Malcolm Mills’ label The Last Music Company is releasing two albums on 24 April, a vinyl edition of ‘The First Cut’ from 1976 by Don Weller’s Major Surgery, and ‘Another Kind of Soul – A Portrait of Cannonball’, a new album from Tony Kofi. Feature by John Fordham:
More than four decades and a lot of stylistic differences separate two fascinating UK-made jazz releases this month, but in heartfelt energy, jazz knowledge and improv sharpness, they both sound nourished from the same convictions about what makes jazz special.
On April 24, the award-winning Proper Music organisation’s founder, chairman, and lifetime music enthusiast Malcolm Mills unwraps a limited-edition vinyl run of jazz-rock quartet Major Surgery’s classic 1976 album ‘The First Cut’ – his first-ever recording session, embarked on when he was 26 and still learning how to book a studio or figure out royalty etiquette on the hoof. Through his personal label, The Last Music Company, Mills simultaneously releases ‘Another Kind of Soul – A Portrait of Cannonball’, a 2019 live session by sometime Ornette Coleman and World Saxophone Quartet sideman Tony Kofi’s quartet – an impassioned celebration of the music of the late gospel-sax legend Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. Mills, who has supported Kofi’s work since the early 2000s, was knocked out by how close the Londoner’s band sound came to the cool authority and one-touch empathy of the classic Blue Note sessions that had once tingled his spine as a fledgling jazz-lover in his teens.
These two discs, both of them labours of love that involved Malcolm Mills in the investment of something much more personal than money, represent very different angles on what jazz has sounded like down the years. Major Surgery’s barrage of staccato sax and guitar hooks driven by fill-every-chink fusion drumming, alongside Croydon sax master Don Weller’s soulful Coltranesque laments and funky Crusaders-like horn grooves, is audibly of its time, yet spiced by a particularly English quirkiness in its rough-hewn sound, wacky track titles (‘Jubileevit’, ‘Foul Group Practices’, ‘Calypso Reg’), and Jimmy Roche’s clangy, early-rock guitar tone. Tony Kofi’s Adderley tribute is a rootsier but explosive mix of punchy originals (the bandleader’s own springy, boppish ‘Operation Breadbasket’, and pianist Alex Webb’s warmly harmonised ‘A Portrait of Cannonball’) and timeless Adderley hits including the bluesy ‘Sack O’ Woe’, and the call-and-response classic ‘Work Song’, which quickly triggers a characteristically agile and searingly vocal-toned alto break from the leader.
But if these two albums come from very different parts of jazz music’s rich landscape, they share something essential for Malcolm Mills. ‘What I loved about vinyl jazz LPs from the beginning,’ he says, ‘was that they could make you feel you were reliving a performance, they seemed to represent a complete picture of what a group of original musicians were trying to do on that particular day – because the cost of studio time meant they were done fast, often from first takes. I used to love the feeling of taking a vinyl disc out of its sleeve, putting it on the record player, reading the liner notes, turning it over halfway through, which felt like a break in your own mini-concert. So both these albums have that magic for me, and vinyl-only felt like the way to go – although people can stream Tony’s record if they want – because I wanted them both to have that special quality.’
Mills is a natural raconteur whose accounts of a gamechanging career in the stormy waters of independent-music distribution are peppered with ironies, surprises, and a lot of acerbic humour that doesn’t disguise his clear-sighted determination. The story of his discovery and eventual documentation of the music of Don Weller and Major Surgery encapsulates all that.
‘I was born in Croydon in 1950, which was a great place then,’ Mills recalls. ‘Before greedy people destroyed the old town centre, and tower blocks sprang up everywhere. In the old Surrey Street market, there was a great old boozer called The Dog and Bull. It seemed a very grownup place to me when I used to sell tomatoes in the market on holiday jobs as a schoolboy, and it became my favourite haunt when I was old enough to imbibe. In early 1964, I bought the Rolling Stones’ first LP, and heard Duke Ellington’s orchestra in London with my dad, who used to be a drummer, and those two things probably decided what I’ve done with my life. So when the landlord of The Dog and Bull, a guy called Norman, booked Major Surgery to play there in the early ’70s, all of us and the band were jammed into that tiny, smoke-filled space, it just blew me away. I knew about jazz-fusion from groups like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, but this was the first time I’d ever heard anybody locally playing such carefully-crafted pieces, obviously played in over a long time, with that kind of energy.’
Don Weller, who would go on to play with illustrious leaders from Stan Tracey to the legendary Gil Evans, was a Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane-inspired saxophonist with a ruggedly soulful romantic streak, and a fine and much underrated original composer too. By 1976, when Major Surgery had become a regular draw on the UK jazz scene but had never been offered a recording deal, Malcolm Mills was a twentysomething getting tentatively acquainted with the record business, but not a producer. The absence of Major Surgery’s music on disc made him change his mind.
‘It was the early dawn light of an independent-music explosion in the UK in 1976, mainly from punk and New Wave,’ Mills recalls. ‘There was a feeling that if you could figure out how to get it done, you could make a record. I’d just started my own import business, bringing in American records and selling them by mail order. One day, I was having a beer with Bruce Colcutt, Major Surgery’s bass player, and I found myself saying “I’ll record the band”. I didn’t know how to book a studio, or make an MCPS application, or how to get records distributed – or not, in my case! But amazing music is gone in flash in jazz, it’s instant creativity – not like rock and roll where the same tune might get played over and over. I felt if I didn’t capture it, it would be gone forever. I pressed 500 albums, stuck a label saying ‘Premature nostalgia’ on the sleeves, and managed to sell quite a few through distributors including the late lamented John Jack. The rest ended up gathering dust in my archives.’
Mills was engrossed in building the Proper Music operation which stemmed from the business he founded in 1988, and the Major Surgery discs disappeared into a succession of warehouse moves as the company expanded. Fast forward to 2012, when Mills’ long-time friend Joop Visser (a key contributor to the planning and erudite liner-notes of Proper’s archive series of classic-jazz box-sets) dropped into the office to tell him that Don Weller had undergone a heart bypass, and Major Surgery’s powerhouse drummer Tony Marsh had died. Mills pulled ‘The First Cut’ out of the rack on the spot, and played it for the first time in years.
‘I wanted to get it back out there, because it still sounded fresh,’ says Mills. ‘But the original recording was a bit thin, so I pulled out all the original tapes, Don and Bruce came in, we remixed it together and stuck on the bonus track, ‘Calypso Reg’. So this month’s release is a numbered limited edition of the last hundred of those 2012 pressings. So when they’re gone, they’re gone.’ The CD is already sold out.
Malcolm Mills formed The Last Music Company (‘it’s my semi-retirement project’) in 2018, to curate and release music by favourite artists of his who also happen to be friends – like Dr John, American singer-songwriter Bill Kirchen and Texas blues-rock original Jimmie Vaughan. Major Surgery and Tony Kofi securely shelter under that umbrella too. Mills heard the Thelonious Monk-devoted music that a Kofi band including pianist Jonathan Gee was making in the early Noughties, and liked it so much that he launched a new departure for Proper Records – releasing newly-recorded jazz produced in the company’s studio on the Specific Jazz label – with Kofi’s ‘All Is Know’ in 2004.
‘That Monk project got my attention big time,’ Mills affectionately remembers. ‘Monk was a complete art-form in himself, and a lot of very good people have tried to recapture that art and failed, often because the groups they’re in don’t catch the dynamics that the instrumentalists of Monk’s day did. But in Tony’s band, it wasn’t just his playing, the whole group sounded fantastic to me. Winston Clifford had that Frankie Dunlop drum sound, Jonathan Gee was wonderful. So I said to Tony, “I’ll back you, anything you want to do, let me help take your stuff to the marketplace”, and I’ve worked with him ever since. The new album gets that church feeling Cannonball had, Tony’s as close to that sound as you’re likely to get, and the whole band do their bit to bring it alive.’
Mills takes a back seat from the day-to-day running of Proper nowadays, but he regards the company’s 100-plus staff as family and is palpably proud of having built a music-first venture into the biggest independent distribution operation in the UK, servicing often uncommercial and niche work from over 600 small labels from all over the world – including such influential new-music prophets as Germany’s legendary ECM. He also feels exonerated by having stuck to his original guns across decades of seismic transformations in the way music is marketed and shared.
‘We’re good at putting things in boxes in any quantities – large or small, we’re the best in the country at that,’ Mills says with evident relish. ‘My view of this industry is that there are people creating music and people consuming it, and we’re the tunnel, or the bridge, joining them up. Of course we have a digital side nowadays for those that want it, but we’re primarily a physical distributor because there is still a consumer demand for the format, generating business for our music retail partners worldwide. The future is obviously increasingly direct transmission of music to the consumer, but that doesn’t inevitably mean streaming. When somebody buys Tony Kofi’s album, they’re buying the work of a group of dedicated musicians devoting their life to the art. If it costs 25 quid, you’re going to get a lot of fun out of it for a long time. You’ll keep hearing something different in it, and with a bit of luck it’ll be worth a lot more in years to come!’
A hundred numbered vinyl copies of Major Surgery’s ‘The First Cut’, and the vinyl LP of the Tony Kofi quintet’s ‘Another Kind of Soul – A Portrait of Cannonball’ will be released by Malcolm Mills’ The Last Music Company on April 24. The latter will also be available in digital formats.