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Billy Jenkins Turns Sixty

Roger Farbey By

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On 5 July 2016 guitarist, composer, vocalist and philosopher Billy Jenkins hits the Big Six-O. It only seems five minutes ago that Jenkins played at the Purcell Room during 2010's London Jazz Festival, accompanied by the BBC Big Band to a suitably enraptured audience. He's been gigging and recording less in the past five years. His album Jazz Gives Me The Blues (VOTP VOCD 1167) was released in 2011 and Billy became an Accredited Humanist Celebrant approved by the British Humanist Association (BHA) to conduct non-religious funerals in 2008. More recently he's released two digital download-only solo guitar albums The Semi-Detached Suburban Home (Music For Low Strung Guitar) (2014, VOTP VOCDD117) and Death, Ritual & Resonation—Eight Solo Studies On Low Strung Guitar (2014, VOTP VOCDD117), both to critical acclaim.

Whilst latterly Jenkins' musical muse has been The Blues, he was always something of an all-round guitarist. He started playing in the art rock band Burlesque, which also featured his erstwhile duo partner, saxophonist Ian Trimmer with whom he subsequently formed Trimmer and Jenkins. With Trimmer he also accompanied legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker for a relatively short period in the band Ginger Baker's Nutters. But his jazz career really started from his earliest album, the tongue-in-cheek titled Sounds Like Bromley (1982, Plymouth Sounds LBB1) reflecting the stultifying artistic sterility of his suburban home town). Released in 1982, it revealed musical influences as diverse as Tamla Motown, Two Tone and Charles Mingus. His next album, Greenwich (1985, Wood Wharf Records—WWR 852) again reflected the culturally moribund South London into which he was born. Arguably it was he and fellow musician Django Bates, also from the suburbs of South London who put jazz on the map in the area. Admittedly the late David Bowie, also from the Beckenham /Bromley area had made a significant contribution to rock and indie music, but it was the likes of Jenkins and Bates who woke London up to a new contemporary jazz in Britain in the 1980s.

Greenwich was a more jazz orientated album but retained Jenkins' unique hallmark of humour and jazz married with highly inventive compositions, imaginative arrangements and instrumentation. Whilst Django Bates' Loose Tubes was firing-up around 1984, there was significant personnel interaction between that anarchic big band and Jenkins' own recordings and performances. Loose Tubes alumni Ian Ballamy and Steve Berry played on Greenwich, the first of frequent associations with various members of Loose Tubes (including Bates) that continued for many years.

Uncommerciality Volume 1 (the "Chocolate Box" series, so-called because their respective covers pastiched well-known brands of British chocolate) was recorded in 1986 and marked the beginning of a more profound appreciation of Jenkins as a master of complex jazz composition. Richard Williams in The Times described this as 'an impressive example of a man in absolute command of his materials. Vibrant in a way that often recalls the spirit of the late Charles Mingus, Uncommerciality is an accomplished and sometimes provocative piece of work.' Uncommerciality Volume 2 was recorded in 1988 and Uncommerciality Volume 3 in 1991. Boasting a stellar array of British jazz musicians including Loose Tubes members Iain Ballamy, Steve Berry, Chris Batchelor, Django Bates, Martin France, John Eacott, Mark Lockheart, Huw Warren, Stuart Hall, Thebe Lipere and Ashley Slater, this three album set was surely the apotheosis of Jenkins' career. Also in The Times, John Bungey described it as: 'Three sprawling, inspired sets -a landmark in warped jazz pleasure.' and reviewing the 2010 download-only reissue of Uncommerciality (VOTP VOCAD108/VOCAD109/VOCAD110), John Fordham wrote in the Guardian of 8 July: 'All in all it is not only Jenkins's finest hour, but a landmark in contemporary UK jazz.' Thankfully, it's still available as a digital download and highly recommended.


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