Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Jazz thoughts

I have a great fondness for what I rather childishly call ‘Thinky Jazz’, by which I mean jazz music that is consciously about something, that has an intellectual, conceptual theme or an attitude that provides a framework for the music.

Very generally, US jazz of this type is most often created by African Americans and is underpinned by ethnic, social and political attitudes; the UK equivalent is white, middle class and emotionally cooler, academic, informed by art and literature rather than the personal and political. Both approaches are equally valid, equally rewarding, and far more entertaining than my descriptions might indicate.

Neil Ardley was a mainstay of the UK jazz scene from the early sixties up until his death in 2004. Extremely clever and infuriatingly talented, Ardley was a pianist, saxophonist and band leader as well as a writer and editor of best selling books on science, music, computers and natural history. Skilled at both composition and orchestration and working with the absolute cream of British jazz including Don Carr, Ian Rendell, Harry Beckett, Barbara Thompson and Norma Winstone, Ardley’s best LP’s (he only made nine in 35 years) are always intelligent, brimming with ideas, but have a warmth and emotion that marks them out as far more than a mere intellectual exercise.

‘‘The Harmony Of The Spheres’ is an LP from 1978 based on the idea that each planet in our solar system produces a different musical note and that, as they resonate together, they create perfect harmony. The record attempts to recreate this harmony by the composition of music linked to the size, position and orbit of each planet and it sounds pretty good, though I cannot vouch for its astronomical acoustic authenticity. Made at a time when Ardley was heavily into synthesizers, the album occasionally drifts into jazz fusion / corporate video music, but Ardley always steers it back in time. A haunting, thoughtful LP, ‘Upstarts All’ and 'Glittering Circles’ are representative, and only occasionally marred by spanking synth-bass. Cosmic.

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