The Nice - Five Bridges
Keith Emerson (Organ and Piano)
Lee Jackson (Bass and Vocals)
Brian Davison (Drums)
Orchestra: Sinfonia of London
Conductor: Joseph Eger
Engineer: Bob Auger
Mixing: Eddie Kramer and Malcolm Toft
 Fantasia 1st Bridge/2nd Bridge (2:42)
 Chorale 3rd Bridge (3:27)
 High Level Fugue 4th Bridge (4:01),
 Finale 5th Bridge (7:59)
 Intermezzo 'Karelia Suite' (9:01)
 Pathetique (Symphony No 6, 3rd Movement) (9:20)
 Country Pie / Brandenburg Concerto No 6 (5:40)
 One of Those People (3:09)
A number of curious coincidences led me back to the earliest days of progressive rock and to reacquaint myself with what was to be the precursor to one of progs most influential bands - Emerson, Lake & Palmer. However, The Nice have their own story to tell and who can say what might have been, if the band had stayed together a little longer. The seeds were already sown for the Symphonic and Orchestral style of music that Keith Emerson would champion throughout the decades to come. The Nice began their career at the dawning of rock and its sub genres, the closing of the sixties and an era of growing desires to challenge the boundaries of popular music.
So what of these coincidences, firstly an impulse purchase of the Five Bridges album, which lurked in the sale section of a local music store. Then there was the live appearance of The Nice at the 100 Club [London] on 9 April 2002 during the launch of the Emerson plays Emerson CD. More than thirty years having elapsed since the three last played together as a band. Four further concert dates were announced, one in particular being the Opera House in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Five Bridge cross the Tyne, well, in 1969 there were five. The majority of the music featured on the Five Bridges album was recorded on 17 October 1969 (The Fairfield Hall) some 33 years to the month in which they returned to Newcastle for one of only four UK performances. Something was saying that The Nice and this album needed another airing.
The story of The Nice dates back to the mid sixties and the earliest days of progressive rock, in fact pioneering days, for at this time, what was deemed as underground or representing less popular music, was R&B. And this is where we find Emerson, Jackson and Davison, among a multitude of emerging musicians who would in time form the backbone of the rock music industry, many of whom are still to be found writing and performing today. Originally, as a four piece, with guitarist David O'List, acting as part of a backing band for vocalist P P Arnold (formerly with Ike and Tina Turner). The Nice, named by their manager A Loog Oldham, were to perform not only as Arnold's backing band, but as a warm up act, going on just before her. Pat Arnold had some brief success with Cat Stevens' The First Cut Is The Deepest entering the UK charts in June 1967. However the band warmed up the audience a little too well and in this time of experimentation and a growing dissatisfaction with the current music industry, Messrs Emerson and company, were destined for a different path. Yes this was a time for change, a time to shake up the pop song and extend the boundaries. The four musicians branched out, utilizing and combining classical, jazz, blues and rock music to forge a new and dynamic sound - later to be known as Progressive Rock.
Keith Emerson, born 2 November 1944 in Todmorden, Lancashire took to the piano from an early age, and early jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Art Tatum and Fats Waller were to influence much of his virtuoso piano style. Combined with his love of classical music; Bach, Copeland, Bartok, Mussorgsky, and Alberto Ginestera to name but a few, would serve him well throughout his career. However it was not just his prowess as a keyboard wizard that earned Keith Emerson his reputation among the music press, but also his on-stage antics. Perhaps taking note from some of the contemporary guitarists, Keith utilised many of the ideas that were attracting attention to these six stringed showmen. Soon we would see the mighty Hammond organ wielded across the stage, drawing feedback from the amplification whilst knives were thrust into the instrument and then ceremoniously set on fire (along with the American Flag, which was to cause the band slightly more problems in the USA).
As mentioned earlier the formation of The Nice began in early 1967 with Lee Jackson and Keith Emerson. Jackson recounts "I first met Keith when we were playing in Gary Farr's T-Bones, when that band split we still used to loon around together. One day Keith zoomed along and said that he'd been asked to form a backing group for P.P.Arnold and did I want to come in on it. I said yeah and we got it together, eventually splitting with Pat and going our own way". Jackson also with the Christian name Keith, was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne (born 8 January 1943). Having served his apprenticeship within the North East clubs, as well as the Hamburg scene. The drum position was eventually filled by Brian Davison (born 25 May 1942), again an R&B man, having recently finished with the Mark Leeman Five. He replaced the departing Ian Hague, at the suggestion of David O'List, both having played together in Richard Shirman's Attack. An opportune moment to mention the fourth member Davy O'List (born 13 December 1948), before we move on to our featured album. O'List formed an integral part of the band in its early formation. A young and gifted guitarist who not only served as a foil to Keith Emerson but also undertook a major part of the earlier song-writing team. O'List was to leave The Nice before the release of the bands second album.
Although Five Bridges was not released till near the demise of The Nice in 1970, the recording was in fact made in October 1969 and features the band with a full symphony orchestra. Perhaps not seen now as such a feat, however in the late sixties this was fairly pioneering. Some had undertaken this previously and many have since, but Emerson's understanding of classical arrangements and endearing piano virtuosity helped make this one of the more refreshing examples. The Nice had worked with conductor Joseph Eger in the States, however his first appearance in the UK, with the baton, was at the Royal Festival Hall and featured not only The Nice but the Royal Philharmonic. The Five Bridges was a piece of music commissioned for the Newcastle Arts Festival, and as Lee Jackson was a native "Geordie", who more fitting to pen the lyrics, reflecting upon his childhood reminiscences and current observations of his home town.
The first side of the album is taken up by the varied movements that make up the Five Bridges Suite, opening with Fantasia which "uses bridges as a musical symbol". Emerson constructed the music to represent this, as explained here and taken from the CD sleeve notes "I worked on building a musical bridge combining early baroque forms to more contemporary ideas, allowing the progression to move rather neurotically through a fantasia form". The opening section is entirely orchestral with no hint of the band. Keith Emerson is the first of The Nice to appear, as the Grand piano forms a segue between the opening orchestral segments. There is in fact six minutes of music before we have our first taste of The Nice, who then perform entirely without the orchestra. Jackson's lyrics bringing forward the notion of the five bridges that cross the river Tyne in Newcastle. The section features all three musicians in full flight mixing together rock and jazz rhythms and combining symphonic progressions.
The fourth track sees the first combination of the orchestra and the band. Opening with a lush string arrangement interspersed with Lee Jackson gently singing with an almost a monastic voice. As the track evolves we are introduced to the band who add a 'smoky' jazz club atmosphere to the proceedings. Strange conceptually, but in many ways the idea works as the contrasting and varying styles, bravely attempt to fuse both the band and orchestra together. The High Level Bridge is represented by the High Level Fugue (not surprising really), as Emerson takes inspiration from Friedrich Gulda's 'Prelude and Fugue', "in which sticking to Bach's formula he wrote his own jazz phrasings". Keith takes this concept a little further by not only using jazz phrasings but introducing some boogie-woogie techniques. The final bridge is a recapitulation of the second bridge, however on this occasion scored for a quintet of saxaphones, played here by Alan Skidmore, Kenny Wheeler, John Warren, Pete King and Joe Harriott.
"In conclusion to all this The Nice and Joseph Eger have been trying to build bridges to those musical shores which seem determined to remain apart from which is a whole". Written by Keith Emerson and perhaps pointing to those musical barriers that exist(ed) between classical and rock music - barriers he has endeavoured to break down.
The opening of side two is the rousing Intermezzo taken from Sibelius' Karelia Suite - a truly wonderful piece in its own right. The symphonic and heralding arrangement serves as a precursor to the band, who sort of vamp their way in. We can hear also early indications of the humour that was to run through Keith Emerson's career, as anecdotal tunes weave in and out of the music, sometimes from himself and occasionally from members of the orchestra. The tracks only downfall is the destruction of the Hammond organ, with inherent noises. Mercifully short lived here - more of a visual thing and not one that sat too well on the recording. Those familiar with Keith Emerson will no doubt have heard this many times throughout his career - some will love it and others may not. It does seem a little odd to offer criticisms in a Counting Out Time article, however in some ways we are offering a critique as well as honouring these albums. A younger generation may listen and wonder as to the nature of these strange noises.
So how to follow this, well you could always turn to another great composer, and that is exactly what happens, as this time we turn to Tchaikovsky's Pathetique taken from the Symphony No.6 - third movement. As with the previous track, it is these two pieces that best gel, and one assumes that this is a result of a greater familiarity with the music from the orchestra's viewpoint. Joseph Eger conducts the orchestra through the first three minutes or so before the keyboards and band take over briefly. From this point the music meshes more and there is a growing empathy between the two factions. Emerson's Hammond organ work is superb and gives us an indication why he was, and in fact still is, so highly regarded. It is probably these two tracks that most prompted me to pick the Five Bridges album to best represent The Nice's inclusion into Counting Out Time. The previous albums owing more to perhaps the 'hippie' or psychedelic music of the sixties rather than these early rumblings of a newer, symphonic sound.
The last two tracks, Country Pie and One of Those People, contain early glimpses of some of the quirkier elements and arrangements that would resurface throughout Keith Emerson's long career with ELP. Bob Dylan's Country Pie opening with Jackson's infectious bass and featuring some bluesy and jazzy organ from Emerson. Mixed in with these afore mentioned keyboard styles are excerpts from Bach's Brandenburger Concerto No.6. The track has a loose and improvised nature and sees Brian Davison and Lee Jackson jamming along freely with the keyboards. The vinyl version of the Five Bridges closes with an Emerson/Jackson composition - One Of Those People, again with Keith's driven Hammond organ pulling things along, whilst Jackson's vocals are given an overdriven treatment. The CD version contains five bonus tracks The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack, Flower King Of Flies, Bonnie K, Diary Of An Empty Day and The Nice's swan-song America.
The Nice released five albums during their career. The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack (68) - taking part of each of the four members surnames to complete the title. Ars Longa Vita Brevis (68), The Nice (69), Five Bridges (70) and finally Elegy (71) - released after the demise of the band and riding on the back of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's almost instant success. In many ways owing much to the ground work and efforts of The Nice. Much has been written about Keith Emerson, however a little footnote on the other two members. Lee Jackson went on to form his own band - Jackson Heights - releasing four albums between 1970 and 1973. In 1974 Jackson was briefly reunited with Brian Davison for a one off album the eponymous Refugee, which featured keyboard man Patrick Moraz.
2002 saw The Nice reform for five concerts, (a review from Newcastle Upon Tyne's, Opera House can be found through this link) and reunited these three musicians, who have remained friends throughout the years. *Sadly Brian passed away on 15th April 2008. Five Bridges serves The Nice well, giving us a true glimpse of progressive rock in its infancy and aided here by the inclusion of a Symphony Orchestra. Some thirty-odd years on, we may find the recordings dated and perhaps a little naive, however there is much great music to be found on this album.
Written by Bob Mulvey, December 2002
Various sites from the Internet
Thanks to Brian Kuin for his assistance