25. Roads not taken

Statues. From Jack Bruce, Things we Like, 1968

Some famous names on this one. I guess I bought the record – can’t remember when – for Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin. But it’s also a rare showcase for the brilliant Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxes.

Like others I imagine, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s not just instrumental: everyone plays with great freedom. In hindsight, it reinforces Bruce’s often-quoted comment that Cream, my teenage heroes, were an improvising trio in the style of Ornette Coleman, but Eric Clapton never knew.

No such dissimulation necessary here, clearly.

Ferraris are always better with sausage and mash al fresco…

Well, maybe with the record company who obviously had no idea what to do with the album, released with its semi-parodic “rock star enjoying the fruits of his wealth” cover pic a couple of years after it was recorded, and after the later sessions that produced the matchless Songs for a Tailor. Heckstall Smith is there too, doing the business on horn riffs with Art Themen, Harry Beckett, & Henry Lowther – but it was a collection of songs. This one is quite different.

It now feels like a pointer to things that could have been developed a lot more, in some alternate jazz universe perhaps. In this one that never happened, whether because the players weren’t inclined to or due to other career business it’s hard to know. It’s a session that looks back to earlier work – everyone here had worked with Graham Bond in the early ’60s. I knew nothing of that, so discovering those connections was part of realising that there were rich, interconnected jazz genealogies in the UK just as much as in the USA. But it didn’t really point forward. Bruce, a free spirit, continued to do what he felt like, and had some notable jazz moments. There are BBC sessions now available where he plays in trio with the drummer here, Jon Hiseman, and John Surman that capture some excellent freely improvised music. But he never had a working band like this. Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman also worked together extensively in Colosseum, which had its moments but wasn’t a band I ever really took to. The saxophonist’s own album A Story Ended from 1972, packed with Graham Bond alumni and featuring one of the late recorded appearances of the man himself, is also a notable work that wears well, though a bit heavy on the vocals fifty years on.

And by then, of course, McLaughlin had gone to the US and gotten famous. His contributions here were among the bits of earlier work that original Mahavishnu fans like me came across after the more frantic Coltrane-on-acid-meets-R&B guitar work that made the first edition of that band so memorable. Certainly this album’s version of the old Graham Bond number HCKHH Blues would have stood up decently as an extra track on the celebrated Extrapolation, recorded with Surman the year after this and justly reckoned one of the finest British jazz sessions of the decade.

But this less well-known set is equally fine. And the single track I choose is one without the guitarist because what really makes the album is Heckstall-Smith’s contributions. Bruce on acoustic bass is magisterial, Hiseman a brilliantly supple jazz drummer, and they inspire some of the saxophonist’s best playing. He and Bruce state the simple opening theme in unison, then he leads a freely improvised excursion with an attractively vocalised tone on tenor, before all three go back into time while the sax solo continues.

It builds, as Heckstall-Smith often did, to a brief section where he plays two horns at once. Yes, it’s a Roland Kirk-ism, but it feels like a natural emphasis, not a gimmick. I realise now that, for all the reliable technical proficiency of music college graduates, not nearly enough people play two horns simultaneously. As well as Heckstall-Smith doing it habitually on stage, invariably to good effect, Barbara Thompson was known to indulge occasionally in those days too. I concluded that all excellent horn players did this, before realising that, mostly, they don’t. There’s only the briefest touch of it here, though it happens on other tracks as well, but it stays with you.

rear sleeve depicting D H-S in characteristic performance pose

Then there’s a bowed and plucked bass solo, a bit of time for the drummer, and a reprise of the intro, for a pleasingly symmetrical seven minutes.

A live set by this band, if such a thing ever happened, would have featured longer spells of the free playing that is really only glimpsed here, no doubt. I caught the saxophonist a few times in later years, but mostly playing with blues bands – where his devotion to strict form didn’t seem to constrain his playing unduly but never quite featured work like this. But this long ago session feels like a one-off. Everyone rose to the occasion, then moved on, and we are left with a tantalising pointer to roads not taken. So it goes.

Full album (CD issue, with extra track)

Why the No 25? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify.

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