NEIL ARDLEY — Will Power (review)

NEIL ARDLEY — Will Power album cover Live album · 1975 · Progressive Big Band Buy this album from MMA partners
2.5/5 ·
Sean Trane
Theoretically a joint effort between four great British jazzmen, this album is often found under Neil Ardley’s section, because he took the general music direction of the project. Recorded live in a cathedral in April 74, mixed in Decca’s studio that same summer, and released late in the year, this is another odd album for Decca/Deram. A project that focused on Shakespeare’s tercentennial, which might surprise a bit, given the four main-partaker’s jazz’s credential, but then again the music on this double disc affair is only jazz for lack of better definition or pigeonhole. Embodying a large part of the London jazz scene of the times, you’ll find such stalwarts like Norma Winstone, Ian Carr, Kenny Wheeler, Gordon Beck, John Taylor and Trevor Tomkins to name but few. Note that both “composer Ardley and Mike Gibbs don’t play instruments on the present, and that there are two cellist to give it an almost “New Thing” thing.

Seven tracks spread over four vinyl sides, including the sidelong Gibbs-penned composition Sonnet, which is slightly modal and mid-east Asian-sounding, but a very modern-sounding piece where Taylor and Beck’s piano are not afraid to go overboard, but Winstone’s celestial but ultimately abNorma(l) voices are taking the track over the edge for many jazzjoes. Over that flipside are featured two Ardley compositions, very much in the line of his “songwriting”, the first of which, the 11-mins Shall I Compare Thee, uses a reduced orchestra form, but it doesn’t help much figuring out the music’s imbroglio it got itself into. And if you think that it doesn’t get any weirder, wait until you get a load of the even stranger and goofier Charade For A Bard, where things gets very dissonant and at times grotesque (Norma’s off-the-bat scat-singing helping) and almost abstract. Very weird, and not my favourite part of the concert.

The second disc opens on the only Tracey-penned track Sweet Lady, where Norma becomes Ophelia, where she portrays the slide from innocence to madness and finally death. Both Taylor’s improvised and Tracey’s written solo pianos are the other attraction of the piece. Definitely not easy stuff either, despite a more accessible ending. Spread over 30-mins (and two vinyl faces), Carr’s four-movement Will’s Birthday Suite is the other highlight (IMHO) of this project. Opening on cello and bowed-bass drones over piano ticklings and solemn horns, the Heyday movement settles on a JR/F that finally gets this writer into Willy’s shaken-pear heritage celebrations. However, on the flipside, the Fear No More movement does return to a dissonant soundscape. Fool talk features a completely out-of-place and goofy jazz choir ala Andrews Sisters over an almost-grotesque quirky beat. A lengthy Rhodes solo (from Tracey) follows, before the opening JR/F groove returns to close the project in an energetic fashion. Can’t help but thinking that this closing bit is hiding the dearth and hollowness of some of the themes in the main body of the Will Power concept.

Well I’m Norma(-lly) a Winstone fan, but I must say that her contribution to this extremely difficult project (and what was expected from her) will always make Will Power a rarely-played album for most jazzheads, at least for its two centrepiece facets. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t dream of placing the blame on her, since she didn’t compose any of the music, where lays the real flaw. Certainly un-representative of the British jazz scene and anything but an essential album, this is the kind of album that might interest Third Stream fans or avant-garde jazzheads, but those into fusion will find way too few moments to make them happy.

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