Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mr. Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band * The Seven Ages of Acker * 1959

In a Persian Market (Ketelby)
I'm Going Home (Bilk)
Ory's Creole Trombone (Ory)
Summer Set (Bilk)
The Light from the Lighthouse (Traditional)
The Gay Hussar (Lincke)
Tiger Ray (LaRocca/DeCoste/Shields)
Lucky Rock (Rainey)
Cushion Foot Stomp (Williams)
Run Come See Jerusalem (Blake)
Old Comrades March (Teike)

Columbia - 33SX 1205

Mr. Acker Bilk * clarinet, vocals
Mr. J. Mortimer * trombone
Mr. K. Sims * trumpet
Mr. R. McKay * traps, background vocal on "The Light from the Lighthouse"
Mr. E. Price * double bass
Mr. R. James * tenor banjo
Mr. D. Collett * piano on "Summer Set"

Technological advance, methodical and relentless use of resources, constant innovation understood as a virtue, commercialism as a way of life, gratuitous competition as a means of marketing: these are aspects of the American psyche which tend to spill over from economics and industry into the rest of our culture as well. Jazz history has been no exception. Sometimes this mindset has produced explosively creative results; at other times the inability of the American mind to cease its restless, insatiable consumerism seems to get ahead of itself and leave little ground unscorched before it could be properly developed.

Comparing jazz history to European concert music history reveals this compression--whereas Functional Tonality took centuries to develop, and stylistic epochs in classical music history stretched sometimes for multiple generations, Jazz went from polyphony to an early 'gallant' style to high romanticism to full fledged modernism in about four decades. Some of this was simply a result of the interaction of jazz with modern European music, but certainly much of it had to do with the restless, voracious, and nervous American muse. Because of this, we've often depended upon other cultures to maintain, value, and support styles invented here and abandoned before they've even reached full fruition. France, England, and Japan have often, since the mid-20th century, been more supportive of American jazz musicians than their native country. Because of this, the spread of jazz has not necessarily followed the trajectory abroad that it has at home -- "Trad Jazz" is not only celebrated on other continents, but it has produced heirs from other cultures who have added their particular voice and ethnic flavor to the music.

One of the strongest of these Trad Jazz currents flowed through Great Britain in the 1950s and '60s, and a major focal point was the fascinating and soulful music of clarinetist Acker Bilk. Bilk's contribution is beyond that of being a curator of New Orleans style tunes abroad--he actually advanced the art of jazz in ways that have yet to be fully appreciated on this side of the pond.

First, perhaps, a discussion of his sound is necessary. It's an interesting coincidence of history that the traditionally broad, mellow, full sound of English clarinetists has more in common with early New Orleans style clarinet than the 'American School' of classical clarinetistry. As such there was a natural sympathy between Bilk and New Orleans players such as George Lewis, Albert Nicholas, and Raymond Burke. It would be a mistake to think of Bilk as an English copy of New Orleans sound, though--there were many differences. His chalumeau, while strong and expressive, didn't have the typical New Orleans richness, and while his clarion register could hold with the best of the NOLA crowd, it's his altissimo that is so striking: Bilk's altissimo was actually much stronger than most Crescent City traditionalists, making him able to sustain lines with strength and clarity in unique ways. His intonation was also quite good--and while he always honored George Lewis and other foundational New Orleans players, he didn't fall into the trap of playing too flat so often (which seems to plague many NOLA style traditionalists). All in all, he took the style and brought strength, clarity, and a certain amount of virtuosity (though never descending into mere flashiness).

The Seven Ages of Acker likewise takes New Orleans style as a point of departure, applying it broadly, not only by playing standards (such as Tiger Rag and Ory's Creole Trombone), but in terms of repertoire. In it, Bilk expanded the base of traditional jazz, integrating light music that was popular with British audiences in the early 20th century such as Ketebey's "In a Persian Market," and Lincke's "The Gay Hussar." Significantly, this music was the direct precursor of British Invasion rock (several Brit Rock bands and players of the following decade cut their teeth in trad-jazz groups of the '50s). Like those bands' backbeats, which were based upon American Rhythm & Blues, but didn't really sound or feel like it, there is a distinctive English quality to the way Acker Bilk's Paramount Jazz Band swings--a quality that Americans ought to take more seriously, because to dismiss it is only to lose the creativity and subtle innovative quality that this music offers. The more you listen to English Trad Jazz, the more you hear the long history of the British brass band and light music blending into the New Orleans style. That it is such a good fit is both fascinating and enjoyable. As with so much English music, there's always an admirable emphasis on soul and real emotion rather than mere technique. That's wasn't always the case with American jazz since the bop era, and can serve as quite an antidote to self-conscious modernism.

It's noteworthy that a Bilk original from this album, "Summer Set", was a top ten hit on the UK charts, setting the stage for his biggest: 1961's "Stranger on the Shore"-- the first British tune to hit number one on the American Billboard charts (predating Beatlemania). "Summer Set" is a very simple tune, but the bright sincerity of it serves as foreshadowing to the lighter, optimistic hits of Paul McCartney during his Beatle days.

This band, and this album, is one of the most intriguing of the Trad Jazz contributions from the British heyday of the '50s and '60s. They didn't just serve as a cover band, but as a creative, innovative group in their own genuine and humorous way. There is still much to be learned from what those English traddies did, and for those who haven't yet delved into it, this album is highly recommended.

The Seven Ages of Acker gets The Jazz Clarinet's highest rating: Five Good Reeds, for the command Bilk shows on clarinet (especially his masterful altissimo) while expanding and moving the music forward. While Americans had by 1959 largely abandoned the New Orleans model, Bilk & Co added to it, showing there was still much work to do, and that the style can be developed continuously.

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