by Richard Russell

Twenty years after its release in 1984, clarinettist, composer, writer and serious Billy
listener Richard Russell revisited the ‘Piano Sketches 1973-84’ vinyl album.


Nineteen Eighty-Four.


The culture of the land ripped by schizophrenia about whether Orwell had been right since ‘79, Frankie Goes To Hollywood preaching orgiastic nihilism, with a little bit of help from a nifty computerised mammoth called the Fairlight CMI.


Michael Jackson had just finished proving you could get any old disco tosh dross to number one so long as you spent millions on the video, and was about to try out self-immolation as an erstwhile hobby.


Arthur Scargill, squeaky little Yorkie voice squeaking its little self hoarse, trying in vain to whip us up to a General Strike, while the cops kept in batting practice at the North Bank and the Millwall.


I don’t imagine Debussy’s ‘Images’ sold particularly well that year, let alone Schoenberg or Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur L’enfant Jesus’.


Piano Sketches album cover

An album of solo piano music has much to compete with, aside from the fact that it requires you to actually listen, to engage your musico-critical faculties and confront different levels of meaning between your ears; but not least it must compete with other albums of solo piano music.

Not just in the economic sense of, well, Billy doing Billy won’t outsell Brendel doing Brahms or Ashkenaze doing Rachmaninoff, but; in the directly creative sense. An album of solo piano is a mighty intellectual statement, a Ph.D. of creative ambition, and the artist must engage with the tombstones of Chopin, Debussy, through to Tatum and Monk whether he likes it or not.

This isn’t a technical problem, a piano can speak even if your technique isn’t huge; it is more a philosophical problem.

Just about every artist strives to be original; but the only models we have in life are those creations of others we perceive as original, and to emulate them is inherently unoriginal. So many of the great artists engage with their culture and reflect it back to us through the filter of the artist’s inspiration. In the long run it’s more honest than playing a double-bass with a sledge-hammer or looping bits of John Bonham in Cubase or putting bands together by telephone poll or any of those other models of ‘originality’ we’ve had since.

Twenty years on, Billy’s ‘Piano Sketches’ still challenges and mimics and evokes and explores the potential of the musical landscape, a lesson in the breadth of the emotional sphere even when you have just one instrument to command. After almost two centuries in its modern form, the pianoforte is pretty much unsurpassed in its mixture of tonal variation and dynamic range, and is one of the very few truly successful solo instruments.

As we know, it isn’t his first instrument. In fact behind guitar, harmonica, vocals, and his hands-on orchestrations in his ensembles, it is possibly his fifth instrument.

But expression isn’t bound by technical virtuosity, only enhanced by it appropriately. What Billy presents to us is a series of miniatures of not so still life, and pianism is secondary, just as melody, harmony and even rhythm are secondary to the substance, the inventive point.

Both Monk and Ellington were criticised in their time, essentially for not playing prettily enough; while ‘originality’ from the time of Berlioz through Satie to Cage was in certain quarters dismissed as nonsense or even evidence of insanity. You can only measure influence on the level of decades of the fond appreciation of a minority, unless you want to be Mrs Mills or Bobby Crush. And you’d forgotten both of them.

Billy Jenkins’ ‘Piano Sketches’ works on two levels, as an attempt at free composition as it can express even the most mundane things in real life, and as a step forward for Billy in terms of the necessary modernisation of jazz piano as an art form, which, despite the best efforts of guys as diverse as Jarrett, or Julian Joseph or Jason Rebello or any number of astonishing pianists, has got stuck in a rather safe MOR Sinatrareichmusik, much like every other cultural outlet in the globalised capitalist New American millennium. You see, there’s all this plastic music, very cheap to produce, but mostly irreparable crud; and the guys at Sony and EMI Time-Takeover know that the only way we, the people, the cash-cow beasts of burden people, are going to buy this shit is if it’s the only product on sale anywhere.

So, in all but the most obscure West London record shops, all the shelves in every store are crammed to the brim with plastic crap. Why be ‘original’ then, when the market is conditioning the populous to tacitly receive the piano as a mere looped smear on the latest mock-Ibiza buttock-fest?

Well, the answer’s in the question. We need rescuing from the tramlines, the pan-cultural forward march of percentage lowbrow; else music itself simply ceases to exist as provocative, emotive end in itself; the soundtrack to our dreams.

The album opens with ‘A Cup of Tea’. The pianist marks his stylistic ground. This is ‘Tea For Two’, he cheekily advises. No, this is ‘Tea For Two’. No, this is the sound of a piano being driven through a shopping centre at speeds inadvisable in the view of Mssers Steinway and Sons, and just screeching to a halt in time to avoid the News Shopper’s front page. Fats Waller has a fit ‘coz the club-owner’s just cut his pay. Billy tries various furious licks over a sort-of polytonal ‘til-ready, and Fats storms out.

‘Donkey Droppings’ is a blues. Carefully stalking the line between Jimmy Yancey and that blues riff they played at school because ‘Chopsticks’ was naff, he hides humorous intention behind a stylistic naivety and makes both work together, framed gleefully in a tune about a turd.

'My Dead Cleaning Lady' is at once subtle and impassioned. Debussy-ian landscapes fill out with a quiet rage Debussy would have thought coarse and primitive. But this for me is a stand-out track, on the sheer level of emotion as well as Billy's eclectic harmonic sense.

'Slimming Advert' is colder, more even-handed; a gentle boogie.

'Helsinki Waking Up' is more free form exposition, as Billy tickles one poor solitary riff to death; and it never did him any harm at all.

'Cooking Oil' is my favourite track on the album, a kind-of earth-hymn in deliberate grandeur, as clever melodically as it is obvious, as great tunes can be. The final romantic howl disappears into the Byronic mists, the defeated mountaineer left to stew the way home.

'Ragtime' is from a different musical palette altogether: filled with note-clusters, a semi-deliberate scorn, as if the piano fights with inarticulate rage at the cracked mirror of the everything's-been-done-already age. He takes ragtime and turns it into a visceral vessel of righteous indignation, like a guy who invites you to a steak dinner and then proceeds to beat you about the head with a lump of raw meat in an attempt to explain the finer points of vegetarianism.

Side two opens with 'Fat People', a cheerful little portrait that became a stock in trade of later Jenkins ensembles. The simplistic riff belies the sophisticated humour, out the back door of right-on, underpinned by the Jenkins sense of musical composition as the successful interplay of a few key ideas that keep the listener engaged.

'2nd April '78' is a minor key jazz ballad, echoing Monk or Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit'. This is the most polished performance on the album, and the harmonic complexity suggests it was thoroughly 'composed' before Billy ever played it. Diminished chords resolve as in the best Chopin prelude, and the music ends without drama or remorse, a soul quite expressed.

'Snowbound' is urgent, annoyed, sliding back down the hill as fast as it can clamber up.

'Young Lovers' brimful of amorous babble, a tune so replete with ornamented expression it can barely state its purpose. Jenkins captures a nervous excitement, the gabbling suitor, desires in full bloom, rising to a gentle high pitch as the road of love stretches on ahead; ticket to ride.

'Laban Dance School Early Morning' returns to the themes of work and toil, but this time in more extravagant impressionist phrases, contrasting dawn's lazy haze with the jarring dread of a day still to do. Here Jenkins leaves technique behind in the heat of guttural expression as clusters of notes clatter and clout. This is anti-technique, the thrill of freedom as the notes land as they will.

'A Quiet Sunday Afternoon' returns to the blues as a primary means of contemplation. An irreverent boogie tries out a few keys for size before deciding to leave the purchase for another day.

'Jack Loussier's Beard' is a neat little joke on the elegant counterpoint of the French school of piano jazz.

'The Unborn Child' a gentle nursery rhyme, followed by a soulsome variation, 'The Unborn Child of the Comedian'.

'Invention' rounds things off as previous themes and rhythms are thrown up, before being washed down the plug-hole with the rest of the aural dishwater, the artist's job done.

Some people regard 'Piano Sketches' as one of Billy's finest and most direct works. Others see it as an attempt at comedy, a sort of Rick Mayall meets Victor Borge. I'm not sure it's either.

It isn't his finest work. Considering it was two decades ago it would be an awful shame if it was. I'm rarely more impressed than when Billy mixes his unique compositional social observation with the dazzle of hand-picked side-men. His humour is the sugar on the pill as he compels you to see the tragi-comedy of real life.

The 'Sketches' are that: sketches, some made with a blunt pencil, some only partially coloured in, others as detailed as the musical canvas will allow, once the restraints of the philistine market are removed, and the artist is allowed to just make art.

The cover art-work says a lot: a concert grand half-submerged in the Thames, or somewhere else that used to have docks. Part Pete and Dud in their prime classicist slap-stick; part Claude Debussy's sunken cathedral.

In a sense, in a hand-made, working-class, South-East London sense, the 'Piano Sketches' is a composer's note-book made real, like Bach's 'Art of Fugue' or Bartok's 'Mikrokosmos'.

What success Billy Jenkins has had over the intervening twenty years, has its roots in his abilities as a moody, reflective and courageous writer of music, for all the burlesque quips and sardonic spice.

His guitar is still his main means of expression, and the blues his refuge while the saccharine-seeded clouds of MOR Sinatrareichmusik practitioners, with their mock-Aretha melismas and their girls from Ipanema, queue up for their fifteen minutes each.

The storm will pass.

Talent will out, or so they tell me.


© Richard Russell 2004

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