“National Health” was indeed one of the finest exponents of the oft fabled “Canterbury” progressive rock era as Playtime represents the band’s first – live recording to be issued either on LP or CD format. Culled from performances at venues in France and Pennsylvania during a 1979 tour, this new release presents the listener with the only recorded manifestation of a lineup consisting of keyboardist Alan Gowen, bassist John Greaves, guitarist Phil Miller and drummer Pip Pyle. Hence, Gowen had rejoined the band in 1979, as the original 1975 lineup also featured keyboardist Dave Stewart.
Alan Gowen and Dave Stewart were among the finest and most innovative keyboardists of the 70’s and early 80’s. However, in 1981 Alan Gowen succumbed to a bout with leukemia and Stewart’s recorded output has been spotty at best, while Greaves, Pyle and Miller have surged onward, performing among various highly touted aggregations that generally reside somewhere in the fusion, jazz or progressive/experimental rock genres.
Basically, Playtime should be deemed essential listening for most progressive rock enthusiasts! On this release, the band explores modern jazz motifs in concert with a bevy of twists, turns and sprightly soloing, which is evident from the onset of the fifteen-minute opener, titled “Flanagan’s People”.
Guitarist Alain Eckert adds a supplementary edge while joining the ensemble and working alongside Phil Miller on three of these works, as the duo engages in a furious electric guitar attack on “Dreams Wide Awake”. Here, Gowen effectively comps and consistently reinvents the primary theme via yearning lines and limber soloing while toggling between synths and electric piano.
The musicians dabble with free jazz on “Rhubarb Jam”; whereby, Gowen renders a memorably melodic and thoroughly hypnotic ostinato in support of Greaves’ booming fuzz bass soloing on “Play Time”. – The keyboardist also pursues raucous blues/rock propositions in conjunction with the rhythm section’s maddening pulse on the burner and final track, “Squarer For Maude Part 2”.
No doubt, National Health was a great outfit! Overall, Playtime finds the ensemble performing with unrelenting urgency amid whimsical themes, alluring melodies and complex rhythmic structures as the folks at “Cuneiform” have dutifully unearthed a radiant gem from the recent past. Recommended!
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Personnel: Alan Gowen; keyboards: John Greaves; bass, vocals: Phil Miller; guitar: Pip Pyle; drums with Alain Eckert; guitar on 3 tracks.