With the current so-called ‘British jazz explosion’ capturing wider media attention. it is instructive to take a deep breath, detach oneself from the hype and revisit some of the great British jazz exploits of the past in order to determine whether a new generation duly match up. This anthology of modern jazz pianist is fixed in time between the arrival of the be-bop phenomenon in the UK after WWII and the beginning of the 1960s. While, this writer would question the cut off mark of 1962 (it could, however, be justified if a volume two were in preparation, but as it stands, there was a good deal of fine British jazz piano post-1962 so why not go through to 1969 or beyond?), there is no doubting the quality of the musicianship and some lesser known pianist alongside those internationally renowned is just one of the charms of this extremely well packaged and informative compilation. The anthology notes are right to insist upon the influence that the be-bop revolution in the United States exerted on young British jazz musicians and this was most certainly reflected in British jazz pianists falling for the stylistic charms of a Monk, Garner, or Garland.
Two early modernists made their careers predominantly in the US, but nonetheless started in the UK. These are the London born and blind pianist George Shearing and Ralph Sharon, the latter of whom would later find fame as the close accompanist and collaborator of singer Tony Bennett. Indeed, Sharon latter features on a rare Esquire recording from 1948, with a young Ronnie Scott in attendance on, ‘Idabop’, while Shearing performs a soothing, ‘The man from Mintons’, from the same year on Decca. Given the age of the earliest sides, this anthology offers unbeatable value, grouping together music that is near impossible to find unless you have a jazz loving grandparent. A real discovery to these ears is Eddie Thompson whose 1956 trio offering, ‘Moveable’, is a sheer delight, and it is of note that Thompson, strongly influenced by Red Garland, was blind from birth. Another new name to this scribe is Alan Branscombe who dabbles in Latin Americana (an exotic detour from the dreary reality of life in 1950s Britain, which still endured rationing for several years after the end of hostilities) on the mid-tempo, Autumn in Cuba’, interpreted as a hard-bop piece with Tubby Hayes and Tony Crombie just two of the accompanists. A third Brit who would seek fame and fortune across the pond during the 1950s was Victor Feldman, who distinguished himself on vibes also, and he joins the Ronnie Scott quartet in 1954 on, ‘Fools rushin’.
The second CD is quite short (both weigh in at just over one hundred minutes, plenty of space to showcase more of the excellent pianists) at just over fifty minutes, like the first, but has some stellar names in their early prime. Dudley Moore was a virtuoso pianist and, ‘I get a kick out of you’ (1962), receives a brisk reading, with driving bass line. Gordon Beck was that most supportive of pianists and never received his due (see the previous anthology review on him) and, as part of the Tubby Hayes quartet, performs on a 1962, ‘In the night’, with Hayes a delight on soprano saxophone, while Beck is distinguished and elegant on piano. Blues influences permeate the efforts of John Burch who performs alongside tenor saxophonist, Don Rendell in the leader’s new quintet and together they excel on, ‘Manumission’ (1961), with altoist Graham Bond in attendance. Harry South made his name as a big band leader (recording with, among others, Georgie Fame), but was a gifted pianist in his own right and is heard in lesser known trio format on, ‘All the things you are’ (1960). A fine standard rendition from a virtually unknown pianist comes from Norman Stenfalt whose refined interpretation of Ellington’s, ‘Drop me off in Harlem, was later covered by, of all musicians, Sun Ra. Other names worthy of your attention include Pat Smythe who was a regular pianist with the Joe Harriott quintet, Colin Purbrook and Bill Le Sage.
It is important to give credit to compiler Simon Spillett whose attention to detail and supplementary graphical illustrations with black and white photos of the protagonists and individual biographies in the twenty-eight page booklet is exemplary. This is a clear illustration of how jazz should be afforded the same degree of reverence that western classical music devotees have long taken for granted.