Tag Archives: jazz fusion

PFM Cooks

PFM_SinglePhoto_72dpiPremiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) is an Italian progressive rock band founded in 1970. PFM’s unique blend of influences and genre-bending compositions echoed many of the themes of their British counterparts such as Genesis and Gentle Giant, while never sounding derivative. Given their Italian heritage, the difference with PFM was in their sense of drama and bravado, their lush melodies and operatic flourishes, all delivered in a blues and rock framework that incorporated elements of traditional Italian music. On top of their skills at composing and arranging these pieces, every band member was a virtuoso musician, including Franz Di Cioccio (drums, lead vocals), Franco Mussida (guitars, lead vocals), Mauro Pagani (violin, flute), and Flavio Premoli (keyboards, lead vocals). Original bass player Giorgio Piazza left the band just after the release of Photos of Ghosts, and was replaced by another fantastic bassist, Patrick Djivas, who has remained with the group ever since. Of the many amazing things about PFM, their live performances are legendary in prog circles based on the sheer adrenaline and talent of the musicianship on display. At times each player seemed to be outdoing the next while extending jams to such a frenetic pace, one would be reminded of a wayward locomotive train, threatening to, but never actually careening off the tracks.

PFM_PhotosOfGhostsCover_72dpiPFM was founded at the dawn of the 1970s, recording two albums with Italian language lyrics Storia di un minuto and Per un amico in 1971-72 before coming to the attention of Greg Lake who signed the band to ELP’s new label Manticore. Lake arranged for lyricist Peter Sinfield, who had worked with King Crimson, ELP and others to write new lyrics, at which point the band re-recorded some of their existing songs and new pieces with these English lyrics, producing Photos of Ghosts in 1973. It’s a brilliant album, from opener “River of Life,” to closer and continuing live favorite “Promenade the Puzzle.” A combination of well chosen layers of grand piano, organ, Mellotron and Moog synthesizer, classical acoustic and electric guitar, colorful often pastoral flute and violin, all backed by powerful yet nuanced percussion renders this album a masterpiece. One track “Il Banchetto” is unchanged from its original version, presented with Italian lyrics and liner notes that explain the meaning of its beautifully sung passages. On the strength of that track alone, this writer collected the original records; a lead anyone interested in the band should follow. PFM went on to record a third Italian language record L’isola di niente in 1974, directly shipping an English language counterpart The World Became the World the same year.

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The band toured the United States for the first time in 1974, opening for several established acts such as Aerosmith and Peter Frampton. They appeared for an amazing six nights July 16-21 at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, a venue that could barely contain the talent on display. PFM recorded their first live album, the aptly titled Cook on this tour, which was released as a severely truncated single LP in order to introduce the band to a wider audience. This live album was more recently released as a highly recommended expanded three CD set containing the entire performance culled from the PFM_CookCover_72dpisame shows. The sets were a showcase for the band’s lightening fast delivery of tremendously complex progressive rock music, from the very Italian sounds of “Four Holes in the Ground” to the blues rocker “Alta Loma Nine ‘Til Five” featuring an impressive guitar solo from Mussida. Fans of the band who were privileged to catch any of these shows without exception recall being shocked and amazed at these fantastic concerts, often reporting that the band “stole the show” from the intended headliners.

After this tour, PFM recruited an additional lead singer Bernardo Lanzetti who took most of the lead vocals on PFM’s last two English language releases Chocolate Kings (1975) and the jazz-fusion driven Jet Lag, recorded in Los Angeles and released in 1977. Lanzetti’s powerful voice fronted a more aggressive sound on these albums, each of which contain an extended central piece, “Out of the Roundabout” on Chocolate Kings, and the title track from Jet Lag, the last record to be released on an American label. These are excellent examples of the progressive rock form, featuring more of PFM’s signature allegro jams and frantic, driven performances. In particular, an increased use of fretless bass from Djivas paired with fusionesque Rhodes piano leads from Premoli elevate Jet Lag to the top tier of the band’s many albums. Though members have come and gone since the end of the 70s, PFM has continued to record and release new material every decade since their inception, each work continuing to demonstrate the enduring talent of these fine musicians.

Many fans like this author discovered PFM a bit too late to see any of their shows outside Italy have since been able to see the band in various reformations at progressive rock festivals and short tours. It’s worth noting that while film is scarce, audio recordings are plentiful, from the most important, now expanded official release Cook, to live CDs termed “official bootlegs” which capture a series of tours since PFM’s inception, volumes numbered under the heading PFM – 10 Anni Live. Arguably given the fact that Cook captures the band in its original lineup, the most important of these is Volume 4: 1977-1978, the Jet Lag Tour, which captures a blistering live performance during Lanzetti’s tenure with the band, and includes tracks from Passpartu, which marked the end of his involvement with PFM.

ON FILM

PFM_PaperCharmsBoxSet_72dpiPaper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976 (2015), Cherry Red Records, 25 min, 1.5:1

As mentioned, film of PFM is hard to find, and this author has not been able to locate a complete performance by the band during their 1970s heyday on video. However black-and-white film of the band performing songs from their first album on Italian television RAI can be found on Progressive Rock in Italy, and on streaming services, though this is difficult to find on DVD. Fortunately, the best of their television performances, taken from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in the mid 70s are available on the recent compilation available at Cherry Red Records, Paper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976. These films, recorded in 1.5:1 aspect ratio and somehow retaining color and clarity after all these years, are a revelation, a rare chance to see the band in their prime, in studio and stage performances of “Four Holes in the Ground”, “Celebration”, “Mr. Nine ‘Till Five” with the 1974-75 lineup and the track “Chocolate Kings” in 1976 which showcases singer Lanzetti’s contribution. The camera moves smoothly about the band members, providing revealing close-ups of keys, toms, winds and frets, uninterrupted by distracting transitions or other flourishes. This is how the band is best presented, simply performing their most enduring songs with lightening fast precision and aplomb.

PFM_FilmStripFilm Strip: (top to bottom) (a) Close-up of winds/violin player Pagani demonstrating rich, vibrant colors (b) Premoli with clear view of his work on keys (c) Mussida shown mid-distance provides a study of his soloing technique (d) Di Cioccio captured less frequently, as is the norm for drummers in early rock video (e) Lanzetti, in 76, part of the best preserved film segment from BBC’s OGWT

Zappa at the Roxy and Warfield

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Frank Zappa


In 1980, when I was in college in San Luis Obispo, a then sleepy town half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, our exposure to the early advance of punk and “new wave” music from Britain was delayed. In the mean time, one of my best friends from High School moved up and we roomed together during that transitional year. We were both very into 1970’s progressive rock, but Ron was more attuned to jazz-fusion, modern classical music, and sometimes genre-bending experimental work. So we schooled each other in our tastes, which meant that while I pitched him Camel and Gentle Giant, he shared with me artists like Jan Hammer, National Health, and most importantly Frank Zappa, all of which required peer pressure and repeated listening to appreciate! I eventually screwed up that friendship, but ended up with a life long gift from Ron’s patient tutelage.

Zappa was the taste that took the longest time to develop. His compositions were often bizarre, shot through with absurdist humor and outrageous musical interludes that crossed multiple genres including rock, jazz, classical, progressive and the avant-garde, sometimes within one song! For some reason, probably due to my young age, I first understood the allure of Zappa via Roxy & Elsewhere (1974) and the opening track “Penguin in Bondage:”

She’s just like a penguin in bondage, boy….
Way over on the wet side of the bed!

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Chester Thompson

Somehow this made my late-teen funny bone rattle every time I heard it. Being a fan of low-budget horror films at the time, the song “Cheepnis,” a kind of tribute to those films, also became a favorite, along with “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” which featured dual drum solos from Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphery. I had already seen Chester play alongside Phil Collins when Genesis came to Los Angeles in 1977 and after, so that was a known entity. Also, I knew Ruth Underwood for her work with drummer Burleigh Drummond on the urban-jungle themed “The Brunt” from Ambrosia’s wonderful album Somewhere I Never Travelled. References intact, my journey began.

As it turned out, Roxy & Elsewhere, and the masterpiece the followed, One Size Fits All (1975), brought together what remains for this patron one of the strongest Zappa lineups in history, the final version of his “Mothers of Invention,” featuring:

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Ruth Underwood

Napoleon Murphy Brock – flute, tenor sax, vocals
George Duke – keyboards, vocals
Ruth Underwood – marimba, vibraphone, percussion
Chester Thompson – drums, sound effects
Tom Fowler – bass guitar
and guests

Zappa_OneSizeCover_72dpiOne Size Fits All kicks off with the impossibly complex masterpiece “Inca Roads” for which a groundbreaking Claymation video was created. George Duke’s silky-smooth vocals are paired with his similarly stunning synth leads. Ruth Underwood absolutely owns the vibraphone, playing at a pace that defies the imagination (“that’s Ruth!”) Chester Thompson pins the whole thing down with an impressive display of fills and fusion riffs (“Chester’s Thang!”) It’s a fantastic way to lead off an album that never lags as it goes on to explore many diverse styles and moods. The upbeat “Can’t Afford No Shoes” grounds the record with some pure rock, “Sofa No. 1” brings some after-hours Manhattan soul, “Po-Jama People” sports some of Frank’s most entertaining lyrics, along with a lengthy, labyrinth guitar solo. And that’s just side one! Of note, three tracks on the flip side, “Florentine Pogen,” “San Ber-dino” and “Andy” demonstrate the best side of Zappa and his band’s many talents, veering as they do into the most difficult yet tight jazz-fusion excursions on record.

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To my great surprise, more than 40 years after it’s release, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil, who continues to perform his father’s music under the touring name Zappa Plays Zappa, came to the Warfield in San Francisco, December 5th to perform One Size Fits All in its entirety, along with many other classics. The show was truly spectacular, as Dweezil and band have mastered the art of recreating Frank’s music, while breathing new life into the compositions. Everyone on stage put in amazing performances, and the very complex pieces received their due diligence from:

Dweezil Zappa: Guitar
Scheila Gonzalez: Saxophone, Flute, Keyboards & Vocals
Ben Thomas: Vocals
Chris Norton: Keyboards
Kurt Morgan: Bass
Ryan Brown: Drums

Ben took on the monumental task of covering vocals as diverse as Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, and most notably Frank himself, proving his ability to pitch even the most satirical and wry bits without sounding like a mimic. Chris, Scheila, Kurt and occasionally Dweezil ably assist him and when they all sang together it was harmonic perfection. It was pure heaven to witness these amazing songs played live by this group of talented musicians and the man who keeps it “all in the family.” My only nit about the whole evening was the lack of a vibes player to take Ruth’s parts, which were instead simulated on synthesizer. Scheila captured the sound, but for those rapid-fire leads there’s no substitute for real vibes.

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But as it turns out, a film of Frank Zappa and the final Mothers performances at the Roxy Theater way back in 1973, including an early version of “Inca Roads” with Ruth in all her mallet-driven glory is now available on Blue-Ray disc! Some of the Zappa_RoxyMovie_Cover_72dpiperformances from those three nights were used on the audio only release Roxy & Elsewhere, but many remained on bootlegs or in the vaults, and the films have been completely unavailable, in no small part due to technical difficulties which rendered the audio elements nearly impossible to sync with the film footage. After extensive rework and painstaking editing, the films are finally available. The camerawork is excellent, as there are four cameras on stage and positioned at the back of the small club for the wide shots. The lens swoops in and out of the action, capturing crystal clear close-up images of each musician hitting their most challenging notes, while delivering the vocals, humor and stagecraft. At the end of the raucous evening, the stage is packed with guests, including a stripper who attempts to distract the dedicated players! Any fan of Zappa’s music during this period must have this video release – it’s an important document of the man, his band, and their most amazing musical performances.

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Following Protocol

protocol_adDuring 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.

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips

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.

Andy Timmons
Andy Timmons

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.

Steve Weingart
Steve Weingart

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!

The Band
The Band

The Birth of Brand X – Part III

brandx_old 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:

PERCY JONES:

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 hiBrandXPercyJoness 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.

John Goodsall (Guitars)
John Goodsall (Guitars)

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.) 

Morris Pert (percussion)
Morris Pert (percussion)

[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.

 

Robin Lumley
Robin Lumley

 

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!

 

The Birth of Brand X – Part II

This is part II of a three-part article on the work of Jack Lancaster & Robin Lumley and what followed with early Brand X.  

In the first part, we established that Jack and Robin wrote and recorded two albums in the mid 70’s – Peter and the Wolf, and Marscape, both involving most of the other members of what became Brand X, along with other guests.  These alumni include Jack Lancaster (winds), Robin Lumley (keys), Percy Jones (bass), John Goodsall (guitar), and Phil Collins (drums), also of Genesis and lengthy solo career.  Both albums were re-mastered by Jack Lancaster last year and are available on Gonzo Multimedia. 

 Let’s focus now on how such a talented pack of musicians got together and came to record these albums.  I had the opportunity this month to talk with Jack, Robin, Percy, and John about this, and the origins of Brand X.   First a bit about Jack & Robin who are the primary focus of this segment:

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Jack Lancaster

JACK LANCASTER 

Jack plays all manner of wind instruments to amazing effect, and had come to this work after two early recordings with the band Blodwyn Pig, which was led by Mick Abrahams, original blues guitarist on Jethro Tull’s first record, This Was.  The albums were: Ahead Rings Out (1969) and Getting to This (1970).  He has since written and produced work with many of the finest musicians in the classic and progressive rock genres including works with the founders of Brand X, Phil Collins, Brian Eno, Hans Zimmer, Rod Argent, Gary Moore, and Vangelis 

Of his musical origins, Jack wrote: “I started as a violin player, which I still play if it’s needed.  I played with the Blackpool youth orchestra, so my first big gig was a youth orch’ competition at the Albert Hall. Needless to say we didn’t win.  Guess my early influences as a sax player were Rollins and Coltrane.  Loved King Curtis too… especially his live version of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’.”

 Jack is also credited on many film and television projects over the years and continues working out of Los Angeles.   

Brand-X-Robin Lumley
Robin Lumley

ROBIN LUMLEY

Robin landed on the music scene in time to play keyboards for David Bowie during the Spiders from Mars era, then released two albums with Jack Lancaster, covered here, founded Brand X playing keys on almost all releases, and ended up producing work from Isotope, Bill Bruford, Jack Lancaster’s solo album, Rod Argent, Orleans and even Brand X itself! (Masques).

Of his musical origins, Robin explained, “I was self-taught and didn’t begin playing keyboards until the age of 21 – too late, most people thought.    My influences (not surprisingly) were Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea.”  Also, my neighbour upstairs in Beckenham, Kent, was the acclaimed jazz pianist Keith Tippet (who incidentally is married to Julie Tippets……ex Driscoll (“wheels on fire” by the Brian Auger Trinity)).  From 1971 through to 1976 he took me under his wing and taught me LOADS of things about improvisation etc etc etc.   What more could an inexperienced beginner look for in a mentor?

Robin still writes music but only for classical string quartets in Australia.  He has also become an author with his first book out last December on History Press UK –  all about the Tay Bridge Disaster in Scotland, 1879.   

Percy Jones (bass) was also interviewed for this piece and his intro and commentary will be found in part III, along with thoughts from John Goodsall (guitars), both of who were key contributors to these works and are the foundation of Brand X along with Robin, Phil Collins and starting with their second release, Morris Pert (percussion).

D: First up, in the early years before the debut release, how did you all come together:

Basing Street
Basing Street

Jack: We used to go for jam sessions at Basing Street, which was the old Island records studios – these were good fun!  [Ed: many of the most famous progressive rock records on the planet were recorded there including Genesis’ Selling England By the Pound, Camel’s The Snow Goose, and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung!]  I would join along with Robin, Percy and Phil – John was always there – several guys would drop in.  It was spontaneous – most of it made up on the spot.  We jammed in all kinds of places – anywhere with an electrical outlet!  Also all of us were doing a lot of session work – Robin with Bowie, Phil Collins and Percy Jones with Brian Eno, Steve Hackett and others.  I was doing production with Kayak.  So we were all doing different things. That was the catalyst for us working together.  

Percy: In late ’71 I moved from Liverpool to London. I hardly knew anybody down there, so I wasn’t playing for a while, doing construction work to support myself.  Eventually I met Robin Lumley who lived in that area – also Keith and Julie Tippet, and Jack Lancaster who was friends with Robin.  We used to rehearse in the kitchen in the house we were living in – just jamming there and weekly at the studio.  It was me, Robin, John and a couple of other guys.  So we did these jams and it was quite fulfilling and good.  But it didn’t occur to us that it would go anywhere because it just seemed like the music might be too out there.  

D: About the origins of Peter and the Wolf and Marscape, how did you and Jack come to write and assemble the records?

lancaster_patwRobin: It started off with Peter and The Wolf.  A friend of ours, Hugh Raggett (editor of The Charge Of The Light Brigade and numerous award-winning films by John Schlesinger) came up with the idea of a movie to put the music of Provokiev into a jazz ballet and wanted us to adapt the music to a modern jazz format.   We duly did this but before long, the film finances fell over (as they often do!)  We were left with this score and now nothing was happening. We decided upon making a record with guest stars playing the part of animals and humans. We assembled a short-list of rock stars to do this and took the whole project to Chris Youle, the then boss of RSO records who gave the go-ahead for the project to begin.

Jack: Peter and the Wolf was then arranged and recorded with a cast of guests, with Phil and Percy as the rhythm section.  For a couple of bits Cozy Powell joined, but most of it was them, with John as a rhythm guitarist – he played well with Gary Moore – their styles are completely different which helps a lot.   The album did pretty well. 

Robin:   The attention received was tremendous.  RSO got behind it right away.  There was no talk of a film, seeing as that was torpedoed at the start with the ballet being scotched.

D: Was RSO then anxious to repeat the success of Peter and the Wolf with a followup?  How did you two land on the idea of Marscape?

marscape_lp_us_frontRobin: RSO on the back of P&W wanted us to follow up with an idea of our own, Marscape, which we did the following year.  Marscape if you like was the soundtrack to an “imaginary” film about a voyage to Mars. 

Jack: Robin and I took a holiday at Château d’Hérouville in France – it’s the place where Chopin and George Sand worked – later Elton John, Rolling Stones and many others.  We worked out the music on a piano that was said to have been Chopin’s.  We had gone to write it with the idea of recording it there, but we ended up going back home to record at Trident studios.

The album does have several sound effects that are evocative of the story line, one involves a funny story about Percy.  For “Mons Venus”, we had this monster gong attached to a crane so we could blow into this huge collapsible vat of water to get the sound of bubbling lava.  Percy waded around in the pool blowing through a mic stand – it was really dangerous – electronics and water – it’s not a good idea – you can imagine Percy wading around blowing through a tube making bubbling noises that we wanted to sound like lava!  In those times, you created your own sound effects.  

The Marscape album was also put out by RSO Records, the year after Peter and the Wolf, and it did surprisingly well, being only an instrumental record. There were no lead vocals, but there are background harmonies on it recorded by Bernie.  Bernie is a guy who had a wonderful voice – wrote and sang with Status Quo – they were and still are quite popular in England.  

D: Any final recollections of these times and the work on these records?

Jack
Jack Today in Sunny LA!

Robin: It was all GREAT FUN!!!!!   Nothing stands out as a track, or piece of music, except for the whole project taken as one.  There’s a lot of luck there – dozens of musicians that are ten times as talented as me, yet it happened to my good self.  Thanks to St Cecila, I guess!

Jack: One thing I like about the albums is the spontaneity – once we learnt the tunes it became about a loose jam – we played them in that manner, and they were the best guys to do it.  Particularly with Percy and Phil – there’s nothing like a great rhythm session.   I consider these records high on the list of the things I’ve done.

Next week in part III we will go on to discuss the origins of Brand X which was brewing at the same time as these terrific Lancaster & Lumley albums.

The Birth of Brand X – Part I

virgi ps 24.tifBrand 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.

lancaster_patwThe 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_lp_us_frontMarscape 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.

Marscape’s Dreamy Landscape

marscape_lp_us_frontThe 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 cbrandxoveys 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.