Album reviews

Nucleus – ‘Live at the BBC’ (Recordings 1970-1991, 13-CD set)

Nucleus – Live at the BBC

(Repertoire Records Repuk 1410. 13-CD set. Album review by Rob Adams)

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Dave Pegg, the bass guitarist with Fairport Convention, once likened that band’s manifold personnel changes to staff turnover in an office. Twenty-six arrivals and departures in twenty-five years (at the time), the man they call Peggy reckoned, wouldn’t have been such a big deal to the average HR department.

Trumpeter, composer and author Ian Carr could have used a similar comparison for his band, Nucleus. Although it wouldn’t be every office that saw a future knight of the realm, one of the Wombles, the bassist with the Eurythmics and the saxophone player in the Strictly Come Dancing house band come and go.

Reading through the provenance of the sessions contained in this 13-CD box set, it becomes clear that not only did Nucleus enjoy significant support from the BBC, they were also introduced to listeners by almost as many presenters as Carr called on musicians. And as well as the band being signed to an essentially rock label, Vertigo Records (home to Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep but also the more compatible Colosseum and Manfred Mann Chapter lll), this is a reminder that Nucleus enjoyed the patronage of Radio 1’s John Peel and Alan Black before the erudite jazz fraternity of Humph, Digby, Peter Clayton, Charles Fox et al.

Compiled by John McLaughlin biographer Colin Harper and with extensive notes by Roger Farbey, it’s a set that requires commitment in terms of time and money but repays this handsomely by illustrating the development and variety of music Carr oversaw, from the compact jazz-rock of the first line-up, formed in 1969, through expansive compositions and freely improvised pieces and on to the last edition, which continued into the 1990s. By this time, the Nucleus name had been jettisoned in favour of the more Nineties-friendly Ian Carr Group, but the music was emphatically part of the Nucleus continuum.

Carr loved this final iteration of his band, and with good reason. Included here is guitarist Mark Wood’s magnificent Pandemonium, a rocking out highlight of the band’s live sets that was always delivered with relish by Carr and his frontline partner, saxophonist Phil Todd. It charges along here with the mighty presence of Dill Katz’s fretless bass guitar and John Marshall’s drumming authority and dynamism added to Wood’s creative acuity.   

Whichever of the individually sleeved CDs you pull from the box, you’ll find riches like this or Carr’s eloquent soloing on Suspension, whose line-up includes Allan Holdsworth on his way to guitar hero status. You’ll also find curios such as Chris Spedding’s idiosyncratic, pre-Motorbiking song, Never Carry More Than You Can Eat and The Ballad of Joe Pimp, sung by Spedding but suggestive of Carr and co-writer, bassist Jeff Clyne having enjoyed Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats the previous year.

Saxophonist Brian Smith – a bit of an undersung hero in the Nucleus story – is a consistently forthright and cogent sparring partner to Carr, not least on the rolling and tumbling groove of Karl Jenkins’ Song for the Bearded Lady

Guitarist John Etheridge (yet another musician to cross over between Nucleus and Soft Machine with Marshall, Jenkins, Holdsworth and bassist Roy Babbington) brings typical enthusiasm, shape, spontaneity and fabulous fasten-your-seatbelts soloing to a session from the 1987 Kristianstad Jazz Festival. 

And one more curio – one great British pianist, Gordon Beck cedes the piano stool to another, John Taylor, and plays melodica on his own composition, The Dream. With contacts like these, it’s little wonder that Brian Priestley and Digby Fairweather had Carr on board to co-write Jazz: The Essential Companion.   

LINK: Nucleus at the BBC at Repertoire Records

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