Although I’d love to be able to claim that it was due to some far hipper alignment of events, the truth of the matter is that I cultivated my love of sixties jazz – which some of you might just have picked up on by now – because of the sleeve art. Already a veteran ‘crate digger’ in search of beat, psych and soundtrack items that I’d never heard or in many cases heard of, I kept stumbling across album covers that were simply too good to ignore. The London Jazz Four looking at themselves as ‘Beatle’ variants in a mirror. Cleo Laine throwing a quizzical glance at William Shakespeare. The Mike Westbrook Concert Band swathed in glaring orange and red lights and a refractive psychedelic camera lens, as if The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn had collided with the credit for the musicians at the end of Mr. Benn. I had scant idea of what any of them sounded like, of course, but if they sounded as good as they looked then they they had to be right up there with The Walham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association.
Of course, as any self-designated ‘crate digger’ will tell you, these sort of finds are actually quite rare. Jazz albums (and singles; there actually were some) sold in smaller quantities than, well, beat, psych and soundtracks, and to the sort of listener who wasn’t exactly inclined to chuck them straight into the nearest Oxfam once tastes and fashions changed. Pristine and in some cases even not so pristine originals can fetch a small fortune, and often the master tapes are difficult to locate, making reissues that bit less common. Fortunately, many more well-connected obsessives have found themselves in a position where they have been able to put together compilations of rare sounds that deserve wider exposure, collating album highlights and long-forgotten b-sides – sometimes rescued from well-worn vinyl and oddly sounding all the better for it – into something that for most listeners will be almost entirely and excitingly ‘new’. Few would disagree that a high benchmark was set by the Impressed With Gilles Peterson series, but Jazz On The Corner, compiled by actor Martin Freeman and Acid Jazz label founder Eddie Piller, is definitely a new contender for that honour.
I’ve been a follower of the Acid Jazz label – from the overlooked early nineties albums by ‘Fabric Four’ Corduroy to the fantastic series of Rare Mod compilations – from pretty much the outset, and once described Martin Freeman to audible gasps of disbelief as someone who ‘knows his music’; apparently that’s not an honour I non-grudgingly bestow on many people. Even so, the breadth, scope and diversity of this collection is impressive, as indeed is the willingness to step away from obvious big hitters and selling points – I’d heard precisely two of the twenty two selections beforehand. What’s particularly pleasing is that they’ve avoided the temptation to concentrate on ‘Mod Jazz’ groovers (though there’s a splendid Jimmy Smith reading of the 1962 film theme Walk On The Wild Side, presented here in its rarely heard full-length version), stretching from the late fifties with Mose Allison’s wry bluesy ruminations on big city life and Blossom Dearie’s late-night piano twinkling, through soul, prog, disco, funk, and The Brand New Heavies (who, along with The James Taylor Quartet and Corduroy, would usually be given a wide berth by this sort of compilation), to right up to date with Kamasi Washington’s recent ‘radio hit’ The Rhythm Changes . It’s been put together with knowledge, enthusiasm and – judging by how much they’ve been chortling at the hopelessness of Les McCann calling his album Plays The Hits in the various tie-in radio appearances – humour. If your curiosity about jazz extends beyond just doing the ‘Niiiice’ thing from The Fast Show and looking around to see how many people are laughing at your incredibly original observation, then this is a very good place to start.
The cover of Jazz On The Corner might not be as attention-grabbing as the average Georgie Fame sleeve art, but it tells you all you need to know – two enthusiasts listening casually to some hopelessly obscure discovery that they want to share with you. So why not take them up on that?
If you’ve enjoyed this, then you can find much more about the weird and wonderful world of ‘Prog Jazz’ – and the astonishing cover art – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can also hear me talking about The Mike Westbrook Concert Band’s television ‘happening’ The Original Peter in Perfect Night In here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.