Neil Ardley – Kaleidoscope of Rainbows – Live ‘75
(Jazz in Britain JIB-21-S-CD/JIB-21-S-DL. Album Review by Jon Turney)
Neil Ardley, active in UK jazz mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, left a fine but limited discography. It was circumscribed first by his focus on large-scale works for big ensembles, then by a vastly successful career in publishing.
Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, released as a single LP in 1976, was probably his creative peak. An episodic suite, exploring variations on a five-note scale used in Balinese music, it filled two sides of vinyl with hummable tunes, interesting textures and bursts of soloing from a star-studded 12-piece band. It was continually absorbing, and thoroughly enjoyable in a sunnily accessible, gently rocking mode throughout. This listener, reaching the end, also appreciated that it was cunningly made as a unified set of pieces.
And there it rested, until now. This live realisation of the piece, from a tour-capping gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1975, preserves those qualities, but gives a different perspective on Ardley’s achievement. The same band – the core personnel from Ian Carr’s Nucleus, along with Barbara Thompson, Tony Coe and Brian Smith on reeds, Trevor Tomkins on percussion, Dave McRae on keys and Paul Buckmaster on amplified cello – took the same compositions and stretched them over 2 hours. That’s likely a better reflection of the composer’s intention. Kaleidoscope on record originally seemed a carefully controlled, highly organised affair, with a light sound (only one brass player in the band, lots of clarinet and cello in the mix), largely static rhythms, and careful layering. They made a work that, while nodding to then contemporary artists like Terry Riley also had some of the qualities of, say, the infinitely more popular, and somewhat less interesting, Tubular Bells.
Live, as you’d expect, the balance shifts. The players treated Ardley’s arrangements with equal care, but also embraced his neat little melody figures as prompts for just blowing, often at length. It all sounds riskier, jazzier, and, much of the time, more exciting.
Case in point, Tony Coe’s tenor solo bursting out of the characteristic mild-manned mid-tempo soundscape of Rainbow 4 with a ferocity that still startles, and keeps its edge for seven minutes of inspired invention. There is some fine playing from Coe on the LP, especially on clarinet, but nothing quite like this.
There are plenty more moments to rival that, including lengthy amplified trumpet solos from Ian Carr in Milesian mode, electric cello extemporisations, and choice work from the other sax players. They all deserve the rousing reception the London audience gave them at gig’s end.
Other attributes of the concert maybe sounded better then than now. The recorded sound doesn’t have the punch of the studio record, and the horns are a little clouded some of the time, although the ear soon adjusts. Less beguiling now than then, perhaps, are the interludes between each of the main pieces. They offered a chance for live listeners to gather their thoughts before the next full-on effort from the band, but the overlapping electric keyboard musings they tend to rest on have a very mid-70s feel and now seem rather noodly. Similarly, one imagines a 21st-century creation in this vein would draw on a richer array of rhythm modes than are found in the early jazz-rock sound that dominates here.
Overall, though, the whole thing stands up amazingly well. This new package from Jazz In Britain, liberated from Ardley’s own tape archive – hence a small omission where the machinery failed to capture most of Rainbow 3 – comes with the composer’s original programme notes and an excellent new essay from Sid Smith placing the piece in the context of other large scale works of the time. If you have fond memories of the earlier record, you’ll want to hear this. If not, start here. Like others from this enterprising new label, it’s a release of much historical interest that still has lots to offer even if the history isn’t your thing.
Categories: Album review