Ian Carr and Nucleus: '70s British Jazz Rock Progenitors

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Ask the question, "who was the first fusion artist?" and you're likely to start a heated debate. While populists like to claim Miles Davis and seminal recordings including In a Silent Way and especially Bitches Brew as the first salvos in a genre that ultimately spawned groups including Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous' initially more freely-conceived Weather Report and, of course, the incendiary Mahavishnu Orchestra, fronted by guitar legend John McLaughlin, the reality is that, like any change in music, it came from a number of directions at once. A specific artist may introduce the record that defines a genre, but the truth is that for every landmark recording there are dozens of others that mine the same territory but never receive their proper due.

In the arena of jazz/rock fusion, clearly pianist Mike Nock and Fourth Way were early progenitors, with albums including The Sun and the Moon Have Come Together ('69) and Werewolf ('70). And vibraphonist Mike Manieri dabbled with rock sounds and rhythms on Journey Through an Electric Tube ('68) and the big band effort White Elephant ('69). But these efforts all reflected a more American approach to fusing rock rhythms and textures with jazz tonalities. What of places further abroad?

In England there were a number of groups who were blending rock sonorities with a more loose improvisational approach. Soft Machine released one of their most important albums, Third, in '70, an album that to this day is considered in the same breath as Bitches Brew for its sheer audacity and forward-thinking approach. And Dave Stewart's Egg, while owing much to the classical tradition, was still a harbinger of more jazzy things to come with bands including Hatfield and the North and National Health. But amidst all this flurry of activity arose a band who, while the personnel would change radically over the years, represented the vision of one artist: trumpeter Ian Carr, who would, following a long run with the Don Rendell/Ian Carr band of the '60s, search for ways to mesh his own self-taught traditional background in improvisational jazz with the more edgy rhythms and sounds of rock. The result, Nucleus, is a band that, critically acclaimed in its time, was almost forgotten through the ensuing years, but has recently come back into the spotlight thanks to a series of reissues by Britain's BGO Records, not to mention the release of live recordings by Hux and Cuneiform.

Chapter Index:
  1. Elastic Rock
  2. We'll Talk About It Later
  3. Solar Plexus
  4. Belladonna
  5. Labyrinth
  6. Roots
  7. Under the Sun
  8. Snakehips Etcetera
  9. Alleycat
  10. Direct Hits
  11. In Flagrante Delicto
  12. Out of the Long Dark
  13. The Pretty Redhead
  14. Live in Bremen
  15. In Closing
  16. Ian Carr/Nucleus Discography—Available Titles


Elastic Rock

When Carr brought together keyboardist/oboist Karl Jenkins, saxophonist/flautist Brian Smith, guitarist Chris Spedding, bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer John Marshall, established musicians all, to record Nucleus' first record, Elastic Rock, one doubts that he could have envisioned the impact the album would have, not only on the British scene, but on the international stage as well. A few short months after recording their first record they won the top award at the Montreux Jazz Festival and found themselves playing at the Village Gate in New York, to an audience who was wondering exactly what it was they were hearing. And if it weren't for a manager's greediness, Elastic Rock would have seen Stateside release, and the broader history of fusion might have been coloured a different way. But sadly that didn't happen and Nucleus, after an initial flurry of activity on the North American scene, ultimately returned to England where they maintained a successful career there and on the European continent, for the next ten years or so.

From the opening burst of Jenkins' "1916," with its anthemic horn-line supported by Marshall's flurry of activity, it is clear that something new is happening. The album as a whole, while incorporating certain elements of rock rhythms, is a more relaxed affair than what was to come later. If a comparison must be made, then Miles' In a Silent Way is a precedent, although Carr claims not to have heard it at the time of recording, which just continues to reinforce the reality that advances in music come from many sources and usually at the same time. Like In a Silent Way, Carr chose to build side-long continuous suites of music, although there is less reliance on hypnotic groove and more on composed melodies, mostly from the pen of Jenkins, who would write the majority of Nucleus' first two records. And while there are some similarities between the trancelike groove of "Torrid Zone" and "Shhh/Peaceful," there are differences as well. While "Shhh/Peaceful" would rest on a certain ambience for nearly an entire side, "Torrid Zone" would lead into "Stonescape," a more conventional ballad, albeit played with a certain elasticity in time by Marshall. Segueing into "Earth Mother," Jenkins delivers an oboe solo over a group improvisation that, as rocky as it gets, is still relatively subdued compared with their next album, We'll Talk About It Later, which was recorded eight months later in September '70.

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