It wouldn’t be totally out of line to say that “post-rock,” the merger of rock, electric jazz, minimalism, and progressive music attributable to groups like Tortoise, cornetist Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, or Gastr Del Sol, began decades ago in England. Psychedelic heroes the Soft Machine employed jazz musicians like reedmen Karl Jenkins, Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean; King Crimson boasted pianist firebrand Keith Tippett among its early personnel; Cream bassist Jack Bruce switched to contrabass for a number of jazz ensemble recordings and performances; and prog favorites Colosseum counted free jazzers Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophones), Jon Hiseman (drums) and Tony Reeves (bass) in their ranks. This cross-pollination between creative improvisation and psychedelic/progressive rock wasn’t just limited to English musicians, but it was certainly a noticeable factor in the development of both forms.
Composer-pianist Neil Ardley (1937-2004) may not be one of the most well known in English vanguard circles, but hopefully that will soon change as more of his music resurfaces on disc. Influenced heavily by Miles Davis’ right-hand man Gil Evans, Ardley founded the New Jazz Orchestra in 1963, an ensemble that featured the cream of the British jazz crop and released two records in its lifetime — Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Verve, 1965) and Western Reunion 1965 (Decca, 1965 — reissued on CD by Vocalion). An expanded NJO cut the shockingly beautiful A Symphony of Amaranths in 1971 under Ardley’s sole leadership, and while garnering Arts Council awards upon its release, it has remained one of the scarcer LPs in Ardley’s catalog. Released by Regal Zonophone (home to Tyrannosaurus Rex’s early LPs), the session features a who’s who of British jazz and rock — Jenkins, Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith appear, as do percussionist Frank Ricotti, trumpeters Derek Watkins, Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther, reed players Don Rendell and Barbara Thompson, pianist Stan Tracey, harpist David Snell, bassists Chris Laurence and Jeff Clyne, and vocalists Ivor Cutler and Norma Winstone. Now, vying for “reissue of the year,” A Symphony of Amaranths has been reissued on CD by Dusk Fire (and on LP via Wah Wah), cut from the original master tapes with an extra track from the same session — an amusingly syrupy tango “National Anthem” that recalls Carla Bley.
The title piece, dedicated to Evans and Duke Ellington, begins with lush and glassine interstices from glockenspiel, vibes, harp, and piano strings before horns and rhythm emerge in a stately, hard chug, bedded by a string ensemble carpet. Beckett and Thompson trade off flugelhorn and soprano saxophone skirls, popping out of a field of cracking traps and cascading detail. The second movement is appropriately titled “Nocturne” and couples taut gong and castanet accents with lilting, throaty strings and woodwinds, a light but cutting sway that supports Lowther’s incisive, romantic trumpet keen. “Entracte” begins with harp, piano, and glockenspiel in trio, reminiscent of Steve Reich at first blush, soon splaying out into crepuscular flourishes. Heckstall-Smith’s burred tenor is front and center on “Impromptu,” the orchestra in painterly washes against the rhythm section’s extraordinary clip. Heckstall-Smith is an interesting contrast against the more studied robustness of Don Rendell (a star of Ardley’s excellent Greek Variations LP from 1970, on Columbia), who follows suit — their trades against brash ensemble passages and pulsing minimalism keep the music from bogging in self-reflection in the final few minutes, encouraging a punchy close.
Surrealist poet and raconteur Ivor Cutler and jazz-rock vocalist Norma Winstone are the stars of “The Dong With A Luminous Nose” and “Three Poems,” which took up the original LP’s second side. Cutler’s dry, warbling delivery is weird enough on its own, but set against impulsive ensemble push and striking orchestral accent it’s part of an absolutely fascinating picture appropriate to Edward Lear’s poem. In fact, the affinity between Cutler and Lear is likely how this three-part collaboration came into being. Ardley wasn’t the first to employ modern poetry with improvised music — English pianist-composer Michael Garrick recorded a number of successful examples for the Argo label during the mid-Sixties as well, to say nothing of the extraordinary collaborations between 20th century “classical” composers and poets. As one might expect, Ardley has written and arranged the music for “The Dong With A Luminous Nose” to the extent that improvisation is less a focal point than inflection and support, which shapes music and word into a balanced whole. Winstone is a powerful singer quite different from Cutler, and soars in her breathy lyric presentations of brief poems by Yeats, Joyce, and Carroll. The music is more open here and recalls the reverberant intensity of Winstone’s own LP The Edge of Time (Argo, 1972, which Ardley participated in), creating a dreamlike but forceful sphere of activity.
A Symphony of Amaranths presents Ardley’s work in gorgeous, full, and detailed sound with copious liner notes and photographs, and is one of the (sadly) rare examples of a reissue done exactly right. Hopefully more of Ardley’s music will see reissue in the near future, but for now this cornerstone set will more than suffice, fleshing out sporadically available examples from his small but rewarding catalog. And while the cast of 29 British improvisers and classical performers really make this set sing, this reissue rightly sets into relief how extraordinary deep one man’s vision was.