I was listening to an excellent bootleg of Elton Dean's Ninesense recorded live at the 100 Club in London in 1979 and what an amazing experience it was, and still is. It's hard to imagine the energy of this band without having witnessed them live, and in that particular line-up. But for me the importance of hearing this band is the presence of Harry Miller and with him as always drummer Louis Moholo and pianist Keith Tippett (*). The music is intense, the most intense swing (free, and otherwise) you've ever heard, and I've heard - and even played with - some very intense rhythm sections, but this! Anyhow, the importance of this reminded me of my first experience and the discovery of Harry Miller way back in '77.
As an avid music fan (and amateur teenager guitarist) I'd started discovering the edges of jazz music due to the first time re-issue of the Blue Note catalogue on EMI. These albums had been mentioned in The Melody Maker and I'd been down to my local vinyl store to buy one or two of those which had been recommended in Melody Maker. I'd not heard any real jazz before but was interested due to a jazz encyclopaedia The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Jazz - (Brian Case) - which I'd been given. I'd also heard bits of jazz on the radio along with the likes of John Martyn and a few other 'jazzy' sounds, I was also about to go off to art college where I would discover the likes of Charlie Parker and Co. However I one day stumbled across a write up in Melody Maker of the new LP by a bass player called Harry Miller. Something about the review seemed very interesting, maybe the picture or the description of the music - I still have it, I'll dig out in the near future. It was also certainly VERY alternative musically, at least for someone from my age group, this made it more intriguing. I asked my brother if he could pick up a copy of this record the next time he was passing through London on the way back from university.
Harry Miller's Isipingo - Family Affair 1977 (Ogun Records OG 310)
Not only was this my first Miller album but also my first OGUN record (Harry's own label). The feel of the record - which is pressed in very heavy vinyl - and the cover already made an impact, I was sort of hypnotised before even listening to the music inside. I was to be disappointed, however I didn't really know what to make of it, almost like my first discovery of King Crimson. The music pulsed rather than swung, as most jazz that I'd heard up until that point. The soloists played partly 'jazzy' licks and mostly shrieks and wails that at times were very intense. The piano player (Keith Tippett) didn't comp' politely but played ripples of sound - on a rather dry sounding upright - or at times played very short percussive stabs and one note lines. The drums and bass team of Harry and Louis Moholo were just something I'd never heard before in music, dense swing that made your hair stand up on your arms and neck and a fierce drive that was often unstoppable, or at least sounded that way. The tunes, only four on this album, were for me hard to get into, but the joyful sounds that came from the record made me listen and listen again.
The 4 tunes :
Side One : Family Affair, Touch Hungry. Side Two : Jumping and Eli's Song.
The musicians :
Miller (bass), Marc Charig (trumpet), Malcolm Griffiths (trombone), Mike Osborne (alto), Keith Tippett (piano), Louis Moholo (drums).
The music, which I'm listening to as I write, moves through all areas, all of which you maybe call 'avant-garde/free bop', but still very melodic, if that makes sense. The first tune Family Affair starts off with a piano, bass and drum groove which is very singable. This is followed by glorious horn ensemble paying the main theme, the trombone, trumpet and intense alto (of Mike Osborne) give it a strangely big band sound, yet with the first solo by Malcolm Griffiths you realize that the music is not going to be a Count Basie record as he glides in playing nice lines that hint at dissonance, but not too much. Keith Tippett often playing piano that sounds sometimes from Steve Reich and sometimes like Debussy's Cathédrale Engloutie. But with Marc Charig's solo things start to really warm up, leading towards a lovely change from minor to major at the 6:08 minute mark. It's like the group is finally moving into 4th gear and seems an almost joyous moment in the solo, revelatory even. The final soloist, and my first introduction, is Mike Osborne, a very intense alto player who later on had to withdraw from music due to severe schizophrenia.
After this first track the whole thing takes off in many directions and in those days completely lost me. The tracks run into each other as it's all taken from a live concert recorded at the Battersea Arts Center, which means there's probably more recorded ..... but where? Touch Hungry features some glorious out playing from the horns and the music stops and starts very organically, but for me the thing that jumped out of this track is Keith Tippett's amazing piano solo, that somehow manages to defy description, due to it's many points of departure - swinging one note runs, large arppegiated chords played very fast, stabs and thumps. Finally when he's a t his most 'out' the horns seems to swagger back in and Keith comes back down to earth, and harmony, as if nothing could be more natural.
The highlight of the album is probably Jumping, a fast up tempo free-bop piece with a very intense solo from Mike Osborne, which has some almost chase like moments from Keith Tippett's piano which accompanies very tightly. The whole thing builds into a free for all over beautiful chordal shapes with Osborne leading the ensemble making the music sound a little like a Coltrane-esqe spiritual sound. Everyone - except Miller and Moholo - get to solo on this and the trombone builds strong free-bop lines which stay more towards the tonal area created by the theme, whereas Keith Tippett yet again takes his piano into various different orbits around the pulsing rhythm section. Finally it's left up to Marc Charig to introduce the final solo with the other horns coming in bit by bit. The final tune, which was the only one could easily relate to at the time, is Eli's Song which is lovely melody which then gives way to a sort of Seven For Lee ostinato, and gives a kind of feature where Mike Osborne plays some serious Jackie McLean type alto.
After hearing this album I searched out some more of his LP's although to my mind he never got to the same heights musically as this album. However various live bootlegs do show that his live bands were always as exciting, and due to his early death in '83 in a car accident in Holland, where he was living at the time. I however am completely moved every time I hear one of the many bands he played in - too many to mention here - and especially with Louis Moholo as they were such a strong team. It's also a credit that someone took it upon themselves to record and release so much on the edge jazz at that period, the only other label in the UK being Incus records.
Here's the track Family Affair taken from a live recording (a little different, and much faster). Listen to the 'burning' rhythm section of Miller, Moholo and Tippett :
You can find some of the other tunes from this record also posted on YouTube.
Footnote on Wiki entries. Sorry that these links are so poor, and really quite an insult considering the importance of these musicians. however, I thought to include these as it's often a quite useful way to give readers a idea of who these people are, and of course dig further into the various search engines, jazz books, Bootleg download sites, and of course second-hand CD shops. Harry Miller hardly has a mention on the web, and considering his input in the UK jazz scene? The same applies to the others, although due to Elton Dean's Soft Machine connection he at least seems to have some solid biographical information floating around, and also more re-released recordings.
* = The UK jazz magazine Jazzwise published an article recently about Louis Moholo. I was completely shocked to see that hardly any mention of Harry Miller occurred. It seems to me that these two men were almost a permanent team with unrelenting energy. If you check out these two names in the UK jazz scene of the 70s you'll notice that they made dozens of recording and thousands of gigs together. I wonder why such a short mention of Harry in that article as if he hadn't existed?