Monday 23 March 2009

Kenny BALL, Chris BARBER and Acker BILK: The Best Of Ball, Barber And Bilk

(#30: 22 September 1962, 1 week; 20 October 1962, 1 week)

Track listing: Jump In The Line/Higher Ground/Willie The Weeper/Gladiolus Rag (Mr Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band)/Teddy Bears’ Picnic/Hawaiian War Chant/I Love You, Samantha/Chimes Blues (Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen)/Majorca/High Society/Tuxedo Rag/When The Saints Go Marching In (Chris Barber and his Jazz Band)

Twenty-five years before the Rave Generation will enter this tale, there were other ravers and other notions of undying “hardcore.” All night raves in doubtful clubs, attended by wayward youths dressed in seemingly incomprehensible tribal uniforms, sneered at by their assumed “superiors” for apparent “superficiality” and bearing the faint aroma of performance-enhancing drugs (mainly marijuana); here, unquestionably, is Rave but here too is Northern Soul (not to mention everything else from psychedelia via punk to dubstep). Over the differing generations the denominator has remained common; a deliberate retreat from a perceived bland music/societal mainstream into a corner which no one else can access or touch or hurt. All such retreats are by definition limited but these tribes tend to influence future ones as a means of escaping from their painted-in corners, if only by virtue of (in)action.

The trad jazz boom was an escape from the end of skiffle as well as a fleeing from what its adherents viewed as a smiling, neutered pop environment; here was something old, perhaps – historically, as old as its century – but something into which it was felt some vitality could still be breathed. A return to basics, an end to gloss, and, most importantly, a sense of community for a pregnant generation of youth not yet allowed proper freedom; they had narrowly escaped National Service but were still expected to behave themselves, become minor replicas of their parents and employers. Only in the jazz clubs, smoking away to the bluff and bluster of the leading trad bands, could they feel anything approaching free.

Not surprisingly, the leading exponents of Brit trad were amused but bemused by this devotion; there was of course also the political subtext – CND marches especially, and the consequent partial harnessing of trad as a temporary style of revolt – but Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk were far more cognisant of their responsibilities to showbiz than any palpable political commitment. This does not render their music ignorable. But Chris Barber, always the most perceptive and far-sighted of the “B” triad, remarked in a 1978 NME interview that all music lovers – whether they were into the Beatles or Ornette Coleman – were “essentially Max Bygraves fans”; in other words, the great majority of music consumers are inclined to stick with what and whom they know, a carrot of comfort deriving from a childhood or teenage time when…well, when other considerations still didn’t need to be taken into consideration. When life was still “pure” even if only for three minutes.

Ball’s Jazzmen were for many years the resident musical group on the BBC’s Morecambe And Wise Show; Bilk’s greatest commercial success came with “Stranger On The Shore,” a transitional pop record which had little to do with jazz but which hovered over the charts throughout the whole of 1962 like an uncertain beacon, not quite sure of what it should be lighting up. When the Beatles came in trad went straight out (and the Mods sprang up in its place). And yet, listening to this Pye Golden Guinea retrospective – an assemblage of archive tracks, four per band, ranging from 1954 to 1961 – I feel not only the inescapable scent of Sunday lunchtime roast but also a pace, a determination, which demands not to be taken for granted.

Bilk’s band opens the proceedings; “Jump In The Line” is a virile calypso-ish piece with immediate, and surprising, free vocalisations from Bilk’s clarinet and Ken Simms’ trumpet which would rematerialise at the other end of the decade in the Art Ensemble of Chicago ’s “Tutankhamun.” “Rock your body on time,” growls Bilk in another interesting precedent to 1988, and Ron McKay’s drums help batter the tune into a suburb of outer space by track’s end. “Higher Ground,” a Bilk original, gradually builds up from hushed horn voicings into a celebratory gospel workout, McKay having great fun tap dancing on his supplementary traps. “Willie The Weeper” features a splendidly guttural vocal from Bilk reminiscent of no one less than Beefheart (“Willie The Pimp” anyone?) climaxing in a startling shriek of “FI-IIIIIIIII-VE!!” while Joplin’s “Gladiolus Rag” is traced with great delicacy.

The unpromising titles of the four Kenny Ball selections might initially point to other Golden Guinea releases advertised on the rear sleeve (including, inter alia, Let’s Twist To The Oldies by Fats and the Chessmen, Hit Movie Themes Go Latin by the Orchestra Del Oro, Strictly For Dancing by the Statler Dance Orchestra, Continental Jazz by Les Cinq Modernes, Honey Hit Parade and the unlikeliest of them all, Charleston by Slim Pickins and his ‘Twenty Niners’) but all work surprisingly well. His “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” is done รก la “Chant Of The Weed” and I note the more “produced” nature of this music; there is that same, partially submerged echo chamber air which pervades hits like 1961’s cheerily apocalyptic “Midnight In Moscow.” “Hawaiian War Chant” begins with a nod to “Big Noise From Winnetka” before Dave Jones’ doleful clarinet is drowned out by John Bennett’s outrageous trombone snarling and the entire track steps up at least two gears. “I Love You, Samantha” disposes with Bing’s easy grace entirely in favour of Ball’s Carry On Satchmo vocal; “Remember,” he winks, “I’m a one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-gal guy!” (and causing in this listener unlikely echoes of James Brown’s contemporaneously recorded Live At The Apollo) before drummer Ron Bowden drives the band into a train station cluster of an ending. “Chimes Blues” is played straight and displays great subtlety in its arrangement, slo-mo brass counterpoints met by adroitly tricky tempo shifts.

Finally we come to a quartet of tracks recorded by various editions of Chris Barber’s band. The first is a live reading of New Orleans revivalist trombonist Wilbur de Paris’ “Majorca,” an inventive Creole (out of Jelly Roll Morton) arrangement featuring banjo/bass unisons alternating with fortissimo front line declamations; Bowden is again on drums here, his dynamics allowing both band and tune to blossom out fully.

The remaining three tracks date from the mid-fifties and feature a man of partially spent destiny plucking away unobtrusively but inventively on banjo; one recalls that “Rock Island Line,” a realer beginning of time for British pop music (because more immediately accessible) than either “Clock” or “Hotel,” began life on a Barber album (New Orleans Joys) and that Donegan’s skiffle routine was the original interlude between full band sets onstage. But it was now getting late in 1962 and Donegan had largely seceded from the charts, been reabsorbed into mainstream entertainment and was about to view the fruits of his unlikely offspring. Skiffle had been and gone and in the (perceived) absence of anything better its roots had returned to take transient residence. “High Society” and “Tuxedo Rag” are both elegantly classicist constructions, Monty Sunshine’s clarinet beaming to the fore like a belatedly reluctant ray emerging from late winter.

But the album vibrates into extraneous life with the closing epic “Saints” reading, featuring an uncredited Ottilie Patterson on vocals, strong and truthful. After a false ending the band return, up an octave and up several gears and suddenly this dim corner of the world raves up into extralucid colour, Jim Bray providing the second bass solo to feature in this tale, Donegan now rampant on banjo, Graham Burbidge tearing down the curtains of the world with his drumming (“It almost sounds like a drum machine!” exclaimed Lena), and we are reminded very forcefully that this album’s second spell at number one coincided with the run of “Telstar” at the top of the singles chart and that both coincided with the apex of the Cuban missile crisis; with Barber’s “Saints” we feel as though we are all together, on the 3 AM eternal floor of Alexandra Palace, buttons and coats askew yet tightly wrapped, singing and dancing until the end of the world.