Mike Garrick Jazz Britannia Orchestra

New Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston Culture House, London
7 November 2005

Despite the fact that pianist and arranger Mike Garrick has been at the forefront of progressive jazz in the UK for more than 40 years, in some ways, he is only just being discovered by the listening public. Originally, his records were put out on obscure specialist subsidiary labels of EMI such as Argo and Deram: they were rare at the time, and are even rarer now. I recently read an interview with Mike by renowned DJ Gilles Petersen in Jazzwise magazine, who explained that he had just paid £300 for one LP from the late ’60s. Mike replied that he would gladly have lent him the record, had he known he was so keen to hear it! It is largely due to Gilles’ persistence that a considerable proportion of Mike’s back catalogue has now been re-released on CD.

Mike’s music has always been blatantly uncommercial and uncompromising. Despite having a formal musical education, Mike was heavily influenced by Charles Mingus, who combined formally orchestrated passages with gospel chanting, clapping and free-form sequences for all instrumentalists. He worked with Indian musicians in the ’60s, whose improvisational techniques, scales and harmonies affected the way in which he wrote his music. He was also a collaborator with West Indian alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, who evolved free-form playing in the late 1950s in the UK, around the same time as Ornette Coleman in the U.S. – sadly, dying, in 1973, without seeing the effect of his work and the respect it has now garnered. Despite all these influences, Mike remains very British and has produced some beautiful variations on English folk music.

The concert at the New Vortex (known as “London’s listening jazz club”) kicked off with a new composition, “Tell me something new,” which provided Mike and his band of 15 talented musicians the opportunity to show exactly what they could do. As Mike explained during the performance, he does not have the finances to employ a band, so some of the musicians were indeed seeing the scores for the first time and presumably were working for nothing or just a cut of the door takings. Despite this, there were very few ragged edges, thereby bearing testament to the very high quality of musicianship in the city.

Not all the compositions were intended to raise the roof. “Silhouette,” written by Mike back in the '60s, featured lyrical trombone and tenor sax work. Mike seemed to spend most of his time conducting the band and moving the microphone to the optimal position for each soloist. “Second Coming” began with his wonderful rhythmic piano style. The crowd seemed to enjoy the flag-wavers, and “Two Trumpets” was an exciting, exhilarating piece, giving ample room for the members of that section to show opposing approaches to free-form playing – one, full of notes, demonstrating his dexterity, the other, laid-back and laconic. “Wedding Hymn,” written indeed for a nuptials ceremonial, began with a hymn-like motif, representing the solemnity of vows, followed by a true piece of swing, emphasising the joy of love, marriage and life thereafter. Mike concluded the first set with “Tonal,” a Joe Harriott composition. He had transcribed the original solos from the 1961 recording, orchestrated them and then provided spots for the band to embark on further improvisations.

Duke Ellington’s composing and arranging techniques have influenced generations of musicians and Mike began the second set with “For the love of Duke,” a tribute to Duke and tenorist Ben Webster, who had a wonderfully warm, unmistakable sound. Back in the ’60s, Mike recorded several albums that featured his own poetry and “A trick of the light” began with a reading of a poem, the ethereal feeling of which was emphasised musically by the band. “Echoes” was another thought-provoking composition, giving way to “Shambolism,” written by dedicated leftwinger Mike in 2000 as a response to the waste of money that was London’s Millennium Dome. This jaunt gave chance for the band to let off steam and featured an exciting tenor/baritone sax chase sequence. Somewhat surprisingly, the evening concluded with Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” as arranged by Mike in his own idiosyncratic style, giving opportunity for everyone to solo.

This was a most entertaining evening and let us hope that Mike’s work continues to achieve the recognition that it deserves.

-Neil Watson