July 5 2011. Billy Jenkins turned 55.
What could be more appropriate than a retro ‘Fifties late night jazz album. Taking tunes from, amongst others, the Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday & Nat King Cole songbooks – it’s a celebration of that thing called jazz – another cliché in the land we call jazz. NO! STOP! We don’t want no more of that groovy dinner jazzy lounge piano soft-focus wide screen smooth talking tasteful jazz thang. Man, jazz gives me the blues! Jazz is the blues. Blues is the new jazz……
Whatever, here we have a Billy Jenkins album of standards (OK, so that’s like a Lady Gaga guide to comfy cardigans but there we go). Just to contextualise, the album kicks off with a homage to the ultimate in 50s hipness – the Hammond organ trio – yes, in the Jimmy Smith corner MrJimmy Watson (not playing Hammond) and in the Grant Green corner the heavy weight guitar string champion of the world, let’s hear it for Mr B Jenkins Esq.! Mike Pickering‘s in the drum seat (he makes up the last third of the Trio Blues Suburbia) and guest soloist and Jenkins novice, lauded and award winning altoist and flautist Finn Peters rocks in with a bluesy chorus or two and some kissing noises.
Billy takes these old jazz standards and does unmentionable things to them, lyrically and musically metamorphosing them into something new and strange – reinterpreting the hackneyed old images, injecting anger where anger never was, blueing the jazz. The guitar, that guitar, still strikes like lightning, illuminating as it incinerates, but the emphasis here is on mood – a fifties late night mood for a fifty-somethin’ guitarist.
Modern morality suburban blues tales written over the last decade and served up by Billy’s Trio Blues Suburbia with the usual collection of wide ranging and ‘must be listened to’ guests.
Award winning organist Jim Watson provides the unique sound canvas upon which Jenkins lets rip with some terrifying one take blues guitar – captured in all its sweat, blood and torn sinew by recording engineer and producer Charlie Hart.
Coming in like a kind of ‘evangelist group therapy’ this is cross-genre experimentalism from a crack team of musicians. The band, held together by Billy’s rabid guitar work, features iconoclastic drummer Charles Hayward originally known for his work with This Heat and Oren Marshall on tuba who can effortlessly cross from free form to nailing a tight bass line. Innovative improviser Gail Brand on trombone, Blues Collective member Dylan Bates on violin and pocket cornet, and Empirical band member Nathaniel Facey on alto saxophone (who met Billy when he was taught by him at the Royal Academy of Music) complete the line up. Spontaneously directed by Billy, the ensemble rides and falls on his ability to pick up on subtle inflections from his players and to capitalise on their instant creativity.
“They don’t make records like this any more. Stuff a load of musicians in a recording room, switch the red light on and hear them resonate off one another, as they scrape sounds out of the air. We need the sound of people, not machines. Machines break down, as do people, but when musicians are a’ buzzing it’s the stuff of life! And we all need more of it!”
– Billy Jenkins 2010
no Smokestack LIghtnin’ – but I’ve got the blues, and I find it very
frightening.’ If you choose a ‘career’ playing blues in the UK, you can
forget the Ferrari, the champagne and a queue of glamorous groupies waiting
backstage. True blues is an all-consuming act of determined dedication, and
Billy Jenkins and his band have it in spades. He also has yet another string
to life’s complex lute – a passion for non-religious Gospel music, and that
commitment stretches even further – Billy Jenkins is an Accredited Humanist
Officiant approved by the British Humanist Association to conduct
non-religious funerals. When you listen to these three complex yet highly
entertaining albums, you’ll wonder why we don’t hear much more of him. For
example, back in 1930, when Fred Hamm, Dave Bennett, Bert Lown and Chauncey
Grayon sat down to write Bye Bye Blues, they could have never imagined the
off the wall rendition which appears on the Billy Jenkins Life CD; it would
have propelled Les Paul and Mary Ford into therapy. There’s a hilarious
journey into secular ‘gospel’ with There Is No Lord Up there, which
features, among many side-splitting verses the line ‘Some bastard stole my
bike’. None of Jenkins blues, lyrically, at least, fits the classic template
of expectations, but there is a consistently superb quality running parallel
to the humour, a totally thrilling guitar style which assails your senses
with the tone of a gang of angry wasps trapped in a biscuit barrel.
Listening to these three excellent albums is like a ride on a ghost train –
every track catches your breath, and First Day in Hell will have you falling
about between the actual thrills of his playing. The Blues Collective are a
constantly shifting line-up of superb musicians. Sometimes there’s horns,
often violin, harp, the secular gospel choirs, in fact these CDs are like a
tin of musical Quality Street. On Blues Zero Two there’s a dedication to a
great beverage – I Want My Tea and the moody, almost sinister Down In The
Deep Freeze. To accompany his tea, there’s Don’t Eat That Cake, which will
bring a smile to any Weight Watchers member. White Van Man, with a growling
a capella intro, is as British as a red phone box. The Sadtimes.co.uk CD has
the wonderful Resting On My Bed of Blues with terrific interplay between
Billy’s fiery guitar and a moody fiddle. I almost fell off my chair laughing
listening to Cliff Richard Spoke To Me.
Billy Jenkins should be much better known. I see him as a national treasure,
somewhere between a blues Ian Dury, Tom Waits and Vivian Stanshall. I urge
you to buy these three albums, because this is not ‘background’ blues – this
is worthy of maximum concentration, a truly rewarding experience.
GENIUS!Brockley’s very own Mr Jenkins’ unconventional chocolate box triptych made available for the first time since it’s original release. Direct from cassette to MP3!Have a listen to excerpts by clicking on the links below:
Listen here to Uncommerciality Vol 1 http://soundcloud.com/the-south-trio/sets/billy-jenkins-uncommerciality-volume-1
Listen here to Uncommerciality Vol 2 http://soundcloud.com/the-south-trio/sets/billy-jenkins-uncommerciality-vol-2
Listen here to Uncommerciality Vol 3 http://soundcloud.com/the-south-trio/sets/billy-jenkins-uncommerciality-vol-3
‘an impressive example of a man in absolute command of his materials. Vibrant in a way that often recalls the spirit of the late Charles Mingus, Uncommerciality is an accomplished and sometimes provocative piece of work’. Richard Williams, The Times