I cannot think of any jazz book that looks as good as this, is as rich as this.

Vivien Ardley

Jazz In Britain Ltd

ISBN 978-19163206-4-2

417 pages + 2CDs

Jazz reached an important juncture in the sixties.  Miles Davis abandoned his quintet and went on to create ‘Bitches Brew’ and beyond; Neil Ardley, similarly, felt dissatisfaction with the status quo and tried other routes forward.

Neil Ardley was a remarkable man, fittingly this is a remarkable book. It is a many-sided look at the composer-writer: all-round polymath and renaissance man.  He was not just an influential jazz musician but a writer of books that sold in vast quantities.  However, he always insisted that he was a musician first and as a musician he created one of the key works of UK jazz.

Vivien Ardley came late into her husband’s life and so has to rely on others to fill out the years before. The book is a collection of memories of those who were there, a prismatic account. It is a beautiful book a pleasure to open and peruse. The mixture of text and graphics has an engaging quality. Concert programmes, programme notes, sketches, PR presentations, press packs, reviews, discographies, transcriptions, concert lists, letters, bibliographies, reminiscences. I cannot think of any jazz book that looks as good as this, is as rich as this. However, the rhythm of the text occasionally can sound like one of those round-robin letters that are circulated at Christmas.

The New Jazz Orchestra (NJO) formed in 1963 was one of the first groups that benefited from Ardley’s writing. Dave Gelly saxophonist and writer has a chapter to describe the beginnings of the NJO. The orchestra had great musicians: Don Rendell, Barbara Thompson, Mike Gibbs, Jack Bruce and Harry Beckett.  It soon gained a reputation for playing music that was at the sixties leading edge.  Gradually, during the next few years, Ardley developed from arranging jazz standards like ‘Django’ to producing his own distinctive work.

The first album of the orchestra was ‘Western Reunion’.  Important new musicians were featured: Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford, Ian Carr and John Hiseman. ‘So What’ and ‘Milestones’ by Miles Davis were arranged.  It was a time of ferment, exciting idea and good compositions.

‘Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe’ (1968) was the title piece of the second album that showed Ardley’s gifts.  Dave Gelly describes those as ‘a remarkable gift for orchestration, his wit, melodiousness and the ability to handle extended forms. these and other qualities all came together in the unique musical tone of voice……… It is also indefinably but recognizably English. You might, I suppose, jocularly characterise it as Gil Evans meets Ralph Vaughan Williams.’

Never afraid to move away from the jazz mainstream, Ardley followed with ‘Greek Variations’ in 1969 (album released in 1978) that is based on the musical themes of ancient Greek mythology. The album features a mix of traditional jazz and orchestral music, with an emphasis on improvisation and experimentation. The album also features strong solo performances from the musicians, particularly from Ian Carr on trumpet and Barbara Thompson on saxophone. The use of improvisation is particularly effective, with the musicians taking turns to explore and develop the musical themes in their own unique ways.

Ardley always ensures that the writing is there to inspire the soloists such as Frank Ricotti.  The Rendell – Carr group was in the process of dissolution at this time and you can hear the first murmurs of Ian Carr’s Nucleus.  The three Ian Carr-composed tracks are performed by Carr plus Nucleus founding members Brian Smith, Chris Spedding, Jeff Clyne and John Marshall.

The man who produced the Variations was Denis Preston, an extremely influential person on Ardley and on the whole of UK jazz at the time.  Preston was a British record producer, recording studio owner, radio presenter and music critic. Preston worked independently; he was not contracted to a particular record label and would often risk recording a session before trying to interest a record company. He has been described as ‘Europe’s first independent record producer’, and as ‘probably the most important figure to emerge from the British jazz business’.  Preston’s influence on UK jazz was deep. He founded the Lansdowne Studios in West London, which became one of the most important recording studios in the country. Many of the jazz musicians such as Ian Carr, John Surman who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s were recorded by Preston.  It was Preston who produced Ardley’s ‘A Symphony Of Amaranths’, dedicated to Duke Ellington and Gil Evans.  Preston was a creative producer and it was at his suggestion that Ardley explored the music of Bali.

The music of Bali is at the heart of Kaleidoscope of Rainbows. The album is based on the five-note scale of Balinese gamelan music, which is a type of traditional Indonesian music that is often characterized by its use of gongs and metallophones. The album’s title, “Kaleidoscope of Rainbows,” was inspired by the colours and sounds of Balinese gamelan music. Ardley has said that he was “fascinated by the way the instruments create a kaleidoscope of sound.” The use of Balinese music on the album is one of the things that makes it so unique and special. It is a rare example of a Western jazz album that is so heavily influenced by another culture.

Paul Buckmaster was intrigued by Ardley’s openness.  Buckmaster had worked with Elton John and Miles Davis on the album ‘On The Corner’ and ‘Big Fun’.  Ardley remembered the way that they had worked together.  ‘We had interludes in which the musicians were free to create something from the basic Balinese material themselves and I was very concerned to give something to Paul Buckmaster. He is a cello player with a wide musical background. He arranged several, at least two, big selling albums for Elton John some five or six years ago. he worked with Miles Davis to create Miles ‘On the Corner’ album. I go to his place and we listen to Bach, Miles Davis, Balinese music, also things and he has a very fertile imagination and so I said to Paul look this is what you are going to get, four notes on the keyboard and how are we going to finish it? We quickly wrote a little bit of Balinese music.  He chose about six of the musicians to accompany him and I went into the control room and off they went, and a few minutes later he came back, and said is that it and he said yes it was our only take’.

Ardley wrote: ‘Here at last was the sound that I’d been expecting – fleet rock rhythms, a light and fluid instrumental texture enlivened by the vibrant tingle of the new electronic instruments.’

Kaleidoscope was toured through the UK.  The performance in London, recently issued by Jazz in Britain, received high praise at the time from Derek Jewell of the Sunday Times. ‘It’s superb. it’s barrier breaking life enhancing music and that’s it’s importance. Whether composed or improvised, the sounds often have the bite of good jazz and rock. There’s an illusion of spontaneity about the music yet beneath the surface there is sound and muscular structure.’

Ian Carr was very important to the music of Ardley. One of the first Ardley pieces to be recorded was ‘Shades of Blue’ which appeared on the first Don Rendell – Ian Carr quintet album.  The members of the quintet were important participants in the first New Jazz Orchestra session quintet. Carr played trumpet and flugel Horn in Déjeuner. Another notable collaboration between Ardley and Carr was the album ‘Will Power (A Shakespeare Birthday Celebration In Music)’ (1975). The album was a collection of pieces inspired by the works of Shakespeare.

A complex and challenging work by Ardley and Carr was the album ‘Greek Variations & Other Aegean Exercises’ (1970). The album was a suite of pieces inspired by Greek music and culture. It was a highly ambitious project, and it was well-received by critics.

Carr who lived close to Ardley in Derbyshire collaborated with Ardley on most of the albums. In Kaleidoscope most of Carr’s Nucleus formed the basis of the group.  Carr’s sound had a defining impact of the texture of Ardley’s work.  Carr too had become disenchanted with conventional approaches so the ideas of Ardley fell on fertile ground.

Carr’s contribution to ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ was Ardley’s last major work. The basic idea was that each planet produces a musical note determined by its orbit. Guitarist John Martyn dominates with solos also from Barbara Thompson and Tony Coe. The work is as adventurous as anything else in Ardley’s work.

Ardley recognised emerging talent. Jack Bruce of Cream worked with the New Jazz Orchestra.  John Hiseman of Colosseum was the first drummer of NJO.  Barbara Thompson contributed many imaginative solos to the albums. Perhaps the most distinctive new talent was Mike Taylor. The album ‘Mike Taylor Remembered’ was a labour of love for Ardley.  Produced by Denis Preston, played by friends of Taylor, it was recorded in 1973 but not issued until 2007.

Mike Taylor was a talented jazz pianist who gained critical attention during his short career and life in the1960s. His approach to jazz piano and composing incorporated elements of classical music, free jazz, and avant-garde music. His ability to combine complex harmonic structures with a sense of spontaneity and his willingness to explore unconventional tonalities, which helped to define his work.  He often incorporated odd time signatures into his compositions, such as 7/4 and 5/4, which gave his music a distinctive and unpredictable quality. His album ‘Trio’ was recognised as an important contribution to British jazz.

Ardley’s move to the world of electronic instruments is described in a chapter by John Coles who details the qualities of the VC53, The MiniMoog D, the Rhodes Piano Mk.1, the Arp Synthesiser, the Roland MC8 Micro Composer, EMS PolySynthi, A Roland VP330 Vocorder Plus, the Zyklus MPS (midi Performance System) the Roland MT-32 Multi-Timbral Sound Module.  Ardley became enthused by the possibilities.

Throughout his life, Ardley worked for a number of publishers but mainly for Dorling Kindersley (DK) a British multinational publishing company specialising in illustrated reference books for adults and children in 63 languages. They published a range of titles in genres: travel (including DK Eyewitness travel), history, geography, science, space, nature, sports, gardening, cookery and parenting.  Ardley worked with David Macaulay on ‘The Way Things Work’ books that helped children understand science.  Macaulay created the illustrations and Ardley wrote the words. The books are distinguished by their high-quality images, which help to make complex subjects easy to understand.

This Jazz In Britain publication is not just a book.  The whole package is completed by two CDs.  CD1 has Neil Ardley leading the Danish Radio Big Band in 1968. They are playing works by Kurt Weill, Mike Taylor, Howard Riley, Jack Bruce.  Mike Gibbs directs the band which includes Niels Henning Oersted Pedersen, Palle Mikkelborg and Allan Botschininsk.

CD2 Is Neil Ardley and Zyklus (Selected Electronic Works)

Finally, Vivien Ardley writes: ‘I have looked for reasons why Neil’s success in the 60s and 70s was not sustained in the later years in spite of this change in direction and his belief that the future of music was electronic. Perhaps one explanation for this is that he loved the energy and creativity generated by live performances, which meant he could never become completely satisfied with totally electronically generated sounds even though this technology was taking over in popular music which was where money and success could be found.’

Reviewed by Jack Kenny