Nucleus with Leon Thomas – Live 1970
(Gearbox GB1529. Double LP. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
After half a dozen years spent working fruitfully with Michael Garrick, Don Rendell and Joe Harriott, Ian Carr established the seminal jazz-rock group Nucleus in 1969. If that outfit could be said to have had a regular vocalist, it was probably Norma Winstone. So this live recording, captured at Montreux, of an early Nucleus concert featuring vocalist Leon Thomas instead, is an intriguing departure and a real discovery. Both Leon Thomas and Nucleus are on top form — the band had won first prize at Montreux for representing the UK, just before recording these tracks with the singer.
Once a forgotten figure, Leon Thomas has had a resurgence in recent years, a beneficiary of the soul jazz revival. Starting conventionally enough as a singer with Count Basie, Thomas became a more wild and free performer and spent a couple of decades, starting in the late 1960s, working with Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Santana as well as his own groups. Like Nucleus, Thomas only began recording in 1969, so this album represents one of his earliest outings. Which makes the self assurance and confident exploration of unusual sound worlds here all the more exceptional. The fact that Nucleus and the singer are functioning so well together is largely down to the fact that they’d already spent a fortnight playing as a unit at Ronnie Scott’s. At the time, union regulations made it easier for Leon Thomas to use a British pickup band than his own quartet, or to tour here with Pharoah Sanders. For once we have the bone-headedness of the Musicians’ Union to thank for something — this captivating musical cross-pollination.
On The Creator Has a Master Plan, Chris Spedding’s twangy, insistent, otherworldly guitar introduces us the aural landscape of the album, and throughout the piece he contributes sweet, spacey and disorientating sounds, evoking everything from Hawaii to the extraterrestrial. There is a Sun Ra sound to the horns, with Carr on trumpet and Brian Smith on tenor saxophone, and indeed the whole track has a space-march feel.
The song is a Leon Thomas composition, originally recorded with co-writer Pharoah Sanders, and the singer navigates it expertly, his smoothly contoured vocals sometimes escalating urgently into a throb and tremble of passion suggestive of Howlin’ Wolf. Leon Thomas was renowned for what was referred to as his ‘yodelling’ — aptly enough, since Howlin’ Wolf developed his own unique style when he found he couldn’t quite imitate Jimmie Rodgers (“I couldn’t do no yodellin’,” said Wolf, “so I turned to howlin’.”). The origin of Leon Thomas’s unique style is open to debate. Some say he borrowed it the glottal technique of African pigmies. The singer himself attributed it to an (apocryphal?) accident — breaking his teeth just before a big show. I prefer the Howlin’ Wolf explanation. In any event, for such an avant-garde piece this is remarkably catchy, and I kept singing the refrain long after the needle was lifted from the vinyl.
Call it howling, growling or yodelling, Thomas demonstrates his facility with this vocal technique on Echoes, accompanied by thoughtful chords from Karl Jenkins on piano, Carr’s expansive flugelhorn and needle-precise guitar from Spedding. John Marshall bashes and splashes out rolling figures on the drums and Karl Jenkins switches nimbly to a high speed oboe which orbits the rhythm section like an out of control satellite threatening to break up as it hits the atmosphere.
In complete contrast, Damn ’Nam (Ain’t Going to Viet Nam) is a rollicking Kansas City style blues with savage lyrics, very much of their time. ( “How does a guy get a thrill?/If he’s gotta drop a napalm bomb and doesn’t see the guy he’s gotta kill?”) Guitarist Spedding is decisively to the fore, playing extended R&B licks. This is where the rock in jazz-rock comes in.
One is a psychedelic odyssey for Smith on soprano sax while Spedding hews out chunky chords and Carr plays a swift and elegant Spanish style lament. John Marshall provides high speed cymbals as a foundation for Leon Thomas’s peace-and-love lyrics and the whole thing concludes in an elegant car crash of melding sound. Chains of Love, on the other hand, is a slow, churning R&B workout while the Far East-flavoured The Journey sees Karl Jenkins on oboe again and providing a double image with Smith’s sax, the two reeds merging and separating in an hypnotic strain, accompanied by Thomas’s gutsy, pulsing, wordless vocals.
The small British independent label Gearbox continues its policy of unearthing previously unreleased master tapes and committing them to high-end vinyl. With a strikingly designed gatefold sleeve, this double LP looks as good as it sounds. The informative sleeve-note is by Alyn Shipton. There is also a free download code with the vinyl.
I thought Nucleus with Leon Thomas was an odd one but Nucleus with Leon Russell I would be even more intriguing.