Neil Ardley – A Symphony of Amaranths
(DUSKCD 107. CD Review by Chris Parker)
Reissued for the first time on CD, A Symphony of Amaranths is composer/polymath Neil Ardley’s most ambitious work, recorded in 1971 by the New Jazz Orchestra with added woodwind, harp and strings, and here (as on the original record) supplemented by settings of Edward Lear’s ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’ plus three poems by Yeats, Joyce and Lewis Carroll.
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The title composition is ranked by many alongside Ardley’s more famous extended work, Kaleidoscope of Rainbows(sleevenote writer/saxophonist – and glockenspiel player – Dave Gelly calls it a ‘masterpiece’; Duncan Heining, in his recent book-length study of 1960s/1970s British jazz, Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers, describes it as ‘stunningly beautiful … sensuous and delightful and bold in both conception and execution’), but there are dissenting voices, chief among them the late Richard Cook, who refers to Kaleidoscope as ‘a boring and ponderous record which might almost sum up why British jazz was losing so much of its audience at the time’.
At risk of fence-sitting, it’s easy to see the merits of both opinions, contrasting as they are. A Symphony of Amaranths is indeed grand in conception and adventurous in execution, and its chief merit is the ease and assurance with which it negotiates a path between power and grace, allowing a series of distinctive and skilful soloists (trumpeters Henry Lowther and Harry Beckett, saxophonists Barbara Thompson, Don Rendell and Dick Heckstall-Smith chief among them) to emerge convincingly from the intriguingly multi-textured ensemble sound while never allowing the piece’s momentum to flag for a moment.
The literary settings, however, are a mixed bag, the Lear and Carroll in particular encapsulating all the problems customarily associated with English whimsy of the period, though Norma Winstone sings impeccably and in the process makes Ivor Cutler’s eccentric Lear recital (which even the otherwise positive Heining considers ‘an acquired taste’) sound maddeningly arch. Overall, though, a fascinating snapshot of British jazz at a crucial period in its development (for details, see Heining’s book, passim).
I think this is one of the great British jazz albums. But the emphasis here is on a “British” je ne sais quoi. Ardley ploughed his own furrow as is witnessed by his Greek Variations and especially A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows. They had their own quirky sensibility which was Ardley's forte, and contained a non-American voice that the late John Dankworth also achieved in his major quartet of mid-sixties albums. These albums said a lot to me, and A Symphony of Amaranths has grown on me ever since I first heard it – acquiring a CD-R of it from Ardley several years ago. Now it's grown on me so much that I was actually whistling along to the melodies whilst in Ray's jazz shop on Tuesday night where it was the featured album. Personally the vocal side of the album is great both for Norma's “will you won't you join the dance?” and for the engagingly hypnotic rendition by Ivor Cutler of “the Dong!”. I also particularly like the digi-packaging of this CD reissue which has been beautifully produced complete with Regal Zonophone logo.