“Yes, I do keep popping up, don’t I.” As trombonist Nick Evans acknowledged when I interviewed him, his name is to be found again and again in the discographies of that important period which shaped British jazz and progressive rock, the late sixties/early seventies. Evans was in the early Keith Tippett groups – on albums such as “I am here, You are there” – and in several recordings by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. There too, in the enlarged septet version of Soft Machine. And in Centipede and Elton Dean’s Ninesense. And again, on records by King Crimson (Lizard) and Manfred Mann (Chapter Three).
Evans, whose band Dreamtime is featured on a triple CD retrospective “Double Trouble” (Reel Recordings), was sought out by bandleaders such as Chris McGregor for his strong, direct and blustery voice on trombone.
It was the kind of timbre which suited him to the same role which Roswell Rudd occupied in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, also in the late sixties, when, in the words of Robert Kennedy, people could “dream of things that never were and ask why not.”
Forty years on, Evans still vividly remembers the free-wheeling spirit of those days. Having attended just one small-hours jam session in a state when he was “unable to sleep and unable to stand,” a few weeks later he received a call from band leader Chris McGregor who had also been at the jam. “Why aren’t you at the rehearsal?” Evans didn’t need to be asked twice. He shot straight out of the door, and became an integral part of the Brotherhood with Dudu Pukwana, Harry Miller, Mongezi Feza and McGregor himself. Evans toured Europe and made several albums with them. If he had doubts about fitting in with such company at the outset, he soon “found my own strength.”
How did it all start for Nick Evans? As a teenager, inspired to play the trombone by hearing Chris Barber, he and friends started a Saturday night trad gig in his home town of Newport in Monmouthshire, now Gwent. Together they ran the gig, advertised it in the local press, sold the tickets. Evans remembers the simple joy of that music : “making material from individual threads, weaving parts, all of us thinking of the same melody.”
Then came university in Cardiff. “Physics, my other passion.” Then there are memories of playing bebop, hanging out in a club on Sundays in the Tiger Bay area. “They would let me make a fool of myself as I moved from trad to bebop. My solos were rather rudimentary. But still, it was small group interplay.” When Evans talks about that period, two other words start to crop up which summarize the guiding spirit of much of the music-making to which Evans has been drawn throughout his musical life, and which is a key part of the spirit of Dreamtime: “joyous irreverence.”
But, for Evans, the happiest of accidents was to take place at the 1968 Barry Summer School, then in its infancy. When new students arrived at the course, they were asked to perform three or four blues choruses, so that everyone else – students and faculty – could understand how they played.
Evans takes up the story: “That’s when it happened , that’s when the explosion took place. I went up to play. Backing me on piano was Keith Tippett. The person directly in front of me who played beautiful choruses was Elton Dean. As I walked off the stage, Mark Charig came up to solo after me.” He remembers the power of that moment. The discovery of four such like-minded musical spirits had them “gyrating towards each other in the middle of the hall.” They sought out each others’ company for the whole duration of the summer school and embarked on lifelong friendships and musical associations.
The friendships with Tippett and Elton Dean carry forward in the band Dreamtime. Evans was renting a flat in 1981 in the same house as drummer Jim Lebaigue. The two starting playing together in the front room as a trombone-and-drums duo. Lebaigue then introduced Gary Curson, and they were three. A jam session was set up – enter bassist Roberto Bellatalla and trumpeter Jim Dvorak. Although the musicians had all emerged from different cultures, a “fierce alchemy took over” and Dreamtime became a regular band. It had a Tuesday residency at the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town. Evans always worked from the idea of maintaining the same personnel. “We wanted it to be these musicians,” he says.
The three sessions in the triple disk package “Double Trouble” give the three versions of the band: as a pianoless quintet, as a sextet with Keith Tippett, and as a ten-piece. The moods are also different. For what is known as “free” jazz, ie without chord symbols, the 1984 Bracknell Festival quintet session has very terse statements. The solos are expressions of directness and energy. The second, a ten-piece 1991 session, is, in Evans’ words, “more loose, fluid and free.” The third, a sextet set from 2006 is on DVD is a band tribute to Elton Dean recorded at his memorial concert in London and features Keith Tippett on piano.
Mike King of Reel Recordings, a Canadian with a passion for the music, has captured the “joyous, rebellious, and infectious” spirit of this band. Other trombonists can be more “busy,” or “oblique.” At the heart of the Dreamtime sound is a trombonist who tells it straight.