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

John Kelman By

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With the success of Belladonna, it was clear that Carr could continue with Nucleus as a going concern. While Holdsworth had left the group, Carr continued on with Smith, MacRae, Babbington and Thacker, but again, as with Solar Plexus, augmenting the group, this time with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, singer Norma Winstone, clarinetist Tony Coe, pianist Gordon Beck, drummer Tony Levin, percussionist Trevor Tomkins and synthesist Paddy Kingsland to form the ensemble that would record Labyrinth , Carr's most ambitious project to date.

Recorded nine months after Belladonna, Labyrinth found a stable Nucleus line-up again exploring, as they did with Solar Plexus, a broader sonic palette. Winstone sings lyrics on one track, the light and airy "Ariadne" which, with Smith's mellifluous flute, echoes some of the space that Chick Corea would explore with Flora Purim in his nascent Return to Forever band. Still, her most significant contribution to the record, and one that would continue to define her career for years to come in groups including the collaborative Azimuth with pianist John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler, is her wordless improvisations, adding an entirely new dimension to Carr's open-ended compositions.

Labyrinth also features some of the freest playing to be found on any Nucleus recording. "Arena (Part 1)" features the entire ensemble in the outer reaches, finally settling into an escalating vamp for "Arena (Part 2)," that ultimately resolves into a duet between Coe's bass clarinet and Wheeler's trumpet.

Cleverly combining a rock approach with a more outward-thinking sensibility, Labyrinth, which is the first Nucleus recording not to feature a guitarist, is unquestionably the group's most exploratory record, with collective improvisation by the entire ensemble and by various subsets defining a clear direction for the entire suite. class="f-left">


For his next album, Carr pares things down again. Remaining are Smith, MacRae and Thacker, with new recruits Jocelyn Pitchen on guitar, bassist Roger Sutton, percussionist Aureo de Souza and, on the gentle "Images," MacRae's wife Joy Yates on vocals. While credited as "Ian Carr's Nucleus," Roots is clearly more of a collaborative effort, with Carr writing three tunes, Smith delivering three tracks and MacRae supplying the somewhat out-of-character "Southern Roots and Celebration," with its hint of gospel and blues.

While the title track is a condensation of a longer commission from the Lambeth New Music Society, and "Caliban" is a part of a larger piece called "Ban, Ban, Caliban" commissioned by the Globe Playhouse Trust, Roots represented a shift away from a larger view and more towards individual compositions. The spirit of Chick Corea's Return to Forever looms large over Smith's "Whapatiti," a medium tempo samba, while the title track, revolving around a steadily building greasy funk line, features more of the collective soloing that Carr had favoured from the outset. Pitchen, unfortunately, is not as impressive as Holdsworth, and his solo on "Caliban" is somewhat meandering, with little in the way of thematic development.

Smith's compositions are less groove-centric than Carr's; "Capricorn" is a beautiful ballad with diverging ascending and descending lines creating an intriguing sense of tension.

Roots may lack some of the immediacy of its predecessors, but it remains a captivating album with fine writing, overall strong playing, and a group sound that is, once again, beginning to emerge by virtue of some consistency in the line-up. Unfortunately, that would soon change. class="f-left">

Under the Sun

Through six recordings of widely varying personnel, Carr's one constant partner was woodwind player Brian Smith. Smith, a New Zealander who had been in England since '64, worked with a variety of other artists including Alexis Korner, Mike Westbrook and Graham Collier, but always made Nucleus a priority until '74, when he left for an extended period to tour internationally with Maynard Ferguson's big band. He would ultimately return for '77's In Flagrante Delicto, but Carr's good fortune was to find a replacement in Bob Bertles, an Australian ex-pat. Smith's departure was not the only change; once again the group changed almost completely. While bassist Roger Sutton remained, Dave MacRae was gone, replaced by Geoff Castle; as in the case of Belladonna and Labyrinth, Gordon Beck contributed electric piano to the next session, '74's Under the Sun ; Clive Thacker was replaced by Bryan Spring; and while Jocelyn Pitchen was around for part of Under the Sun, he would ultimately be replaced part-way through the session by Ken Shaw.

The resulting record is a solid, if somewhat less adventurous recording than what came before. Under the Sun sports some interesting compositions, notably the side-long "Sarsaparilla" suite, which ranges from the up-tempo opening piece, "A Taste of Sarsaparilla" and "Theme 1: Sarsaparilla" to the darker funk of "Theme 2: Feast Alfresco," and the ambient opening of "Theme 3: Rites of Man," which ultimately resolves into another brooding funk groove to finish off the record. Bertles makes for an immediately vivid presence, fitting in comfortably with Carr's own inimitably lyrical solo style.

By this point Carr had established a number of conventions: riff-based vamps over which long, snakelike themes would be developed before heading into solo territory; open-ended ballads which, while tender, retained a certain darkness; and shorter anthemic pieces, like the opening track, "In Procession." The result is that, after a string of groundbreaking records, Nucleus was becoming slightly predictable. Still, the quality of the playing, kept fresh to some extent by the infusion of new blood, and a compelling writing style, ensured that even a weaker effort like Under the Sun retained an approachable style that made for captivating listening.

Snakehips Etcetera

While Nucleus remained a band worth following, there is no question that by the time Under the Sun was released they had reached a plateaux, one that would not be overcome on their next release, '75's Snakehips Etcetera. With a stable line-up of Carr, Bertles, Shaw, Castle, Sutton and newcomer Roger Sellers on drums, gone were the days of more collective improvisation, and instead the group seemed, for the most part, to return to the theme-solo-theme format that they had so steadfastly eschewed from the very beginning.

Still, there are plenty of things to like about Snakehips Etcetera. There is a certain clean soulfulness to some of the material, in particular Bertles' "Rat's Bag" and Castles' "Rachel's Tune." Some of the material, in particular Carr's irregular metered title track and "Heyday," which sports some 12-string acoustic guitar from Shaw that is somewhat reminiscent of Ralph Towner, features longer forms that hearken back to the early days of Belladonna. But the group is more literal, less open; and the result reeks too much of a rhythm section supporting a soloist rather than a group of improvisers who are working off each other. And while Bertles and Carr continue to be strong and imaginative soloists, Shaw comes too much from a rock background and hasn't enough jazz sensibility to keep things truly interesting during his lengthy solos.

But if Snakehips Etcetera is Nucleus at their most predictable, their most pedestrian, they are still a step ahead of many of their peers of the day. class="f-left">


'75's Alleycat features the same line-up as Snakehips Etcetera and, consequently the same set of strengths and weaknesses. Still, at this point Nucleus was a busy performing group, with regular tours in Germany to hone the group's sound. They may not have been as adventurous as they were in their early days, but they were a tight group, with a distinctive sound that was more about funk and soul than more traditional jazz roots. A band that had started as a hybrid looking towards fusing a variety of genres into a coherent sound had evolved into a more straightforward groove band. Sure, there are hints of more adventurous harmonies on tracks like Carr's "Splat," and a certain element of blues roots to tracks like the Carr/Shaw/Sutton collaboration "You Can't Be Sure," but the closest the group comes to recapturing their earlier days of adventure is on Bertles' "Nosegay," with its staggeringly fast theme and energetic Tower of Power burn over which Bertles delivers the strongest solo of the record. But, again, the writing is all about theme-solo-theme, a philosophy that Carr had so adamantly avoided in previous incarnations of the band.

Still, there's an energy about this incarnation of the band, and a broader accessibility that must have made them an exciting live act.

Direct Hits

With Alleycat Nucleus ended its long association with Vertigo Records, who had released everything by the band since its inception. Moving to Capital Records with perhaps hopes of greater marketability, in particular in North America, Nucleus would go on to release their next record, the live recording In Flagrante Delicto. But in the meantime Vertigo issued Direct Hits, as fitting a retrospective as one could ask for.

Interestingly, the most recent album represented would be Under the Sun, with more emphasis on the earlier incarnation of the band with Brian Smith. And what is most noticeable on the compilation is just how much ground they covered in their first year. With "Song For The Bearded Lady" from We'll Talk About It Later, "Crude Blues" from Elastic Rock and "Torso" from Solar Plexus, a clear picture evolves of a band that truly had its own take in shaping the fusion of jazz with more contemporary rhythms and tonalities. And while the group continued to push the envelope forward with Belladonna, Roots and, in particular, the ambitious Labyrinth, there is something special, something vital about the first incarnation of the band that was never quite recaptured, although the group certainly continued to develop its own sound and approach. class="f-left">

In Flagrante Delicto

While Bertles was a fine player, the return of Brian Smith to the fold in '77 demonstrates how one player can have a significant impact on the complexion of an entire band. By this point Nucleus had pared down to a lean, mean five-piece featuring keyboardist Geoff Castle and drummer Roger Sellers both of whom, with a couple of years with the group under their belt, were more seasoned and prepared for a return to the more collective improvisational approach that Smith's return represented. And while new bassist Bill Kristian had only played a few gigs on Nucleus' German tour in February '77, when In Flagrante Delicto was recorded live in concert, he had already melded nicely into a group that was now a little less soul-oriented, and was prepared to tackle darker material, including Carr's "Heyday" and the sixteen-minute title track, where Carr and Smith solo in tandem for much of the time, with Castle dropping intuitively appropriate supporting chords behind them.

In Flagrante Delicto may not represent a full return to Nucleus' early days, where the group came to the rock end of things from a more jazz disposition, but with a cleaner sound and greater sense of interplay, this is unquestionably the group's best album since '73's Roots.

Out of the Long Dark

By the time November '78 rolled around, and Carr reconvened the same group that had recorded In Flagrante Delicto nearly two years earlier, he was going through a personal musical crisis. After recording an album, on average, every six months since the group's inception, Carr had become, surprisingly, dissatisfied with his own writing and playing. Surprisingly because, based on the strength of In Flagrante Delicto, Nucleus seemed reinvigorated and Carr's playing, melodic as always, seemed stronger than ever. Out of the Long Dark is a clear return to form.

Sure, there were some nods to trends of the day—drummer Roger Sellers' disco beat on the opening "Gone With the Weed" sounds as dated as so many other similarly-informed fusion bands of the time did. But tunes including "Selina," which tips a very big nod to Miles Davis' "All Blues," and the dark funk of the title track, with Smith's flute and Carr's muted trumpet excelling at the kind of in tandem interplay that they always do so well, are some of Carr's strongest compositions in years. And "For Liam," a solo piece by Carr that finishes the record, shows him to be at the top of his game, both technically and emotionally.

But with the release of Out of the Long Dark Carr would more-or-less fold Nucleus. There would be two more records released, both on the Mood label and still awaiting reissue on CD—'80s Awakening, with Carr, Smith and Castle supported by a new rhythm section, and'85's Live at the Theaterhaus, with an entirely new band other than the return of drummer John Marshall—but for all intents and purposes Nucleus had ceased to exist other than for the occasional special project, including intermittent gigs and recording for the BBC. Carr would record his sadly-overlooked Old Heartland in '88 with a string orchestra and, on some tracks, a somewhat-reconvened Nucleus that included Marshall and Castle, but the music bore no resemblance to the jazz/rock fusion that he had pioneered during the '70s.

For the next couple of decades Carr would retire from active performance, concentrating more on practicing, teaching and writing. His '82 book Miles Davis—The Definitive Biography which he revised in '98, is a standard against which all other books on Davis are measured, and '91's Keith Jarrett—The Man and His Music is, to date, the most comprehensive look at another enigmatic figure. He has also been a contributor and editor of Jazz—The Rough Guide, one of the few books that recognizes the significant contribution of the British Jazz scene in context with happenings elsewhere around the globe.
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