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

John Kelman By

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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

Live in Bremen

Recorded in May of '71, Live in Bremen captures Nucleus in performance during a transitional phase. Chris Spedding had left to pursue his career in rock, to be replaced by the somewhat enigmatic Ray Russell; and Roy Babbington had taken Jeff Clyne's place.

Babbington proves a logical and comfortable replacement, living in the same musical space as Clyne, with a background as a studio player in a variety of genres, but there's no question he's a jazzer at heart. More noticeable is Russell who, unlike Spedding, had a more compelling interest in jazz, specifically of the fusion variety, and would go on to record a number of solo albums in the ensuing years. With a more aggressive stance than Spedding, his solo on the set opener, "Song for the Bearded Lady" is closer to what John McLaughlin was doing with his Mahavishnu Orchestra, although Russell doesn't display the same staggering technical ability.

This two-CD set captures an entire Nucleus performance, half of which is material from their first three studio releases and, perhaps more importantly from an archival perspective, half of which appears to be group improvisations based around simple sketches. From the pastoral "By the Pool," with Smith's lyrical flute and Russell's folk-like strumming, to "Money Mad," which is at once the most swinging Nucleus on record and the most free, it's clear that this was a significant working unit that, while short-lived, had an identity that was more closely aligned with a free improvisational spirit than any other incarnation including the first. Kudos to Cuneiform Records, a small but important label who specializes in releasing archival live gems from bands like Soft Machine and Matching Mole, as well as newer progressive and jazz works from bands including The Muffins and Keith Tippet's collective, Mujician, for unearthing this recording, which asserts Nucleus as an exciting and innovative group that, for its time, was on par with any of the fusion groups receiving more attention in North America.

In Closing

While there is no question that talent plays a part in the popularity and longevity of any recording artist, just as important are issues beyond the music, including accessibility to a wider audience. Thanks to BGO Records, it is now possible for a broader international audience to look back at Ian Carr and Nucleus, and reassess their importance in the overall development of jazz in a more assertive, rock-informed environment. Clearly, on the strength of these recordings, Carr's music would have garnered him a greater degree of success had he had the same level of access to North American audiences that other fusion bands of the time had. The good news, however, is that with the reissue of the Nucleus catalogue by BGO, and archival live recordings by Hux and Cuneiform, enough interest has emerged to compel Carr to put together a new version of the group, which will be playing some UK dates later this year. A biography of Carr is also rumoured to be in the works. Hopefully this resurgence of interest will lead to a recording, and a chance for a broader audience to find out where Carr is now, twenty years down the road. class="f-left s-img">

Ian Carr/Nucleus Discography—Available Titles :

Elastic Rock (1970) issued with We'll Talk About It Later as BGOCD47
We'll Talk About It Later (1971) issued with Elastic Rock as BGOCD47
Solar Plexus (1971) issued with Belladonna as BGOCD566
Belladonna (1972) issued with Solar Plexus as BGOCD566
Labyrinth (1973) issued with Roots as BGOCD567
Roots (1973) issued with Labyrinth as BGOCD567
Under the Sun (1974) issued with Snakehips Etcetera as BGOCD568
Snakehips Etcetera (1975) issued with Under the Sun as BGOCD568
Alleycat (1975) issued with Direct Hits as BGOCD565
Direct Hits (1976) issued with Alleycat as BGOCD565
In Flagrante Delicto (1977) issued as BGO599
Out of the Long Dark (1979) issued with Old Heartland as BGOCD420
The Pretty Redhead (BBC recordings 1971/1982) issued as HUX 038
Live in Bremen (recorded 1971) issued by Cuneiform Records as RUNE 173/174
About Ian Carr
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