While general interest in Soft Machine continued long after the seminal British jazz/rock group disbanded, the spotlight on trumpeter Ian Carr's Nucleus seemed to go dark following the band's breakup in the early 1980s. With the reissues of the group's back catalogue that have come out in recent years, that spotlight is back on, reminding listeners that Nucleus was just as seminal a jazz/rock outfit. Hemispheres is the first archival live release to feature the original lineup from Nucleus' first three discs on the Vertigo labelElastic Rock (1970), We'll Talk About It Later (1971) and Solar Plexus (1971).
The original lineup was the only one to last for any extended period of time, and consequently it exhibited a more distinctive collective sound than later incarnations. Hemispheres includes short performances from March 1970 and February 1971, positioning Nucleus as a considerably looser improvisational unit than the group's studio albums would suggest. Unlike Soft Machine, which primarily came to jazz from a rock background, Nucleus was a collective of mostly jazz-reared musicians who migrated towards rock's powerful rhythms.
In concert, Nucleus may have worked within a structured framework, but the group was also considerably freer than in the studio. The 1970 set opens with the previously unreleased "Cosa Nostra. What starts as a rubato fanfare quickly evolves into a solo spot for Carr which, bolstered by bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer John Marshall, swings in ways that Soft Machine never could. Listening to electric pianist Karl Jenkins' harmonically ambiguous modal accompaniment, it's hard to believe this is the same Karl Jenkins who would, a few years later, reinvent Soft Machine as a riff-based and guitar-centric fusion band.
The majority of the 1970 set is culled from Elastic Rock. Guitarist Chris Spedding ultimately became a rock gun-for-hire, but here he's the perfect middle ground between the energy of rock and the vernacular of jazz. While he's not as adept as John McLaughlin, there are times when his jagged rhythm work recalls McLaughlin's Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969), especially during Jenkins' oboe solo on "Twisted Track.
Carr is, as always, a strong player with a rich middle-register tone. Comparisons to Miles Davis are inevitable. Still, at this point, Miles was doing everything he could to divorce himself from the jazz tradition. Carr, like Spedding, was looking forand findingan exciting middle ground.
The biggest surprise of Hemispheres is saxophonist Brian Smith, who opens up on the otherwise laconic "Elastic Rock in ways he never did in the studio. His powerful solos on the high-energy "Tangent and surprisingly freewheeling "1916 are equally unexpected.
Hemispheres offers evidence that sometimes a band is best heard live. Carr was recently recognized with the BBC Services to Jazz in the UK Award; hopefully more archival recordings can be located and released so that Nucleus' historical significance can be realized by more listeners outside the UK.
Personnel: Ian Carr: trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion; Jeff Clyne: bass, electric bass; Karl Jenkins: Hohner electric piano, oboe; John Marshall: drums; Brian Smith: tenor and soprano saxophones; Chris Spedding: guitar.