More than ever it is impossible to separate the critic from the review and this is much too close for comfort, but here we go…
The very existence of The Thirteenth Man is little short of a miracle in itself. Produced on considerably less than a shoestring, the album was conceived, written, recorded, pressed and delivered by Graham and a pair of trusty lieutenants without the aid (or backing) of anyone else. Such a feat is far from unique these days, but two-thirds of the operation are septuagenarians and of the three of them only Graham has any experience at all of the music business.
Once dubbed Mr Tin Pan Alley by his contemporaries in the London muso circuit of the mid to late 1960s, Graham toured with the likes of Tom Jones and The Animals, backed John Lee Hooker and The Walker Brothers and was in Bobcats, the house band at the Scotch of St James, a cornerstone of Swinging London with a clientele to match. He depped for Syd Barrett in The Pink Floyd, recorded with Donovan, was hired by Them, played on the first Small Faces single and joined the legendary Bobby Tench in an early line up of Gass – before being signed by Atlantic as their in-house London producer/songwriter for the likes of Sharon Tandy and Fleur de Lys.
In the early 70s he went to Muscle Shoals to work with Prince Philip Mitchell, then moved to Nashville and Los Angeles for yet more adventures with the likes of Victoria Principal and Andy Gibb.
A couple of years ago Acid Jazz rounded up a wealth of Graham’s lost 60s sides in The Graham Dee Connection, an album that established his profile as a lost Mod icon and essentially paved the way for this return to the new releases section of the record racks.
In an ideal world The Thirteenth Man would be unburdened by expectation and outside his circle of friends and former colleagues only the most dedicated aficionado of 60s obscurities would even know about Graham. Remarkably though, the album actually needs a level of expectation in order to pique the interest of the wider world… it’s the story that sells, of course!
And it takes more than a cursory listen to discover the warm heart of The Thirteenth Man. There’s nothing brash about the record – shame really, as it could benefit from being a little rougher round the edges and grittier in its execution. Instead, its predominantly Latin-tinged R&B and blues-based grooves tend to wash over the listener like a warm breeze on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Guitar solos roam wild and free behind swathes of electronic keyboards that sparkle like 1980s neon and chrome, when harder, sharper rhythm guitar might have provided the rawness the record cries out for.
That said, its most fully realised moments come in the closing track, the surprisingly angsty (All I Wanna Say Is) What About Me in which Graham unselfconsciously channels Ian Dury and Robert Wyatt in an audacious Thames estuary stab reading of Isaac Hayes’ symphonic soul. For once the tension in the groove survives the shiny production and the over use of smoother, albeit supremely accomplished, backing vocals to augment Graham’s more rugged, characterful voice.
Let there be no doubt, the singer has plenty to say after all these years and he’s unafraid to share the benefit of his wide experience in the lyrics of album opener My Philosophy and his Record Store Day release Duckin N Divin, but there are times (Distracted, Diminished Responsibility) when too many words get in the way of the message or others (Cheatin On Love, It’s OK) when there’s a sense of something being held back.
But for all such misgivings, the hooks and choruses from these songs continue to rattle around my head for days. Graham knows his way around a tune – and that’s as true in the 21st century as it was in the last.
The Thirteenth Man is a comeback album that nobody knew they needed – least of all the person who made it. It’s a long way from perfect and too often it trips itself up by trying to be so, but perfection is an over-rated aspiration as any fan of 60s obscurities will tell you. Just ask Graham Dee, he knows – he was there. Don Ellis The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground/Don Ellis At Fillmore
Perhaps best known for his score to The French Connection, had he lived beyond his mid-forties Don Ellis would doubtless have pushed his music even further. As it is, his experimentation with time signatures and how to use a line up of musicians, both on original and interpretative pieces, helped shape contemporary jazz from the mod-sixties onwards.
These two records came out of the West Coast cultural melting pot that found the new rock music hierarchy embracing jazz as it distanced itself from the pop mainstream that had been its incubator. So it was that Ellis found himself opening for the likes of the grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company and the hippies tuned in and turned on to music he was determined was never going to drop out.
…Goes Underground dates from 1969 and find Ellis fronting a big band line up complete with Patti Allen’s vocal raunch on funk flavoured workouts such as the Isleys’ It’s Your Thing and the opening cut, Al Kooper’s House in the Country. Ellis lays heavy on the beat, boots up the melodies and goes for soul gold. It’s very much of its time, but it throws a little psychedelic edge to what is actually a fairly trad big band set up.
There’s plenty of virtuoso playing, not least from Ellis himself as he expands on the emotive Eli’s Comin’, while Allen gives Higher the full force of her church upbringing before winding up more of a pop thing on Send My Baby Back. It all reaches a mean and moody climax on the album’s final cut, Black Baby with Ellis’ trumpet playing counterpoint to a soulful rap.
This two-disc reissue benefits from BGO’s reliably sympatico digital remastering, but starting …At Fillmore straight after …Goes Underground really doesn’t do it any favours.
Still, the live album from the legendary ’Frisco hippie hall is arguably Ellis’ most fully realised musical expression. He feeds his trumpet through various electronica, pushes the music into meters he didn’t even have names for, conjures big band arrangement that defy reason and generally raises the roof, the bar and sheer hell – all at the same time!
We can only imagine what the lysurgically-enhanced audience made of it all.
The first three tracks tacked on the end of Disc One after …Goes Underground serve only to whet the appetite for what follows on Disc Two. From the mind melting sonic excursions that characterise the opening The Blues, to the last notes of his oft-recorded closer Pussy Wiggle Stomp, Ellis produces a master class in improvisational innovation. Guitars are used as percussion as much as they are solo instruments, horns form up the most intricate call and response routines, keys goes crazy and there’s even room for some ’winds to chime. Hey Jude, the most notable cover, is blown every which way by electronic effects and an almost tongue in cheek juxtaposition of tradition big band and avant garde arrangement.
It’s probably fair to say it’s all a bit much by today’s standards, less is invariably more, but the sound of such unrestrained aural creativity is a rich and rare thing to behold.