Publisher: Jazz In Britain
The best impulse is to welcome the publication of the book celebrating six British jazz composers: Michael Garrick, Mike Gibbs, Barry Guy, John Mayer, Keith Tippett and Mike Westbrook. Duncan Heining deflects critics who would argue for a different selection of six composers. He argues that any composer who has been the subject of a substantial biography is ruled out. Unfortunately, that means Chris McGregor is not included in the book and the South African diaspora is hardly referred to at any point, even though it has been an important force during the period covered by the book. There exists a biography of Chris McGregor, but it is not easily available, and copies command a very, very high price. There is also a book about Michael Garrick.
The astonishing aspect of this book is the breadth of the enthusiasm that Heining has for the diverse musics that he describes. Writing about six composers could drive the writer into superficiality. That does not happen.
The most bizarre section of the book is in the introduction where Heining justifies himself by citing his own academic achievements and his work experience. It is as though part of Hening’s CV has become mixed in with the text. It is completely unnecessary. The only justification that he needs is the quality of the book that he has produced.
On Mike Westbrook, Heining is anxious to point out that there is much more to Westbrook than the Big Band records and he is very sympathetic to the smaller groups. Heining is particularly incisive on ‘Mama Chicago’. Westbrook’s more recent work is given thoughtful appraisals. Heining has little sympathy with those who say that the influence of Kate Westbrook has weakened Westbrook’s music. He praises the contribution of Kate Westbrook. Heining sees Mike and Kate as one unit.
The Mike Gibbs chapter deals not only with the jazz albums but also with the film work. Heining goes some way to describe the classical antecedents of Gibbs’ work mentioning particularly the influence of Messiaen. Heining is particularly good on, what at this point is, Gibbs’ final album ‘Mike Gibbs +12’ . Heining thinks more highly of the album than does Gibbs but we are not told why Gibbs has reservations. Gibbs does not have a large output so it is unfortunate that Heining does not spend more time on the albums that Gibbs has made in Germany and Austria with their splendid musicians. There is much good music and fine arrangements in those albums.
Michael Garrick probably receives more criticism than any other composer in the book. On more than one occasion, it is pointed out that Garrick did not have a good editing facility and sometimes he could not discern the difference between his good work and his poor work. Some of it is blamed on Garrick’s lack of education. We learn that he did pass the 11+ but did not not take A Levels as if that is some reason for the defects in his work. The maverick quality of Garrick’s composing and playing is reluctantly celebrated, even though he sometimes annoyed his collaborators. At one point Heining writes that Garrick was an autodidact. He goes on to write sententiously: ‘The problem with autodidacts is that they only know what they have taught themselves.’ Aren’t many jazz musicians autodidacts?
Heining believes that Barry Guy is the most musically literate of all the composers, because of the way that he spans all types of music. At times Guy worked with Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood, the Rolling Stones and Elton John. Heining describes Guy’s attempts to create music that has form and yet stimulates and is conducive to improvisation. Heining describes in detail many of Guys’ successful pieces such as ‘Theoria’ and ‘The Blue Shroud’. Guy has retained links with the classical world through his partner, violinist Maya Homburger. Heining admires the way that Guy has attempted to grow the language of jazz and develop different approaches.
On John Mayer and Indo Jazz Fusions, there is an opportunity to celebrate the world music aspects of Mayer’s work and also the contribution of Joe Harriott. There is a consideration of the difficulties of blending jazz and Indian music and this is explained usefully and fully. John Mayer started life in Kolkata India. His main interest initially was with classical music but he had an early interest in uniting the Indian tradition with western classical music. Eventually, Mayer came to London in 1952 to study at the Royal Academy. His formation of the Indo Jazz group with Joe Harriott was a significant and ground breaking development. Heining points out that Harriott paid little attention to the Indian aspects of Mayer’s music The influence of Denis Preston is important in Mayer’s life since he recorded, with his engineer Adrian Kerridge, the Indo jazz group as well as the Rendell Carr group and many other jazz groups in the sixties and seventies. Lansdowne Records were successful in a technical sense, Coleridge Goode who played bass in the Indo Jazz group was important in adhering to the raga patterns that helped to hold the music together. Kerridge dealt well with capturing the internal balance of the group.
In 1989 Mayer was appointed to the Birminhgham Conservatory. Mayer was inspired to rebuild the Indo Jazz group with new musicians. The new players lacked the flair of Harriott but accordng to Heining they understood the issues better. However, some of the new musicians were not completely convinced that the freedom of jazz and the discipline of Indian music had been resolved. Mayer undoubtedly led the way for the present day eminence of Trilok Gurtu and Shakti.
Throughout the book, Heining is anxious to place some of the music directly to the Anglican traditions and classical composers like Vaughan Williams, especially Vaughan Williams. The best example is Keith Tippett. It soon became obvious that Tippett was creating a very different music from his contemporaries. Heining defines the essence of Tippett’s music and describes the genesis of ‘Septober Energy’ and subsequent pieces like ‘Frames’. ‘Linückea’ according to Heining is Tippett’s masterpiece rooted in the Bax, Bridge, Elgar tradition. Heining has interesting thoughts on the difference of Tippett as composer and Tippett as performer.
The statement of Tippett about his work could well apply to all the composers in the book. ‘I write for love. I don’t write for money. It’s just that money is really rather handy. Especially when you haven’t got a lot. It astonishes me how Julie and I have managed to bring up a family from the late seventies to have survived doing the type of music that we do. It’s astonishing. Now, we look back and think, ‘How on Earth have we done this?’’
Two CDs are included with the book with pieces from each of the composers from BBC broadcasts. The quality of the presentation of the hard back book is excellent and in line with previous book productions from Jazz in Britain.
Caveats aside, this is a remarkable and valuable book, the product of deep research. Heining’s enthusiasms sometimes overflow and he is not always content to provide the reader with evidence but he has to tell the reader what to think especially in the Introduction and the Coda. Occasionally he forgets the injunction: don’t tell me, show me.