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

John Kelman By

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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.

The Pretty Redhead

Still, with Carr's reputation reaching something near legendary status in England, resulting in BGO's reissue of nearly the entire Nucleus discography to critical acclaim, it's no surprise that other record labels with access to archival Nucleus material should look to releasing additional sessions. Hux Records, notable for its series of reissues of BBC radio recordings, has gathered two sessions a dozen years apart to paint a picture of Nucleus as, first, a cooperative band and then more of a strict vehicle for Carr.

The March '71 session that opens The Pretty Redhead is, to date, the only recording available of the initial line-up in a live context, albeit in BBC's studio. What becomes evident on hearing this incarnation rip its way through "Song for the Bearded Lady," "Elastic Rock," and "Snakehips Dream," is how, while latter-day Nucleus approached jazz from a rock sensibility, this version came at things from the other way around. John Marshall, for example, is a drummer who whet his teeth in a more straightforward jazz environment, and it shows. The whole affair has an openness, a looser improvisational sensibility. Even when there is a primary soloist, as in the case of "Elastic Rock" where guitarist Chris Spedding and then Brian Smith take extended solos, the rhythm section is less intent on playing fixed form and, instead, is keenly attentive and responsive to the soloist's direction. Karl Jenkins, who would later be dismissed as the person responsible for eliminating the sense of freedom and interplay in Soft Machine, is a fine pianist here, layering chords that at times drive the soloists and, at other times, respond to them.

The second session, recorded in October '82, features a completely revamped line-up, even following the days of Out of the Long Dark. Marshall was back in the fold with Carr, but the rest of the band—saxophonist Tim Whitehead, guitarist Mark Wood and bassist Joe Hubbard—were all newcomers and, for the first time ever, the band was without a keyboardist. But Wood, who clearly has more jazz chops than many of the guitarists that came before him, acts as a fine textural accompanist on the spacious "For Miles and Miles," where he creates atmospheric swells with his volume pedal, and as an engaging soloist on the more straightforward title track. While the band misses the involvement of Smith, it represents a cogent group sound with its own personality.

As always, BBC recordings are clean and crisp; and so The Pretty Redhead is a fine example of how the group evolved over the course of twelve years while still retaining its identifiable sound

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