Thursday, 5 November 2009

BBC Jazz for Moderns: Joe Harriott

It all began two days ago. Thanks to a certain record store in Chicago for which I have a sneaking regard, I was alerted to the presence of a new Joe Harriott album. Joe Harriott is a lost great of British jazz, someone who slipped through the cracks. He was also, some might say, the West Indian riposte to Charlie Parker. My friend Michael Garrick, a great exponent of Harriott, and himself a living jazz legend, describes him as "a superb altoist and ground breaking thinker in British jazz". Harvey Pekar describes Harriott and his partner in time, trumpeter Shake Keane (you've got to love that name) as "among the finest avant garde artists in the early 60s." Well, they may be avant garde but I have to add that they can boogie. I mostly know Joe Harriott's work through his two remarkable Indo Jazz Fusion albums (it was a red letter day at the Cartmel pad when I finally got my hands on those beauties, I can tell you) and Mike Garrick's equally remarkable album of big band versions of Harriott's music. A new Harriott record was great news. This is a previously lost performance from 1962, resurrected on high end vinyl in a limited edition. Normally when I hear the words limited edition I reach for my revolver (and I don't mean turntable), but this was an intriguing proposition. It is the first release from a new British label called Gearbox, the brainchild of Darrel Sheinman and avowedly dedicated to preserving memorable and well recorded music on high quality vinyl pressings. The Harriott performance was from a BBC session in the Maida Vale Studios recorded in the heyday of good sound by some chaps who knew what they were aboutl. The record is only 15 minutes long and not cheap. So I hesitated. Yes, I hesitated for about three tenths of a second, then I bought it. When I got home I put it on the turntable with considerable trepidation. Would I get burned again? The last time I shelled out for a premium piece of "limited edition" vinyl, it turned out to be a costly dog (sorry, Marco, but it's true). Because the Harriott record has such a brief playing time it made sense to record it at 45rpm. This is a good thing because the faster you feed the vinyl surface towards the questing insect proboscis of the gramophone needle, the more information you can present in a given time. In other words, there's more scope for accurately reproducing the music. When I sent Darrel Sheinman an email asking about the record he offered the following encouraging observation: "Side length was pretty evenly balanced for optimum groove spacing so as to keep the re-mastering levels equal on each side." When I heard that I began to think these guys knew what they were doing. Normally 45rpm records are singles and I've never listened to singles. (For one thing you need to keep getting up all the time to refresh the music.) So it is a rare day when I change my turntable from 33 to 45. I go through the elaborate and immensely demanding procedure (basically you just throw a switch) and, fingers crossed and breath bated, I put the record on. Utter silence. That's what ensued when I dropped the needle into the run in groove. I almost checked to see if I'd missed the disc altogether. This is tremendous cause for rejoicing. In a sense, the best sound you can hear on a record is no sound at all. If the vinyl is so quiet at the start of a record it means it's a really high quality precision pressing and once the music starts that, too, is likely to utterly deliver the goods. And deliver the goods this did.There is a beautiful transparency to the first cut, Shepherd's Serenade and an interesting room sound is evident. It's a real place with real music being played in it, captured with amazing precision. The openness of the sound and the glorious transparency are present throughout. It is, as they say, an open window on the music. The rhythmic accuracy of the recording makes Variations on Monk (written by Dizzy Reece) come briskly alive. And then we're into Harriott's joyous original Tonal (Mike Garrick does a classic big band version of this). The other side of the record also features one composition by Reece (the aforementioned Shepherd's Serenade) and one by Harriott (Pictures). And they're equally impressive. There's a cool perfection to the recording quality here which fits well with a certain austere sharpness in Joe Harriott's great music. I'm blown away. Darrel Sheinman at Gearbox and Jeremy Cooper at Soundtrap, who did the valve remastering (yes, valve re-mastering! Get thee behind me, transistors) are those rarest of specimens. Men who actually know what they're doing. They've taken a forgotten performance by a neglected jazz great and given it new life in stunning sound. And so getting up early to go to a record shop called Sister Ray in Soho on a rainy Thursday morning in November proved to be exactly the right thing to do. What do you know? For once being a jazz lover and a hi-fi nut has actually paid off.

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