Harry South Big Band ‘The Songbook’ 4CD (Rhythm & Blues) 5/5

British jazz has rightly over the last fifteen years or so started to receive its due with a series of groundbreaking re-issues and this must rate among the very best and most deserved, for Harry South has wrongly been overlooked and yet his contribution virtually defines British jazz in the late 1950 and especially throughout the 1960s, from arranging for Tubby Hayes to Georgie Fame. A cast of thousands could almost be individually name checked here because South had his hand in numerous musical pies and this is where this exhaustive and lovingly assembled anthology wins hands down over any previous attempt to chronologically examine his work.

The first CD focuses on the bop era of the mid-late 1950’s and this was a period when British big band jazz was emerging from the shackles of the swing dance bands. A new generation of younger musicians were on the block and intent on putting into practice the modernist revolution that had crossed the Atlantic. By the early 1960s, the Harry South sound had become more clearly defined and this was reflected in South’s work as a sideman pianist on the modal-flavoured ‘Minor Incident’, for the Dick Morrissey quartet, and on the lengthy soloing to ‘Closing Time’, where he paired up with Tubby Hayes and the latter is in particularly scintillating form here. World roots explorations were already being undertaken by South in 1964 on the Indo-Jazz number, ‘Raja’, with Hayes reverting to flute, and some fine hi-hat cymbals work. By 1967, the Iberian peninsula was a new source of inspiration with the humorously titled, ‘Costa Fortuna’, a live recording that finds the big band at their absolute peak.

If one had to make any parallel with the strictly piano playing side of Harry South, then it might be Horace Parlan insofar as South has a strong blues-inflected background, but was resolutely modern in outlook and open to external influences. Where this anthology is so strong is in unearthing hitherto unissued performances and these are, on occasion, equal to those officially on record. One superlative example is the Eastern feel to, ‘Unidentified track 2’, which has echoes of ‘Kind of Blues’, but then departs into something akin to a journey into the Orient.

Form the later period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, South was astute enough to enlist some of the then young Turks and these included fellow pianist Mick Pyne, reedists Alan Skidmore and Kenny Wheeler, and collectively their looser and more free-form big band structure offered something new, as on the excellent, ‘Down the Line’. On the fourth CD, the music goes all the way up to Harry South’s passing with a sumptuous 1990 National Youth Jazz Orchestra rendition of ‘Southern Horizons’, a stunning composition by South that originally featured on a big band album fronted by Joe Harriott (not available here, but re-issued on CD). This new decade witnessed yet more new talent, with Gerard Presencer and Dennis Rollins starring in the youth orchestra tribute to the now ageing master.

One minor gripe from an otherwise exemplary and lavishly illustrated inner sleeve. Neophytes to South’s work would appreciate a simple discography even if the original vinyl is now near impossibly to find, and although this release was initially released on vinyl for Record Store Day, a parallel vinyl re-issue programme of Harry South’s work would be most welcome. A candidate for best UK jazz re-issue of the year.

Tim Stenhouse