recorded, the wild card being Tony Oxley, a drummer often associated with the avant-garde movement. In company with bassist Daryl Runswick, Oxley finds numerous opportunities to stir the pot during this session, goading pianist Mike Pyne and the bandleader on the standards “Seven Steps to Heaven,” “Alone Together,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” (on which Hayes sets aside his tenor to play flute). In the liner notes Spillett refutes the notion that Hayes, whose performance here took place a year before his untimely death at age 38 and who was already facing serious health issues, was no longer a vital musical force. I have to agree, as the way Hayes burns through the changes on “Seven Steps to Heaven” and testifies at the climax of “Alone Together” seems to lay that question to rest. Because of the less-than-perfect source for this release—originally it was a private recording—sonics aren’t as impressive as with other Gearbox releases; in particular, the bass seems faint and the staging distant. I suspect, however, that even the most ardent audiophile among us has been deeply moved by recordings far inferior to this one; what the sound issues don’t wash away is the power of the performances.

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