Jack Sels ‘Minor Works’ 2LP/2CD/DIG (SDBAN) 3/5

So, Jack Sels then. You know him, right. No? Jack Sels the tenor sax guy. No? Jack the hipster from Antwerp who died in 1970 only aged 48. He was heavily influenced by the Central Ave scene (especially Wardell Grey) and Sonny Rollins and who wore a Pres’s pork pie hat. No? Jack, the only child, who inherited the family fortune which he ‘wasted’ on girls, champagne and jazz records. Who, one sober day, bought all the tickets of a showing at Antwerp’s famous cinema Rex, and handed them all out to passersby. That guy. No?
Jack, the musicians musician, who joined Mickey Bunner’s band in 1945 playing Stan Kenton-style GI-friendly stuff before immersing himself in the blooming Belgian bebop scene before forming the Bebop All Stars Orchestra of “21 souls who love bop”. They wore working man’s clobber, those overalls and big bow ties. Cool, pioneering, ambitious but ultimately doomed to fail. THAT Jack Sels. Still no?
The Jack Sels who led a Miles Davis-ish Birth of Cool-style nonet, ran a Chamber music gig, supported Dizzy Gillespie on a couple of dates and toured Germany – playing for food, accommodation and, a princely, one German Mark per day. The Jack of whom, German magazine Das internationale Podium called his band “the best modern jazz band in the Montan-Union (an early EU ed.)”. He wrote and recorded the soundtrack to the first modern long play film in Belgian cinema, Seagulls Die in the Harbour. He recorded Bongo Jazz with Lucky Thompson and, in 1961, his first and only studio album. It featured Lou Bennett on organ, Oliver Jackson on drums and a cherubic 18 year-old Philip Catherine on guitar. Still nothing? No.
Jack Sels, the leader of Saxorama (I know) – a reeds and rhythm-section only band with 6 saxes and, old mate, Philip Catherine as one-quarter of the rhythm section. They made well over 50 recordings, some of which appear on ‘Minor Works’ for the first time. From those heights, Jack’s life quickly and inexplicably (although he did have an entertaining ability to upset people) started to unravel until his Jazz work thinned so much that, by 1966, he was forced to unload boats at Antwerp harbour to earn his crust. In 1970, while sitting at his harmonium Jack suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. One of Belgium’s most progressive modern jazz musicians, who’d played with Lester Young, Lucky Thompson and Dizzy Gillespie, died in poverty. Fellow musician, Willy Van Wiele, reported “Jack once told me ‘Willy, to go through everything I’ve been through, to live the life I lived, you would have to live for a hundred years’.”, while vibraphonist Fats Sadi praised him by saying “When Jack played, the gates of heaven opened. Jack was more Jazz than Jazz itself.” Wow.
There you go. It’s THAT Jack Sels. You remember now? No? Nothing? Me neither.

Minor works is a 2CD, double vinyl or digital release from SDBAN. It contains 27 tracks in total with 12 previously unreleased studio tracks and 8 live tracks. It highlights Jack, who received no formal musical training, as a versatile and charming arranger/composer. The album swings and endears through bebop standards, Hammerstein pops and, my favourite era, the 4-piece soul jazz jams.
Jack’s story gives an absorbing narrative to his Grey/Rollins blessed playing with Sonny’s influence making an early appearance on the first track, ‘Spanish Lady’. ‘Ginger’ is a relatively sombre affair with the spice coming from vibes and measured spoons of lyrical sax and piano soloing. ‘Dorian 047’ is a high energy, joyful train ride of a track from Jack’s Saxorama period with a twinkly, if unexplosive, Catherine solo. ‘Blue Triptichon’ is their have-a-go at Mingus with handsome, deep emotional sax layers leading into busy, dancing rhythms and Batman (TV series) horn stabs.

I’m proper hip to the smoky soul jazz of ‘African Dance’, ‘Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’ and ‘Blues for a Blond’e. They’re probably the highlight for me and sit loosely in Stanley Turrentine territory with Lou Bennett’s organ bringing the warm truth and Sels and Catherine’s economic but poetic solos merrily chatting away. It’s hard not to like Sels’ playing – it’s characterful and he does have a handsome tone.
‘Tchack-Tchack’ works really well – a rolling percussive workout with tight, afro-lite staccato guitar, twinkly-toed piano and those ganged saxes again. Good energy. We’ve also got a version of ‘Night in Tunisia’ on here which is okay but they all suffer a bit after Tony Allen’s Tribute to Blakey’s version don’t they? Then there’s the unfortunately titled ‘Dong’ which is movingly suspenseful and filmic (making sense out of Sels being picked to score Seagulls Die in the Harbour) and ‘Minor 5’ which, as we might expect, sits in Brubeck space.
I do like this album as a whole. I like the highlights even more. There’s bags of character and variety and even more commitment to a cause. Mostly it hangs together really well and you get a feeling of camaraderie.
Final note to reader – if you’d already heard of Jack Sels and at the top of this review were screaming “Yes! Of course I know who Jack Sels is! Shut the **** up, Ian!”…then I must humbly apologise for peaking your ire and add that I’m really glad that I now know who Jack is too. Nice job SDBAN. 3 stars for the album. 4 stars for the highlights.

Ian Ward