Michael Garrick’s Lyric Ensemble
(Jazz Academy Records JAZA 20)
Reviewed by Ian Mann
The death of pianist and composer Michael Garrick (born 1933) in November 2011 robbed the British jazz scene of one of its most respected and influential figures. He had been awarded the MBE in 2010, a deserved official recognition of many decades of creative music making. Garrick wrote for combinations ranging from small group to big band and was one of the chief instigators of the “jazz and poetry” movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. His recorded legacy is vast and includes such classic albums as “Home Stretch Blues” and “Black Marigolds”.
In recent years Garrick had forged a productive creative partnership with vocalist Nette Robinson and the pair’s live appearances were regularly covered for The Jazzmann by guest contributor Trevor Bannister. Garrick has always worked with singers, most famously with that doyenne of British jazz vocalists Norma Winstone who appears on many of his classic recordings.
“Home Thoughts”, recorded in September 2011, represents Garrick’s last ever album and it is perhaps appropriate that for his swan song he returned to the jazz and poetry format that will forever be associated with him. The name he chose for the quintet that appears on this record, The Lyric Ensemble, reflects Garrick’s abiding love of poetry and the importance he placed on the actual words within his musical settings. Joining Garrick at the piano and Robinson on vocals are Robinson’s life partner Tony Woods on reeds plus the young musicians Matt Ridley (bass) and Chris Nickolls (drums). The material includes settings of words by Robert Browning, William Shakespeare and William Blake alongside Garrick’s own lyrics. The majority of the twelve compositions are by Garrick himself but there are also arrangements of pieces by Jaco Pastorius and Kenny Wheeler. The attractive CD package includes paintings by Sisi Burn and Nette Robinson (Robinson is an exhibited artist) together with photographs and illuminative liner notes by Michael Garrick.
The album commences with a setting of the Shakespearian sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee?”, tenderly essayed just by voice and piano with Robinson’s pure vocal complemented by Garrick’s thoughtful and sympathetic piano. The words include several familiar images (“The Darling Buds Of May” etc.) and Garrick’s notes salute Shakespeare’s lines as being “moving, forceful and clear” before going on to pray for the “continuity of finely-wrought language”. However the music is of equal importance, witness Garrick’s beautifully lyrical passage of solo piano mid way through the piece.
“Home Thoughts, from Abroad” offers more familiar lines this time in a setting featuring Woods’ feathery soprano sax plus nimbly supportive bass and drums. Woods captures something of the airy spirit of the nest building birds mentioned in Browning’s bucolic words as he shares the instrumental soloing duties with Garrick.
The 2012 London Jazz festival included a poignant but richly enjoyable tribute to Michael Garrick led by his sons Chris (violin) and Gabriel (trumpet). Among the pieces played was an MJQ style instrumental treatment of Lady of the Aurian Wood” (originally a big band piece) by a quartet including Ridley and vibist Jim Hart. Here the piece appears in another guise with Robinson singing Garrick’s words, a wistful reflection on the beauty but ultimate sadness of Autumn. Garrick’s own demise shortly after the recording gives the words an added poignancy and relevance. Robinson sings beautifully with Woods, Garrick and Ridley sharing the instrumental plaudits.
The playful “Laughing Song” represents the lighter side of William Blake. “We were looking for something light and jokey to balance the heavy stuff and found it in an unexpected source” explains Garrick. The quintet sound as if they’re thoroughly enjoying themselves as Woods soprano squiggles joyfully and Ridley lays down a springy bass groove. Robinson scats playfully and Garrick skips around the keyboard with what sounds like youthful abandon. It’s childish, silly even, but great fun.
“Forgotten Love” is another tune that upends the popular image of its composer. Jaco Pastorius is generally considered to have been something of a ‘wild man’ but “Forgotten Love” reveals something of the master bassist’s sensitive side. Pastorius visited Garrick at his home in Berkhamsted and played this on Michael’s piano. Garrick later added the evocative lyric with its ghost like imagery, movingly sung here by Robinson in a second voice and piano duet.
Trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own” has become something of a modern standard and has been frequently covered by a variety of jazz musicians of all generations. The version here includes a life affirming Garrick lyric delivered in a quintet arrangement featuring the splendid saxophone work of Woods, a brilliant Garrick piano solo and a feature for drummer Chris Nickolls.
“Oumara’s Wish” draws on the traditions of Asian poetry (“often a delightful mix of playfulness and sensuality” explains Garrick). This charming voice and piano duet sees Robinson relishing in the delightful imagery of the lyrics. “We loved the idea of the poet hiding in his songs so that he could kiss the lips of his beloved whenever she sang them” says Garrick.
“Shades of the Orange Leaves” is equally beguiling with Woods’ flute and Ridley’s deeply resonant bass playing key roles in the arrangement. Once again the words display that “mix of playfulness and sensuality”.
“Promises” was originally the title track of a 1966 Garrick album but “acquired words in recent years”. Those lyrics focus on the contradictory nature of the human condition but the quintet arrangement is playful and fun and emphasises the bitter-sweet humour of the lyrics. There’s a spirited instrumental dialogue between Garrick and Ridley, some exuberant sax blowing from woods and a neatly energetic drum feature from Nickolls - plus a scat episode from Robinson.
“No Stronger Than A Flower” is a return visit to the Shakespeare oeuvre in a sombre but lovely meditation for voice and piano. Robinson and Garrick sing and play with suitable gravitas.
The atmospheric “November 1918” describes the homecoming of soldiers after the first world war. Garrick describes the lyrics as having sprung from a “vivid dream”. The evocative arrangement features the unusual but mellifluous sound of Woods on bassett horn.
The album closes with “Webster’s Mood”, Garrick’s response to seeing the legendary tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (1909-73) playing in London circa 1965. There’s a strong emphasis on the blues with Woods capturing something of the spirit of Webster alongside Robinson’s soulful, heartfelt vocal, Ridley’s richly resonant bass and Garrick’s beautifully modulated blues styled piano. It’s a beautiful elegy to one of the giants of the music, and in hindsight an elegy to Garrick himself, an equally significant figure in his own way. The album packaging includes Robinson’s evocative image of Webster.
“Home Thoughts” represents a suitable closing statement from Garrick, a well crafted album of great beauty and sensitivity that showed him to be in rude creative health until the end. Obviously Garrick didn’t know that it was going to be his last recorded testament, he merely approached the album with the same level of care and craftsmanship that he invested in all his projects. Nevertheless the return to the “jazz and poetry” format seems to be an appropriate way for him to have signed off.
The success of the album (although it may be a little “precious” for some listeners) has ensured that the Lyric Ensemble will continue to perform with the always excellent Nikki Iles filling Garrick’s role at the piano. A superb pianist and a wonderfully sensitive accompanist who has worked with Tina May and many other vocalists she should prove to be a worthy successor to Michael. The fact that his music will continue to be played and loved is perhaps Michael Garrick’s greatest legacy.
Contact Gabriel Garrick to order direct.