Charlie Hart (hatted) with Slim Chance
Sammy Stein writes:
Free form jazz gets little press, and understandably so when many musicians who describe themselves as ‘free jazz players’ are actually nothing of the sort. True free jazz is not occasional peccadilloes of free form interspersed among ‘tunes’ and well known songs which the audience can sing along to; it comes from the soul, the spirit and heart of the musicians. To work, it takes far more from a musician than merely being able to hold a tune or follow a score. It involves a spiritual understanding of music which only comes from experience or is a divine gift. Free players include Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Beiderbecke , who is included not because he was an all out free player but because he was innovative for his time and so very different.
Few master free form jazz, though many dip into its unfathomable depths in an attempt to get that something extra from their craft. Every musician senses there is a special place, a sublime state which, when they reach it, they can say they truly understand jazz. Few reach it and many fall along the way but occasionally a group emerges where all members have found their way to jazz Nirvana. One such collection is The People Band.
Formed in the late 1960s, the People Band, led by Terry Day and Mel Davis, was formed. Since then, this crew of musicians from diverse musical backgrounds and professions has gathered together under the guises of The People Band, Mummy and Ommu The Smooch and performed to amazed and often astonished audiences throughout Europe and the UK. Various versions of their history exist and differ from band member to band member but Davey Payne, later to become a member of The Blockheads and a sax player of note gave me his potted history of the band as:
‘‘ In 1968 Mike Figgis and myself returned from Biarritz where we had been playing in a soul band. Once back in England I then travelled with the People Band to play in Holland. This band consisted of Albert Kovitz, clarinet, Paul Jolly sax, Mel Davis piano, myself sax, Charlie Hart bass, and Terry Day drums.
"This was the main band at the time, playing in Holland and Belgium, with others joining in from time to time including Mike Figgis and even John Surman (the composer and multi-instrumentalist, acknowledged by fellow musicians as an influential improviser for a whole generation, playing with Ronnie Scott, The Trio, Humphrey Lyttleton, Gil Evans Orchestra and many others).
Davey Payne adds, "Over the next few years, Terry, Charlie and myself worked in Holland as Ommu The Smooch. In England we continued to do gigs with the bigger band. We often played at the Wood Green Arts Centre, sometimes with the Italian new music group Music Elettronica Viva and Cornelius Cardew’ ( founder of The Scratch Orchestra, academic, socialist and influential musician killed in a hit-and run in 1981.) We also played regularly at the Robert Streets Art Laboratory near Warren Street. Charlie Hart and myself, as part of an Arts Council grant, played at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh."
They almost achieved success, always fluid around their core but they never achieved notability. Charlie Watts produced the band but could not get a recording deal until 1970 when Transantlantic proved interested enough to release an album. This was re-released on CD in 2009.
The Wire magazine ran a piece on the band in June 2002. In it, the band is discussed enthusiastically, but the reader is left with the sense that the writer never quite got to the heart of what the members felt or thought about performing in such a free arrangement. The musicianship is described as ‘concentrated and intense’, and discussing the band, it goes on to imply that The People Band has largely been forgotten in historical accounts of improvised music, which is not true. Of recordings, the piece describes the music as, ‘straining against the limitations of the medium’.
Davey Payne, perhaps feeling the reader had been given a false sense of what the band were about, could not resist and wrote back saying:
‘ re: The People Band Article...... there would be serendipity and we know how to work with chance and build on it. I don’t believe we were there to be a catalyst for everybody to blast away, giving them a false sense of freedom or happiness. As far as I’m concerned we weren’t out to entertain, and the audience were often confused, pained and drained. I believe at our best we were creating music on the highest level, knocking on the tenth door, and that may not necessarily be a good thing, or maybe it is, for some and not for others including ourselves. After all, who are we to play the divine conch and bagpipes? ‘
Over the years there have been numerous outings for the group but each musician has also gone on to become involved in their own projects:
- Terry Day formed the London Improvers Orchestra and played with Peter Cusack, Steve Beresford and scored films such as Summer (1984).
- Davey, Charlie and several other members outed for a few concerts as the more melodious Mummy.
- Paul Jolly played with Maggie Nicols and founded the label 33jazz records
- Charlie Hart played with The Kilburns, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, The Battered Ornaments and Wreckless Eric and wrote for films. Davey Payne played with The Kilburns, Wreckless Eric, The Blockheads and many other artists. Charlie is currently touring the UK with Slim Chance,’ reformed but unrepentant’ as their motto says.
- Davey has not been a Blockhead full time since 1998 but as the Blockheads celebrate their 35th year as a band and are performing through the year around the UK, Davey joins them on occasion.
- Mike Figgis diversified into film and art. He has produced many films including Stormy Monday (1989) where some of The People Band appeared as The Krakov Jazz Ensemble. Mike’s other film credits include Internal Affairs (1990), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Timecode (2000), Love Live Long (2008) and he also directed an episode of The Sopranos. He is also known for his photography and is a musician of note. He was the keyboard player in Brian Ferry’s original band and is probably now seen as the driving force behind The People Band - not in the traditional sense of being their ‘leader’ – the People Band is made up of musicians of such talent they are unlikely for one moment to be led- but because of his influence and position, he can arrange art events which have allowed The People Band to achieve a higher recent profile than might otherwise have happened.
Davey Payne- sunglasses, 3rd from right at back With the Blockhead ‘family’ last summer.
' The People Band', 60s exponents of free form art, played regularly in Europe and the UK. Since then, free form has taken rises and falls in popularity but now the free players are enjoying a resurgence. Davey Payne, Kilburn, Blockhead and free player was part of the group.
Davey says now, ‘Thirty years later we have come together with Mike Figgis , doing gigs at Cafe Oto, the new Vortex , The Kings Place and a Mike Figgis Weekend at the Royal Opera House’. The People Band are back.
The projects at Cafe Oto and Kings Place late last year went well and the weekend at the Royal Opera House consisted of films, talks and musicians with The People Band acting as House Band, playing on and off throughout the event and finishing with a finale where they took one half of the space and an orchestra the other. Reviews were mixed. One reviewer said she had to go to the bar to, ‘escape the noise of the People Band – a furious free jazz ensemble blowing cobwebs from the building’. Another wrote that the finale can only be described with one word - ‘spectacle’- with The People Band on one side of the stage, the Opera House Orchestra on the other and Mike Figgis changing from curator of the event to director. Whichever way you look at it, though, the music is what affects people. Whether you like what they play is another matter but a guarantee is that you will remember the performance.
The People Band today is made up of a multi-talented core of musicians including Mike Figgis guitar and pocket trumpet, Paul Jolly, bass clarinet, sax and flute, Davey Payne saxes and flutes , Mel Davis, piano and percussion, Charlie Hart guitar and violin, Terry Day drums, reed pipes, George Khan, the actor and foremost saxophone player (Davey’s words), has appeared back with the band since Mike Figgis rekindled the flame and a fluid membership of other musicians.
Words used in the past to describe The People Band’s playing include ‘visceral, free wheeling, forceful and anarchic’ and all of these are true but what makes a People Band performance special is that the musicians do not stick to the tune but rather, the music takes on a life of its own, invading the spirit and souls of performers and listeners alike. The audience are encouraged to take part should the muse take them. Instruments are swapped, players mingle with the crowd and the music takes the lead.
With root chords to guide, players come in or fall silent as the music takes them, one moment blowing a complicated sax riff, the next tapping out a simple rhythm on a tambourine. Yet, all have an innate understanding of where the piece is going.
Unfettered by convention of traditional rhythms, tempos or dynamics, the players are led by the spirit of jazz who joins them on stage, as an invited extra band member; tempting, cajoling, pushing, getting them to over blow to get more notes, creating music of teeth- crunching discords working alongside sublime and divine sweetness, yet all working together to explore every avenue of jazz - this is free form and long may The People Band bring it to the masses.