Notes from the edge…. & Beyond – Nucleus Boxed set review

Here at Notes from the Edge & Spirit we’ve always been interested in looking beyond the confines of prog and into some of the music operating on the fringes of experimental music, and tonights mammoth review comes from our good friends over at Esoteric.

 

Nucleus & Ian Carr – Torrid Zone (The Vertigo Recordings 1970-1975) Esoteric Recordings ECLEC62663

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This wonderfully comprehensive clamshell box is the complete Vertigo recordings made by Ian carr and Nucleus, and contains 9 complete albums spanning the first half of the 1970’s over 6 discs. With a 48 page booklet with sleeve notes by Sid Smith, this is the definitive collection of one of the most innovative musicans and groups that mixed the free form jazz that carr was desperate to play with rock idealogies and ideas that bubbled over the nascent progressive genre.

No coincidence that on their 1970 debut Elastic Rock, the cover was crafted by Roger Dean, and the line up was one hell of a band, Ian Carr (trumper/flugelhorn), Karl Jenkins (bariton, oboe, piano,) Brain smith (tenor and soprano saxophones) Chris Spedding (guitar) Jeff Clyne on bass/electric bass & John Marshall on drums/percussion) the band freewheel and propel themselves through some truly stunning pieces of music, with all the band contibuting something, although primarly Jenkins gets to shine on compositions like 1916 whilst Carrs Persephones Jive is a wonderful piece.

Not resting on their laurels, the band recorded We’ll talk about it later, which carried on with more freedom and power where the debut had left off, the compositional power of jenkins again to the fore, whilst the closing Easter 1916 was a reworked piece from the debut and provided a linking arch.

Astonoshingly the same band recorded and released (credited as Ian Carr with Nucleus) Solar Plexus, where Carr’s compositional skills came to the fore, and a s aresult all the material on this astounding album is entirely carr’s compositions, with his music to the fore, and the addition of extra soloists, the emphasis shifted musically slightly to fit Carrs vision, (even more astonishingly all three of these albums were recorded in 1970, one hell of a prolific musical period) and listened to back to back, show how experimental, how progressive and how far along Carr and Nucleus were prepared to push their own musical skills and compostional techniques. It’s a mighty work rate, and what’s even more stunning is the fact there are no duff pieces of music on here. The band are in fine form, bouncing off each other around the tracks like Elementts i & II or the brilliant Spirit Level. One thing I’ve discovered by diving back into this jazz arena, and listening to music like this for the first time, is how much more experimental bands like this were than some of your traditional proggers.

Following Solar Plexus the next release was Belladonna in 1973, a solo Ian Carr album, where Spedding, Jenkins, Clyne & Marshall had all moved on, and of the original Nucleus only Brian Smith remained, with Alan Holdsworth bringing his distinctive guitar sound, Dave Macrae on piano, Roy Babbington on bass and Clive Thacker on drums, Belladonna see’s more of Carrs vision shining throughwith the majority of the songwriting carrs (with a couple of Smith tracks) the different musical chemistry and the taut production by Jon Hiseman, see’s the different sounds of the new members building musical blocks for Carr to play over, Babbingtons bass & Macraes electric piano really make a difference to the musical texture and dynamic, whilst the drumming of Thacker is sublime and on tracks like Summer Rain, the band really get into a smooth groove, and is truly progressive. Whilst tracks like May Day or Hectors House showcase the confidence, ability and fluidity of the band, as they work together to create a really great coherent sound, and Holdsworth guitar was in fine form on Remadione.

1973 also saw Labyrinth by Ian Carr with Nucleus, which see’s Carr drawing on Greek mythology and fleshing the band out with Norma Winstone on vocals, Kenny Wheeler on trumpets and flugelhorn, Tony Levin on drums, Trevor Tomkins on percussion and the Radiophonic workshops Paddy Kingsland on VSS3 synthesiso & Gordon Beck on electric piano, and was a piece comissioned by the arts council from Ian Carr. With a bigger band, this is a far more widescreen production, and has a lot more going on, with several call and answer sections between Carr and Wheeler (like the opener Origins) the sinewy bass of Babbington underpins everything (and is integral to Bull Dance) whilst the multi drummer/percussionist trick is one that is used to great effect here (and which other bands, notably King Crimson) have used to great effect elsewhere. The two horn players and Smith’s saxes really add a meaty brass sound to the music, whilst the synth of Paddy Kingsland in the background, vying for attention with the electric pianos adds to this wall of sound. This is a far more lively album than it’s predeccesor, and has a much looser musical feel, almost a cross between classical big band and progressive jazz, and some of the funkier moments could easliy have soundtracked numerous 1970’s Brritish cult TV shows. With Norma Winstones vocals used more as an additionally instrument that a traditional vocalist, she adds her voice to the mighty sound that is produced, and this mighty mix of different talents, styles and instrumentation is what really makes this a great album. From tracks like Arena or the sublime Exultation, this is really wonderful example of Carrs musical vision, and the only tiny niggle I have with the packaging is that some of the albums are seperated across different discs (I guess it’s only the equivalent of having to get up to change the record, but being used to the seamless flow of CD I guess I’ve become lazy!)

What is interesting is in the sleeve notes Sid Smith comments how rare the original pressings of these albums are, and again, it astounds me that music as innovative and original as this hadn’t been presented in this format before, as the Esoteric clamshell box brings this altogether in a fantastically presented box, with great sound and wonderfully in depth notes. Not to mention the reproductions of the album covers (although the covers of Alleycat, and the back cover of Snakehips etcetera leave a lot to be desired, and don’t neccesarily reflect the music contained within).

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1973’s Roots again saw a change in personnel with Jocelyn Pitchen joining on guitar and Roger Suttin taking over bass duties, with Joy yates providing vocals, and starting a collaboration with producer Fritz Fryer. Reflecting Carrs notions of Identity, and stemming from an arts grant, the title track was a masterpiece in carrs compositional skills, whilst Brian Smith contributed three Whatapatiti, Capricorn and Odokamona celebrating his New Zealand heritage, the latter being the most direct link between rock and jazz on Nucleus record.In fact this whole record see’s the band heading back to their rock roots, particularly on the whirling Southern Roots & Celebration, which has a trunk full of funk & power.

With an astonishing work rate (and revolving door policy of members) 1974’s Under the Sun see’s Geoff Castle replacing Dave MacRae, Brian Smith – after signing off in sytle Roots returned to New Zealand and was replaced by Bob Bertles. Every new member of the band always bring something slightly different to the sound, whilst keeping the groove flowing, and maintaining that unique Nucleus sound. With vocals from guest Kieran White on Bryan Springs percussive driven The Addison Trap adding an extra dimension to the sound, and of course with Spring being the drummer, this is a masterclass in high precision, top notch jazz drumming, while the bass of Sutton finds the groove, and the rest of the band build and circle round, turning what could have been another drum solo into so much more. Carr and Bertles trade riffs and lines throughout this exhilerating album, which again carries Carr’s name as main songwriter. Like all good band leaders though from Miles Davies, to Ashley Hutchings, Carr knew how to pick the best musicians and get the best out of them, and this shows in the closing trilogy of Under the Sun, of Theme – 1 sarsaparilla, Theme 2- Feast Alfresco & theme 3 – Rites of Man. Taking up the whole of what would have been side 2 of the record, it’s a mighty powerful piece of music, that shows all facets of the band, from the wonderful sound of Carr and Bertles, as well as that wonderfully sinewy bass of sutton. It’s hearing pieces like this that remind me how close prog & jazz could be, back when this inventive music was out there & bands were allowed the freedom to experiment. This is a wonderful piece of work, and whilst this might have left me cold 20 years ago, I can now say, with confidence that the gae of 42 I have definetly got jazz and understand it’s beauty and power.

1975 saw the release of Snakehips Etcetera, with Roger Sellers taking over on drums, the line up losing guitarist Jocelyn Pitchen leaving Ken Shaw as sole guitarist, and Gordon Beck, leaving Geoff Castle as sole elctronic pianist. This slimmed down group were touring extensively, and the tautness of the band, and the power of tracks like Carrs title track, or Suttons alive & Kicking reflect this, and the production from the much missed Jon Hiseman is perfect for the album, allowing the songs to grow organically, like the beautiful electric piano solo by vastle on the title track, and this album also has some wonderful guitar work from ken shaw throughout, whilst Sellers slots in seamlessly into the drum stool, forming an excellent partnership with Sutton, whose bass work as ever is superb. The partnership between Carr and Bertles is also a joy to behold on this album. Interesting to also see the name of Steve Lillywhite as one of the engineers on this album.

The final album on Vertigo was Alleycat, also released in 1975, saw the line up on both record, and indeed in the production dept unchanged, and this rounds off the content of this mammoth box. The continuity behind the desk and in front of the mic shows here, and the band are relaxed and really into the music, the comfort of having built a strong band shows in these 5 tracks, all of which have confidence, verve and swagger to them. The band were in a real groove at this time, and despite this being an end of contract album, they still sound in fine form, the introduction of a moog into Geoff Castles armoury works wonder on the opening Suttons Phideaux Corner, and the soloing from carr is sublime, as is the interplay between Castle and Suttons bass, and the band pull up a real tight driving groove as the track grows and develops. Powerfull brass moments, some sublime keyboard soling from castle all over the title track and a real commitment to the groove that you can’t help but getting carried away with, Alleycat as an album is an incredibly vibrant musical staement, from the deep groove of the title track, which comes across as soundtrack to a British gangster movie of the 1970’s.

Shaw’s guitar work on the title track has more of the blues about it, whilst the band are comfortable with letting the music flow, as it runs to over 14 minutes, and not one minute is wasted. The two epics Alleycat and Splat form the centrepiece of the album, whilst the closing duo of You Can;t Be Sure – a Carr/Shaw/sutton composition, with it’s raw guitar sound, sparser production and wonderful musical interplay between the band really showcases their collective talents, and the album finishes in fine form on Bertles Nosegay.

This 6 disc collection gathering 9 albums is an absolutely epic collection, and showcases the creativity of the band over a 5 year period producing a revolutionary, eclectic and exciting body of work. There is more creativity here in this snapshot of Carrs career, than some bands ever manage over 30 years, and this is a brilliant introduction to the band, and well packaged and remastered with care and attention. If jazz rock fusion is your thing, and you’ve not heard of Ian Carr & Nucleus before, then this is something to treasure.

Torrid Zone is available from https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/nucleus-ian-carr-torrid-zone-the-vertigo-recordings-1970-1975-6cd-remastered-clamshell-box-set/

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