LP Review: The Live New Departures Jazz Poetry Septet - Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead (Jazz Poetry SuperJam #1)
(Gearbox GB1518. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Run by Darrel Sheinman, Gearbox Records is one of the finest small independent labels in the UK. They release limited editions on vinyl, aiming to produce flawless pressings of rare jazz in lavish packaging.
Jazz Poetry SuperJam #1 is the label’s most sumptuous release to date, a double LP set (180gram vinyl, of course) complete with a handsome LP-sized 32 page full colour booklet, designed to provide context for this remarkable lost recording — surfacing more than half a century after the performance it preserves.
The combination of jazz and poetry has a long and distinguished history, stretching back at least as far as Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, and embracing such notable milestones as Jean Shepherd’s improvised narrations with Charles Mingus. And it also thrived here in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the involvement of major figures like Michael Garrick, Joe Harriott and Stan Tracey — the latter dreaming up settings for Under Milk Wood on the night bus home from Ronnie Scott’s.
Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead was very much part of this movement. Recorded in March 1962 it features Stan Tracey on piano, Bobby Wellins' tenor sax, Laurie Morgan on drums, John Mumford on trombone, and Jeff Clyne on bass. The jazz stars are Michael Horovitz, ‘Britain’s Beat Laureate’, drinking buddy of Burroughs and Corso, founder of New Departures magazine and his ‘partner in crime’ Pete Brown, performance artist, poet and lyricist for Cream — he collaborated with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton on a number of classic songs (including White Room and Sunshine of Your Love).
Altogether, this is an impeccable 1960s counter-culture document.
The two LP set begins with a 15 minute instrumental (McTaggart’s Blues) that allows the septet to stretch its muscles. Wellins is especially notable here — acerbic and soulful, eliciting cries of approval from the audience, receiving judicious, pointed support from Stan Tracey on the piano before he segues into his own fine, searching solo, alternately probingly delicate and robustly raw.
John Mumford’s playing is simultaneously swinging and bluesy, Laurie Morgan’s drums shimmer and Jeff Clyne’s bass saunters shrewdly through the proceedings. Jazz fans can thank their lucky stars that someone (Victor Schonfield in fact) was there at Southampton University 51 years ago with a reel to reel tape recorder.
Four sides of immaculate heavy weight vinyl later, the set ends with a brief, ebullient instrumental coda, Afro Charlie. In between, the musicians play under, and over, and in collaboration with a long poem read alternately by Horovitz and Brown.
And anyone who feels they might be dangerously allergic to poetry can relax. Besides the alluring music on offer, the device of alternating between the poets means that no one voice becomes wearisome, and the writing itself is never less than gripping.
The similarity between LND (standing for Live New Departures) and CND is unlikely to be a coincidence and Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead is an elegant and considered Cold War epic. The concrete carnage of World War Two casts a shadow across the text from the past, while the terrible spectre of World War Three looms over it from a possible future.
Lest this makes the whole thing sound too high-minded or grim, I should add that there’s plenty of surreal humour — the Bisto Kids put in an appearance amid the ‘gaunt gun mountings’ and ‘mushroom wilderness — and slyly comic wordplay (‘sniggers in the wood pile’) and anarchic wit (‘Occasionally traffic lights are obeyed’).
Altogether, it’s an intoxicating, evocative and ambitious work, constantly underpinned by and intertwined with the virtuoso playing of Tracey, Wellins and company.
The deluxe booklet includes a complete libretto for closer inspection of the poem — as well as numerous photographs, programs, news clippings and magazine articles from the period, providing hours of entertainment or scholarly research.
It would take a pedantic, mean-hearted spoilsport to point out that I Was a Teenage Werewolf wasn’t a Hammer Films production, as suggested in the poem (one of many amusing pop culture references). I for one would certainly never dream of mentioning that the movie was actually unleashed by American International.
Lycanthropic pedantry aside, Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead is a remarkable piece of work, beautifully presented.
Two further volumes, Jazz Poetry SuperJam #2 and #3, a 2013 collaboration between Horovitz, Damon Albarn, Paul Weller and Graham Coxon were released exclusively for Record Store Day this year and are currently sold out. But if there is sufficient demand they will be made available again.
UPDATE 23rd OCTOBER 2013
Michael Burke wrote:
I enjoyed your review of the double album, Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead. I had no idea this poem had been recorded...
I have to mention that the jazz/poem was originally performed in London, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, on November 20, 1960, by Pete Brown and Michael Horowitz, with a group of jazz musicians, most of whom I don't recall, with the exception of myself (Michael Burke) on flute, and someone you may have heard of, Dudley Moore, on piano!
The above feature, which was published in The Guardian the day after the performance, shows, in the photo lower right, myself, flute, and Pete Brown and Michael Horowitz, the two poets, who were friends of mine at the time. Hope this is of interest to you, and I would be pleased to receive any comments!
Cordially, Michael Burke