Splinters: Inclusivity

New book and CD set collects more of London's breakaway free improvisers of the 1970s than previous releases, including unissued material

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Archival specialist label Jazz In Britain never ceases to conjure up surprises and this impressive CD plus book set is no exception. Housed in its handsome LP-sized hardback book containing an extended essay by saxophonist and author Simon Spillett are three CDs representing two separate concerts recorded within four months of each other. Two of the recordings made at the 100 Club were previously released on the late Mike King’s label as Splinters: Split The Difference (Reel Recordings, 2009). However, the Jazz In Britain package includes around twice the amount of music. The Reel Recordings single CD was limited by the capacity of the medium, so only extends to 77.30 in total. Jazz In Britain, however, divided the music across three CDs which are neatly placed at the back of the book inside the back board.

In the lavishly illustrated book Spillett puts the music into historical context and this actually enhances the listener’s experience. As an aficionado of Tubby Hayes, one of the more surprising participants of the Splinters group, Spillett is well equipped to expand on the background to these concerts. He’s also a meticulous researcher who relishes excavating details which others might overlook.

The sessions are rooted in the emergence of the Jazz Centre Society (JCS) in 1968, its ambitious remit to promote jazz to a wider audience and also to house a headquarters and venue for jazz in London. However, the JCS seemingly failed to offer enough support to the free and avant-garde end of the jazz spectrum and this was the primary catalyst for a group of improvisers establishing breakaway collectives and arranging their own gigs of the kind captured here.

On the first of the two 100 Club CDs there’s a hesitant start of proceedings kicked off by Stevens’ drumming, shortly joined by Clyne on bass. Tracey is almost inaudible, bar some desultory chords, on Phase 1. This was apparently the result of Tracey attempting to use a broken piano. The 100 Club session takes a while to warm up but by Phase 3 things are simmering nicely. Hayes in particular seems to gel well in what was for him a novel venture. If anything, this proves that despite his resistance to the novel “old twang twang” of guitar-led pop music, he was perfectly at ease listening without prejudice to the new jazz wave comprising the likes of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane. Also, by this point Kenny Wheeler is on sparkling form, as is Watts whose alto playing achieves a rare quality, combining abstraction with innate lyricism. Stan Tracey is actually more audible on Phase 4 but whilst still rather too quiet in the mix his playing is totally sympathetic to the proceedings and perhaps signals his freer direction on later duet recordings with Mike Osborne, John Surman and Keith Tippett.

Clyne’s pizzicato-led opening on CD2, the second part of the 100 Club concert, is almost shocking in its resonant clarity, no mean feat considering the recording medium involved was the notoriously unreliable and fragile C120 tape cassette. Since the Reel Recordings release, the tape had suffered some degradation which happily was successfully addressed. Whilst Tracey was not present on this CD, Hayes is heard to be increasingly at home here, occasionally channelling the outer reaches he attained on the title track to his magnum opus Mexican Green (Fontana, 1968). By Phase 7, Watts and Wheeler are heard slugging it out as the remaining frontline, the time-no-changes freedom additionally affording a palpable sense of joy. Phase 8 has an almost Love Supreme feel at one point with Clyne playing a two-note, glissando-rich vamp, whilst the drummers continue to progress to a crescendo of percussive tattoo. The final track of the 100 Club set, Encore, begins with Wheeler, soon joined by the remaining ensemble whilst Clyne, as throughout these sessions, steadfastly anchors the music, effectively providing the glue to hold it all together.

The never previously heard Grass Roots gig at the Swan is, if anything, slightly more impressive than the 100 Club sortie. Four months after the 100 Club session the group sounds well-honed and more together, almost as though they had been doing this for years. There’s better separation between the two drummers here and overall an improved instrumental balance. If the group at this juncture had made a studio record as good as this it would have undoubtedly become a classic. By Phase 2, Tracey is heard laying down an ostinato groove which sets the scene for some invigorating ensemble work interspersed with extemporised harmonic inventions. Phase 3’s drums and bass intro cedes to the exuberance of the horns and at 12 minutes in showcases Tracey, still slightly too quiet but thankfully at least audible. Phase 5 opens with Clyne’s arco bass and Hayes now on flute, backed by the ensemble. Again, the feeling of spontaneous coordination is remarkable as the piece appears to grow organically. Wheeler also contributes a typically stunning cadenza. Now perhaps emboldened, Phase 5 is, arguably, even more adventurous. Tracey is again heard vying with Watts’ louder alto. The final segment, Phase 6, evinces a mêlée of percussion before the horns join in to bring the affair to its inexorable conclusion. Tragically, just a month after the Stockwell gig, Phil Seamen was found dead in his flat and Hayes died only a few months later in June 1973 at the age of 38.

Jazz In Britain have once again scored a sizeable hit with this ingenious multi-media package (it’s also available as a digital download) celebrating the triumph of artistic invention over adversity. Watts, the only surviving member of Splinters, should be applauded for having the foresight to record these gigs. Stevens too should have been rightly proud of assembling this wholly improvised couple of sessions which proved successful on several levels, not least in burying assumed prejudices and demonstrating that jazz is a universal and frequently inclusive language albeit with some occasionally diverse dialects.

Discography
CD1: [The Complete “Live At The 100 Club” Set 1] (1) Phase 1; Phase 2; Phase 3; Phase 4; Phase 5 (56.37)
CD2: [The Complete “Live At The 100 Club” Set 2] (2) Phase 6; Phase 7; Phase 8; Encore (45.53)
CD3: [Live At Grass Roots] (3) Phase 1; Phase 2; Phase 3; Phase 4; Phase 5; Phase 6 (61.45)
Phil Seamen, John Stevens (d); Tubby Hayes (ts, f); Trevor Watts (as); Kenny Wheeler (t, flh); Jeff Clyne (b). (1) and (3) add Stan Tracey (p). (1) and (2) London, 22 May 1972. (3) London, 12 September 1972.
Jazz In Britain JIB26SCDB