The Don Rendell & Ian Carr Quintet —At The Cutting Edge of British Jazz
I’m delving back into the 1960s again, simply because that decade, especially in Britain, was a golden period of modern jazz. And it was the Don Rendell/Ian Carr Quintet that was at the cutting-edge, creating a clutch of LPs that have all been re-issued as CDs and downloads.
There are four LPs from this group that changed small group jazz forever, and I don’t say that lightly.
Listening to the music again, even as I write, it has a freshness that is still stunning in its simplicity and power, a power that comes not only from the exquisite playing of Ian Carr on flugelhorn and trumpet, or Don Rendell’s tough tenor and soprano sax excursions, or even Dave Green’s constant bass, with the now legendary Michael Garrick on piano, and not least Trevor Tomkins’ ever changing drum patterns — all of which are of the highest standard — but equally from the thought that has gone into the writing and the meticulous arrangements, where the dynamics of each instrument, and the blend of those instruments, brought an insight to small ensemble jazz playing that had not been really been a part of the scene since that first Miles Davis group of the 1950s with John Coltrane.
Two of four LPs, Shades of Blue and Dusk Fire, come from 1965 and 1966, with Phase III, and Live, from 1968 and 1969, with, for me, Dusk Fire and Phase III the most evocative of that era in British jazz: of the chemistry that existed between the players, and the originality of the compositions and arrangements (mostly by Carr and Rendell) themselves, that make these recordings one of those important stepping-stones in the history of jazz, in the history of music itself. In many ways the music created by the Ian Carr and Don Rendell Quintet wasn’t just jazz, it was the contemporary music of its day, sans pretentiousness.
And is it any wonder that such superb music was created when we think how gifted Rendell and Carr are. We must also give thanks they also had the sense (or lack of it?), plus the courage to put together such a group in the first place. There are times when it’s inevitable that certain players come together — one only has to think of Miles and Coltrane, Westbrook and Surman, to get my drift.
Don Rendell was born in Plymouth in 1926, learning to play the alto sax as a child (both his parents were musicians), before switching to tenor as a teenager. By 1944 he was playing in orchestras created by the American USO (United Services Organizations Inc), invented by Roosevelt so that GIs serving abroad during World War II could get a musical taste of home. By the late 1940s Don was playing for the popular Oscar Rabin Orchestra, where Rabin, a small jolly White Russian, played bass saxophone, an instrument that was almost twice his size. In 1950 Rendell became a founding member of the Johnny Dankworth Seven; another group that changed British modern jazz (created it almost) forever. Throughout the 1950s Rendell had several groups of his own, and played with both Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, which suggests how highly regarded he was.
I remember going to a restaurant club in Stratford (forget the name, but there are houses on the site now) back in the early 1970s, and hearing Don play with fellow saxist Barbara Thompson. Sadly there was only an audience of six (an enthusiastic half dozen nonetheless), which, as Don told us in the bar afterwards was not an unusual occurrence, but one that never put him off. He was inclined to think of such ill-attended gigs (usually, and thankfully, paid in advance) as a chance to rehearse new compositions. Jazz musicians of his generation may have very sensitive souls, but they have, and need, extremely thick skins.
I saw him again at the Bude Jazz Festival in the late 1990s where he was given three days to turn a bunch of amateur musicians, of varying ages, into a functioning jazz orchestra, who were, on the last evening of the festival, signed-up to tackle an original Rendell composition. The rehearsals were open affairs, and it was a revelation to see musicians of various abilities put through their paces by this genius of a teacher, who, out of the chaos and fear, and, in the end, the ever growing confidence and ability of the players, created a truly professional orchestra that, with Rendell playing at his best, blew the roof off. Watching and listening to that I could understand why the Guildhall School of Music and Drama employed Don Rendell as a teacher for the last twenty years of his life.
Ian Carr was born in Dumfries, Scotland, in April 1933. At the age of seventeen — which is quite late in life for a musician — he taught himself to play the trumpet. After university he joined his younger brother, the pianist, organist, and vibraphonist, Mike Carr, in his the band EmCee Five, before moving to London in 1962.
It wasn’t long before Ian Carr’s exceptional abilities on the trumpet came to Don Rendell’s attention, the result of which was, in 1963, the creation of the quintet — a amazing creative partnership that was to last for six years.
Ian Carr went on to create the jazz-rock group Nucleus, which was a great influence on many musicians, not least Miles Davis, whose own jazz-rock credentials owe an awful lot to Carr.
The quintet’s drummer, Trevor Tomkins, was born in London in May 1941, and is still one of Britain’s pre-eminent jazz drummers, whose CV reads like a dream list of bands and musicians for whom he has played, most notably — excluding the quintet — Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Pepper Adams, Art Farmer, Harry Becket, Tony Coe, Mike Westbrook, plus a host of others.
Bass player, Dave Green, born in Middlesex in 1942, first began playing a tea-chest bass during the ‘Skiffle’ boom of the 1950s. His great heroes in those days were Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan. For a while, in the very early 1960s, he lived with drummer Charlie Watts. Both musicians were looking for work — Dave met Ian Carr, who offered him a job in the new quintet (even though Dave couldn’t, at that stage, read music), Charlie met Mick Jagger, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Dave resisted the very real temptation of the rock groups, instead choosing to play with Benny Goodman, Humphrey Lyttleton, Roland Kirk, and Sonny Rollins.
Pianist Michael Garrick was born in Enfield, Middlesex, in May 1933, and educated at University College, London, where he graduated in 1959 with a BA in English Literature. After graduating he became the musical director of ‘Poetry & Jazz In Concert’, a travelling show that was the first in Britain to bring together those two art forms. Garrick joined the Rendell/Carr Quintet in 1965, bringing a wistful, elegiac feel to the group that would rub-off on the other players pretty quickly, developing a sound that had — by the time Phase III was recorded — become the group’s very recognisable sound, which is one that carefully mingles modern jazz with the haunting feel of North Africa. Just listen to Garrick’s own composition, ‘Black Marigolds’, and Rendell’s ‘Bath Sheba’, to get a sense of what I mean — sounds that would soon be picked-up by the American composer, trumpeter and band leader Don Ellis.
Only drummer Trevor Tomkins, and bass player Dave Green are still with us.