Album Reviews

Issue 2019-051: Nucleus / Ian Carr Special

Nucleus & Ian Carr - Torrid Zone, The Vertigo Recordings 1970 - 1975 [6CD Box Set]

Nucleus & Ian Carr - Torrid Zone, The Vertigo Recordings 1970 - 1975
Country of Origin
Year of Release
64:42, 67:27, 65:56, 73:59, 67:24, 41:22
CD 1 (Elastic Rock, 1970): 1916 (1:11), Elastic Rock (4:05), Striation (2:15), Taranaki (1:39), Twisted Track (5:15), Crude Blues (Part One)(0:54), Crude Blues (Part Two) (2:36), 1916 - The Battle Of Boogaloo (3:04), Torrid Zone (8:40), Stonescape (2:39), Earth Mother (0:51), Speaking For Myself, Personally, In My Own Opinion, I Think... (0:54), Persephone's Jive (2:15)
(We'll Talk About It Later, 1971): Song For The Bearded Lady (7:25), Sun Child (5:19), Lullaby For A Lonely Child (4:21), We'll Talk About It Later (6:19)
CD 2 (We'll Talk About It Later, 1971): Oasis (9:49), Ballad For Joe Pimp (3:48), Easter 1916 (8:47)
(Solar Plexus, 1971) : Elements 1 & 2 (2:12), Changing Times (4:44), Bedrock Deadlock (6:52), Spirit Level (9:20), Torso (6:12), Snakehips' Dream (15:16)
CD3 (Belladonna, 1972): Belladonna (13:42), Summer Rain (6:13), Remadione (3:48), May Day (5:41), Suspension (6:15), Hector's House (4:33)
(Labyrinth, 1973): Origins (2:56), Bull Dance (8:17), Ariadne (7:47), Arena (6:53)
CD4 (Labyrinth, 1973): Exultation (6:01), Naxos (12:17)
(Roots, 1973): Roots (9:24), Images (4:55), Caliban (4:35), Whapatiti (3:23), Capricorn (4:01), Odokamona (3:24), Southern Roots And Celebration (7:43)
(Under The Sun, 1974) : In Pocession (2:54), The Addison Trip (3:58), Pastoral Graffiti (3:33), New Life (7:07), A Taste Of Sarsparilla (0:44)
CD5 (Under The Sun, 1974): Theme 1 - Sarsparilla (6:47), Theme 2 - Feast Alfresco (6:02), Theme 3 - Rites Of Man (10:00)
(Snakehips Etcetera, 1975): Rat's Bag (5:51), Alive And Kicking (9:30), Rachel's Tune (7:05), Snakehips Etcetera (10:32), Pussyfoot (4:06), Heyday (7:45)
CD6 (Alley Cat, 1975): Phaideux Corner (6:20), Alleycat (14:05), Splat (11:40), You Can't Be Sure (4:10), Nosegay (4:40)

Many summers ago, I saw Ian Carr play as part of the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble that jammed, rocked and rolled into the Royal College of Music in the early eighties.

The memory of a succession of tight-lipped, exquisite, cheek-bulging solos has long faded. Once it was technicolour, then it became monochrome, now that image no longer has any clarity. It is a frosted windowpane. It is a cloying mist; a lip-stained clouded glass. It is a distorted memory that no amount of meditation, or attempts to recall specific details will sharpen and clear.

One thing is certain though; his contribution to this amazing night performed by top-notch musicians including Eberhard Weber, Kenny Wheeler, Jon Hiseman, and Barbara Thompson was very impressive.

Of that, I am clear!

Ian Carr died in 2009. He was an acclaimed author, composer and virtuoso trumpet player. His erudite writing style is apparent in his excellent biography of Miles Davis. In this book, Carr’s vast musical knowledge and ability to convey his love for innovation in jazz and other forms of music really comes across well.

However, Carr is best known for his work with Nucleus, which he formed in October 1969. For over 30 years they were at the forefront of the jazz-rock movement in the UK. The importance of Nucleus as one of the earliest and most innovative pioneers of fusion cannot be underestimated. During the band's long existence, they consistently amalgamated the freedom of expression that is so often a characteristic of jazz, with the structured security of rock, to create their own, unique voice.

Nucleus' trademark sound was characterised by Carr's fluid melodies. His compositions often include flowing embellishments provided by reeds and keys and sometimes guitars. These essential elements are consistently emphasised in the majority of Nucleus releases, by the rhythmic punch and the teasing counter-melodies of a succession of fine bassists, and by a vibrant horn section.

Early incarnations of Nucleus included gifted players such as, Jeff Clyne, John Marshall, and Karl Jenkins. Later contributors included many other notable musicians, including Kenny Wheeler, Dave McCrae, Norma Winstone and Roy Babbington. Ian Carr also gave Allan Holdsworth the opportunity to make what was then only his second appearance as a recording artist on his Belladonna album (1972).

Torrid Zone is a six CD box set released by Esoteric Records that represents Nucleus' recorded output on the Vertigo label between the years 1970 and 1975. Across the six discs, nine albums await discovery, or can be experienced again.

The sound quality is superb!

These newly remastered versions sound far superior to the albums published by BGO in the early 2000s. ‘Sound Recording Technology’ remastered the BGO albums. At that time, BGO presented the Vertigo discography of Nucleus as a series of double disc releases. This format included lavish and informative sleeve notes by Alyn Shipton.

The series, placed Elastic Rock and Well Talk About It Later together, Solar Plexus and Belladonna together, Labyrinth and Roots together, Under The Sun and Snakehips Etcetera together. Alley Cat was originally released with 1977’s In Flagranti Delicto, but due to contractual reasons this was withdrawn and it was eventually presented with Direct Hits, a compilation album.

This box set compliments and in some ways improves upon the BGO releases (which are becoming increasingly difficult to find), in a number of ways.

Firstly, the box set contains an excellent 48-page booklet with a detailed history of the band and these recordings, written by Sid Smith. It also includes plenty of archive press clippings relating to the band. Smith's style is pleasing to read, and when added to Shipton’s informative ramblings (found in the BGO releases), provides Nucleus aficionados with a knowledgeable and extensive insight into the band and the recording of these albums.

The booklet contains a number of well-produced images which overall make the package a collectors' treat. The albums and booklet are contained in a clamshell case. The individual CDs are located in cardboard sleeves, which reproduce aspects of the original artwork.

More importantly and as already stated, the sound quality of this Esoteric release is outstanding. Paschal Byrne at The Audio Archiving Company remastered them. The albums have a magnificent sonic range, where the obvious attention to detail that has gone into this aspect of the release, really stands out. Every sustained passage and individual note has space to resonate and breathe. When raucous sections occur, they possess the clarity and seductive power for a listener to raise a glass and cheer. In the gentler sections of the music, every subtle nuance can be clearly heard.

However, there is one downside to this Esoteric release. I can imagine that for some, this will cause reservations over whether to purchase the Box Set, or seek out the BGO releases which, although they sound good, for the most part, they pale significantly in comparison to the excellent sonic qualities of the Esoteric release.

The back cover of the album shows how the releases contained in the box set are organised.

"back of the box"

Put simply, the nine original Vertigo albums are contained on six CDs. This means that CDs 1, 2, 3 and 5 each contain two different albums in part, or in full. CD 4 contains three albums, or part albums. CD 6 is the odd one out and it contains one album, the band's final vertigo release entitled Alleycat.

The decision to do this is easy to understand; no doubt it has helped to keep costs down. However, it has the potential to be frustrating and produce a bout of red-faced consternation for a number of listeners. For example, if someone wished to listen to Labyrinth, which is a conceptual work where each piece leads on from, and compliments the other, you would have to find the beginning of the album located in the middle of CD 3 and change over to CD4 for the final two pieces.

Notwithstanding this irritation, the box set is an excellent starting point for anybody who has a passing interest in British jazz rock of the seventies. It has a distinctive colour and flavour to that which other artists such as the USA’s Miles Davies, Tony Williams Lifetime, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House and Chick Corea’s Return To Forever were creating during the early to mid-seventies. Overall, the music of Nucleus also has an altogether different hue and scent to European bands of that era such as Sunbirds, Passport, Embryo and Wolfgang Daunier’s Et Cetera.

However, a good case can be made that by the time Alleycat was released in 1975, Nucleus shared a somewhat similar groove to Passport. By this time, Nucleus also exhibited a similar hip-swaying energy as could be found in Passport’s knuckle-tapping rhythms that were so superbly exhibited in their excellent Cross Collateral album that was released in the same year.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is even now sometimes hard to comprehend that by the end of the sixties and the beginning of the 70s, the UK was at the forefront of lots of musical ideas and innovation. The Beatles' Sgt Pepper had made a considerable impact upon popular music and the so-called prog invasion of the USA, heralded by bands such as Jethro Tull was about to begin.

This sense of adventure and innovation was equally present in the thriving British UK jazz scene of that time. Genre boundaries were becoming less distinctive and jazz musicians were moving outside the defined parameters of jazz. It was a fertile time for UK jazz musicians such as Keith Tippett, Mark Charig and Nik Evans, who found themselves appearing on King Crimson’s Lizard in 1970 and the superb Harold Mcnair, who some three years earlier, had supplied sweet flute melodies to a string of albums by Donovan.

With the release of albums such as Neil Ardley’s, Greek Variations, Michael Garrick’s Heart of a Lotus and The Keith Tippett Group’s You Are Here, I Am There in 1970, a variety of jazz artists were gaining some attention in the new music publications of the day. Viewed within the context of a healthy and inventive British Jazz movement at this time, it is probably not surprising that Nucleus' first album Elastic Rock (released early in in 1970 and before the albums named above), is regarded as being an important part of the development of the burgeoning British jazz movement of that time.

For the purpose of this review, I will put forward some opinions in chronological order about each of the nine Vertigo albums represented in the box set, rather than comment on, what specifically is contained on each of the six CDs.

I will use the front cover artwork from the original Vertigo vinyl release to represent each album, as the front covers of the cardboard sleeves of the box set only illustrate six of the bands' nine Vertigo albums.

There are you tube clips available for the album tracks to give readers a taste of what the music of Nucleus is all about, but these tracks have not been taken from the remastered Torrid Zone Box set. Therefore their sound quality and production values are somewhat inferior.

Nucleus - Elastic Rock

Nucleus - Elastic Rock
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1970 / 2019
1916 (1:11), Elastic Rock (4:05), Striation (2:15), Taranaki (1:39), Twisted Track (5:15), Crude Blues (Part One)(0:54), Crude Blues (Part Two) (2:36), 1916 - The Battle Of Boogaloo (3:04), Torrid Zone (8:40), Stonescape (2:39), Earth Mother (0:51), Speaking For Myself, Personally, In My Own Opinion, I Think... (0:54), Persephone's Jive (2:15)

Whilst Elastic Rock is a contemporary of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which highlighted Davis' inventive excursions into uncharted territories and his explorations of rock idioms, it is an entirely different sort of album.

Its tunes are easy on the ear and relatively straightforward. Although, it is obvious when listening to the phrasing of Carr’s trumpet that Miles was a great influence to his playing, the compositions in Elastic Rock owe little to Miles' own unique sense of experimentation. The most evocative trumpet work occurs in the delicious opening section of Stonescape and is quite wonderful.

The first half of the album is gentle, and frequently has a contemplative air. The second half is much less so. In this respect, there is some stunning interplay between the guitar of Chris Spedding, the saxophonist Brian Smith and the multi-instrumental input of Karl Jenkins. Carr’s soaring trumpet lines add and bring a touch of sophistication to proceedings. For example, just listen to how all members of the band jostle and interact in the free improvisation jam-fest of Persephone’s Jive. Incidentally, an earlier version of this piece, composed by Carr, also appears on Neil Ardley’s Greek Variation’s album.

The stylistic stamp of Karl Jenkins is visible on many of the compositions. Out of the 13 tracks, Jenkins was responsible for five, and has writing credits for two other pieces. In this respect, tunes like the outstanding Torrid Zone share similar characteristics with the type of style that became prevalent under Jenkins' influence in Soft Machine. Other upbeat tunes like 1916 (The Battle of Boogaloo) is a forerunner of the sort of juicy-riff style and approach that Soft Machine were to adopt later on in their guitar-led albums such as Bundles.

Just as in many Soft Machine albums, there is even a solo slot for John Marshall on this album. Speaking For Myself, Personally, In My Own Opinion, I Think... is a perfect vehicle for his all-action kit work where both subtlety and bombast have a part to play.

It may well be that it is one of those tunes that once played, is rarely visited again.

However, Elastic Rock has many other different styles and attributes and these coalesce to create something that is often compelling. This contrast and mix of a number of styles, is no better illustrated than in the contemplative, yet slightly disturbing, off-piste bowed-bass meanderings of Jeff Clyne during Striation.

The wide breadth of styles on Elastic Rock are apparent if you compare the more up-tempo pieces of the album, with the elegant, gentle musings that make up both Taranaki and the breath-taking call-and-response interplay of Twisted Track. The moody oboe of Crude Blues Part One forms another contrasting and entirely different ambience that suggests a quintessential English sound, which is able to evoke images of hazy church spires, cream teas and off-white cricket pads.

I have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Elastic Rock. It deserves its place as a pivotal release in the history of British jazz rock. Listening to it again only serves to proove how ahead of its time this album was.

Nucleus - We'll Talk About It Later

Nucleus - We'll Talk About It Later
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1971 / 2019
Song For The Bearded Lady (7:25), Sun Child (5:19), Lullaby For A Lonely Child (4:21), We'll Talk About It Later (6:19), Oasis (9:49), Ballad For Joe Pimp (3:48), Easter 1916 (8:47)

Penclawdd is a village that confidently overlooks green tufts of grass that meet the sea. The shifting currents of the Loughor estuary disguise trenched mud and sand-cratered patterns, which shift, slide and meet the shore. It is famous for cockles, salt marsh lamb and for producing fine musicians.

Karl Jenkins attended the local Gowerton boys Grammar School in the 60s. The school must have been doing something right in its efforts to help pupils discern the difference between a distorted noise and a sweet sound. In the space of fifteen years, the esteemed composer Mark Thomas (also from Penclawdd) and the keyboard player and frequent arranger for the Eurythmics, Pat Seymour, were also pupils. In a school renowned for developing international rugby players, that was some feat!

These gifted individuals developed their skills in that dust-red building amid the ever-changing pitch and clanging symphony of hundreds of boys, including myself, who found themselves placed within the rusted fragility of its fatigued old school gates.

We'll Talk About It Later, is an even greater showpiece of Jenkins talent as a performer and as a composer than the band’s debut. He is responsible for four of the album's seven compositions. From the moment the album begins, to the moment it ends, there is a feeling that this is an adventurous release, which is often enthralling.

It contains some of my favourite Nucleus tracks. Chris Spedding takes a more aggressive and dominant stance than in Elastic Rock. At times, the playing is so hot that it threatens to derail the air-conditioning programming, such is its ability to raise the temperature of the room. There is a ferocious energy to much of the ensemble's playing.

For many listeners, its ferocity and its uncompromising blending of jazz virtuosity with the emotive energy and head rocking pull of rock, makes the album a more exciting proposition than the band’s debut. Certainly, there is much more to admire about We'll Talk About It Later, than to criticise.

The album opens with Song for the Bearded Lady. This tune was later developed and reprised when Jenkins was in Soft Machine. The perhaps better-known Soft Machine version, is of course Hazard Profile.

Other highlights include Oasis, which is a vehicle for some inspired improvisation and group interaction. It includes some high energy blowing by Carr and an enchanting oboe interlude, where Jenkins demonstrates his versatility and ability to take the instrument in whatever direction his mood takes him. It is the longest track on the album and its length ensures that many different avenues and paths are adventurously uncovered and explored.

Unfortunately, the album concludes with two pieces that feature vocals, and these pieces diminish my positive feelings about the consistency of the album. Ballad For Joe Pimp is a sort of proto-prog pop song. Its clumsy lyric, repetitive chorus and short duration does not sit easily with the style of the rest of the album.

Similarly, the spoken voice that dominates the first part of Easter 1916 gives that piece a dated and obsolete feel, despite the underlying development of the riff and melody that was so engaging in The Battle Of Boogaloo. The second part is a free-blowing showcase for Brian Smith's outstanding reed skills and Marshall’s ability to scar his drum kit with powerful strikes and off-beat embellishments.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, We'll Talk About It Later is a very fine album. Its stronger pieces more than compensate for any disappointing aspects.

Ian Carr with Nucleus Plus - Solar Plexus

Ian Carr with Nucleus Plus - Solar Plexus
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1971 / 2019
Elements 1 & 2 (2:12), Changing Times (4:44), Bedrock Deadlock (6:52), Spirit Level (9:20), Torso (6:12), Snakehips' Dream (15:16)

Only five of the pieces on the first two Nucleus albums had been written by Ian Carr, but this all changed with the release of Solar Plexus.

Whilst working on the first two Nucleus albums, Carr had been creating a piece of music based upon two themes. The album was composed with the aid of an Arts Council grant. The two themes form the basis of the first track of Solar Plexus, Elements 1 & 2, and aspects of these themes are developed and explored in the five other pieces that make up the album.

The changes in style that are apparent in Solar Plexus reflect the different strengths that Carr and Jenkins have as composers. The majority of the tracks in Nucleus' first two albums were composed by Jenkins, and these reflect a more raucous and often more riff-laden way of presenting the band's art.

Carr's compositions on the other hand, at this stage of his career and particularly in Solar Plexus, are much less frantic and evolve around an often gentler and altogether more organic group sound. The music centres on piano, saxophone and trumpet, although the large number of guest musicians involved, give much of the album a big sound where the freshness and spontaneity of the ensemble is readily apparent.

The use of trumpet and saxophone to create a boiling and often powerful ensemble of rich sounds, that in some ways imitates a big band style, became one of the hallmarks of Carr’s style as a composer. This characteristic often makes the music of Nucleus, from this point onwards in their career, easily identifiable.

Consequently, much of Solar Plexus comes across as being a jazz album with occasional rock elements, rather than a jazz-rock album where the boundaries between rock and jazz are indistinctive and blurred.

Although Solar Plexus frequently lacks the intensity of the band's previous albums, it more than makes up for this with the space allocated for the various guest performers to shine in a number of virtuoso solo slots. Kenny Wheeler's trumpet solo in Changing Times is lush and expressive. The booklet that accompanies this box set credits each of the soloists.

My favourite solo of the album is undoubtedly Carr’s extended flugelhorn interlude, which takes Snakehips' Dream to another level. Similarly, Brian Smith's shifting and lilting soprano sax solo in Torso is equally rewarding. It sings and sings, it just swings and swings, and to cap it all the piece ends with a muscular drum workout that fans of John Marshall will absolutely adore.

The magnificent Snakehips' Dream is probably the standout track of the album. In this piece, a relatively simple theme with memorable hooks is twisted and turned in order to explore all of the possibilities it presents. The brass and reed players create a larger-than-life sound that shows how well, as a composer, Carr is able to bring together many different elements, to create a style and sound that often really swings.

In many ways, this piece is the starting point of a style for which Nucleus and composer Carr became renowned. There is a tangible symbiotic relationship between all the musicians, and this helps to weave and create music within an identifiable framework. These develop and fan out in all directions from its core.

Whilst Solar Plexus may not be as immediately accessible, or as flamboyant, as its predecessors, there is much about the album that is impressive and much about it that can be highly recommended.

Ian Carr - Belladonna

Ian Carr - Belladonna
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1972 / 2019
Belladonna (13:42), Summer Rain (6:13), Remadione (3:48), May Day (5:41), Suspension (6:15), Hector's House (4:33)

By the time Belladonna was released, Nucleus had undergone numerous line-up changes. Only Brian Smith and Ian Carr remained from the band that recorded Solar Plexus. Both Karl Jenkins and John Marshall went on to join Soft Machine.

However, these changes only served to breathe a freshness and fire into the band's next album. In many ways, the release of Belladonna, and the next album Labyrinth, sees Nucleus at its most productive. Although these two albums represent different ends of the jazz rock or fusion perspective, they both arguably rank highly in the band's discography and for some may represent the pinnacle of the band's achievements.

The change of personnel brought a number of other excellent players into the Nucleus family. The new additions included Roy Babbington on bass, and the beguiling tones of David McCrae on electric piano. The album also includes the understated guitar embellishments of Allan Holdsworth, although he does not really cut loose until the second half of the album.

The title track is a personnel favourite, Babbington’s bass is prominent in the mix and the deep, bouncing bottom end that he provides, drives the tune along with gusto. Their exciting and energetic performance is full of invention, improvisation and guile. The faultless delivery of this piece demonstrates and affirms why the group became one of the leading UK jazz-rock bands of that time.

Another clear favourite of mine is Summer Rain, where McCrae’s electric piano is the principle instrument. His strident playing and evocative soloing makes it one of my all-time favourite piano pieces, although both Babbington and Holdsworth provide some outstanding and sympathetic embellishments to raise the bar of this excellent piece even higher.

Many of the tracks in Belladonna highlight the band's jazz roots and heritage. However, they skilfully still manage to satisfy and please those who enjoy their jazz wrapped in a cloth of fusion.

The album comfortably wears a rich mix of styles. Whilst the outer clothing of the tunes may occasionally be a tad over-flamboyant, its undergarment of drums and bass, helps to secure everything, so that it stays confidently in place; in much the same way as an iron-rimmed girdle might do for an expanding waistline.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Hector's House, where an insistent groove lays the foundation for a raw appearance and glimpse of what would emerge in later years as Allan Holdsworth’s trademark guitar tones and unique style. The tune offers an open window to observe his immense and fast-emerging talent on the fret board.

Hector's House is a wonderful curl-toe experience that is bound to create a huge pumpkin-head smile across the lips of anybody who appreciates the emotive power of a distorted and dirty guitar sound. The other players offer a firm, supportive role, which uplifts the whole tune and keeps it comfortably and firmly in place.

If I were to rank Nucleus' albums, Belladonna would feature at the top, or very near the top of that list.

Ian Carr with Nucleus Plus - Labyrinth

Ian Carr with Nucleus Plus - Labyrinth
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1973 / 2019
Origins (2:56), Bull Dance (8:17), Ariadne (7:47), Arena (6:53), Exultation (6:01), Naxos (12:17)

In any list of mine regarding Nucleus' releases, Belladonna and Labyrinth would be pushing and jostling in a quest for top spot. The two albums are very different in style outlook and breath, but both are equally rewarding. I guess if I had to make a choice Labyrinth would rank first, although to compare it with the band’s first two albums and Belladonna would be a tad unfair.

Labyrinth is the one album in Nucleus' discography that probably wears its jazz roots most prominently. Consequently, it is best to compare it with Solar Plexus rather than with any of the other releases. However, any such comparison with Solar Plexus is also somewhat misleading and unfair, as Labyrinth stands apart from the rest in so many unique ways.

Labyrinth is a jazz suite commissioned by the Arts Council. It includes a guest list that is a Who’s Who roster of the top musicians in British jazz at that time.

It differs from much of Nucleus' previous output, as it utilises the magnificent talents of vocalist Norma Winstone, who provides her own unique, wordless vocal style on a number of pieces and provides the sweetly sung words of Ariadne. This song has always been one of my favourite honey pot tunes.

There is something about the combination of a wordless female vocalist (who uses her voice as a principal instrument in its own right) when it flies and flutters with the other instrumental performers in a band, that just sets my stomach stuttering, and quickens a resting pulse.

In this respect, my favourite performer is undoubtedly Norma Winstone. Even today, when I hear her contribution in Labyrinth’s Bull Ring and her inputs to the brilliantly ebullient Exultation and Naxos, her performance never fails to draw a dew-drop tear to my eye.

Apart from her work in Labyrinth and in her Azimuth band, I also adore the work in her debut solo album, Edge Of Time and her performance in Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle. Her contributions to Michael Garrick's Home Stretch Blues, Troppo and Heart is a Lotus also rate highly and set the pulse dancing. However, the track which has most resonance with me, is undoubtedly Ariadne from Labyrinth. It just connects!

Given my feelings about Winstone’s art, it is not surprising that Labyrinth should rate so highly with me. However, Winstone’s contribution is not the only aspect that is appealing; the tunes are consistently memorable and beautifully formed. Although firmly steeped in jazz, the compositions are difficult to pigeonhole. The music has an exciting and often unusual progressive grasp. Consequently, for me at least, Labyrinth transcends all genre descriptions, and its unique blend is able to create something that is peerless and extraordinary in many respects.

The release includes shining contributions from all the musicians involved. I particularly love the trumpet work of both Kenny Wheeler and Ian Carr. Over the course of the album, their differing styles complement each other perfectly. The flowing flute work of Brian Smith is equally impressive.

However, the contribution of Roy Babbington is perhaps the most consistently satisfying. His sense of timing and deep-seated variations of tone, provides the music with the propulsion it needs. The superb sound quality of the Torrid Zone box set ensures that all of the individual components that serve to make Labyrinth such an enchanting experience are readily heard.

I guess I may be in the minority, and that I probably need my ears re-tuned, but Labyrinth ticks all the right boxes for me. Nothing dwells too long in any one mood, or easy-to-describe style.

Labyrinth is an album that incorporates a spirit of experimentation with some of the traditions of a big band. Its fusion of jazz with a number of unexpected nuances often associated with progressive music, gives it an organic appeal. It oozes energy and has an infectious spirit that often makes the whole experience it offers, simply irresistible. Consequently, it will always be there, amongst the top runners, for any push for top spot in the Nucleus discography.

It is fresh, it is progressive, it is neat, it’s Labyrinth!

Ian Carr's Nucleus - Roots

Ian Carr's Nucleus - Roots
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1973 / 2019
Roots (9:24), Images (4:55), Caliban (4:35), Whapatiti (3:23), Capricorn (4:01), Odokamona (3:24), Southern Roots And Celebration (7:43)

Roots is one of the few Nucleus albums that does not really connect with me. It has many positive aspects, but these are not enough to dispel an overall feeling of indifference and disconnection with much of the material.

Members of the band share writing credits across the whole release. Carr is responsible for three of the album's seven tunes. The band had undergone a number of personnel changes for the album, with Jocelyn Pitchen joining the band on guitar and Roger Sutton providing bass.

By the time of the release of Roots, Nucleus were beginning to move towards and starting to incorporate some of the stylistic tricks used by rhythmic funk-influenced bands such as Passport.

However, there are a number of exceptions to this, most notably Odokamona which is characterised by a heavy riff and distant ethereal voices that give its ending a surreal taste. This track exhibits a further incisive edge, when Carr uses various effects on his trumpet. These elements combine to make this piece one of the most interesting and satisfying on the release.

Nevertheless, a number of the tunes use the standard jazz convention of a theme, followed by a solo, and then once again by the theme, and this is employed to varying degrees of success by Carr in the arrangements. Occasionally, this provides the music with a sort of formulaic flavour, which at times, detracts from the excellent performance of the musicians involved and from the overall high quality of many aspects of the compositions themselves.

The release also includes the soulful vocals of Joy Yates on the piece entitled Images and features her high-pitched wailing in the concluding parts of Southern Roots and Celebration. Her contribution in Images seems somewhat incongruous on a Nucleus album.

Although Carr, rather than Dave McCrae composed this tune, it might have been better if the piece had been put aside for Dave McCrae’s forthcoming Pacific Eardrum band. This band was active in the late 70s and was a better fitting vehicle for Yates' sweet tones and heartfelt voice, laden with the fragrant scent of soul and offering a hint of funk.

The title track is quite lengthy and offers an opportunity for the band to stretch things out and create a mesmerising groove.

Overall, Roots is a disappointing album. Although it was interesting to hear a good quality version, I doubt that I will play it often.

Nucleus - Under The Sun

Nucleus - Under The Sun
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1974 / 2019
In Pocession (2:54), The Addison Trip (3:58), Pastoral Graffiti (3:33), New Life (7:07), A Taste Of Sarsparilla (0:44), Theme 1 - Sarsparilla (6:47), Theme 2 - Feast Alfresco (6:02), Theme 3 - Rites Of Man (10:00)

A number of tracks on Under the Sun peep through the clouds and hit the right spot. It is notable that long-time collaborator Brian Smith does not appear on this album. Instead, Bob Bertles takes up sax and flute duties. His playing is a consistent highlight. By the time of this album, Dave McCrae had also left the band and Gordon Beck and Geoff Castle impressively take over his mantle.

The influx of new musicians certainly breeds new life into Nucleus' by now trusted approach and sound. The new drummer Bryan Spring is particularly impressive and bassist Roger Sutton's contribution is much more noticeable than his input to Roots.

One of my all-time favourite Nucleus tracks is New Life. The piece includes a gorgeous guitar solo by Jocelyn Pitchen, summoned from somewhere deep within him, that uses some of the tones, speed and style that are often associated with Gary Boyles' trademark work with Isotope.

Ian Carr breaks up parts of the arrangement in this track, and in a number of other pieces in the album, by incorporating stop/start sections. Rolling saxophone breaks, punctuated by the piercing sound and the expressively shrill interjections of his trumpet, are a consistent feature of this release. The pitch and roll of Carr's trumpet solo in the concluding part of New Life is intoxicating and has an inventive edge that Miles Davis would have no doubt enjoyed.

The late night, candle dance flute melody and the gentle, sunrise-breakfast scribblings of Pastoral Graffiti, creates a particularly memorable and impressive track.

However, the album is significant because it contains one of the most gratifying tracks the band ever recorded. The lengthy Sarsaparilla suite takes up the second half of the album.

Under The Sun was available in an era when the music of Nucleus was arguably at its most accessible. The initial, gorgeous, ear-friendly melody of A Taste Of Sarsaparilla, has an ability to linger long after its raft of possibilities have been explored and exhausted over the course of this lengthy four-part suite.

Overall, Under The Sun is a very satisfying album and is highly recommended to anybody who enjoys the music of bands such as Njet Njet 9, Graham Costello’s Strata, Snarky Puppy, and all points in between.

Nucleus - Snakehips Etcetera

Nucleus - Snakehips Etcetera
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1975 / 2019
Rat's Bag (5:51), Alive And Kicking (9:30), Rachel's Tune (7:05), Snakehips Etcetera (10:32), Pussyfoot (4:06), Heyday (7:45)

Overall, Snakehips Etcetera is one of my least favourite Nucleus albums, and alongside Roots is an release that just does not connect fully.

This album rolls out its own brand of often predictable brass and reed fusion, in a similar manner to the Brecker Brothers and in a similar style to which Passport were beginning to adopt and integrate into their albums.

In this respect, much of the music has a genuine hip-swaying, leg-dipping appeal. No doubt, it would have served booty-shuffling bedroom dance enthusiasts well throughout the UK when released, but nowadays, with legs lead-weighted from too many TV dinners and aching from too many quick-fix keep fit regimes, its appeal may not be quite as alluring.

New guitarist Ken Shaw makes a fine impression, and in a live setting the band were a well-oiled and rather loud powerhouse, full of twisting rhythms and boisterous soloing. You can view the band's shining live performance from this time, if you follow the link at the beginning of this feature.

Their rendition of Snakehips Etcetera’s, Rats and their performance of Under The Sun’s Sarsaparilla is full of funk and thrust, as they rip through stretched-out versions. The clip shows just how good Nucleus could be on their day. The performance has a fire, energy and spontaneity that is palpable and easy to enjoy and admire.

Heyday is probably the most memorable tune. However, despite its great ensemble playing and a fine sax solo, it rarely lifts the hairs on the neck. It certainly cannot excite in the way that some of Nucleus' earlier ground-breaking tunes such as Song For The Bearded Lady ,Belladonna ,Hector's House, Bull Dance and Sarsaparilla were able to do (albeit in different ways).

Nucleus - Alleycat

Nucleus - Alleycat
Country of Origin
Year of Release
1975 / 2019
Phaideux Corner (6:20), Alleycat (14:05), Splat (11:40), You Can't Be Sure (4:10), Nosegay (4:40)

Alleycat and Snakehips Etcetera wear a rather predictable air. Many of the tunes are tightly dressed in a funk-laden jazz mix, with little room for innovation or unpredictability. However, when comparing these two groove-laden albums, I much prefer Alleycat. There is something reassuringly appealing about the instantly recognisable sound that Nucleus were churning out in this period.

Alleycat is an enjoyable album and the title track is notable for the way in which the electric guitar jousts and playfully competes with the powerful horn arrangement. The album features some fine keyboard flurries by Geoff Castle. His tasteful use of synthesisers and electric piano gives the album a different set of colours, that contrasts favourably with the rasps of the trumpet and the squeal of the sax.

Splat is one of the most interesting tracks on the album. It has some appealing changes of pace that keep things notably edgy. It has a boisterous bass line that fills the room. The bubbling Rhodes interlude offers another colour to the tune and is particularly entertaining.

The concluding piece, Nosegay, is a fast paced, happy-nosed number, which proves that Nucleus had not lost their ability to rock. It is a fine piece of fusion and is a fitting conclusion to the band's Vertigo discography and to Esoteric Records excellent, Torrid Zone box set.

Overall, this box set is a fitting testimony to Nucleus' pivotal place in the history of jazz rock and fusion in the UK. Over the course of the band's nine Vertigo albums, there are many standout moments.

Whilst some albums may have a similar approach and style, which indicates that listening to them can potentially be a somewhat laborious undertaking, the best moments on offer transcend those aspects that might be below-par.

At times, Nucleus offers a genuinely exciting, innovative and inventive listening experience for anybody who cares to pick out the band's best material.

Album Reviews