Courtney Pine’s Journey To The Urge Within: 30 Years Old Today

courtney-2Island Records, released 25th October 1986

Produced by Michael Cuscuna and Roy Carter

Recorded at Angel Studios, North London between 21st – 23rd July 1986

UK album chart position: #39

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 & 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 scene.

As he memorably put it in the excellent ‘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 – soon Courtney 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 Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK, an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This writer fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, he unexpectedly found Pine and Miles Davis sharing the album chart. Happy days.

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Working Week: Does Jazz Go Into Pop?

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

I’ve just had the pleasure of writing the liner notes to a really good new live album by Working Week, possibly the premier jazz/pop band of the 1980s.

It got me thinking about why jazz has totally disappeared from the charts and why the first half of the ’80s seemed the perfect time for jazz and pop to co-exist, especially in the UK.

Here an excerpt from the liner notes:

‘Does jazz go into pop? Judging by the current music scene, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal ‘no’, but, for a golden period in the early-to-mid ’80s, it seemed as if the two styles could happily co-exist. Artists like David Sylvian, John Martyn, Hue and Cry, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Danny Wilson, Swing Out Sister, Joe Jackson and Everything But The Girl smuggled some cool chords into the charts introduced the pop audience to players of the calibre of Kenny Wheeler, Harry Beckett, Lester Bowie, Michael Brecker, Ronnie Scott, Eberhard Weber, Sonny Rollins, Guy Barker, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis. Sade, Carmel, The Style Council and Matt Bianco’s fusion of jazz and pop wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but all of them had big hits. The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ was a jazz waltz (with a few bars of 4/4 thrown in) which got to number one!

The advertising and TV industries played ball and a full-scale jazz ‘revival’ was underway, documented in classic 1986 documentary ’10 Days That Shook Soho’. Courtney Pine and Miles Davis shared space on the UK album chart, Wynton Marsalis made the cover of Time and you could even catch Loose Tubes, Tommy Chase and Andy Sheppard on primetime terrestrial TV. DJs Paul Murphy, Baz Fe Jazz, Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson packed out Camden’s Dingwalls and the Electric Ballroom and young hepcats were dancing to Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Though older British jazzers such as Stan Tracey, Keith Tippett and Mike Westbrook (and some younger ones too) naturally viewed this latest revival with some suspicion, at least it was a relief from the extremely precarious ’70s when rock, funk and fusion almost subsumed jazz. The old guard hung on, gigging in the back rooms of pubs, picking up occasional free improve shows in Europe or moonlighting in West End pit orchestras. But then punk came along, and it affected more than just disenfranchised young rock fans – its DIY ethos breathed new life into jazz too. Bands like Rip Rig + Panic and Pigbag made huge strides in engaging a youthful, receptive audience. Pigbag even made it onto ‘Top Of The Pops’…twice!

But it was Working Week, co-founded in 1983 by saxophonist Larry Stabbins and guitarist Simon Booth, who really typified the successful fusion of jazz and pop in mid-‘80s. Formed in 1983 from the ashes of jazz/post-punk outfit Weekend (whose ‘The View From Her Room‘ was a confirmed early-’80s club classic), initially Working Week was almost the de facto house band for the emerging scene, with the infectiously exuberant IDJ dancers often joining them onstage. Brit National Treasures™ Robert Wyatt and Tracey Thorn duetted on classic single ‘Venceremos – We Will Win’ which briefly made an appearance on the UK singles chart in late 1984. The accompanying album Working Nights, featuring other Brit jazz legends Guy Barker, Harry Beckett and Annie Whitehead and produced by Sade’s regular helmer Robin Millar, reached a sprightly number 23 in the UK album chart soon after…’

Read more in the newly-released Working Week live album recorded in May 1985.

Much more on the ’80s London jazz/dance scene to come.

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.