13. Some Englishmen abroad

Re: Person I knew, from Nutty (on) Willisau, Coe, Oxley and Co, 1983

Even allowing for the smaller number of first rate players back in the day, Tony Coe always seemed to stand out. One didn’t see him all that often, and he was rarely a leader. But whatever band you happened to catch him in, he simply seemed a level above the others.

The only contemporary of his on the UK scene who also struck me that way in the 70s and 80s was Kenny Wheeler, who built a marvellous discography of perfectly crafted compositions played by musicians of his choice. Coe, always busy, popped up on plenty of records, but not usually his. And his own dates tended toward the mainstream end of his multi-faceted interests. Perhaps that is why he seems under-valued still. A career that spans work with Humphrey Lyttleton and Derek Bailey, the Clarke-Boland big band (20 albums) and avant-garde classical ensembles, John Martyn’s Solid Air and Henry Mancini, is so broad few would even want to take it all in.

So this recording is a treasure, and came as something of a revelation. The Willisau festival invited Coe over for a British jazz showcase, and he chose to play with the giant of free percussion Tony Oxley and the redoubtable Chris Laurence (the “and Co”) on bass.

They make an astonishing trio, stretching out with abandon over four sides of vinyl (so much music the final track was left off a later CD and thus misses the Spotify cut too). All three play brilliantly, but Coe is the dominant voice, on tenor, soprano (this track) and his always remarkable, liquid clarinet. He is freely inventive in a way that few can match – you could easily mistake some of his work here for Anthony Braxton or Sam Rivers.

That works both ways, of course. Rivers was perfectly at home in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, or playing with Hilton Ruiz, and Braxton – well that would be a diversion that might never end. What matters is that you always catch hints of Coe’s vast musical vision even when he’s, say, making a Gershwin album. But here he lets rip. There are strong influences here. Dolphy, for example, comes through in a way that calls to mind some of Bennie Wallace’s work a bit later on, but the style is all his own. And there are tunes, even some standards, but – as on this excursion on one of Bill Evans’ best known themes – the trio feel as if they’re threatening to break the bounds of the song much of the time. It’s quite a ride.

Oh, to have been there. But great to have the recording. Especially as, so far as I know, these three never did anything like this again. I do wonder. It feels to me now there’s a power of invention-with-interaction here rarely met. Maybe in some other universe this trio bonded, toured, were recognised as a state of the art musical unit and went at it for decades. Like, say, Wayne Shorter’s late career quartet, who I’d say project a similarly joyful “anything goes because we can handle it” feeling.

But in this universe, like many great jazz moments, it was a one shot deal. There are Coe episodes elsewhere that display his pan-stylistic powers to the full – hear the just-released live version of Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, or try Mike Gibbs Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra. But I don’t know of another occasion where that was really the entire business.

Here are the photos from that day that adorned the original Hat Hut album packaging.

full album

Why the No 13? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

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