JJ 03/73: Phil Seamen – Phil Seamen Story

Fifty years ago, Martin Davidson hailed a rewarding tribute to the then-late drummer marred only by the ridiculous playing of Tony Coe. First published in JJ March 1973

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Phil Seamen was, to quote Charles Fox’s moving tribute, ‘the first major jazz drummer to be born outside the United States’. He was also one of the great ‘characters’ of the music; his sense of humour had as much punch as his drumming.

All this comes across on the first side of this record where he talks about some of the events in his life in his own inimitable way, and also throws in some superb examples of his drumming. Anyone who has been under the sound of his voice and his drumming will be bowled over by this side; while anyone who never had that experience can use this to get a pretty good idea of what Phil was all about. And if you can sit through it without falling about laughing as well as coming close to tears, then forget it.

Side one takes the Phil Seamen story up to 1955, but, tragically, Phil died a few days before he was due to continue his saga up to the present date. So side two is made up of some examples of live jazz being booted along by Phil. The first is the cooking I Gotta Girl (previously released on Fontana) on which everyone plays very well, with Dick Morrisey and Phil really excelling themselves. The remaining three tracks are not so happy. Phil plays incredibly, as always, and Brian Lemon and Kenny Baldock help make up a fine rhythm section. Tony Coe, however, is out of place in this context as he just skates around as if the rhythm section were not there; with such a strong trio behind him his oblique approach sounds ridiculous. Also on Perdido he confirms most of the reasons why the clarinet has been virtually defunct since New Orleans. Even so, there is always the fine drumming to listen to.

The sleeve has its own pictorial Phil Seamen story, and there are personal tributes from Tubby Hayes, Lennie Bush and Kenny Graham as well as Charles Fox. There is also a sleeve note by producer Graham Lyons in which he claims that Phil crosses the beat coming out of one of his breaks on Blue ‘n’ Boogie. Two musician friends and myself listened through this about twenty times counting the bars and confirmed that Phil does not cross the beat here. All he does is crash behind the beat – something that he, in common with Elvin Jones, often used to do.

Phil Seamen was one of the great drummers. Tragically his addiction, which he had imagined would make him a better musician, kept him out of America where he would have probably received the recognition he deserved. It is also tragic that he made so few records in suitable company. This release does not add to them, but it does give us a unique chance to hear him on his own.

Discography
(a) Phil Talks And Plays (25½ min) – (b) I Gotta Girl; (c) Perdido; (c) Blue ‘N’ Boogie; (c) Chinatown (27¼ min)
(a) Phil Seamen (dm/talking). London 1972.
(b) Dick Morrissey (ten); Harry South (pno); Phil Bates (bs); Phil Seamen (dm); Jimmy Witherspoon (vcl). Bull’s Head, Barnes, London 1966.
(c) Tony Coe (clt/ten); Brian Lemon (pno); Kenny Baldock (bs); Phil Seamen (dm). Hope & Anchor, Islington, London 1972.
(Decibel BSN 103)