Gordon Beck (by Colm “Red” Sullivan)

The passing of jazz pianist Gordon Beck early last November was noted only as a sidebar in the American press. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an important musician. 

I asked Red Sullivan to write something for DTM.  A flute player, bon vivant, and walking jazz encyclopedia, Red is originally from Ireland but now lives in Brazil, where he is very happy.  He was an invaluable resource when I prepared for my Mickey Roker interview, and I have consulted him on other topics as well.

There’s a conception and, particularly, there’s a sound that’s unique in Gordon Beck’s brilliant piano. Its unparallelled thrust conveys enormous excitement – although he was a great musical poet too (and allow that The Guardian does say “He was technically awesome”).

He is most usually compared, or considered in relation to, Bill Evans – but I feel that’s less than half the story.  As a soloist he was less narrative driven than a Tommy Flanagan (along with Russ Freeman, always one of his personal favourites though) or a Barry Harris: not so much text in solo (as with, say, Sonny Rollins or Dexter): his music is all about colour and light, shards of amazing brilliance – and he did have that glorious and singing keyboard sound.

So, ultimately, what I’d really love to draw your attention to, at this sad time of his passing, is Gordon’s real earthy moving soulfulness (it’s in his unyielding left hand) and his debt, declared, most particularly, to Herbie Hancock.  Also his fire.  There are few pianists in jazz, and no other English musician (no way!), with comparable fire.  He really was a musician apart (even allowing for such magical pianists there as Alan Clare, Colin Purbrook, Alan Branscombe, Eddie Thompson, Laurie Holloway, Pete Jacobson, Mick Pyne, John Horler, the swingin’ Tony Lee, Brian Dee, Brian Lemon, Michael Garrick, the harmonically revered Pat Smythe and that special idiomatic master, Terry Shannon – hear him with Donald Byrd and Dizzy Reece on the great Blue Note record “Blues In Trinity” where Art Taylor is the drummer, but I do digress.) Of course, Gordon’s impressive volume of work – compositions and recordings – is also far more substantial too – which is a significant thing.

These are some of the distinguishing characteristics for a giant pianist almost totally unconsidered in his home-land, but whose contribution needs to be revised upwards critically. Now posthumously, as Gordon has passed away, in England, at the beginning of November just passed.

My own depth of feeling for Gordon’s music was immediate and strong, and to this day, I don’t believe he yields comparison to many non-American contemporaries (he must be considered only with front-runner Solal and with Pieranunzi, and, of course, the late Teté Montoliu, for achievement. That’s the front-rank, right there).  In fact, in the roll call of the great from his home country, he’s next historically, I really feel, only after Shearing himself, and Tubby Hayes of course (I hope you all know!) – and don’t forget Victor Feldman or the remarkable Marian McPartland. Claims for John Taylor in particular will not prevail.  If you think this is news it’s simply because you don’t know Gordon’s discography. It’s that simple (I say emphatically). And, if this piece is an attempt at genuine critical revisionism, well then such a claim has place here. He really was a keyboard giant, and I don’t apologise for enthusiasm in this case, even if I’ll allow that it is personal. Anyway, it’s time.

My own first exposure was an album with some especial relevance perhaps for DTM readers: Gordon was the soloist on a remarkable Don Sebesky reworking of “The Rite Of Spring” for symphony orchestra and jazz soloists.  Gordon’s astonishing piano entry, guided and underpinned by a very inspired Richard Davis (who, I believe, was Stravinsky’s own favourite orchestral bassist in Davis’ days with the Metropolitan Opera and other New York orchestras) really is breathtaking, opening up new vistas, particularly, of colour. The other soloist on this “Rite” is Bob Brookmeyer… but there’s something about the piano, the regal touch and the depth of sonority that lifts this way out of the ordinary.  I commend this record, on Gryphon, from around 1977, if you can find it. (Another of the titles on the album, that Gordon delighted in, is “Bird and Bela in B flat”: Don Sebesky is a very considerable composer as well as the properly acknowledged master arranger.  And, as an aside, one of Gordon’s other greatest and proudest ever delights was to have worked with one of the heaviest and most revered orchestral arrangers of them all, the one Herbie Hancock continues to quote as a formative and very particular harmonic influence, the Canadian genius Robert Farnon.)

Next, for me, was Gordon’s special, special partnership with the great Helen Merrill – one of jazz’s great stylists, no doubt.  In this context Gordon’s own tone palate and orchestral conception, as well, of course, this extraordinary and constant flair that so distinguishes him, were on full display.
Ms. Merrill has such a distinct tone and conception of space, that Gordon’s utter brilliance – and unfailing spontaneity (the rarest and most valuable of all qualities in music, I would argue) provided a foil unique maybe in the pantheon of vocal jazz pairings (although some of these things Fred Hersch is doing with Nancy King and with Norma Winstone might be comparable).

Their definitive record is “No Tears, No Goodbyes” from 1984 (on French Owl, reissued by Universal – the same label where you’ll find her work with Gil Evans) which has the repeated haunting opening motif on Anthony Newley’s “When I Look In Your Eyes” that Joachim Kuhn has described as “the three most important notes in all of European jazz.”  In fact, it’s almost casual in Gordon’s way of things – but so haunting as to be signature. Kuhn was right.  This album has many, many piano highlights, and echoes, too, his longstanding reverence for Jarrett (Gordon was there, to be astonished live, by Jarrett’s debut at the Molde (or Pori?) festival, with The Charles Lloyd quartet – and it had an huge impact going forward). In fact Gordon was an avowed admirer, friend too, of the legendary Pennsylvanian pianist, Johnny Coates Jr. (of the fabled Deer Head Inn) – the mysterious figure who looms so large in Jarrett’s own back-story.  This album also features some absolutely ingenious use of the Korg Organ and Fender Rhodes in some overdubbing both subtle and artful, but thoroughly satisfying and just so groovy as to be more than a meal.  (Hear the track “I Got It Good”). Gordon had a special reverence for Herbie Hancock’s “churchiness”, and I believe he always felt he was playing American Music. That thrill and excitement in his music is all new world.

Their other album for the same label, “Music Makers” (a title song not the old Harry James band theme) has both Steve Lacy and Stéphane Grappelli added, and indeed Merrill and he did also tour with Red Mitchell, Tom Harrell and Gary Peacock added at various times, and usually in France – somehow the English seemed to have passed, almost totally, on many of Gordon’s brightest moments; another reason to use this as an opportunity to really suggest to them that his place is right at the top – if I may…

Of course his other great association was with Phil Woods, in Woods’ absolutely most incendiary phase: living in Europe, disillusioned with the United States, angry and leading his band “The European Rhythm Machine.”  How fortunate for Woods that there was a Gordon Beck!! Some of that music has to be heard and then digested. Bassists were Henri Texier, succeeded by virtuoso Ron Mathewson, and, of course, the great Daniel Humair – major figures all. Great band (and some stuff to be found on YouTube bears it out). They also visited the States, and Gordon had very fond memories of weeks of residencies in Shelly’s Manne Hole and other regional clubs. In the 1980s he and Woods did some duo touring and recorded a beautiful double CD live in The Wigmore Hall, now Brad Mehldau’s home from home (also for a French label. Perhaps the British truly didn’t care?).

But Gordon was also a significant band leader in his own right, and his trio “Gyroscope” with the much-loved bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer Tony Oxley, made quite a mark. Their remarkable record has now been reissued by the far-sighted and inspired American label “Art Of Life Records” which has really made a great job of championing Gordon’s music. (Do look at their site.)

Also look there for the long sought-after masterpiece “Experiments With Pops”, to my mind still John McLaughlin’s greatest ever recorded playing, a very fine example of Gordon’s audacious and fearless imagination at its fiery exciting peak, also with the idiosyncratic but thrilling Oxley – actually, I never heard Oxley to better advantage either. This was a period when Dave Holland was one of Gordon’s associates – to recur in 1991 on the “For Evans’ Sake” album, trio with Jack DeJohnette – and Didier Lockwood added for some tracks… which reminds me of the 1979 Lockwood album “New World”, featuring a very burning Gordon with the rhythm section of NHOP and Tony Williams! (Is there any other example of Orsted-Pedersen and Tony Williams together? Well worth hearing – just as I especially loved NHOP with Kenny Clarke whenever that happened).

Also in the Art Of Life catalogue, look for “Reflections”, a resplendent solo recital, taken live by BBC radio in the later years, that has a special mood, a distinct ennui – there’s a medley of “California Here I Come” into “Some Other Time” that has a magical, magical time-stopping quality to it… I don’t know what to say… all I know is Gordon was very proud of this moment (justifiably, let us say). This album also includes his spoken superscription about his debt to Bill Evans (they did know each other), and then to Shearing.

(Have you noticed – I have – how, in interview, particularly latterly, so many, many major pianists are quoting Shearing as an absolutely central, shaping force: Hancock, Cedar Walton, Denny Zeitlin – many more prominent American pianists seem to seek even the very opportunity to point to Shearing as a crucial influence. Hank Jones, his peer rather, used often go out of his way to talk about him too – listen to the “Conversation with Christian” that McBride has recently released on CD. And Ahmad Jamal as well. This means something).

My own favourite of Gordon’s solo piano records is “Reasons”, on French JMS, particularly for an inspired workout pitching 3/4 against 4/4 on “Someday My Prince Will Come”, but also for his absolute grooving funkiness – irresistible too – on Ron Carter’s “Einbahnstrasse”. Hear this record. Beautifully recorded, his touch and tone are marvellous here, as is the marvellously choice repertoire: Lafaro’s “Gloria’s Step”, Wayne’s “Juju”, more…

Once again, these performances convey a totality of conception recognisably his own – it’s harmonic, it’s immediate and it’s unique – to the point, now, that he truly should be and must be considered.

None of this evaluation includes his lengthy and impossibly brilliant collaboration with Allan Holdsworth – hugely significant to so many cultists – his work with Tubby Hayes and Jimmy Deuchar and  Tony Kinsey and the great Ronnie Ross early in his career, his association with maybe his only other actual contemporary British peer, alto great Peter King, or his several projects tributing Evans in ingenious ways, and featuring Kenny Wheeler or the marvellous Stan Sulzmann.  Nor his unrecorded touring work with the master guitarist Louis Stewart. (This last name a very good tip to those who want to really hear something: I would not hesitate to suggest you should investigate Stewart too, there’s a biography here.  He’s a very great heavyweight of this music – by any standards).

With Gordon, though, there’s much to explore in a rich discography and a rich, dedicated and noble musical life.

It concerns me that, now, at the time of his passing, he won’t be accorded the place he’s so clearly earned. The proof is there in the records. The literature exists. It’s self evident.

Gordon Beck was a musician apart, he was special and he was great.