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

John Kelman By

Sign in to view read count
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.

We'll Talk About It Later

By the time We'll Talk About It Later was released, Nucleus had played Montreux and the States, and were already incorporating a harder edge. From the opening fanfare of Jenkins' "Song for the Bearded Lady," a tune that he would plunder later and convert into the epic "Hazard Profile" when he joined Soft Machine, the change is clear. If Elastic Rock was a tad on the polite side, We'll Talk About rIt Later dispensed with any such civilities. Spedding's guitar was more aggressive, using distortion, wah-wah, phase shifting and other electronic affectations. Marshall was playing harder as well, with more of a backbeat. The music, once again written primarily by Jenkins, revolved around repetitive riffs over which long over-the-bar themes would be developed by the horn section. The approach is looser, with more of a jam session approach, and while Nucleus was not as on the edge as Miles, there are definite parallels between tunes like "Sun Child" and some of the music ultimately released on the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. Still, as loose as Nucleus' approach was at this point, there is still a stronger devotion to song form than what Miles was pursuing. "Lullaby for a Lonely Child," a ballad that has its own sense of drama, features long tones by Carr over Spedding's bouzouki and tremolo electric guitar.

As much an advance as We'll Talk About It Later is, there are two missteps in the final tracks, "Ballad of Joe Pimp" and "Easter 1916," both featuring uncredited vocals that would have been best left off the record. "Joe Pimp" may be an allusion to Frank Zappa's "Willie the Pimp" but has none of the wit, while "Easter 1916," a rehash of "1916 (Battle of Boogaloo)" from Elastic Rock, is a failed attempt at psychedelia. Still, these two blunders aside, We'll Talk About It Later represents a logical development. But while Carr and Nucleus were dabbling more with rock rhythms and longer jam-like vamps, it was clear that the group still came from a jazz background.

Solar Plexus

As is also the case with the follow-up to We'll Talk About It Later, Solar Plexus, recorded a mere three months later, but with a significant difference. This time Carr would be the sole compositional contributor, with a suite stemming from an Arts Council grant for double quintet. With an expanded line-up that includes trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett, saxophonist Tony Roberts, bassist Ron Matthewson, percussionist Chris Karan and Keith Winter on VCS3 synthesizer, the sound of Solar Plexus is bigger and brasher. And while tunes like "Snakehips' Dream" rely on a fixed riff, a vamp over which Smith and Carr both contribute strong solos, the overall complexion of the album is more structured, all the while eschewing the theme-solo-theme structure of more traditional jazz form. The suite is based on two short themes stated at the beginning of the record, and explored at greater length throughout. From the arco bass and oboe duet that starts "Bedrock Deadlock" to Beckett's free flugelhorn solo on "Spirit Level," the textures are broader. With the expanded horn section there is greater opportunity for developing contrapuntal themes, as is the case later in "Bedrock Deadlock." And the diverse sounds and styles of the three trumpeters—Carr, Beckett and Wheeler—create a contrast that makes for a richness not found on the first two recordings.

But as arranged as the horn lines are and as much as there is an overall structure that pervades the proceedings, Carr is clearly more interested in using these conceits as set-ups for longer explorations. Regular performances at Ronnie Scott's in London, in addition to their trip to the US that same year, gave the group the chance to further refine its sound. Sadly however, while Nucleus was garnering critical success from around the world, such acclaim did not translate into financial gain, and for the first time, after a whirlwind year of three outstanding records and notable live performances, the group fell apart. Carr was in serious financial straits; Karl Jenkins and John Marshall had departed to join Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper in Soft Machine; Chris Spedding chose to pursue a career in rock; and Jeff Clyne had moved on to a successful career as a studio musician and member of Gilgamesh and Isotope.


For some, such a disastrous chain of events would be discouraging and, to be certain, Carr was at a low point, with health problems only compounding the financial difficulties of trying to keep a band afloat. Still, with Brian Smith remaining, Carr went into the studio with Colosseum drummer Jon Hiseman producing, and created an album that stands as a highlight of his career for a number of reasons. Belladonna, recorded eighteen months after Solar Plexus, was released under Carr's name but is, truthfully, a renewed version of Nucleus, this time with Carr the undisputed leader. Whereas Carr had always considered the original band to be a collective, when faced with others' lack of commitment, it became clear that this was, indeed, Carr's group.

The new group centred around Carr, Smith, Dave MacRae on Fender Rhodes, Roy Babbington on bass guitar (who would follow Jenkins and Marshall to Soft Machine a couple of years later), drummer Clive Thacker and, most notably, a young Alan Holdsworth on guitar. If Belladonna were a failure in all other aspects, and it is not by any stretch of the imagination, then it is worthy of attention for no other reason than to hear an early Holdsworth in action. Holdsworth solos with effortless abandon in tandem with Carr and Smith on the extended vamp of the title track, but it is on "Remadione" and, in particular, Smith's closer, "Hector's House," where notice is given that a new guitarist with a singular voice has arrived. Sure, Holdsworth's sound and conception is raw and not fully-formed, but the legato phrasing and lightening fast lines, inspired by John Coltrane, are already in full evidence.

But while Holdsworth's appearance is so vivid, so compelling, that it would be easy to dispense with the rest of the record, the reality is that Belladonna is the best representation of Carr's vision to date, and shows just how broad Carr's musical concept had become. While there is no doubt that this is a fusion record, it seems less forced, less considered; the rock rhythms more natural. And with extended pieces like the title track, Smith and Carr are, for the first time, given full reign to show their own inestimable talents. With MacRae providing a lush backdrop, and Gordon Beck adding a second electric piano on three tracks, the compositions on Belladonna, while retaining a sense of structure, are looser, more open-ended than anything recorded to date. And if there is any doubt about Smith's skills as an improviser, one need only listen to his work on "Hector's House," where his soprano work is beautifully constructed and is an exciting lead-up to Holdsworth's stunning solo.
About Ian Carr
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.