Thirty-five years after it disbanded, the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet still holds a special place in the affections of older fans who heard it perform – and may be on its way to legendary status for younger ones who only know its reputation. As five of the group’s collectors’-piece albums reappear on CD, the band members tell DUNCAN HEINING a unique British jazz story.
‘WE DID A BBC Jazz Club broadcast once, and we told them we were going to play all original stuff, as we usually did,’ the Rendell-Carr group’s drummer Trevor Tomkins remembers. ‘But there was quite a heated discussion with the producers about it. They kept saying “can’t you throw in a few American standards?” We insisted, and I think we were the first British band they had on the show to do a set of totally original music.’
By the mid-1960s, an era in which most British bands still played the Great American Songbook as close to the American Way as they could, the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet had become unique. ‘In 1965 we’d suddenly found we could go a whole concert without using a standard,’ recalls founding saxophonist Don Rendell. Over a six-year life, the band became one of the most popular on the British touring circuit. Fans would request the group’s originals as eagerly as they might previously have requested ‘My Funny Valentine’. Celebrities like actor Warren Mitchell and producer Sam Wanamaker were among the regular attendees at the band’s gigs.
But, for 35 years, much of the best of the group’s material – recorded for producer Denis Preston between 1964 and 1969 – has been locked in a vault in Hanover. Now, following a leasing deal between the BGO (Beat Goes On) label and Universal Records, those pieces have resurfaced on two fine CD packages. Together, they tell the story of a remarkable band’s life – from a Miles Davis influenced group tentatively branching out in 1964, through the mature sophistication of texture and rhythm of the famous Dusk Fire and the highly personal experiments of Carr on Phase III, to the inner contradictions of Change Is that signalled the quintet’s final dissolution.
Don Rendell, now 78 and still a busy performer and teacher, recalls the band’s origins in 1962. Back then, the saxophonist had a group with Graham Bond on alto. ‘Then one day, Graham phoned up out of the blue,’ Rendell says. ‘He told me he was going to play the organ and sing. I wasn’t thinking about having an organ and singing in the quintet, so we just parted. I had no notice about it.’ That band had not long released an album, Roarin’, on the Jazzland label. Tony Archer, the group’s bassist, suggested Don check out Ian Carr, newly arrived from Newcastle. ‘He was playing at the Flamingo Club with some band,’ Don explains. ‘I thought he’s good, so I said to Tony, “OK, we’ll try and get Ian to come in.” It just changed over night from Graham Bond to Ian Carr.’
Carr was playing with Harold McNair, the Jamaican reedsman. ‘I’d come from the MC5 (Mike Carr Five) – a world class band,’ the trumpeter observes. ‘And Harold didn’t really have any kind of policy and wasn’t very well organised.’ He jumped at the chance to join what was then the new Don Rendell Quintet. Meanwhile, John Mealing had replaced original pianist John Burch, Trevor Tomkins was now the drummer and bassist Dave Green soon took Tony Archer’s place.
This band features on the Spotlite Records’ album The Don Rendell 4 & 5 plus the Don Rendell-Ian Carr Quintet (SPJC-CD566). The band recorded the sides 1964 for American Hank Russell, the singer Howard Keel’s musical director. Russell and Don Rendell were both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Don describes the project as ‘a friendship thing.’ Russell hoped to secure a release in the States but nothing came of it.
That revealing Spotlite album is backed with three tracks from the group’s much later appearance at the Antibes Jazz Festival in 1968, and the contrast is fascinating. The Russell record draws heavily on American standards. But by 1964’s Shades of Blue there is already a significant move toward original compositions.
Dave Green feels the early quintet was ‘very based on the Miles’ thing’. ‘We were trying to emulate these great players. I was trying to do a Paul Chambers and Trevor was trying to do a Jimmy Cobb. John Burch was influenced by Wynton Kelly. But as time went on the band really matured a lot.’ For Dave, Michael Garrick’s arrival later in 1964 (Colin Purbrook had been his immediate predecessor on piano) signalled the change. ‘We started using a lot of Indian-type compositions Michael used to write, and the whole band became really strong.’ Ian Carr feels there was something uniquely poetic about the group’s music then. ‘I think that was one of the reasons people liked it so much. It wasn’t hard-driving like a lot of American jazz of the time. We had different kind of focuses than the Americans. We were into texture and different rhythms. And Michael Garrick was steeped in Indian music as well. We found we could do so many things that we never thought of before.’
When we spoke last year at the time of Gilles Peterson’s first Impressed release, Michael Garrick echoed this view of a search for non-American roots that had rarely been attempted by British players before. ‘Whether we like it or not,’ Garrick said then, ‘we’re English. I wasn’t born in Chicago or New Orleans but in Enfield. ’ The Harkit release of The Rendell/Carr Quintet Live in London (Harkit HRKCD8045) shows how fast that change was happening in the band’s transitional phase. The new compositions leapt from the group’s shared identity. But there had been no policy decision to feature original material, as Don Rendell explained. ‘It was quite brave in a way. We now had so many originals with Michael, Ian and me all writing. But we didn’t plan it. It just happened.’
The group began to attract a growing fanbase all over the country. On the Harkit reissue and on BGO’s Live a wonderful group atmosphere is evident, and an audible warmth from the audience. You can even hear Warren Mitchell’s ribald comments from the floor on Live. This is a band doing it, as Don Rendell says, because they love it.
‘We always used to travel and room together,’ Dave Green remembers. ’Somehow we got all the gear in Trevor’s Vauxhall and we all piled in. It was so exciting. I was absolutely thrilled to be with that band.’ And as Trevor Tomkins points out, it was clearly a group, not two great horn players plus rhythm. ‘That band was really my schooling,’ Tomkins says with feeling. ‘All of us contributed in lots of different ways. It was a group effort. If Ian came in with a new composition it wasn’t ”this is how it’s got to be done. ”It would be ideas and experimenting with things and almost letting it grow naturally.’
Perhaps Dusk Fire is the quintet’s most popular record, and backed with Shades of Blue the BGO reissue makes of a hell of a package. But Phase III/Live reveals a stilldeveloping band. As Don points out, Phase III saw changes in Ian Carr’s writing.‘ “Crazy Jane” and “Les Neiges D’Antan” were approaching free music, no time with no harmonic structure. I’d always written time and harmonic structure.’ With Garrick stretching the group with his Indianinfluenced pieces and Don Rendell’s ‘Coltrane out of Lester Young’ approach, the group could go in any of a number of directions and frequently did.
And they worked regularly. ‘We played a lot of poetry-and-jazz, mainly through Michael Garrick,’ Don remembers. ‘The poets were normally the same ones – Vernon Scannell, John Smith, Danny Abse and Jeremy Robson. There were tours. The northern tour took in Liverpool, Stoke, Leicester, Coventry and Ian’s Newcastle connections fixed us to play there a few times.’ But apart from Antibes and Montreux, they never played in Europe and despite Ian’s best efforts a US trip never materialised. However, a poetry-and-jazz concert for the BBC with Vernon Scannell (Epithets of War) got them on TV, and they also did a BBC2 documentary. Mike Dibbs, who recently collaborated on Ian Carr’s Miles Davis two-parter for Channel Four, was the producer. Dave Green says, ‘he filmed us at the Phoenix on Cavendish Square and as I was getting married on March 1st ’68, he tied the wedding into the filming. Mike had previously written this piece called “Wedding Hymn” so it ended up with the band playing it in the church filmed by the BBC. It was extraordinary.’
In 1967, Ian’s wife Margaret had died shortly after the caesarian birth of their daughter. That’s her on the cover of Shades. That night he rang Trevor who came over immediately, so Ian wouldn’t be alone. ‘Some people think that’s why I put so much of myself into music and, in a way, music was my salvation,’ Ian explains. Perhaps that shows itself most in his contributions to Phase III and Live, but by 1969, somehow the steam was going out. Ghanaian percussionist Guy Warren had begun playing gigs with the group at Ian’s behest but, as Dave Green points out, this ‘didn’t meet with everybody’s approval’. ‘Things started to unravel for no particular reason I can remember,’ the bassist says. ‘Ian started getting quite frustrated. I think he wanted it to go in a slightly different direction and Michael had his own ideas too. ’ Ian left at a gig in Camberley in ’69. ‘Maybe I was just jaded,’ the trumpeter says now. ‘I just went home and didn’t communicate with anybody for a few days. I just felt the band was over.’
Carr started Nucleus, a pioneering British fusion band inspired by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock shortly afterwards. But jazz-rock had little appeal for either Don Rendell or Michael Garrick, with the latter particularly feeling that these influences had little to do with the jazz he loved.
Don Rendell realised it was a question of different priorities, just as it had been seven years before with Graham Bond. ‘Ian wanted his own band which was a different kind of music from what we’d been doing. I didn’t have the commercial ambitions that Ian had. Nor did I want to do a month’s tour of the States or that kind of thing. I’m a family man, I guess.’ With hindsight, Change Is (BGOCD613) tries to contain too many potentialities at one time. The very thing that had made the group great – its breadth, its bravery, its quiet bravado – were the inner contradictions that eventually destroyed it.
Though they’re all glad to see the records reissued, as Trevor Tomkins suggests, ‘it would be nice to get paid for some of it, because we certainly didn’t get much first time. But it’s nice they’re coming out again from a musical standpoint.’
Looking at the scene then and now, both Don and Trevor express concern at the ‘chops for chops’ sake’ attitude they see in some young players, though both feel that most young players have now moved on from that. As Dave Green suggests, ‘you can’t really compare one particular period with another. Things that weren’t happening then are happening now and vice versa. It’s a whole new and different ballgame now, I still feel there’s great opportunities to play. But then I’m a born optimist. There’s no question that the ‘60s was a wonderfully vibrant time, it was a brilliant time to be around and there were loads of places to play all over the country. There are still enthusiastic audiences everywhere though, particularly in Europe. ’ All the quintet’s former members hope that there may be a whole new audience for these records, as there turned out to be for Gilles Peterson’s Impressed last year. And as Dave Green says: ‘if they can just hear how good Don is, that would really make me happy.’
Shades of Blue and Dusk Fire are on the Beat Goes On compilation BGOCD615 and Phase III and Live are on BGOCD 614. Call the info line 01284 700711 for more details, or check the website www.bgo-records.comThis article first appeared in Jazz UK Issue 58 (July/August 2004)