Harry Beckett ‘Joy Unlimited’ LP/CD (Cadillac) 5/5

What strikes me about this re-release by Harry Beckett is just how unlike anyone else he sounds. His tone is simultaneously bright and sharp yet with an easy warmth, it’s allowing these contrasting forces to effortlessly coexist in his sound that makes his voice so unique.

Beckett has performed with a multitude of other musicians since the 60s, from Ian Carr’s Nucleus and Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath to Jah Wobble, Dudu Pukwana, Working Week, David Sylvian and Robert Wyatt to name just a few.

This album originally dates from 1974 and was recorded at Chalk Farm Studios in a single day though it wasn’t released until the following year. It has never been released digitally until now. Joy Unlimited accurately describes the music but is also the name of the band. Harry Beckett (trumpet flugelhorn) Ray Russell (guitar) Brian Miller (piano, electric piano and synthesiser) Daryl Runswick, (bass) Nigel Harris (drums) Martin David (congas). This is the first of three albums by this band and Harry Beckett’s fourth outing as leader.

Beckett, a Barbadian born in 1935, learned his craft in a salvation army band. He arrived in London in 1954. During the 60s he was associated with Graham Collier’s big band before leading his own bands from 1970. His last recording as leader was The Modern Sound Of Harry Beckett, an album of dub music recorded in 2008. He died of a stroke in 2010 officially aged 75, though his wife believes he was older, having discarded some years along the way in a successful attempt to extend his career.

The first track ‘No Time for Hello’ is I guess the band’s way of getting straight to the point and declaring how they mean to go on. An intricate bassline and percussive energy introduce Beckett as he eases his way across the groove with gentle precision and harmony. It’s not long before he ups his game and offers a squealing and expressionistic palette of bright tones. Ray Russel proceeds to get some sounds out of his guitar that could only be achieved in the 70s before harmonizing with Beckett on the main theme. Beckett lets the rest of the band have their say and the tune takes a darker tone as Runswick bows his instrument before Beckett and Russel lead a return to the main theme.

The wonderfully titled ‘Bracelets of Sound’ has a trippy and spacey atmosphere, the guitar and conga intro setting the mood. Everything feels so right, the joy really is unlimited here. Beckett gives the rest of the band so much space and leaves Russell to take things to an even higher plane before slipping in beside him for the main riff with astounding subtlety.

The circular theme continues on ‘Rings Within Rings’ there’s a slightly harder edge to Beckett’s sound and a paired down economy. A fantastic interplay with the congas brings the song to its tremendous climax.

Runswick’s undulating bass introduces the album’s final track ‘Not Just Tomorrow’, a delicious mix in which the band move effortlessly around Beckett’s gorgeously wistful tone with equal weight and clarity. Russell’s guitar gradually builds into an extended and cathartic solo in which he delivers wave upon wave of intensity.

On this single date in March 1974 Beckett and the band achieved something pretty special and it seems surprising that it’s taken so long for this gem to emerge once again. But perhaps these strange socially distanced days that we are now living through are exactly the right time to have our spirits lifted by Harry Beckett and Joy Unlimited.

James Read