I’m not much given to OMGs and RIPs, generally preferring the ‘Batman slapping Robin response’ beloved of social media cynics everywhere. But I’d like, briefly, to mark the death this week of the Scottish tenor saxophonist, Bobby Wellins.
I can’t remember when I first heard ‘Starless and Bible Black’, part of Stan Tracey’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ suite, but I’ve never tired of listening to it for Bobby Wellins’ brilliant, understated solo; achingly well constructed, limpid, fiercely economical and with an outro of slowly repeated major thirds that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Had Kirsty ever had the good sense to invite me to share my pensées and playlist with the nation from her celebrated desert island, ‘Starless and Bible Black’ would have been at the top of the list; it’s right up there with Archie Shepp’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ and the Ben Webster / Gerry Mulligan version of ‘Chelsea Bridge’.
Textbook solos all.
Every time I pick up a hooter, one or another of those three songs plays out somewhere in my mind; which may perhaps come as a surprise to anyone who has survived an encounter with Red Square…..
Anyway, in tribute, from 1965:
I’ve spend some of this week salted away in the Vendhaus (above), recording parts for two very different projects.
The first was a challenge from the grand maven of everything ’60s, Rosie Cunningham (in her Purson persona), to come up with some ‘Christmas party sax’ (with a dash of Wizzard) for a new Purson song, ‘Chocolate Money’. I tracked tenor and baritone sax horn section lines and a bit of flapping about on the flootie during the bridge. Roll over, Roy Wood, and pass me that face paint.
The second project is for Chicago’s uber sludge-psychedelicist Steve Krakow (AKA Plastic Crimewave). Steve asked both Bobbie and me to contribute to a song for a forthcoming album. Steve’s direction was to ‘do whatever’….so that’s what I’m doing. Tracks include Comus-darkened darabuka and ancient-skinned, rusty-jingled tambourine, vibes, tenor recorder, baritone sax and bass clarinet and possibly a further dash of flootie once Bobbie has recorded her vocal parts. I’m a right little Mike Oldfield on the quiet. Or perhaps that should be Roy Castle 😀 (look him up in Guinness’s book of famously fatuous and unnecessary ‘records’).
The Vendhaus vibraphone is a wooden framed 1920’s Premier set. Many moons ago – and long before I acquired it – the resonators would have been driven by a clockwork motor, now, alas, gone. So I suppose that it’s more of a straight metallophone now, lacking the characteristic woo-wooing of a properly tooled-up set of vibes.
Here to finish are a couple more shots of some of the denizens of the Vendhaus.
The Comus recording tambourine, as featured on ‘Out Of The Coma’. God only knows where I got it from. We are actually talking here about a tambourine with a deeply sinister sound…..very Hoxton shamen, I’m sure.
The non woo-wooing Premier vibes (and a pleasing pair of Beyer M201s).
The first saxophone I bought was a baritone. I was fifteen, it was forty quid. The local music shop kindly put it aside whilst I saved up the money from a weekend job to pay for it. What a hooter! I loved it; it was going to make me sound just like John Surman.
In truth, the baritone was a disastrous de-lacquered confection of failing solder, fist-sized dents, disintegrating pads and indeterminate key action. My parents were so horrified by this monstrosity of decomposing plumbing that I was made take it back and get a refund.
If, in the intervening years, I’ve got over my early obsession with John Surman, I’ve never quite lost the desire to have a go at the biiig sax. So when Bob, a very good friend, offered to lend me his Jupiter recently, I was waiting with the milk bottles on his doorstep the next morning.
The Jupiter is a fine, fine instrument. I like the massive heft of the baritone; its substantiality. I like it’s gruff, dry, papery timbre. I like it’s late-nightness and it’s capacity to deliver the emotional punch of a sly balladeer.
Bob has equipped his baritone with a nice Otto Link 7* mouthpiece, but I found his blue Vandoren 2 reeds a bit too soft for the kind of sound and flexibility of intonation that I wanted. I needed to try out some harder reeds, but I didn’t want to risk thirty to forty quid for a box of reeds on a mere ‘hunch’. So I went lateral. I dug out my boxes of bass clarinet and tenor sax reeds (blue Vandoren 3s and Rico Jazz Select 3Hs respectively, see above) and tried these in turn, recording snippets to see what I thought of the sound.
Trying reeds that are too small for the instrument presents its own range of interesting challenges (particularly at the bottom end), but the result of the try-outs was that I decided to go with La Voz 3Hs. This choice is in part a teeny-tiny homage to my early playing days, when I used La Voz reeds most of the time, and though I’ve not played La Voz now for over thirty years, I thought there was a pleasing ‘rightness’ in choosing them for a return to my first saxophonic inspiration.
Here’s a quick snippet of me trying out the Rico tenor reed on the bari. You’ll notice a distinct lack of low notes (I did try!) due to the inflexibility of the shorter reed. If you take a fancy to it you are very welcome to download it by going to the Soundcloud page and clicking on the download link…….
Guerssen’s release of Red Square’s ‘Rare & Lost ’70s Recordings’ has elicited a crop of pleasing and melodiously worded reviews, including from ‘Jazzwise’ and ‘Wire’, august organs of the cognescenti both. Our thanks to Dan Spicer and Stewart Smith.
A queue forms outside a record store earlier today
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It’s very nice to have a project from so long ago see the light of day again, especially as Red Square was – how shall I put it…? – not widely appreciated at the time.
Through the good offices of uber-networker and ultra-psychedelicist, Steve Krakow (AKA Plastic Crimewave), Guerssen Records are releasing a selection of our 1970’s recordings under the title ‘Rare and Lost 70s Recordings’. It will be available in all known formats….well apart from 8 track, phonograph cylinder, DAT, mini-disc, cassette and shellac, of course…on April 13th, but you can get the digital download on Bandcamp and iTunes as of today.
…..and there’s a very natty promo video to whet the appetite on YouTube:
Having recently found, to my surprise, that, between them, the tunes on my Soundcloud page have now had over 5000 plays, I had a look to see which of the tracks had been played the most.
I’ve now compiled a playlist of these (see below). There’s an interestingly heterogeneous mix of styles in the list from avant electro-acoustic, through free-jazz, to weird folk, EDM and anarcho-syndicalist situationism.
Nice to see Red Square, Miramar, the Colins of Paradise & Deathless all making the list…..!
I’ve played on all of the tunes, written or co-written a number of them and mixed and produced (or co-produced) all of them.
Over the course of the last year or so, Colin May, a writer for Oxford’s Nightshift magazine, has come to various gigs that I’ve been involved in around Oxford. He wrote a very nice review of the live debut of some of the pieces from ‘Deathless‘, and, last time I saw him, I gave him a complementary copy of the album as a ‘thank you’ for the live review.
Colin has taken the trouble to review the album for this month’s edition of Nightshift, and this is what he wrote:
“It’s doubtful whether any local band release will be as mired in blood as this one. Its inspiration is the Minotaur myth as re-imagined by Steven Sherrill in his novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, which has the Minotaur escaping the Labyrinth and living in a down-at heal trailer park having suppressed his appetite for a diet of Athenian virgins.
So we’ve got the original legend, Sherrill’s re-telling and Seagroatt and Staples’ take on that re-telling. The pair are renowned improvising musicians, so there’s free improv which is then manipulated and mixed until there are more layers than William and Kate’s wedding cake. You’ve also got a CD that can pose questions about compassion, redemption and forgiveness. Or you can forget about all this and just enjoy the music.
What Seagroatt and Staples have created is an album of instrumental and manipulated sound without any obvious tunes or hooks. It’s bookended by a couple of short vocal pieces, beautifully sung by Bobbie Watson, which describe and comment on Asterion the Minotaur’s situation. On most of the ten tracks in between Seagroatt’s magnificently lugubrious and pure soprano sax, bass clarinet and flute dominate. There’s almost none of the high-speed parping associated with free jazz, not even on the track ‘The Minotaur Sits Exhausted, Knuckles Skinless, Toes Sticky With Blood, Head In Hands’, a title which seems heaven sent for a bit of parping. Instead Seagroatt, like the late great fellow multi-reeds player Eric Dolphy, dazzles with plaintive lines which he never lets become the musical equivalent of limp soggy lettuce.
Seagroatt’s reeds and Staples’ sparse but richly atmospheric guitar are integrated with an ominously echoing, rumbling drone soundscape which, like Ariadne’s thread in the Labyrinth, runs through the CD. On a casual listen tracks might seem to be samey, though this would be to ignore the nuances and how the atmosphere builds track by track. To get the max out of this album you probably need to get the headphones on and close your eyes.
This clearly been a labour of love, and Jon Seagroatt has created something that in its way is magnificent in conception and execution, and perhaps unique in the local music landscape”.
How nice is that….? Well very nice indeed. Thanks once again to Colin May.
Last year, myself, Roger Wootton and Bobbie Watson from Comus, along with our sometime violin player, Dylan Bates, appeared at a gig for a Lush cosmetics launch event in London as Cominus (Bobbie’s wordplay: Comus minus some members – geddit..?). Also on the bill that evening were Chicago’s Werewheels. Consisting of Steve Krakow (AKA Plastic Crimewave) guitar & vocals, and Dawn Aquarius (analogue synth & vocals), Werewheels punk-splattered ‘why use two chords when one chord will do’ attitude to psychedelia results in mesmerising sonic worlds. Steve refers to this act as ‘skronkin’, and that seems apt. They asked me to join them on bass clarinet for the last number of the set, ‘Nuclear Winter’, and this was the resultant aural maelstrom. It was a bit like a Red Square gig, but with a regular beat. Note, if you will, the fifteen oil-wheel light show firing off around us……. SKRONKIN’!