UNCOMMERCIALITY - Volumes One, Two and Three
aka The Chocolate Box Series


by Richard Russell

Anyone with reasonably long-standing associations with music will know the feeling when a reasonably good pub artist gives you his tape, a demo at least five years old from a local studio tin-can beat-up tumble-down mixing desk done by an engineer with tinnitis of the ears.

You get it home, hoping for that reasonably rendolent version of ‘Fire and Rain’ he does live, but the first couple of minutes reveal his skills don’t stretch to e.q., compression or even intonation in a dead room. You tell yourself he’s reasonable enough in the flesh, and the tape goes to the bottom of the pile to join those copies of Graceland and Sheer Heart Attack you’re in denial about ever buying.

It isn’t that pub bands are unskilled, or that Robbie and REM were child prodigy sound engineers; it’s just that the likes of us rarely get to play with the ever-evolving ‘high-end’ black boxes that make the difference between Wish You Were Here and any other bit of dead-pan dead-boring dead-headed Southern English blues adagio. Somehow, having a sales strategy based on a tatty demo, and a demo still on cassette, as if every household still had razor-blades and Sellotape, marks out the delineated class strata people like John Major talked such putrid shit about.

Indeed, that the music cassette ever seriously commanded a price of more than £10 for forty minutes of Wham seems like an industrio-economic fairy-tale until you recall the wonderments of Roger Dean pictures and Delia Smith books at £20 a pop. To think an entire mass fetishism sprang up around the Sony Walkman, at one time priced 120 quid plus, only goes to put perspective on our ongoing problem with designer plimsoles and sweatshirts that say fuck to your parents.

I had this in mind when given Billy Jenkins’ Uncommerciality chocolate box set, on three surprisingly reliable cassette tapes. I wasn’t at all sure what I was getting, even from a perfection junky like Billy. I thought maybe it was out-takes, or rehearsal checks, or perhaps some through-the-desk live recordings from the Uncommerciality period. What I got was every bit vintage Jenkins to such a degree that I find myself wondering again why his fame and wealth hardly stretch to his own doughnuts. These recordings run the gamut of his jazz collaborations; three distinct chronological phases of a music they never quite got their heads round in Hackney, where they think jazz is a Quincy Jones cover featuring an irritatingly over-melismatic hair-dresser-cum-trainee-vocalist.

And while the shops now sell nothing but this week’s bubble-gum and last week’s gun-toting no-rhythm-no-blues pubescents, music such as this languishes in mail-order limbo for want of an itsy bitsy million dollar distribution deal. I tell myself it’s nothing personal, just a parasitic capitalist culture-farm in terminal decline.

Then there’s the poetic petard: anything called ‘Uncommerciality’ has to sink without trace or it disproves its own ideology. Still it irks somewhat to see all the recycled T. Rex and Elvis in the fiver give-away bins, when there’s all those living, doughnut-eating artists who never get as far as a fiver give-away bin. This only goes to the crux of the economic morality of the Chocolate Box set. Commerciality kills art every bit as certain as European VD killed the ethnic population of South America.

And a few hobos putting out home-grown CDs from their ghetto reservations doesn’t mean any more than an independent cobbler in the age of Nike or a French polisher in the era of Ikea. Art survives in its dusty corner of the attic, but only for the tiny minority of any generation that is curious about the past. The majority are still conned that Will Young is quite good, that what they want for Christmas is yet more Cliff Richard. The old soldiers wage their solitary campaigns: at the time of writing Robert Wyatt has a new album out, but don’t ask me where you can buy it.

The VOTP Chocolate Box set uses three distinct bands in three contrasting periods: 1986, 1988, and 1991 in that order. Volume One (also released on vinyl) highlights Iain Ballamy’s sax and Dai Pritchard’s busy reeds. They work in a primarily straight ahead style, with ample room for semi-egoistic noodling: Pritchard is especially noodlesome on his bass clarinet. It’s Billy’s guitar, though, unabashedly stealing the show at every corner.

Somehow he can sound hysterical and assured at the same time, as double-time riffs pour caustic Polyfilla around the ever mutating rhythm, taking solos like solos were about to be declared illegal. Here is Jenkins-jazz with Jenkins at the forefront, showing how to go beyond the muted licks of a Charlie Christian, ‘wallpaper’ Wes Montgomery and their acolytes.

Jazz guitar never fully recovered from Jimi Hendrix, and so tends to pretend he never happened. Of course for Billy, he’s swimming upstream at a more fundamental level: while for years players around him paid their mortgages doing dinner-dances and dancing-dinners, where order of the day is muzak anonymity and a dreary slice of latin, Billy went on attempting to relate his music to the living, sweating, shagging and shitting society he’s forced to live in.

Here on this tape is evidence of the heights he could reach, from the joyous, effusive ‘Spastics Dancing’ to the suitably sobering ‘Bhopal’.

Volume Two uses a bigger group, including ‘doubling’ Dai Pritchard and Chris Batchelor on trumpets, Ashley Slater’s low brass and a gaggle of primary school kids. The mood from the outset is more angular and free-form.

The solos are more to the fore, with at times mere pert punctuation from the ensemble. While Volume One has tight numbers under tight direction, this is altogether more mock-chaotic, frantic in its dizzy mannerisms. Jenkins uses the piano to link his art of witty juvenilism to the jazz palette of Hancock and Miles Davis.

This is jazz saying something to a generation so used to music that doesn’t say anything. If there are any jazz fans at all under the age of sixteen it’s Billy Jenkins’ fault. But where Hancock and Davis were precious and po-faced about their mysterious arts, Billy takes it into the real world of car crashes and the scandalous price of sweets.

The metamorphosis from clever original heads to multifarious collective improvising moves to completion in Volume Three, recorded in ‘91.

In goes an electric fiddle and occasional acoustic strings, but it is the mood that’s changed the most, towards self-conciously iconoclastic rants like ‘Expensive Equipment’ in an atmosphere less celebratory and more aggressive. This is probably the most complex of the three, with deliberate use of blocks of sound and atonal effects.

The soloists work against each other, rather more like heated conversation than carefully plotted antiphony, while the rhythm is dark and funkesque. At times the model seems to be free jazz, but collectively thought through and not just six blokes playing and ignoring each other as ‘free’ jazz often implies.

Each track has a real edge, while retaining the jazz vocabulary in mock form, at times in free counterpint, other times as a Bonzo Dog show-band from hell.

While successive critics praise Billy for his humour and what they perceive as pastiche, the single most abiding quality in Billy’s music is actually his anger, his rage against our tepid and tedious modernity in all its moulded plastic forms.

The Uncommerciality set carves a path from jazz impressionism, in its real sense, to a world-weary and dissolute improvisatory identity almost divorced from jazz, even sick of the word.

This may be the natural path for Billy, nowadays fascinated by the varieties inherent in a simple blues sequence. That just leaves jazz, drowning in a mixture of mediocrity, indifference, and the occasional death by ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’

Perhaps we’ll get a whole new movement of non-jazz musicians, who starve but keep their ambitions, locked tight in a box with a Grade 8 certificate and an underused passport. Perhaps improvised music itself will disappear amid a tidal wave of Logic boxes and auto-tuners, never more to breathe life into a sweaty moment.

Jazz will probably find its way in a new world where people are wise to slick packaging and bored with soulless soul singers. After all, it has had forty years as a marginalised music, ever since its less intellectual offspring, blues-based rock and roll, captured all the adolescent disposable income.

Rock music is now marginalised: after the early 90s boom of Nirvana, Faith No More, Pearl Jam, the dance craze took no prisoners, and all that remains are tongue-in-cheek glam rockers the Darkness, a bravely reconstructed but essentially ignored Jane’s Addiction, and Ozzy’s little girl doing Meatloaf ballads while daddy cranks up the royalties from his hospital bed.

Apparently the doctors say he’s brain-dead; and the rest of him should be back to normal shortly. Jazz knows how to survive on the scraps. Stan Tracey only goes out on the rare occasions the venue has a decent piano. Don Rendell has never compromised his full-throttle neo-bop persuasions, but most of his fans were fans thirty years ago.

The generation of the eighties, Courtney Pine et al, have followed the Americans they so slavishly adore and embraced pop music, rap, and the so inaptly named r’n’b. Jazz has become a disembodied essence, the aural equivalent of coriander or nutmeg, sprinkled on a main dish like Sting or Robbie Williams.

Perhaps the Chocolate Box set belongs to an earlier age of experiment and discovery. Billy is a bit like the bloke who conquers a mountain with a pick-axe and a compass, while a whole bunch of talentless tourists go up in the corporate cable-car.

The fact remains that his unique approach to ‘jazz’ guitar and the enduring relevance of his jazz compositions mean he can gaze at the dismal view below with a certain self-sufficient pride, while the tourists just piss and eat ice-cream. There are still some great jazz musicians out there, but the choice ever narrows between barely paying the rent doing Sinatra horn-section tedium, or taking the clever option of a day-job.

Still, whenever I get to witness a player who knows his chops upside down, I can see that certain thrill going through an audience that they just never get anywhere else.

Advanced capitalist culture can tell you what to buy, read or even think; but a living art, particularly one which reacts so directly with the core of emotions within our very sense of self, cannot be stamped out, sanitised, or even starved while its practitioners continue to practise.

Billy Jenkins’ jazz years successfully related a virtuosic art directly to common proletarian society, giving a large bunch of fine musicians tickets for the ride. Nowadays he communicates in a different way, by singing and playing the blues, but his ideology hasn’t changed.

Dominant cultures change all the time: that’s how they con each successive generation. Billy has never been part of that hideous flesh-eating system, but his message still gets out. The Uncommerciality chocolate box set never caught the ear of the masses; but it reached a few.

© Richard Russell 2003

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