First of all I need to start with an apology. A mere three/four decades ago I had very little idea there was any kind of British jazz scene apart from trad-fucks like Mr. Acker Bilk. When I'd hear the words “British Jazz,” my head filled with visions of white straw hats, bow ties and clarinets. Apologies to Bailey, Parker, Stevens & all who sailed with them, but my focus at the time was on American fire music. Bummer for you chaps, I suppose, but get used to it. As I expanded my horizon re: players and labels, my foreign interests turned towards Europe. This was probably due to the fact that there were damn few English players represented in the catalogs of either ESP (Peter Lemer), BYG/Actuel (Daevid Allen?) or El Saturn (none), which is where I was beginning my studies. I later heard there was an unissued Surman session recorded for the Actuel series, and there was, of course, Spontaneous Music Ensemble's Birds of a Feather LP, but it was in a different BYG series. Thus, it was only when I got to fully assaying labels like Caroline (Lol Coxhil, Ken Hyder, Derek Bailey, etc.) that I began to realize there was, indeed, a heavy free music scene in Britain. Sorry. Since then, natch, I have tried to play catch-up, but I've only been doing it for the last 25-30 years, so excuse my lapses.
I first ran into British tenorist/composer, Kenny Graham (calling him “Kenneth” veers him too close to the lord of Wind in the Willows), when I picked up the 1957 MGM LP, Moondog and Suncat Suites, by Kenny Graham and his Satellites. There wasn't much info on the sleeve, but at least half the material was clearly written by Moondog, so how could I resist? The side of Moondog's work was hip and fun in way that reminded me of Shorty Rodgers or something — West Coast pothead jazz of the late '50s. The flip, which was this Graham guy's reaction to Moondog's music, felt similar to me, maybe with a little exotica overlaying the pothead vibe. Unbeknownst to me, until Trunk reissued the Moondog album with credits in 2010, the players included pianist Stan Tracey and drummer Phil Seamen, and the engineer was Joe Meek! Sheesh. Anyway, the album was cool and all, but not something I needed to pull out and play all the time, and I filed it with my Moondog LPs since I never ran into any other Graham LPs. And there actually weren't very many released under his name.
“...there was, indeed, a heavy free music scene in Britain. Sorry. ...I have tried to play catch-up, but I've only been doing it for the last 25-30 years, so excuse my lapses.”
Graham was something of an iconoclast by all reports and while some of the ensembles he led in the '50s — such as the Afro Cubists — were ground-breaking, he never really got his due. This was apparently because he wouldn't do anything he didn't feel like doing even if it seemed like it might pay well. The only records I could find under his leadership were all cut in the '50s. After that, Kenny mostly wrote music for swing trumpeter and bandleader, Humphrey Lyttleton, who was always a big supporter. Reportedly, Mr. Graham began fiddling around with electronic keyboards in the '80s, but it doesn't appear that any of these experiments were issued. Graham also cut some stuff for the KPM Music Library label (presumably in the '60s or '70s), which resulted in his music being utilized by Ren & Stimpy as well as Sponge Bob Squarepants, but that's immaterial.
More cogently, Graham was also responsible for scoring several feature films: 1967's musical comedy, The Cuckoo Patrol, by Duncan Wood (best known for creating Steptoe and Son, the TV series on which Sanford & Son was modeled); 1966's nuclear sci-fi/spy thriller, Where Bullets Fly, by Hammer stalwart John Gilling; 1964's WWII thriller, Last Train to Paris, the sole film by actor/TV director Robert Douglas; and 1963's London noir, The Small World of Sammy Lee, by Ken Hughes. Hughes is best known for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 1968 musical starring Dick van Dyke in an Ian Fleming children's novel, adapted for screen by Roald Dahl, which deals with the travails of owning a flying car. Interestingly (or perhaps not), the actual vehicle used in the movie was recently purchased by New Zealand director, Peter Jackson. But none of this matters to Kenny Graham. He is dead. And as the phrase goes, “dead men view no films.” C'est la.
“The Small World of Sammy Lee is a great evocation of London in its pre-swinging state, still shocked by the damage of WWII and filled with little pockets of criminal activity that would seem idiotic if they weren't so vicious.”
But there was a time when men of all sorts did view films, and one of those times was 1963. It was a great year for British film: Tony Richardson's Tom Jones; Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life; Anton Leader's Children of the Damned; Joseph Losey's The Servant and The Damned; Terrence Young's From Russia with Love; and on and on. Most important, perhaps, was John Schlesinger's Billy Liar, one of the greatest proletarian masterpieces of the British New Wave. In a curious way, The Small World of Sammy Lee, has parallels to that film. But Sammy Lee was set in the seediness of still-post-war Soho, and the title character (portrayed in break-out fashion by singer Anthony Newley) is a smarmy MC at a strip club there. He loses money to some mobsters, and has to come up with dough, pronto. This makes him dart around his nabe like a bat with its wings on fire, more or less descending deeper into the ranks of scumdom until he (at least) lets a girlfriend he only vaguely remembers split the scene before he gets his face slashed. Weirdly this gal, portayed by Julia Foster (who later had a good run in Swinging London films), takes the train back to her home in Bradford, the same town from which Julie Christie's character escapes (also by train) in Billy Liar. But let's not push the point.
The Small World of Sammy Lee is a great evocation of London in its pre-swinging state, still shocked by the damage of WWII and filled with little pockets of criminal activity that would seem idiotic if they weren't so vicious. British crime films from Get Carter to Performance to The Last Good Friday all use little bits of the aesethetic forged by films like Sammy Lee, and given that its long opening dolly shot is as bodacious as the one Orson Welles uses in A Touch of Evil, you'd think it'd be better known. But it ain't. For whatever reason, Sammy Lee has rarely been reissued, and never in the U.S., and never — to the best of my knowledge — as an autonomous unit. Right now you can get it as part of Optimum's (Region 2) The London Collection box, but hopefully this will be rectified.
Mr. Trunk first saw the film a few years back and was smitten by the score, recorded by Graham and un-named companions, and never issued in any form until now. Not sure who Graham had in his band at that moment, but instruments seem to be: bass, flute, marimba, xylophone, guitar, drums, congas, trumpet, tenor sax. And the vibe is quite thick & rich. It's obvious that Graham was working in very odd terrain for the day — the percussion, especially, maintains a certain Moondogian edge. This means that even when things swing into something very much resembling Nelson Riddle’s small ensemble antics, there's an edge of otherness remaining. But you really have to listen closely to hear it. Not sure how familiar you are with thriller/noir jazz soundtracks of this era, but they are mostly quite hot. Some are a bit gimmicky, but sets like Mancini's music for the aforementioned Touch of Evil are fucking transcendent. There was a guy I worked with at Rhino in the early '80s named John Breckow. The guy was a master of noir books & film as well as West Coast jazz, electric blues and various other weird things. And had this Sammy Lee soundtrack been out at the time, I'm certain it would've gotten good play on Breckow and my shared Saturday night gigs at the store.
“...I've listened to it about forty times now, while doing this and that, and I've come to enjoy it quite a bit.”
There are moments when (I presume) Graham himself slides off into Lester Young-ish (or Four Brothers-oid) tenor ballads, but the fact that the music is being produced to fit visual images forces him back off his heels at many times. There are lots of unexpected juxtapositions of instruments, rhythms and textures throughout. The pieces are each scene-length and thus short, which forces or allows (your choice) a strangely appealing array of moods and tones to suffuse the proceedings. If it weren't billed as a soundtrack, I suppose I'd think it was a fairly square side. But I've listened to it about forty times now, while doing this and that, and I've come to enjoy it quite a bit. It is obviously a soundtrack — meant to evoke a time and a place foreign to our current milieu — and it works like a motherfucker in that regard. What did Timothy Leary say about soundtrack music...mmm...mmm...damn, I totally forget. Patrick?