Music as a continuous process: classic oeuvre of British jazz institution boxed up for unconcealed delight in unified strands of imagination.
It was a quiet revolution on Ian Carr’s part, when the trumpeter embarked on a trip of treading the thin line between traditional jazz and pop music, a stitch that manifested itself shortly before the ’70s started, yet, although pandering to either genre seemed a certainty, his ensemble somehow escaped such risk – and also almost eschewed the possibility of synthesizing the two idioms into a new one – a process to which these 64 tracks bear witness. Gathered in a neat box set, nine albums in six years could be considered a solid body of work if the word “solid” didn’t have different meanings and the one dealing with density didn’t feel alien to the bandleader whose records’ titles – from 1970’s “Elastic Rock” to “Alleycat,” released half a decade later – and, of course, their content screamed creative freedom. By splitting some of the LPs between discs to cram it all on six CDs “Torrid Zone” shifts the focus from a single platter to wider panorama and stresses the wholeness of the group’s output – those recurring themes, parallel lines and overarching subjects. Which is why, even though line-ups regularly changed and the collective’s mastermind had a hand in penning only a portion of the material on display, his outlook managed keep the NUCLEUS legacy alive.
“The clarinet, the trombone, the trumpet all playing together at the same time – ensemble”: that’s how Chris Spedding described their modus operandi to this scribe. Not for nothing he found it interesting to adapt “Twisted Track” – which the guitarist had laid down earlier with BATTERED ORNAMENTS – for a new endeavor and to let the specter of rock lurking in the piece’s penumbral recesses inform the mesmeric, multi-dimensional cut where instruments chase each other into the highly charged “Crude Blues,” while Carr dusted off “Persephone’s Jive” – which was used before on Neil Ardley’s “Greek Variations” – to approach it from another, moderately wild perspective as well. Hidden at the end of the band’s debut, this number outlined the trumpeter’s love for mythology, something he would develop in 1972 on “Labyrinth” – the record funded by a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain, who also financed the group’s third effort, 1971’s “Solar Plexus” that – also entirely written by Ian – featured the stumbling reverie of “Snakehips’ Dream” which unfolded four years later on the “Snakehips Etcetera” LP.
All these threads, a testament to the leader’s unwavering vision, can be seen when accessing the whole bunch of the combo’s albums. Still, most of their first two records find pianist Karl Jenkins in the principal composer’s role, “Elastic Rock” opening with a mournful fanfare of “1916” to set up stereo picture that will return in a much merrier form as “1916 – The Battle Of Boogaloo” towards the LP’s end and rear its head once more in the finale of the ensemble’s sophomore offering, “We’ll Talk About It Later” from 1971, in quite a belligerent fashion, as “Easter 1916” (the numbers refer to a time signature, not the WWI events) thanks to John Marshall’s sensual thunder. It’s absent from the album’s title track, a bottom-end-prodden elegy given a tender six-string twang, and from “Striation” whose vibrant acoustic lace is exquisite, but the drums drive the bobbing, billowing miasma of “Torrid Zone” which should sear the listener’s psyche and soothe the soul with barely-there quotes from Gershwin and Fučík, and spice up the sparse, yet intense, swagger of “Earth Mother” – romantic, if riding on funk: the rhythm to feed many pieces further down the road.
It’s there, in the heavy riffs turning “Song For The Bearded Lady” into an eclectic, electric cruise – that would be diluted on SOFT MACHINE’s "Bundles" where, after leaving Carr’s company, Jenkins and Marshall landed together with Allan Holdsworth, the hero of 1972’s “Belladonna” – and in the equally muscular “Sun Child” that bubbles with Jeff Clyne’s bass. This cut will render “Lullaby For A Lonely Child” – full of charm and displaying a filigree undercurrent – extremely delicate before “We’ll Talk About It Later” follows a menacing bluesy squeal towards the wide-eyed awe of “Oasis”: an airy track, glimmering with brass-laden glee which is accumulating to fuel “Ballad Of Joe Pimp” – a rare vocal-bearing number whose riveting melody reeks of Zappa and reveals the ensemble’s sense of humor. Less varied in stylistic terms, “Solar Plexus” plays around with limited amount of themes yet packs a strong conceptual punch once the coda of “Elements II” has re-emerged as an intro to the deceptively plaintive, albeit ultimately jubilant, “Bedrock Deadlock” whose symphonic scope seems to contrast the simmering, Latin-esque core of “Changing Times” – the exotica template the band would revisit time and again on the likes of “Whapatiti” from 1973’s “Roots” – but “Spirit Level” will appear rather abstract until its emotional center slowly, abetted by Tony Roberts’ clarinet and Harry Beckett’s flugelhorn, floats into view to direct the carnival dance of “Torso” – arguably the sultriest number the group ever delivered.
Topped with a minute-long skins-hitting solo, this cut was a precursor to the increasingly fervent, Eastern-flavored titular epic of “Belladonna” – an album credited exclusively to Carr – where pre-SOFTS Roy Babbington’s four strings complement the woodwind and Dave MacRae’s keyboards on the languid “Summer Rain,” while Holdsworth lets rip on the rapturous “Hector’s House” and “Remadione” and Brian Smith’s sax exudes joie de vivre in “May Day” over a deliberately disjointed groove. On the contrary, “Suspension” is a home for a flute-flaunting glory that’s theatrically ethereal in the fragile, wobbly wonder of “Origins”: a door into “Labyrinth” and an intro to the robust, sinister “Bull Dance” – delegated to the unison of Kenny Wheeler and Tony Coe who spar arrestingly in free-form areas of “Arena” – but all the beautiful onslaught will be dissolved when Gordon Beck’s threadbare, transparent piano ripples on “Ariadne” and bass throb brings in Norma Winstone’s crystal-clear voice. In this context it’s a bit strange to hear “Exultation” burst merrily into boogie or to partake in the triumphant rumination of “Naxos” – flooding into “Roots” and spiraling into a life-affirming anthem. And then, there’s “Images” – the closest the ensemble came to standard song, as Joy Yates’ silky soprano sends to a gospel shore the current that would have clashed with the insistently rocking “Caliban” and “Capricorn” if they weren’t a natural evolution of the preceding pieces.
So “Odokamona” might concentrate on its hefty, meandering figure, yet the brooding “Southern Roots And Celebration” unfurls to a vast cinematic space, as eerie effects, honky-tonk sway, cosmic organ and gospel exhortations gel into one vertiginous vista. Everything would change on “Under The Sun” in 1974, as signaled in “New Life” – an exciting, electronica-tinctured track marking the advent of genuine fusion in the collective’s canon – whereas “The Addison Trip” wraps a vocal-stricken bass attack, courtesy of Roger Sutton, in ivory shimmer that’s spiked with shamanic percussion. Dimming the effervescence for the elegant “Pastoral Graffiti” – with Bob Bertles’ flute at the front – the ensemble create a framework for a suite which will take the melody of a brief teaser at the end of the LP’s first side and sprawl it over the second, sprinkling a disco-scented gloss on the effusive “Sasparilla” theme, passing the melody to guitar for “Feast Alfresco” and splicing Stravinsky and Copacabana in “Rites Of Man” – with Bryan Spring’s toms and cymbals signing it off. This is also the place occupied by “Snakehips Etcetera” and mapped out by its opener “Rat’s Bag” whose meowing expanse grows by the minute, brass reigning supreme over electric rock; the entertainment factor kicked into high gear when the funereal drift of “Alive And Kicking” is transmogrified into funky fizz, and “Rachel’s Tune” is loaded with Moog quirks – the moves straightened for the record’s prog-oriented main cut.
Having experiments reined in on “Heyday” – initially a showcase for Ken Shaw’s 12-string weave that was designed by Carr and gradually fleshed out by the entire ensemble to reach the boiling point – the group exerted a lighter attitude on “Pussyfoot” which became the method to define “Alleycat”: an album crisply produced by Jon Hiseman, who had previously handled “Belladonna” and “Snakehips,” and engineered by Steve Lillywhite. In the mid-’70s, larger numbers couldn’t work, but “Phaideaux Corner” has infectious groove to it, and the slinky title track is an aural adventure where unexpected sounds intersperse the tapestry of tunes in collage-like manner, with kaleidoscopic dynamics and tempos – up to rock ‘n’ roll – preparing the ground for the delirious improv of “Splat”: one of the fiercest compositions the ensemble committed to tape and the total opposite to “You Can’t Be Sure” – a simple, yet intricate, trio, with licks passed between guitar, trumpet and bass. There’s no better signifier of the band’s creative range than these adjacent pieces, two shining points in the ensemble’s microcosm – explained from factual aspect in Sid Smith’s extensive liner notes.
Ian Carr left our world in 2009 but, ten years after the artist’s demise, the NUCLEUS albums that this box set consists of keep their exuberance intact – in the zone of constant gravity for the intrepid and restless spirits. A fabulous reissue, a crown jewel in the Esoteric catalogue.