Lovely review by Jon Turney on the Mainly Jazz in Bristol blog of our Nu Civilisation Orchestra concert on 10 October at St George’s Hall, Bristol (what a beautiful venue).
Joe Harriott died (way too young) just under 40 years ago, and since then has mainly existed in that jazz limbo of semi-legendary figures who did remarkable things but were not truly appreciated in their lifetime, nor much listened to afterwards. This Nu Civilisation Orchestra (NCO) project ought to change that.
Harriott is best remembered for a more or less simultaneous discovery of the possibilities of breaking out of set harmonic frameworks often described as akin to what Ornette Coleman’s early quartets were opening ears to around the same time. His two recordings in this vein – Free Form and Abstract – are the inspiration for a suite of pieces from the orchestra. NCO is one of the many projects inspired by the admirable Gary Crosby, and is led by pianist, arranger and composer Peter Edwards. He’s studied Harriott’s stuff, and scaled it up from the original quintet presentation (sax, trumpet and rhythm section) to an 11-piece orchestra.
It works brilliantly, I think, partly because Harriott’s originals – despite the forbidding titles – are accessible, full of melody, but also come with intriguing twists and turns which lend themselves well to orchestral elaboration. As Brian Morton and Richard Cooke say in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, “by later standards, Harriott’s experiments seem cautious”. He was never really an outside player, in the sense current in the mid-60s avant-garde. From this distance, his pieces sound like someone extremely talented taking trouble to avoid hard bop cliches while still incorporating plenty of blues, along with elements from his native Jamaica.
That all seems a very natural blend now, but worthwhile cultural production is never natural – it has to be worked at. And the writing, arranging and rehearsing here must have been an immense amount of work. We heard a 90 minute set, after a warm-up featuring the rough-and-ready charm of the Bristol Reggae Orchestra, and it placed some demands on the concentration toward the end as the music was so consistently rich and rewarding. (Video backdrop of some Jackson-Pollock style action painting was a distraction, mainly – too obvious a link with “free-form”, perhaps?)
The musical rewards came partly from the skill in orchestration, and from the new pieces Edwards has written to sit alongside Harriott’s compositions, partly from the fine playing. Byron Wallen and Nathaniel Facey stood out, as you’d expect, along with the leader. Will Gibson on flute and clarinet also shone, but the entire band nailed the (lengthy) book of complex arrangements and made them sing.
All in all, the only worthwhile kind of jazz tribute: not retread, reinvention.
The Harriott set is just one of the goodies on offer as part of the Lively Up! Festival celebrating Jamaican independence 50 years ago. It is being presented again at RNCM in Manchester on Oct 20th, and during the London Jazz Festival on Nov 17th.
See this and other articles at the Mainly Jazz in Bristol