Jack Sels – Minor Works
(SDBAN Records SDBANCD10D. CD review by Dan Bergsagel)
I’d never heard of saxophonist Jack Sels (1922-1970). Now, there are lots of things that I’ve never heard of which I probably should have, but I can now cross one of Belgian Jazz’s luminaries off the list. Minor Works is an enthralling retrospective of rare and diverse treasures from the Sels archive, and one which I won’t forget in a hurry.
To gather such a strong Sels collection is no mean feat, as he seems to have been rather recording studio-shy. Here we have a pair of late ’50s showcase records, one sideman album, Sels’ only front-man recording, and a bottomless collection of sessions for former Belgian Radio station BRT, with a handful of live recordings from gigs within a 25-mile radius of Antwerp in the late ’50s and early ’60s tagged on as a character addition.
What makes this retrospective so fascinating isn’t that nearly three-quarters of the tracks were previously unavailable and rescued from archive rooms across the Low Countries, but that so many of them are Sels’ own compositions. The record opens with Sonny Rollins fan composition Spanish Lady, and slick vibes piece Ginger, but really hits the ’60s Sels sound with Nick’s Kicks and the American-infused Tchak-Tchak – all rich horn arrangements and a strong rhythm section, sounding comfortingly familiar in tone but intriguingly new in direction.
There is a healthy set of competent bebop standards thrown in (Silver, Dizzy) and emotional Hammerstein show songs (by Rodgers and Romberg), but perhaps the real revelation is the collected showcase of Sels’ fellow countryman’s Francy Boland compositions, all executed for radio by the energetic Sels-led 11-piece Saxorama. Among a handful of the compositions are the playful multi-key Dorian 0437 or the multi-mood odysseys, dripping Mingus-esque layered parps and polyrhythmic percussive snaps of Blue Triptichon.
As some of his collaborators noted, Sels may not have had the formal training or technique of many, but he had soul and tone, and this shines more than most in small format quartet works. African Dance is a concise sax and organ piece; Blues For A Blonde a moody wail paired with honest electric guitar; Rain On The Grand’Place a sumptuous Stan Getz-ish ballad.
Minor Works is an intrigue; a remarkably varied collection of tracks unearthed from a low-key and comparatively short career, produced by an enigmatic musician who mentored a local generation but rarely left his European neighbourhood. And Sels comes with quite a story, some of it almost too good to be true. Born the trilingual only-heir of a wealthy maritime businessman, following his early orphanship there is a hedonistic fall from moneyed grace, the wasted inheritance, the trials and tribulations of the jazz musician, and the final years working on the Antwerp docks (*).
It almost deserves a film, and indeed nearly received one – with ’90s Belgium cinema’s Just Friends loosely based on the career struggles of the charming Antwerpenaar saxophonist Sels. More interestingly (and more Sels-ian?) is the 1955 soundtrack composed by Sels for Seagulls Die in the Harbour, a gritty drama set around Antwerp harbour populated with isolation, prostitutes, orphans and secrecy. Unsurprisingly this isn’t straightforward to track down. SDBAN, please, after your fantastic work with Minor Works, the people demand Meeuwen Sterven in de Haven!
(*) Luckily the double CD comes with all this and more written handily as a mini-biography full of emotive monochrome photos and archive album art.