Courtney Pine: ’80s Jazz Messenger

courtney pine

Courtney in concert, 1987

Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories. Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood and General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London music scene.

As he memorably put it in the superb BBC TV documentary Jazz Britannia, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’

But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.

A period of intense woodshedding paid off, and soon he was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the Angel Heart soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.

Island Records came calling, and his 1986 hard-bop-based debut Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK (scraping in at 39 on 25th October ’86!), an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This web editor fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, unexpectedly found Pine’s debut and Miles Davis‘s Tutu sharing the chart.

courtney pine

Courtney spearheaded a huge resurgence of interest in jazz in the mid-to-late ’80s. But despite his huge success and admirable teaching work, he’s still somewhat of an anomaly on the scene, a barnstorming soloist with a lot of technique and a huge sound, one of the few British saxists who can give US brain-blowers like James Carter and David Murray a run for their money.

With Courtney’s playing and talent, it’s a question of context. His musical vision has certainly diversified since the mid-’80s, taking in elements of reggae, drum and bass, UK garage and jazz/funk, though the last few years have seen him refocus on mainly acoustic formats.

His fine 2011 album ‘Europa‘ was his first all-bass clarinet record and it was an absolute blast. He investigated calpyso forms on the 2012 House Of Legends set and returned to the bass clarinet for his beautiful current album Song (The Ballad Book).

Courtney is still a prolific live performer too, check out his website for details of all upcoming gigs. More power to his elbow.

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