It's hard not to warm to a bandleader who once took a party of jazz musicians along to a motorcycle race meeting so that they could get the "risk" of improvising into perspective. That's London guitarist Billy Jenkins: an instinctive enemy of pretension and convention wherever he encounters thema licensed celebrant of humanist funerals, chess punk, satirist, prankster and the one-time captain of a lawn bowling team, a position and a pastime widely regarded as the preserve of geriatrics. Jenkins' singular music is a reflection of his non-conformist lifestyle. But don't let that deceive you. Quirky though it is, the music is seriously good.
At its root are the blues: razor-edged, high decibel, electric blues relocated from South Side Chicago to south London. A fine guitarist in the Muddy Waters tradition, Jenkins likes to surround himself with players at home at the intersection of jazz and blues, and I Am A Man From Lewisham features a typically characterful group of them. The lineup includes alto saxophonist and Empirical young blood Nathaniel Facey, violinist, pocket cornetist and Blues Collective member Dylan Bates, tuba player Oren Marshall (whose credits span the late free-improv guitar auteur Derek Bailey and minimalist one-off Moondog), trombonist Gail Brand, and drummer Charles Hayward.
Topped and tailed by a pair of stomping 12-bar blues, I Am A Man From Lewisham goes off at some wild tangents along its circular journey. "On (Catford) Broadway"the title, like others on the album, name-checks those areas in south London which are Jenkins' stamping groundsmixes free improv with working class London's music hall/Chas 'n' Dave tradition. "Francis Drake Bowls Club" is a tuba-led oompah waltz featuring a riveting Gypsified violin solo by Bates. "Deptford Market" is an up tempo r&b shuffle showcasing Facey's raucous, vocalized sax, straight out of the school of David "Fathead" Newman in the late 1950s Ray Charles band. "Church Of The Ford Transit Mini Bus" is a barn dance knees-up. "Terraced Fast Food" sounds like a Maghrebi folk tune. "Clock Tower Of Power" resembles a Salvationist recruiting hymn. If there were any second takes along the way, it doesn't show. This is honest, rough edged music of immense vitality and charm.
In a post-millennial world tilted towards the bland and the consumerist, Billy Jenkins is worth his weight in gold. Anyone yet to encounter him is in for a treat when they do so.
Track Listing: I Am A Man From Lewisham; On (Catford) Broadway; Francis Drake Bowls Club; Deptford Market; Church Of The Ford Transit Mini Bus; Terraced Fast Food; Clock Tower Of Power; Throw Them Blues In The Recycling Bin.
Personnel: Billy Jenkins: guitar, vocals (1, 8), harmonica; Nathaniel Facey: alto saxophone; Jim Howard: trumpet; Dylan Bates: violin, pocket cornet; Charlie Hart: violin; Gail Brand: trombone; Dave Ramm: organ; Oren Marshall: tuba; Charles Hayward: drums, percussion, melodica; Carol Grimes: backing vocals; Ayanna Witter-Johnson: backing vocals; Merlin Hayward: backing vocals.
I love jazz because it's been a life's work.
I was first exposed to jazz by my father.
I met Hampton Hawes.
The best show I ever attended was Les McCann.
The first jazz record I bought was Herbie Hancock.
My advice to new listeners is to listen at a comfortable volume.