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

John Kelman By

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Labyrinth

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">

Roots

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.

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