During a lifetime collecting music by all manner of progressive and classic rock bands, I’ve occasionally delved into the jazz-rock and jazz-fusion genres. Looking back to the 70’s and 80’s, there was just so much music to discover, these forays into jazz tended to be short lived but always added fulfilling instrumental ear candy to my collection. The attraction back then was usually when one of my favorite drummers joined a project of this kind. The first I can remember was Phil Collin’s work with Brand X and their unbelievable debut Unorthodox Behavior followed by Bill Bruford’s exciting first two solo albums. Many of my friends owned the Return to Forever album Romantic Warrior featuring the amazing Lenny White on drums. I also had Jeff Beck’s 1980 masterpiece There and Back (check out opening track Starcycle), and Mike Rutherford’s underappreciated Smallcreep’s Day (favorite cut Romani) from that same year, not realizing these included the incredible musician Simon Phillips on drums.
Instead, Simon Phillips name first came to my attention for his work on 801’s Listen Now and 801 Live (w/Phil Manzenera and Brian Eno) both recorded in 1976 but first heard by these ears until several years later. His technically brilliant, often polyrhythmic playing distinguished him immediately – it’s emotive, infectious, and smooth despite its complexity. Simon has plied this trade with scores of musicians and bands since the 1970’s, including a twenty-year stint with Toto.
Recently I’ve been fortunate to see Simon with PSP (Phillips Saisse Palladino) and last week with his “Protocol” band. The Protocol II album in 2013 established this new four-piece instrumental group with chemistry to spare, including Andy Timmons (guitar), Steve Weingart (keys), and Ernest Tibbs (bass) joining Simon. Last week, they staged a concert as Protocol II at Yoshi’s Oakland Feb 17, 2015.
It was a wonderful evening as these crack musicians highlighted some of the new work from the upcoming Protocol III album, along with prior tracks, and encore “Gemini” from Protocol II. The music would be considered as fantastic by anyone interested in smooth yet complex instrumental jazz-fusion, characterized by energetic playing, quick changes in meter and key, and abundant solos. With some jazz bands, lengthy solos and pyrotechnic displays can leave me bored and bewildered. Not so with this outfit as none of these elements are overcooked – instead the melodies are set upon solid compositions – with jams fitting tightly into the framework of every piece. Each of the four members are entertaining to witness live – Adam’s smoking guitar leads and sense of humor shine – Steve’s keyboard flights are fluid and organic – and Ernest while not coming up front for leads, consistently fills out the low end of the spectrum with fantastic fretwork. Simon is in a league of his own, sounding perfectly at ease with this band, he amazed us with his intense, precise and yet loose playing, coming to the fore a couple of times for short solos that demonstrated his immense skills. Catch this how if you can – it comes highly recommended!
I saw Brand X twice in the late ‘70’s at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles. As it turned out, these were rare chances to see this band in concert, delivering blistering performances of some of the most progressive jazz-fusion ever created. Many fans like me learned of Brand X via Phil Collins who played drums on most of their early work, and even sang on a few tracks. What we learned though, was a whole lot more about jazz-fusion, and the amazing musicianship shown by all members of the band. In the final portion of this series, Part III, let’s cover the early years of Brand X and hear from Robin Lumley (keys) and Percy Jones (bass) – core members of this fusion super group.
After their formative years jamming all over London – each participating in the Lancaster / Lumley albums, the guys set out to make the first Brand X recordings. First an introduction to both Percy Jones (bass) – Robin was profiled in Part II:
In his debut work with Brand X, Percy Jones sounds like a musician who had been playing for years with a fully realized and unique style, even before his vinyl debut. His innovative playing on electric fretless bass is fluid and harmonic and in addition to Brand X, he has played alongside other similarly talented artists, including Steve Hackett, Brian Eno, David Sylvian, and more.
About Percy, Robin declares: Gareth Percy Jones (that’s his real name in full) is at once a modest man, not blowing his own trumpet (or should that be bass?) and also an extremely talented and innovative musician. When I first met him in 1972, he was already experimenting with his bass. He had a Gretsch semi-acoustic at that time and had removed all the frets. He also had an accelorometer for measuring standing waves in buildings, which he was using as a pick-up! He invented all kinds of outboard boxes connected to his bass which he christened AMOS, (analogue Modification of Sound). He was a genius well in advance of everybody else. He worked out a style of bass-playing which leaves [the others] far behind! The bass playing coming from Percy was an art of harmonics and subtle textures. In future musicology he will be named at St Percy of Llandrinod Wells, the patron saint of bass players! I am in awe of being privileged to have worked with him!
Of his musical origins, Percy says “I grew up in Wales, and did not study music formally. My mother gave me a few basic piano lessons when I was young, but in the early 60’s in Wales I don’t think there was anyone teaching electric bass! I listened to records, learned from bass players I liked – early on it was R&B – Georgie Fame’s band – Cliff Barden (early 60’s) and he made a big impression on me. Charles Mingus later – I got into that immediately. I always loved the sort of spontaneity in his music and his playing – some of it sounds like compositions but still off the cuff – very edgy – which is something in music I’ve always liked.”
As Brand X prepared the debut release, the band became a foursome – of Robin, John, Percy and Phil.
D: Jack Lancaster (winds) who played with the band members on the Lancaster/Lumley releases, only joined Brand X for a couple of tracks on their debut. I asked Jack, “after so much early collaboration, how did it come to pass that you were not a full time member of Brand X?”
Jack: At the time that Brand X formed I was snowed under doing solo stuff and working as a producer for Phonogram and Polydor in Milan, Krisma with Hans Zimmer on Keys and Amsterdam. Robin gave me the lead on Kayak and I also did Rick van der Linden, and Jan Akkerman. Oh! and then there was Aviator which Robin produced and is just about ready for a Gonzo re-release. That was me, John G. Perry, Mick Rogers and Clive Bunker. There was just too much going on for me to have been an on-going part of Brand X.
D: What was the origin of Brand X?
Percy: There was a guy who was a roady for us we called “sheds” – and one night he said, “I hooked up an audition with Island Records.” So we went and played for Rich Williams and Danny Wilding who were from Island, and they really liked it and signed us up, which was a good shock to all of us. We rehearsed for weeks and months actually before doing the first record – and they were paying for all of that rehearsal time.
We then recorded a set for Island which had vocals on it. It was okay but was not breaking any new ground – sounded a bit like Average White Band and we wanted to be different. They did not release it at the time. So, we decided to change direction a bit and do an instrumental record. To do that we needed a personnel change also – we invited Bill Bruford down to play drums, and he came, but turned it down – because at the time he was spread a bit thin. Danny said we should try this guy out who played with Genesis. Phil came down and that worked out musically and he was into it. And luckily Charisma records took over and got the unreleased recordings from Island.
Robin: After we signed to Island, the group was a soul/funk outfit and the 4 of us (who became Brand X) were dissatisfied with the tunes. Then Tony Smith (Genesis manager) came along and suggested that the 4 of us signed to Charisma.
Percy: We landed a publishing deal with a company called Fuse Music. Fuse gave each of us 200 quid as a publishing advance. I looked in Melody Maker the same week and a guy had an ad in there that he was selling a Fender precision fretless for 200 quid. It was really in great condition except for some Guinness stains on it so it seemed a really good nick. So I spent my advance on the bass (I think Goodsall bought a fur coat). I developed a relationship with this instrument – there were all sorts of things I could do on it potentially that I could not do on the old Gretsch.
[Ed: Percy had started out with a hollow bodied fretted bass called the Gretsch. He modified it by filing down the frets at the top of the G string, and experimented with accelerometers and other innovations at the time]
Percy: With the Fender, I could express myself a lot better – you could slide harmonics, invert chords, start with two notes – a major interval, then slide up and two more notes at a minor interval. Things like that it was just a much more expressive instrument for me – I’d always loved the upright bass, but liked the volume and tack that you could get with a fretless. It was qualities of both – it was fortuitous that I got the advance, and found that bass.
We had 3 or 4 weeks before recording Unorthodox Behaviour so I started practicing on the Fender. I used that Fender on all three of those first records – and switched to the Wal fretless bass for Masques (band’s forth record.)
[Ed: the band went on to record a second studio release, Moroccan Roll, released in 1977 which sports a proper vocal contribution from Phil Collins, and deepened their fan base. Morris Pert (percussion) joined the band for that second album and became a full time member of the ensemble.
The band followed that release the same year with one of the most amazing live albums of the decade, Livestock. Some of the live dates they captured were with Phil Collins on drums – others with Kenwood Dennard on drums. I noted to Robin that “Ish” from that live release is surely one of their greatest works:]
Robin: Nice of you to say it! As a matter of fact, I think the high water mark (as you put it) was a constant one – being in Brand X and reveling in the friendship and musicality of the other 3 members.
D: Robin, in 1978 you went on break from Brand X for project work?
Robin: 1978 was when Tony Smith decided I had a lot of production offers and, looking for a career which went beyond being in a band, I took a year or so off from performing and produced Isotope, Bill Bruford, Jack’s Solo album, Rod Argent, Orleans and of course, Brand X itself (Masques). Peter Robinson was always a great friend and he joined Brand X as keyboards player. In 1979, it was decided it might be fun if I came back and joined up with Peter as a keyboards duo on stage. Which turned out to be special fun!
D: Did you have a sense that Brand X was something beyond straight jazz-fusion – was that intentional or an artifact of the jamming or musical influences? Looking back now, how do you view the band and their success?
Robin: Brand X’s music was something that we all wanted to play. It never tried to be different or to become a bridge between rock and jazz – we just liked it! In addition we coupled with a really bizarre sense of humor (just look at our song titles)! [Ed: titles like: “Disco Suicide”, “Smacks of Euphoric Hysteria” come to mind…]
My musical life during the 70’s/early 80’s was being in a heady awesome feeling, that working with sooooo many talented persons with whom I felt in awe. I never did figure out how I had been so blessed!
Percy: I think we did some good stuff – though I rarely listen to it. In the band I’m in now we do “Nuclear Burn” (first track of the Brand X debut.) So I had to listen to it and refresh my memory. I look back on that stuff and think – we did some creative things – and then in some parts I think, “why did I do that”! I think the band was original, had a good energy and everybody was committed to doing it. Phil was a great drummer and I had a great time playing with him – he was a very musical drummer and would use spaces – we used to do a lot of sessions together back then – called out as a rhythm section. I’ve not seen him since the early 80’s. The big disappointment with Brand X was not getting any royalties – the old management group claims we built up quite a debt but they won’t account for it.
D: What are you up to today?
Robin: I am a full time author today – just now working on the story of a ships cat! Simon was the first feline to win the Animal VC in 1949. And then next, I am doing a history of the Falkland Islanders resistance movement during the 1982 Argie occupation.
Percy: I am forming a new band – the core is bass, drums, guitar – and we are using a Theremin or saxophone depending on who’s available. There’s some great musicians living in Brooklyn – doing day jobs. We are almost at the point of being ready to record. If the opportunity comes up to play live we will, but getting gigs with this type of music is like pulling teeth these days!
Brand X is a band that originated in the mid 1970’s out of London. While best categorized as jazz-fusion, Brand X incorporated rock and progressive genres into their work. Their official debut album Unorthodox Behaviour was released in 1976, but the musicians who made up the band were quite busy before that record was released. The founding members on that brilliant album included Robin Lumley (keys), John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), and Phil Collins (drums). Jack Lancaster (winds) also plays on a couple of tracks for that first album and was an important part of their launch. Morris Pert (percussion) joined on their second album and from that point on there were several personnel changes until they disbanded.
Many of us learned of Brand X because of Phil Collins’ involvement. In the same year as their debut, Phil had taken over vocals for Genesis after Peter Gabriel departed, and the band released Trick of the Tail, which also sports some of his most aggressive and creative drumming with that band. For Brand X, Phil took his playing to a new level – arguably at the top of his powers, with bassist Percy Jones as a backing duo foundation for blistering rock-infused jazz-fusion that’s in a class of it’s own. Most progressive rock fans were drawn in and developed an appreciation for the jazz-fusion form, if they had not previously.
But to properly begin the story of this seminal group, we need to step back to the few years before their debut, back to when this gang was busy jamming together whenever possible in the kitchens, pubs and studios of London. Most importantly, before the debut, Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley wrote and released two albums – Peter and the Wolf and Marscape, which included playing by all of the members of what became Brand X, along with other guests.
Both albums were re-mastered by Jack Lancaster last year and are available on Gonzo Multimedia.
I had the opportunity this month to talk with Jack, Percy, and Robin about these works, and the origins of Brand X, and will cover these discussions over several posts. Let’s start by taking a look at these works, starting with the first release for RSO Records, Peter and the Wolf.
The original Peter and the Wolf was written by Sergei Prokoviev in 1936 in Stalin’s Soviet Union. It’s been adapted many times over the years since then, utilizing classical, rock and other frames. The “prog-jazz-fusion” and sometimes rocking version of Peter and the Wolf as conceived by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley includes some of the themes from Prokoviev but also a lot of free form jams written and then improvised by the contributing musicians. Vivian Stanshall is the narrator, and the players joining Jack and Robin include Phil Collins, Cozy Powell, Gary Moore, Manfred Mann, Bill Bruford, Stéphane Grappelli, Alvin Lee, Brian Eno, and others.
It’s a successful adaptation straight through – the story is shared intact via our narrator, and the musicians come up with clever ways to interpret the original tunes that represent Peter and his animal friends in the original work. Favorite themes as interpreted here include “Peter’s Theme”, “Cat Dance”, “Grandfather” and “Wolf” each of which shine. The album was considered a favorite by fans and the management of RSO Records, such that Jack and Robin set off to make a second album.
Marscape the follow up album was an original work written by Jack and Robin in France and recorded at Trident studios in Britain. Again the future members of Brand X play with them on Marscape including John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), Phil Collins (drums) and Morris Pert (percussion). Also joining for Marscape were Bernie Frost (voices), and Simon Jeffs (koto). It’s by nature a tighter and more focused work than Peter and the Wolf, and should be a key selection in any fine music collection.
Of this album, the authors wrote that the concept: “was a magical journey to the planet Mars… a kind of soundtrack to an imaginary movie, our intention was picture-making through music, so we conceived Marscape as one piece, divided up into audio sketches of the events emotions that might be experienced by voyagers traveling from Earth to the red planet. By the end, we surmise that the visitors realize that they are not visitors at all, but have actually returned home after a very, very long time away.” This perfectly sums up what a listener could imagine from the evocative thematic piece.
Tracks include “Sail on Solar Winds”, “Homelight”, and “Dust Storm” each of which coveys the nature of the lonely and angry red planet. A standout track is “Hopper” which refers to the “machine for negotiating the rough Martian terrain” and which sports Phil’s signature skipping beat to a tune reminiscent of “Baby Elephant Walk.” Also gorgeous then a bit chilling is “With a Great Feeling of Love” that is described in liner notes as two parts – one “an inner warmth and feelings of affinity” and the next an “outer cold and icy silence.” Themes are developed early on and repeated to excellent effect, drawing the listener into the album and it’s concept. Again, the musicianship is first rate.
These Lancaster/Lumley albums are wonderful and compelling preludes to the work of Brand X and classics in their own right. Highly recommended for fans of that band, or of acoustic and electric jazz-fusion. In the coming posts I’ll share recollections from Jack, Robin, and Percy on these times as well as the initial early work of Brand X.
The beautiful, haunting 1976 album Marscape, by Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley, is available again from Gonzo Multimedia. Except for Jack Lancaster (winds), Bernie Frost (voices), and Simon Jeffs (koto), the musicians on the work are also the founding members of the jazz fusion band Brand X who would release their stellar debut Unorthodox Behavior that same year. Members that play on Marscape who went on to Brand X include Robin Lumley (keys), John Goodsall (guitars), Percy Jones (bass), Phil Collins (drums) and starting with their second release, Morris Pert (percussion). Jack guests briefly on that debut album. The fact alone that Marscape was written and performed by these musicians in that same year warrants a listen, which is well rewarded.
Marscape, Jack and Robin wrote: “was a magical journey to the planet Mars… a kind of soundtrack to an imaginary movie, our intention was picture-making through music, so we conceived Marscape as one piece, divided up into audio sketches of the events emotions that might be experienced by voyagers traveling from Earth to the red planet. By the end, we surmise that the visitors realize that they are not visitors at all, but have actually returned home after a very, very long time away.” This perfectly sums up what a listener could imagine from the evocative thematic piece. Tracks include “Sail on Solar Winds”, “Homelight”, and “Dust Storm” each of which coveys the nature of the lonely and angry red planet. A standout track is “Hopper” which refers to the “machine for negotiating the rough Martian terrain” and which sports Phil’s signature skipping beat to a tune reminiscent of “Baby Elephant Walk.” Also gorgeous then a bit chilling is “With a Great Feeling of Love” that is described in liner notes as two parts – one “an inner warmth and feelings of affinity” and the next an “outer cold and icy silence.”
Themes are developed early on and repeated to excellent effect, drawing the listener into the album and it’s concept. And the musicianship is first rate – highlights:
John Goodsall establishes his searing guitar leads that later took Brand X to such amazing heights
Percy Jones lays down the groundwork for an amazing career playing his fret-less bass runs – always inventive and melodic
Phil Collins delivers a tour de force on his expertly tuned kit that will remind any listener of his best work – including with Genesis on Trick of the Tail recorded the same year
Robin Lumley had to be one of the most underrated keyboard players around – you can compare his synth leads to anyone hot from that era and his work on grand piano is beautiful
Jack Lancaster’s writing and performance on winds will make you look for more from this artist, including as a start his work with Blodwyn Pig
It’s a wonderful and compelling prelude to the work of Brand X and highly recommended for any fans of that band, or of acoustic and electric jazz fusion.