Classical: Fame was the only spur
Gerard Presencer was paid only pounds 300 for his now-famous solo on Cantaloop - but it made his name.
Friday 21 August 1998
US3 got seriously rich and then broke up, while Presencer receivedabout pounds 300 - the normal fee for a session musician. It did not pay many bills but Presencer did earn serious respect from his peers, an important currency for jazz musicians. The veteran hard-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (to whose old "Blue Note" licks the solo was partly a homage), even thought for a while that he must have played on the session himself. Herbie Hancock, whose composition "Cantaloup Island" formed the basis for "Cantaloop", also voiced his approval.
Now, six years older and a little wiser, Presencer is releasing his own debut album, Platypus (which is also the name of his group).
It seems to have been an awful long time coming: Presencer has been the rising new star of British jazz for years. But after being encouraged from an early age by his jazz-fan father and playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra since his early teens, he long ago tired of his wunderkind status.
In the meantime, he has served his apprenticeship as a sideman with various groups, including those of the veteran British pianist Stan Tracey and the Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts, while playing sessions to pay his bills.
Even if you don't know Presencer's name, you will certainly have heard him on records by Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies.
The new album is especially welcome as it represents an accommodation between the straight- ahead jazz he has tended to play by choice, and the funk stuff that he does for a living (and which he insists he loves just as much). It is a great album, but the group is perhaps best heard live, when the combination of Presencer's flugelhorn and Jason Rebello's Fender Rhodes electric piano is stunningly effective.
The governing aesthetic may be partly retro (and there's nothing wrong with that), but the tunes are all Presencer's own, and the result offers that all-too-rare experience in British jazz, a middle way between the head, the heart, and the body. You may even be able to dance to Platypus, but you'll have to think on your feet as you do so.
Presencer looks back at the US3 experience with a mixture of stoic acceptance and understandable chagrin. "I was bitter about it for a long time, but that's the plight of the session musician," he says. "I was 19 and they said, `Can you do a Freddie Hubbard?' Now, I don't think I'd do it. When they asked me to play on the follow-up record I asked for a decent fee and a percentage and they said no.
"But it got me known all over the world and it may well be the biggest thing I ever do. It's good now - there was a time when I felt like a novelty act because my dad put me on the stage very young and I was paranoid about it for years. Now I can enjoy being an old bastard at 25."
The idea for Platypus, both band and album, emerged, Presencer says, "because I've had such a schizophrenic musical experience so far, and the main criterion is now to do what I like. I've had this kind of alter- ego career doing Seventies-style funk and acid jazz, and I like that music as well as ordinary jazz. It's not as if I change that much either. Maybe I'm more concise in the funk stuff, but I learned that kind of discipline playing in big bands when I was younger, so that you don't show all your technique in one go. With Stan Tracey's quartet, where I've got more time and an open canvas, I've built on interesting little quirks that I might have learned in pop stuff."
With Platypus, Presencer plays the larger, more mellow-sounding, flugelhorn rather than the trumpet. "For the last two or three years that's all I've been playing", he says. "I'm more interested in a linear approach, like playing a sax, and it's very difficult on trumpet to hold back those flashy tricks... they're just too tempting. It's like the pianist Bill Evans having fantastic technique but the good taste not to use it. I prefer the sound of the flugelhorn now, and I can play as high without just blowing the shit out of it."
The new album's emphatically old-school sound is down to where it was recorded. "We went to Mickie Most's Rak studio because we wanted a Seventies analogue feel to the recording", Presencer says. "There's these old radio mikes and an old valve desk there, and the sound for brass was just what I wanted. It far exceeded my expectations and I'm more than pleased with the result.".
`Platypus' by Gerard Presencer is out now on Linn Records
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