Graham Collier ‘British Conversations’ 2LP/CD (My Only Desire) 4/5

As I write this at least a third of us Brits are either talking about the weather, have already done so or are about to do so. The weather is, officially, more important to us than drinking tea, queuing or apologising unnecessarily. It’s debatable though whether the weather is more important than this Graham Collier ‘lost work’ from 1975, commissioned by Sveriges Radio and performed by their big band with trumpeter Harry Beckett and guitarist Ed Speight guesting. Released by London’s My Only Desire Records, ‘British Conversations’ focuses on our favourite, seemingly throwaway but deeply socially coded, subject matter. It’s a hippest of the hippest big band jazz, consisting of five movements that tell well-worn stories of wet dogs chasing cats as watchful shepherds delight at their tasty, mackerel topped, pea soup supper.

“Red Sky In The Morning” awakens us with only a mild portence. It’s too graceful, gliding and groovy to be doomy. The band effortlessly soars over countryside and lake, until halting for bass, drum and Beckett to get a touch funky. Speight’s viscous, gravy sound pours over the popping, prodding bass before Beckett and the band return with a moving Sketches of Northumberland bit.

The lyrical, balladic “Clear Moon” shines inspirational blue light, encouraging us to conjure stories, maybe romantic, maybe not, maybe journeys of self, maybe not. It’s a heart-touching, swelling/releasing six and a half minutes of caring about something or someone. Simple, impactful layered harmonies come and go and you feel better for having felt them.
Something’s coming and it’s coming soon warns “Halo Around The Sun”. Solo trumpet alarm is called before a Tropeau Bleu riff, hip cymbal riding and that warm big band sliding and gliding. An exuberant triple trumpet conversation warbles on as the band makes for a progressively thicker vibe.

Atmospheric and abstract, slow and considered, “Red Sky At Night” is an open space with no restricting time or structure. Silhouettes and shadows are projected as single or grouped, instruments briefly, yet persistently, visit; never staying long enough to form a pulse or pattern. Delicately naggingly memorable.

Georg Riedel’s adroit double bass leads “Mackerel Sky” into its pulsing, nodding blues. Speight stamps his overdrive and solos long time, his squared-off gravy now lumpy, giving it an incongruous psych edge as the band, seemingly unaware, undulates with an almost neck-snapping swing. A broken and loose Egil Johansen drum solo is then ended by a furiously joyous, rapid Riedel peppered bop.

‘British Conversations’ is beautiful. It’s touching and tender. There’s a British noir aesthetic; a Geordie Gil Evans-Axelrod. It gets pretty damned heavy (special shout to Stefan Brolund on bass) but there’s always a deft sensitivity. It’s hip but focuses less on the material, less on the spectacle of hip and more on atmosphere and warm emotion. And as Autumn brings its brown chill I’ll look forward to wrapping myself in that warmth. And if there’s a red sky, maybe I’ll eat some shepherd’s pie while listening.

Anyway, as I was saying, it’s been an absolutely shocking summer here in Oxon. Dismal. How’s it been with you?

Ian Ward