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 Blonde’. 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 Rating 3/5
This fascinating piece of archival work proves, if nothing else, that Belgium has a largely unknown and vastly underrated roster of jazz musicians that deserve to be explored in greater depth. Over the decades, Belgium has nurtured some fine musicians who have made their mark internationally and these include conductor and arranger Francy Boland, multi-reedist Bobby Jaspar, guitarists Philip Catherine and René Thomas, and all of those instrumentalists from the 1950s onward and others were chronicled in a superb anthology by SDBAN, entitled, ‘Let’s get swinging: modern jazz in Belgium 1950-1970’, which has been reviewed previously in these columns. That compilation included no less than three numbers featuring tenor saxophonist Jack Sels who was highly regarded among those in the know in the Belgian jazz scene and played alongside American Hammond organist Lou Bennett and Philip Catherine, on the compilation opener, ‘African Dance’, and performed a Boland original on, ‘Minor 5’, sharing duties with Saxorama. Heavily influenced by the swing era tenor saxophonists such as Stan Getz and Ben Webster, and by modernists such as Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins and Stanley Turrentine, Sels was not so much an innovator as a seasoned practitioner who excelled in the ballad songbook, but stretched out into more uptempo grooves on occasion.
Jean-Jacques ‘Jack’ Sels to give him his full name, was born into a wealthy Belgian family and was in fact trilingual in Dutch, English and French. That comfortable background enabled Sels to purchase thousands of 78’s, but sadly both the discs and family home were destroyed by World War Two. Thereafter. Sels performed with American G.I.’s, gaining useful experience. Hearing the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band while on tour in Europe convinced Sels to form his own big band, Jack’s be-bop All Stars orchestra, and he began, like many Belgian expat jazz musicians, to work in Paris where there was a significantly larger jazz scene. The big band opened in concert in Antwerp in May 1949, but unfortunately disbanded but a few months later. Larger ensembles were simply not financially viable at the time. A second and equally unsuccessful attempt was made a couple of years later, inspired by the Miles Davis nonet recording, ‘Birth of the cool’. Throughout the 1950s Sels travelled to and from Antwerp, sporadically recording when possible. Indeed, Jack Sels wrote and recorded what is now regarded as the first modern LP of film score music in Belgian cinema in 1955, ‘Seagulls die in the harbour’, which is an ultra rare album to acquire and since it is not included here, would make a splendid follow-up.
Of those recordings on this 2 LP/CD set, ‘Blues for a blonde’ stands out for its late night Hammond organ groove and illustrated why Sels was given the nickname of ‘Jack the hipster’. Covering famous soul-jazz numbers of the period was a Sels trademark and here the interpretations of Horace Silver’s, ‘The preacher’, Jimmy Heath’s. ‘Gemini’ and Yusef Lateef’s, ‘Dong’, are among the strongest numbers. However, Sels’ mastery of the ballad repertoire is equally illustrated on, ‘It might as well be spring’, and, ‘Rain on the Grand’Palace’, while, for adapting familiar compositions into something more personal, Sels slows down markedly the Miles opus, ‘Walkin’, and then skillfully imbues the piece with his own voice. A single studio album was recorded for Decca in Brussels in 1961 and featured two Americans in Lou Bennett and drummer Oliver Jackson. Jack Sels did not make the breakthrough that he had anticipated and, arguably, should have moved to the United States where both René Thomas and Toots Thielmans enjoyed success. For a brief period, Sels came under the tutelage of Belgian national radio and head producer Elias Gistelnick who fully supported his musical endeavours. That radio career ended abruptly for reasons still unclear. In March, 1971, Jack Sels suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away, sadly, in poverty and with his place in the history of Belgian jazz largely forgotten. All the more reason, then, to correct that imbalance and celebrate his modest, but heartfelt contribution that has been lovingly assembled here. Full marks to SDBAN for the luxurious vinyl gatefold sleeve and extensive notes by compiler Lander Lenaerts in the inner sleeves, with plenty of graphical illustrations of the musician in evocative black and white.
Tim Stenhouse Rating 4/5