There can be no doubt that Gordon Beck was one of the most talented of European jazz pianists. He played on half a dozen of Tubby Hayes's finest albums and on another ten during his four years in the band led by the American alto-sax player Phil Woods.
No one will have been more surprised than Beck that he got to be 73, for he must have been one of the world's greatest pessimists. On tour with a band he would ask, "Now why is the pilot throttling down just as we approach the Alps? Did you feel that lurch? He had to swerve to avoid that plane over there."
Mainly a self-taught musician, he had studied classical music with his violinist father for four years, beginning when he was 12. He didn't become a professional musician until he was 24.
In 1957 he left for Canada, where his meticulous nature suited him in his work as a draftsman in aero engineering. He sat in with jazz groups and, when he returned to London the next year, played with saxophonist Peter King's quartet at Ronnie Scott's club. King was a gifted aero-modeller and when the two men talked it was of ailerons and airframes rather than music.
Beck became a full-time professional in the summer of 1960 when he played in Monte Carlo with Tony Crombie and the American tenor player Don Byas. During a brief spell with the Vic Ash/Harry Klein quintet he also worked with Tony Kinsey, before joining Tubby Hayes's quintet in 1962.
After another spell with Kinsey, Beck formed his own trio in 1965, beginning a long association with drummer Tony Oxley. The trio became the house rhythm section at Ronnie Scott's, and Beck toured France as a member of Ronnie Scott's Octet in 1968. In 1969 he began another long association, with the American singer Helen Merrill, when the trio first accompanied her in 1969.
That year he joined Phil Woods's European Rhythm Machine, touring throughout Europe and working in the US in 1971. Woods had chosen his musicians for their political as well as musical compatibility. When Woods disbanded, Beck formed his own group, Gyroscope, which lasted until 1975 when Beck let it go to involve himself in studio work.
The next band he was involved with was Ian Carr's Nucleus; he recorded with the band in 1973 and 1974. In 1973 Carr wrote vividly of his pianist. "Gordon seems to be in a constant state of despair about the selfishness and depravity of human nature, the sickness of consumer society, the frailty of the whole economic structure of the West and its apparent imminent collapse. Whatever disaster might befall any man at any moment you can be sure that it will have been imagined by Gordon Beck.
"And yet, as soon as he starts to play the piano, he gives the lie to his own gloom, because his playing is full of joy – is, in fact, a celebration of being alive. The brilliant and unquenchable flow of ideas and the superabundant technique express nothing less than jubilation."
Early in his career Beck immersed himself in the piano work of the American Bill Evans – and Evans remained the major influence on his playing.
In Beck's session work he accompanied Lena Horne, Gary Burton, Clark Terry, George Gruntz and, in the first of many reunions with the altoist, Phil Woods. He began to record prolifically and, at his death, had 26 albums under his own name. One of them, The Complete Concert, was a double CD of a 1996 concert of duets that he and Phil Woods played in London's Wigmore Hall. Another particularly satisfying one from 1968, Experiments with Pops, featured the early work of guitarist John McLaughlin. He made a duet album in 1984 with Merrill, No Tears, No Goodbyes, and worked for Merrill at various times between 1984 and 1994.
Beck toured the US again and then Japan in 1985 with guitarist Allan Holdsworth, and the two played as a duo during 1988. He also toured Europe in 1985 with a quartet of himself, Didier Lockwood, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart. The group recorded two albums before breaking up.
Ill health caused him to abandon his career five or six years ago.
Gordon James Beck, pianist, bandleader: born London 16 September 1938; died Ely, Cambridgeshire 6 November 2011.
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