Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of the great success stories in British jazz. Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae double act Clint Eastwood and General Saint and in various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London music scene. As he memorably put it in the BBC TV documentary ‘Jazz Britannia‘, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’
But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. His professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too. A period of intense woodshedding paid off, and soon he was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors group. Island Records came calling, and his 1986 debut set Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK, an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. Pine spearheaded a huge resurgence of interest in jazz in the mid-to-late ’80s. This web editor fondly remembers the day in 1986 when, on opening the NME, he found Pine’s debut and Miles Davis‘s Tutu toe-to-toe in the UK album charts.
But Courtney is somewhat of an anomaly on the English jazz scene, a barnstorming soloist with a lot of technique and a huge sound, one of the few British saxists who can give American brain-blowers like David S Ware, James Carter and David Murray a run for their money. As usual, it’s a question of context. His musical vision has certainly diversified since the mid-’80s, taking in elements of reggae, drum and bass, acid jazz and jazz/funk, but the last few years have seen him refocus on acoustic forms.
His new album Europa is his first all-bass clarinet record and it’s an absolute blast. A concept album of sorts, it reflects on Pine’s research into the creation of Europe (outlined in meticulous detail in the CD’s liner notes). There are hints at Scandinavian, Celtic, Spanish, Eastern European and Mediterranean melodies and the album features intriguing cameos from players such as clarinetist Shabaka Hutchins and violinist Omar Puente.
The opener ‘Il Favolo Di Romelus and Remus’ delivers us unceremoniously into Pine’s new sound world, opening with a folky theme played on baritone with only a baroque piano accompaniment. You’d be forgiven wondering what the hell this has to do with jazz, but with a very slick change of pace, the piece morphs into a thrilling double-drumset two-step jam session over a rippling Brad Mehldau-style piano figure.
The title track is a moving ballad full of rich harmonies and tasteful accompaniment from Zoe Rahman on piano, with Pine delivering a beautifully controlled performance including some serious wall-shaking low tones. ‘Druids’ Lyre’ features a gloriously swinging melody seemingly based on an Irish reel. In a thrilling mid-piece duel with drummer Mark Mondesir, Pine channels Eric Dolphy and James Carter, letting rip with some guttural harmonics. And Mondesir delivers nothing less than an polyrhythmic drum masterclass, his left foot seeming to have a mind of its own, Sunny Murray-style.
There are elements of calypso in the bright bass and piano vamp on ‘Deuteronomy’, and ‘Cancion Traditional Numero Siete’is a glorious exploration of North African tonalities featuring some sparkling acoustic guitar playing by Dominic Grant. ‘The First Flower of Spring’ is a moving tribute to Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse who paid her own way to travel abroad to help the injured in the Crimean War. The piece’s long, elegant lines recall the great Wayne Shorter ballads of the ‘60s such as ‘Lady Day’ and ‘Infant Eyes’.
After 25 years of making award-winning, pulsating jazz music, Pine has delivered another career milestone here, a surprising and important album. His storming bass clarinet playing and the intriguing blend of unusual instrumentation and music styles ensure there’s never a dull moment.