Big Chief – Blues in Twos
(Janus Sounds Ltd. Download review by Andy Boeckstaens)
Big Chief is an English band that occupies a broad stylistic spectrum: mainly blues and rock ‘n’ roll, with a bit of jazz and soul thrown in. They have been going strong since 1976 and, amazingly, three founder members – John Fry, Adrian Paton and Tony Edwards – are still there today.
Many terrific musicians including Art Themen, Harry Beckett, Will Gaines and Django Bates have played with Big Chief over the years. They used to have a Saturday night residency at The Pegasus in Stoke Newington, and this live recording was made there in 1982.
Here, with Dick Heckstall-Smith on board, the music has extra energy and bite. This (download only) release marks the passing of ten years since the great saxophonist’s death, on 17th December 2004. It also celebrates what would have been his 80th birthday in September.
The backbeat shuffle of Rock Awhile gets things off to a rollicking start with front-man Fry’s vocals and spirited guitar by Mike Jacques. Fry’s singing is featured on several other songs including Randy Newman’s Last Night I Had a Dream, and the song Big Chief is distinguished by Paton’s agile work on electric piano. The powerful Breakin’ up Somebody’s Home is underpinned by Tony Reeves’ skillful bass guitar (a studio take of which is included at the end).
The slow, moody Stormy Monday has vocals by Cliff Collins – guesting with the group – and sure-footed drumming by Edwards. The latter sings on Let the Four Winds Blow, Such a Night and Slow Down, all of which lean more towards the rock ‘n’ roll camp.
Amongst the highlights are two instrumental pieces composed by Fry (who also plays tenor saxophone). Uhuru blends South African and Caribbean flavours into a kind of township reggae; the jazzier Hornblower swings like mad during the piano solo and is notable for its Mingusian breaks.
Fry says that Heckstall-Smith was particularly fond of his work on Bill Withers’ Use Me, and stresses that “he was a team player….never gave less than 100% of his energies”. And so it is that his wonderful, mooing cry pervades the whole album without overpowering it. During an extended section at the end, he transforms Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free) from a nice familiar tune into a highly personal statement.
Big Chief remains an excellent and deservedly popular outfit, but the presence of Heckstall-Smith provides an extra dimension to this set. These 32-year-old tracks – beautifully restored and remixed by Tony Reeves – demonstrate the magic that they created together, and serve as a timely tribute to a major and much-loved figure in British jazz.
(Blues in Twos download is available from 15th December 2014)