It’s well worth a spin, and it’s been well worth the wait for it to finally arrive.
Hugh John (keyboards); Larry Dundas (guitar, programming); John McCullough (bass, vocals); Brendan O’Neil (drums, percussion, lead vocals).
Guest musicians: Derek O’Connor (tenor sax); Frank Mead (tenor sax, soprano sax, harmonica, vocals); Linley Hamilton (trumpet); Michael Buckley (tenor sax, soprano sax); Jennifer and Katherine O’Neill (vocals)
Recorded Remotely and Low Road Studio, London 2020-2022
Swift by name, but definitely not by nature, as it’s taken the band forty (yes, four-zero) years to finally release their debut album. Formed in 1976, the British jazz-rock group played many gigs around London, as well as touring the UK, Ireland and Holland. But recording sessions were limited to producing a handful of demos. In 1979, Swift supported John McLaughlin, and then disbanded.
Fast forward to summer 2020, and Irish musician and broadcaster Linley Hamilton heard the Swift demos, playing them on his Jazz World show on BBC Radio Ulster. Hamilton’s enthusiasm for the music galvanised the band into reforming and recording again. Hamilton even guests on a couple of tracks. The musicians consist of the four founding band members, plus guest musicians on horn and vocals.
The CD comes in a nice digipak package that includes a photograph of the band taken in the 70s, standing on the riverside of The Thames, overlooking the Houses of Parliament. Another shot, taken recently, has the group back at the original spot. There are eight tunes (the album lasts 42 minutes); four covers and four original compositions by keyboardist Hugh John.
The opening track is a foot-tapping cover of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Paraphernalia’ (the first of three numbers that have an association with Miles Davis), with a funky backbeat and Larry Dundas playing a wah-wah-infused chuka-chuka guitar riff. He also plays a fast, fluid solo, and guest saxophonist Dennis O’Connor lets loose on tenor, with John comping splendidly on electric piano, and McCullough injecting an ascending bass riff here and there. It’s an excellent opener.
Hermeto Pascoal’s ‘Nem Um Talvez’ appeared on Miles Davis’s 1971 album Live-Evil, and on Swift’s version, dream-like wordless vocals float above a brisk military drum pattern. Single-note guitar strikes shimmer like diamonds, creating a mysterious, ethereal sound. The tune ends with Linley Hamilton playing sweetly and tenderly on muted trumpet.
‘The Long March’ is the first number composed by John, opening with clashing drums and pounding piano keys, before slipping into a mid-tempo jazz-funk number. Stabbing sax lines join the mix and there’s a definite Weather Report feel to the sound. At the two-minute mark, the pace picks up and Dundas plays a lively wah-wah guitar solo, reminding this listener of 70s R&B guitarists like Wah-Wah Watson and Charles Pitts (who played the famous ‘Shaft’ riff). Frank Mead enters with a punchy soprano sax solo and the tune then reverts back to the opening section for its conclusion. It’s a very satisfying number for any jazz-funk fan.
Thelonious Monk’s idiosyncratic ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ is based on the chord changes of the Gershwins’ ‘I Got Rhythm’ and the band delivers a vibrant version, complete with Frank Mead’s wordless, grunting vocal effects, a searing guitar solo from Dundas (who quotes ‘I Got Rhythm’) and a funky electric piano solo from John. There’s an exuberant quality to the sound and you can imagine the band playing this number with big smiles on their faces.
‘Makes A Prison’ opens dramatically with a loud clap of thunder, thundering bass line and a heavy beat (accompanied by some fine cymbal strikes by Brendan O’Neill), before an ascending guitar line, steeped with distortion, enters. It’s a vocal number that includes singers Jennifer and Katherine O’Neill. The song’s closer to blues/rock than jazz, interspersed with a woeful-sounding harmonica and a slick wah-wah guitar riff. Frank Mead blows hard on tenor sax, his forceful solo ending in a rapid burst of squeals, with the final one greatly extended.
The band delivers a sparkling version of Eddie Harris’s ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, with Linley Hamilton on trumpet and Michael Buckley on tenor sax playing the theme together, before the spotlight is handed over to Buckley, who plays a long, intense solo, before handing the solo slot over to Linley, who plays with passion on open horn. Brendan O’Neill plays a short, but lively drum solo at the end, with a quick blast from the horn section bringing the song to its conclusion.
The ballad ‘This Night’ has a slow, mysterious opening, with blowing winds, tinkling sounds, a dark sustained organ note and three-note guitar vamp. It charts the end of a love affair, with sombre, dreamlike vocals provided by the three O’Neills – Brendan, Jennifer and Katherine. It’s more like a pop/rock song, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fine song and vocal performance.
The closing number ‘Bobok’ (another Hugh John composition) is most definitely in jazz territory and starts with the creeping, rippling sound of an electric piano, and reverberating marimba-like strikes. It’s a pretty, delicate opening, underpinned by McCullough’s nifty bass riff. A swift (no pun intended) drum fill shifts everything to a mid-tempo pace, with Michael Buckley’s soprano sax playing the theme, its echo-treated ending heralding McCullough’s exemplary bass solo, accompanied by O’Neill’s syncopated drum pattern.
The soprano sax returns, with flowing, scampering lines, before Dundas plays a short guitar solo (which is either double-tracked or he’s using a chorus pedal), which part-way through, is joined by the soprano sax. The sound intensifies, with both instruments building up to a feverous pitch, which then dissipates, the delicate, rippling section returns, and the tune ends slowly and gracefully. I really enjoyed this one.
Anyone who likes jazz-rock-fusion will find much to enjoy with this album. It’s well worth a spin, and it’s been well worth the wait for it to finally arrive.
Reviewed by George Cole