Every year followers of jazz and creative music must say to themselves that, despite the wide array of fascinating new music becoming available, history slips further into the past with the deaths of musicians both prominent and obscure. It’s always a challenge when our heroes pass on, leaving us with their art and lasting influence but no corporeal presence remaining. There is no denying that as the architects of modern jazz of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s age, death becomes a more frequent part of that reality, and sometimes we're just catching up now to what they were doing years ago. 2011 was hard for fans of British jazz as three of the Brit-jazz scene's leading lights passed away – two within just days of one another. The pianist-composer Michael Garrick died November 11 at age 78, while pianist Gordon Beck died November 6 at 75. Composer, thinker and bandleader Graham Collier passed away September 10 age 74.
All three of these musicians had seen a renaissance of interest in their work in recent years – Garrick mostly in the form of reissues of his catalog of rarities via Dutton-Vocalion and Trunk Records, while Collier continued to write and was working on important new works this year [a footnote to that is that my interview with Mr. Collier from January 2011, which was condensed for the New York City Jazz Record, will run in full at the Paris Transatlantic website next month]. Gordon Beck’s more recent work, recorded for the Art Of Life label, didn’t garner quite as much notice as the reissues of his scarce back catalog either, but in terms of the jazz mainstream he might have been the most visible, recording with saxophonist Phil Woods, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and guitarist Allan Holdsworth.
Of these artists, Collier is the one who I was most familiar with; his small groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s are fascinating studies in the interchangeability of improvisation and notated structure, carried to an equally intriguing fruition in later orchestral works. Much of Collier’s music, as well as his writings, has been made available through the Jazz Continuum website. Garrick is a figure that has always been on the periphery of my research and interests, though his work with saxophonists Joe Harriott and Don Rendell and vocalist Norma Winstone has always struck me as far outside the expected modern-jazz lexicon, introducing poetry and non-Western sound forms in some very unique ways. Beck was (and is) an extraordinary pianist in the post-Bill Evans school, applying athleticism to a melodic-harmonic openness that allowed him to work equally well alongside a bebopper like Woods or the free improvising drummer John Stevens.
Here's a film of Graham Collier being interviewed about his work with young musicians in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Derby Jazz Festival in 2007. The piece is quite fine and features some incredible playing by guest trumpeter Harry Beckett (1923-2010), a veteran of Collier's groups of the early years. I don't think I've ever heard a youth orchestra rip like this. Like all new and up-and-coming musicians, knowing the work of the masters will help them project into the next sphere.