It’s Donny from the Block! “No matter where I go, I know where I came from (from the Cronx!)”
Croydon sax legend Don Weller died earlier this year having enjoyed a career that benefited many household names including Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Alex Harvey, Gil Evans, Stan Tracey and the Jack Bruce/Charlie Watts version of Rocket 88. This live recording of his jazz-fusion band, Major Surgery, mixes Weller-penned tracks from their only album, The First Cut, with other gems that Croydonian’s(?) would have relished during an early 70s, six-year(!), booze and fags stint at the always-packed Dog and Bull pub.
Joining him in those heady, stage-much-too-close-to-the-lavs, days were drummer Tony Marsh, bass player Bruce Collcutt and guitarist Jimmy Roche. People who spent time with the man, or witnessed the band, speak with a deep fondness for him and his music. Obituaries from earlier this year suggest that I would’ve really enjoyed sharing a pint with him: “well-loved”, “self-effacing ”, “a big presence”, “idiosyncratic sense of humour”, “guileless indifference to just about any form of PR” and “an amiable bearded giant complete with beret, sandals and (sometimes) odd socks”. In fact, his beret lust led to him hustling a beret sponsorship off Kangol for his 16 piece Big Band’s head!
I’m sure you’re getting the picture by now but let me give one last example of why I so warmed to him: His long time sparring partner, Art Themen, fondly/irritatedly remembered him phoning while Art was attempting to get the hang of a Cedar Walton tune, “I’m practising” Art said. “Practising?” Don replied incredulously, “that’s cheating!”
So, the music then. The typically-for-them (atypical for everyone else) titled “Fred Bear the Threadbare Bear” roars off proceedings. It’s a rollicking, 6 minute 70s fusion with the 4 piece now augmented by Pete Jacobsen on keyboard. It runs freely but punches accurately and hard when it needs to. The musicianship is a joy – lots of just behind and just ahead one-upmanship. Stylistically it comes from an old bop head, soul-jazz type of fusion rather than a rock fusion – more like Les McCann’s stuff than, say, Mahavishnu or Brand X.
“Old Useless and White” (I know the feeling, mate) grooves effortlessly as Collcut and Marsh prod it along and Weller circles an evolving, slightly angular, motif that could easily be the pre-edited theme for a 70s TV comedy. Roche and Jacobsen deliver breezy, incremental solos.
The 12-minute solofest, “Shrimpboats”, (I don’t know the feeling, mate) starts with a Mahavishnu-esque cosmic, flanged guitar arpeggio and Weller/Jacobsen atmospheric washes before Weller grabs it by the throat with a muscular but melodious solo. Roche, Jacobsen, Weller again (with some funky, hard chopping guitar from Roche) then, finally, Marsh all take spots before close.
“Beans” is a protein/fibre rich, late-afternoon-at-a-festival blues with Roche and Weller throwing down engaging, heartfelt solos before Jacobsen goes off on an incongruous space jazz guitar emulation. Next, and totally unexpectedly, is his passionate, classical solo piano, mood-exploration entitled “A Touch of the PJs”. It segues into Roche’s Hendrix-inspired intro to “Six/Nine” which genty shifts into Weller’s spiritual space before it drops into a Marvin Gaye romancing groove with Roche getting heavy soul-busy in support. It finally rests in the divine again. Weller’s an absolute star on this track.
The finale, “Tightrope”, is eastern blues meets a fusiony Starsky and Hutch. Its effusive flow, with everybody again trying to sit just behind or ahead of each other, is compelling and lovable.
So, OK, the sound’s not great but considering it started off on a cassette recorded in a pub it’s pretty damned remarkable actually. The major positive throughout is that the player’s character and joy is palpable. I didn’t need to read the obituaries to understand Weller was warm, witty, big, integrous, idiosyncratic or that he was up for a laugh and a beer or two. All of those things are evident from the music. It’s charming and humorous and the musicianship frequently catches you off guard. You come away wishing you had been there in the Dog and Bull every week, pint glass and fag in hand, marvelling at both their playing and your good fortune that this was happening down your local.