Bird Curtis Quintet ‘Needs B’ LP (Jazzaggression) 4/5

Originally recorded 19/01/1969
Ian Bird – Tenor and Alto Sax
John Curtis – Trumpet
Ray Shea – Piano
Daryl Runswick – Bass
Tim Wolley- Drums

The release of the Bird Curtis Quintet LP on Jazzagression last year certainly lived up to the hyperbole, “The best British jazz record you’ve never heard”, and “The one European Jazz record everyone should own”, were among the superlatives emblazoned on the cover sticker. And for once they were right. The little known, and extremely rare, LP was a joy to listen to. Recorded in London in 1968, it was like a snapshot of an almost forgotten age, hard blowing bop, head-nodding bossas, a very jazzy highland-fling and the modal, impressionistic ‘Sails’ made it one of the best represses of 2017.

To top it all there was no such person as Bird Curtis, those were the names of the front-line pairing of Ian Bird on tenor and John Curtis on Trumpet. Not quite in the league of the Rendell and Carr combination but they still managed to produce a remarkable record that most people had never heard of, never mind heard.

Daryl Runswick, who played bass on both records recalls in his highly interesting and amusing sleeve notes that the follow-up LP, ‘Needs B’, was shelved because the record company went bust and that was the end of that. Until pianist Ray Shea recently unearthed a test-pressing in his attic and Jazzagression took over with a great job on the repress – a lovely heavy vinyl pressing, with a flip-back sleeve, which includes a CD and download code for easy in-car listening.

Although ‘Needs B’ never reach the heights of the first album, it is the sound of a band really enjoying themselves. At this stage they’d been together for seven years mainly gigging in pubs on the wrong-side of the Thames, especially at The Green Man in Blackheath, the club that Ian Bird had set up and where he hosted some of the greatest British bands of the day. The band were still gigging in 1969 though according to Darryl Runswick they were ploughing a lone-furrow. The hipsters and beatniks were listening to Dylan and The Stones, Miles was starting to push the boundaries and there wasn’t much of an audience for the straight-ahead sound that the band produced.

It’s very clear from listening to ‘Needs B’ who the band were listening to. There’s plenty of Tubby and a bit of Trane in Ian Bird’s playing, Ray Shea really loved Horace Silver and the whole group were definitely feeling The Jazz Messengers.

There’s nine originals here, a few hard-boppers, Bossa Nova plus a reworking of ‘Greensleeves’, with a great bass line and beautiful refrain from Ray Shea which turns the old warhorse into a gently lopping modal waltz.

There’s a much shorter version of ‘The Buttertree’, the beautiful Bossa from the first record, and there’s also a touch of Brazil on the unfinished sounding ‘Birthday Girl’, which still has a beautiful refrain and some vey warm and pretty solos from Ian, John and Ray.

‘Bossa for Bev’ is another swinger that is slightly let down by the bowed-bass interlude which Darryl Runswick happily acknowledges in his notes “I remember Jon Hiseman teaching me the correct bass pattern for a Bossa Nova. It must have been after this recording because I’m all over the place”.

The titles track, ‘Needs B’, a rollicking blues taking all the best bits from Cannonball’s ‘Sticks’, ‘Here Comes The Whistleman’, ‘Un-square Dance’ and ‘Tubbys Theme’, which would have pleased the few Mods that were still knocking around in ’69 and will certainly put a bit of cheer into my day.

There’s some fantastic ensemble playing right through the record not least on ‘Upsurge’, where the quintet sound like an Art Blakey big band riffing on ‘So What’, and on all the tracks the group always sound relaxed and comfortable in each other’s company.

The standout tune is ‘Gone’; Runswick’s requiem for Martin Luther King. At eight minutes it’s the longest track and musically gives a huge nod to mid-period Trane (The liner notes site Crescent as an influence). From a very simple theme it builds into something really special with strong and passionate solos from the two leaders and Ray Shea with the bass and Tim Wooley’s restrained but still powerful drums adding to the intensity and drama of the composition.

‘Needs B’ is not an essential record but it’s one that grows on you and in many ways marks the end of an era for British Jazz. If you missed out on the Rendell/Carr box set, fingers crossed for the repress or the collapse of the Discogs resell market. In the meantime, put this on your turntable, it’s a very acceptable consolation prize and you will not be disappointed.

Nick Schlittner