Though hard to believe these days, "fusion" was lauded early in its history as fresh, innovative and a potential economic savior for a slumping industry. But the freshness quickly wore off; innovation gave way to derivative technical exercises; and the sales balm was only temporary.
But in its nascent stages, creative groups were eager to experiment with the quickly burgeoning rock scene. Across the pond, a little known group called Nucleus was creating its own distinct brand of fusion which, at least for a few albums, confirmed the excitement the genre was causing.
Cuneiform has raided the vaults of Radio Bremen to serve up a live two-disc set. The original lineup of Ian Carr (trumpet), Karl Jenkins (oboe, Hohner), Brian Smith (reeds) and John Marshall (drums) had changed for this tour as bassist Roy Babbington replaces Jeff Clyne and guitarist Ray Russell deps for Chris Spedding.
The complete concert, recorded in May 1971, ably demonstrates what set Nucleus apart from later poorer fusion groups (including its own reincarnations). The stronger element comes from jazz and improvisations are group-based, rather than solos over vamps. The material is drawn from the first two albums but also includes several group pieces, ostensibly improvs formed on stage and worked out over the course of a tour. Nucleus did not do everything at one pace or volume. For every bass-driven number (Jenkins' "Song for The Bearded Lady"), a quiet reflective piece featuring Smith’s flute would follow. Moments of free improvisation begin songs and much looser group interplay recalls Miles Davis (Carr gave up music to write the definitive books on Miles Davis and British jazz), and Soft Machine (Jenkins, Babbington and Marshall would all go on to join that group).
The wild card is Ray Russell. Before recording bad fusion in the late '70s, he was a mysterious guitarist who at his best played the most ridiculously atonal and harsh lines ever recorded. It is a wonder then how well he fits with the group for this, his one tour, and how comfortable he is taking a starring role on jazz-, blues- and prog-influenced tunes. His contributions, coupled with the long modal trumpet work of Carr, floats Nucleus to the level of many of their higher-profile American counterparts.