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Bobby Wellins Quartet – ‘What Was Happening’

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    Posted: 03 Mar 2024 at 9:31am
Bobby Wellins Quartet – What Was Happening

(Jazz in Britain *. Album review by Liam Noble)=

(NOTE: See also details below of “Dreams Are Free: A Celebration of Bobby Wellins at The Showroom, Chichester, PO19 6PE on 6 April 2024, an event produced by Fiona Wellins) 

BOBBY WELLINS - The Bobby Wellins Quartet : What Was Happening cover

Bobby Wellins always seemed to me, in a somewhat time-honoured tradition, to be a mass of contradictions. I’d heard the stories when we started playing together, and yet to me and the rest of the band he was an exemplary gent at all times. I’m not sure I ever knew him really, but when he played it felt like I did. It was as if he was sharing his thoughts and feelings on purely musical terms. Hearing that sound again takes me back to those times, and these recordings go further back, to 1978, to Bobby’s comeback after ten years off the scene. Those who know his work with Stan Tracey will be surprised to hear him in this setting but, like Dr Who, Bobby always seems to retain his identity, musically at least, wherever he found himself.

On these recordings with Pete Jacobsen, Adrian Kendon and Spike Wells he forms a kind of stoical centre to the whirlwind that was going on around him. This trio play with a kind of abandon you might find with Miles Davis’s rhythm section (Herbie, Ron and Tony), and the influence is clear especially in Spike Well’s dynamic layering of meters and colours. But there’s a kind of shambolic charm to it all too, a sense that it may all come tumbling down at any point, of whitening knuckles on the edge of some window ledge somewhere. It’s essentially irreverent and seems to me a particular characteristic of much British jazz of the time, where players like Tony Levin and Kenny Wheeler crossed between improvised and structured music with a carefree shrug of the shoulders.

One aspect of Bobby’s musical persona that is often forgotten is what a great writer he was. The catchiness of his themes suggests that in another life he might have penned a few hits for people that way inclined, but in many ways it’s the way these tunes are dissected, exploded and reassembled that makes them work. His grasp of just what is needed to carry a melody on “Jubilation” and “Dreams Are Free” suggest a kind of hybrid between post-Coltrane modality and folk-like directness, but in both cases the band eat their way out of these structures like kids tearing wrapping paper off presents.


I remember that feeling, of having to “come up” with something, to honour the freedom you were given by taking it by the scruff of the neck as it were. These tunes demand that something happen. In particular, Pete Jacobsen’s rapid-fire lines and linear harmonic shifts are an interesting foil for Bobby’s sense of slow unfolding. Like Miles Davis, there was always a sense for me that Bobby wanted the music to drift where it will, secure in the knowledge that he was able to come back in and focus the music again. By way of contrast, “What’s Happening” is a great example of Bobby’s ballad style, familiar to many from “Under Milk Wood”. Here though, it’s set in 10cc-esque lushness, and on “Spider” his sound wails out over another catchy, simple groove destined to be pulled into a fast tempo workout. With these tunes, there’s always something to come back to, “Love Dance” starting as a beautifully poised and slightly sinister dreamscape before slipping into a faster groove for a typically raging Jacobsen solo before returning to the opening theme, suggesting that love is a dance comprising many unexpected tempos. A lifetime of highs and lows seem to unfold in under six minutes.

Many of the previously unreleased tracks here are standards, and it’s here, in the territory of the “blowing tune”, that we see just what an individual talent he was. The tenor saxophone is such a huge part of jazz’s history, yet Wellins always manages to be himself on it. Shades of Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Paul Gonsalves, Zoot Sims and, in the sheer cheek of his rhythmic fluidity, even Sonny Rollins continually flicker through his sound, but it’s him, always him. Listen to how he slips into “My Melancholy Baby” with a phrase that transforms the melody into a sloping confidential whisper, or how “Now’s The Time” is casually reconstructed to kick the theme off balance. On “Rhythm-A-Ning” the sheer purpose at that speed is mind boggling, and his entry on “In A Sentimental Mood” sounds like he’s playing it and writing it at the same time or discovering something hidden for centuries. It makes me want to go back to those tunes again.

He’s one of the rare musicians in the history of the music where the sound itself seems inseparable from the notes, the chords, the tune, the man. It’s been good to hear him again, to remember what transcendental music is possible on such well-trodden paths.

(*) NOTE: Limited edition deluxe double compact disc, in an 8-panel digisleeve, including a 16 page booklet with sleeve notes written by Spike Wells plus Jazz Journal reviews of the original albums and a live performance. Comprises two albums that were previously only available on vinyl, in limited numbers for a limited time, expanded with bonus recordings by the same line-up. Only 500 copies available worldwide.

LINK: What Was Happening from JiB / Bandcamp

EVENT: Dreams Are Free: A Celebration of Bobby Wellins
The Showroom, Chichester, PO19 6PE, Sat 6 April 2024

Part I Screening of biopic “Dreams Are Free” charting the rise, fall and redemption of this talented musician, composer and storyteller. Director: Gary Barber
Part II Live Jazz with members of Bobby’s last quartet: Spike Wells (drums), Mark Edwards (piano) and Steve Watts (bass) plus tenor saxophonist Mornington Lockett.

from https://londonjazznews.com

Edited by snobb - 03 Mar 2024 at 9:32am
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