Older generation. Younger generation. As what is now being termed by some as the British jazz renaissance (as with other previous ones, one can seriously question the validity of the music ever dying away in the first place) gathers pace, it is important to take stock of the situation and examine some of the key figures of previous generations who have contributed in no small part to the richness and vitality of the current scene. One musician who has largely gone under the radar and yet who turns up on some of the seminal UK jazz recordings of the 1960s as a sideman is pianist Gordon Beck, who recorded on albums by Tubby Hayes as well as the stunning ‘Sound Venture’ album with the Harry South Big Band and vocalist Georgie Fame. While his own albums as a leader are near impossible to find on original vinyl, other than in inflated auction lists, this new box set has the considerable merit of grouping together just some of his output in a variety of settings from solo to trio and from quartet to septet. Moreover, it covers both studio and live, released and unissued and largely improvised material, and both acoustic and even electric piano formats and chronologically covers the period from the mid-1960s through to the mid-1980s, which in itself probably takes in at least two other ‘jazz renaissances’. This raises an immediate question for the reviewer: who exactly is Gordon Beck the musician and which of these hats does he most faithfully occupy? The reality is that Gordon Beck was someone who adapted to different musical environments, possibly because he was used to performing as a sideman to vocalists such as Helen Merrill, Mark Murphy and Jimmy Witherspoon. Indeed, Beck enjoyed a close musical relationship with tenorist Pete King, and a piano trio rapport with bassist Ron Matthewson and drummer Tony Oxley. While there are no examples here of his work with King, the piano trio performances are thankfully included.
The first CD focuses mainly on Beck’s trio work from the mid-1960s and his major piano influences were the soul-blues styles of Red Garland Wynton Kelly and Bobby Timmons, but above all else, Bill Evans. Indeed, he would much later record a tribute album, ‘Seven Steps to Evans’, and this writer for one would like to see that re-issued at some stage. As a composer, Beck impresses on ‘Suite Number One’ and, the aptly titled ‘Motifs’ (he would record several of these as illustrated on the rest of the box set under different titles), while his command of the standard repertoire is demonstrated on a lilting waltz-like, ‘Speak Low’ and a brisk and breezy reading of ‘Airegin’. By 1972, Beck was already exploring with an expanded septet and this opened up a new chapter of his work, with extended improvisations that invariably weave in famous compositions, such as Miles Davis’ ‘Blues In Green’, for example.
A second CD is noteworthy for his work on his own material and that includes solo electric piano work from the 1970s such as ‘Suite: Bits and Pieces’, which, had it been released by the likes of Herbie Hancock on a Japanese only album, would now be regarded as a mini masterpiece, but has simply been ignored. It is a delightful treasure and the delicate musings within are a major highlight, and reveal an artist who is well in tune with what is happening further afield in music and adept to evolve, with the example of a maturing Stevie Wonder in exploratory mood on keyboards just like Hancock was with the Headhunters. Another influence with the continued use of motifs is Chick Corea from his ECM period, and that becomes evident, not only on ‘Suite: Bits and Pieces’, but equally on the mammoth forty minute untitled improvisation that ends the second CD, and even some of the third CD, once again devoted to Beck’s own compositions and including a further two untitled pieces. Once again, it is his solo work on acoustic piano this time that impresses most with ‘Thoughts’, a typically reflective number.
An exemplary thirty-six page inner sleeve has been painstakingly compiled by Simon Spillett and Colin Harper, with numerous black and white photos of Beck in performance and with other musicians, flyers of concerts, and colour reproductions of the original albums, all in a top quality sleeve that is deserving of an award in itself. Gordon Beck occupies a tiny space in even the most comprehensive of books on post World War II British jazz, yet his canon of work is at once varied and of a consistently high quality. This outstanding box set should be seen as the first installment of a re-investigation of his largely neglected career by the jazz media and begin to set the history books right in their analysis of this much underrated musician.