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

John Kelman By

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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.

Belladonna

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.

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