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Music: Fanfare to free form

The late Sixties proved to be a zenith of British jazz. Richard Williams celebrates its dynamic scene
BRITISH JAZZ has had its ups and downs, but it was surely never more consistently and joyfully elevated than at the very end of the Sixties, when the likes of Mike Westbrook, John Surman, Graham Collier and Keith Tippett were making their reputations with a music which embraced elements of the avant-garde and the mainstream, while chucking in less obvious elements.

Created in a hectic, unreflective rush, their music found an attractive balance between exuberant vigour and intellectual substance. Nights at Ronnie Scott's Old Place and the 100 Club were sweaty, intense, often ecstatic, and usually thought-provoking. This wasn't the first British jazz to display genuine originality, as many discovered with the recent reappearance of Joe Harriott's two long-lost albums. But whereas the Harriott quintet was unique, representing virtually nothing but itself, the work of Westbrook and Surman was at the centre of an entire scene.

Surman, born in 1944, was still a schoolboy when he met Westbrook while playing in Plymouth Arts Centre's Jazz Workshop. He was an authentic prodigy who played the baritone saxophone with a rampaging garrulousness that made every solo a thing of high drama.

Westbrook, 10 years older, was already offering a personal addition to the palette of jazz. He could adapt the tonal range of Duke Ellington and the collective heterophony of Charles Mingus without needing to appropriate the cultural baggage of those African-American bandleaders; most important of all, what he picked up from them was an understanding of how to link the roles of composer and bandleader, in the manner special to jazz.

Celebration and Release, recorded in 1967 and 1968 respectively, both consist of album-long suites and show how fast the music was moving. The former - co-composed by Surman - is full of broad, generous melodies, with solos to match, the 12-piece line-up given a swaggering swing by Alan Jackson's drums and Harry Miller's bass. The Mingus-like locomotion of the section titled "Parade", featuring a dual improvisation by Surman and the alto saxophonist Mike Osborne, still sounds spectacular, as do the prowling Ellingtonian woodwinds of the atmospheric "Image".

Free improvisation, an occasional feature of Celebration, assumes a much greater structural role in Release, with its 17 sections, and leaves the impression of an unusual kind of organic fragmentation. Scored by Westbrook for 10 musicians, it features his own compositions interspersed with brief readings of six tunes from the standard repertoire.

Beginning with a free-blowing fanfare, it proceeds immediately into a long feature for Osborne, including a plaintive variation of "Lover Man" that will remind his admirers of what we lost when he retired from public performance in his thirties. Other soloists include the tenorist George Khan, muscling into "Flying Home" and "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You" like a wild cross between Albert Ayler and Junior Walker, and the trombonists Paul Rutherford and Malcolm Griffiths, a reminder of Ellington's sweet- and-sour pairings.

Originally released alongside the work of Procol Harum and the young Cat Stevens on Deram, the Decca group's "progressive rock" label, the first efforts of Surman and Westbrook may have failed to match commercial expectations, but each retains an excellence that has nothing to do with nostalgia. If I had to pick the half-dozen best recordings from the history of British jazz, the ardent warmth and enduring freshness of Celebration would make it a certain choice.

Mike Westbrook Concert Band: `Celebration' (Deram 844 852-2); Release (844 851-2); John Surman: `John Surman' (Deram 844 884-2); `How Many Clouds Can You See?' (844 882-2)