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Tuesday 25th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Chris Searle on jazz

Eddie Thompson and Dave Lee

London Piano (Acrobat ACMCD 4378)

IT WAS 1975, and coming back to our Poplar home through the Rotherhithe Tunnel, we stopped for a last-orders pint at a pub at the tunnel’s southern entrance.

As we walked in, a man was playing beautiful jazz piano on a small stage at the far end of the bar, a large sleeping dog next to his stool.

This was the blind master pianist Eddie Thompson and, as I listened, I only wished we had arrived much earlier to hear and imbibe his sounds.

He was a Londoner, blind from his birth in 1925, who had gone to the same Wandsworth school as his remarkable blind predecessor George Shearing and also like Shearing had spent time (two decades in Thompson’s case) playing professionally in the US before returning to the London jazz scene.

In 1958 he cut an album aimed at US listeners called London After Dark and composed of tunes featuring the capital.

Arthur Watts was on bass, the drummer was Jackie Dougan (who played on the 1965 Stan Tracey classic Under Milk Wood) with Johnny Scott on flute and Tubby Hayes on vibes for four tracks.

A quick scan of the titles of London After Dark shows it to be a very tourist vision (Nelson’s Column, Berkeley Square, Chelsea Bridge) but there are some outstanding sequences inside it all.

Who would have though that Bud Flanagan’s Underneath the Arches would make a little jazz classic, but Thompson plays it with humour, allusion and startling originality, with Dougan splashing his brushes and Watts’s steadfast beat breaking into a short assertive solo.

Tubby has his vibes moments too with a punchy chorus in London Pride and, after Thompson’s springing solo in an upbeat reading of A Foggy Day and some mist-breaking flute by Scott, he comes in with his mallets dancing and bouncing off the keys.

The closing track paints the old home of the Morning Star in Limehouse Blues and, notwithstanding the orientalism of its opening, the East End gets a pacy portraiture in some dazzling Thompson runs.

I first heard the notes of the London-born (in 1926) pianist Dave Lee when, as a blues-crazed teenager, I bought a Pye-Nixa EP of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee called The Bluest, recorded during one of the duo’s stays in London.

I remember being very impressed by Lee’s blues piano.

What I didn’t know was that this musical life also included a stint in South Africa, five years as pianist in the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra, and that he was the composer of two Peter Sellers hit records with Sophia Loren — Bangers and Mash and Goodness Gracious Me, as well as being musical adviser to entertainers as far apart as Judy Garland and another of my boyhood heroes, Norman Wisdom.

The CD London Piano brings together the Thompson album with another LP which was aimed at the US market, the Top Rank label’s A Big New Band from Britain of 1960, which highlighted Lee and his piano with an orchestra featuring Hayes, this time on tenor saxophone, and the unsung trumpeter Bert Courtley. Both soloists were to die tragically young: Courtly in 1969 at 40 and Hayes in 1973 at 38.

The Lee album hardly emphasises London.

Only his composition London Derriere has a title which reflects the capital, with the others mostly US standards played in a largely pop orchestral style, a long, long way from the blues and grit of Terry and McGhee.

What the record shows more than anything is how desperately the British record industry was trying to imitate US sounds and impress its US patrons and controllers, but also how it would use British jazz geniuses like the London-born Hayes to achieve its ends.

Neither hornmen have much sustained solo exposure in the album, only cameo flickers of their talent.

There is a lot of solo Lee on familiar staples like Lover, Come Back to Me, Chloe or Georgia on My Mind, but Courtley leads strongly on Lee’s Piece of Cake and Hayes follows with his customary fluid eloquence, blossoming out of the commercial sonics of the orchestral ensemble.

London Piano is musical history with some evocative and memorable moments, but sheer commercial pressure forced both contributory albums to be not the finest hours of either of its protagonists.