If all the fully paid-up jazz listeners in this country were asked to vote today for the best British jazz group, there is a good chance that the Rendell-Carr Quintet would emerge on top, as it did in the last Melody Maker Critics’ Poll, and it would probably be the right choice.
At the same time it would be a slightly strange choice. As a group it is not as adventurous as those led by Chris McGregor, Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier or John Stevens. As a collection of soloists it is fine, but still has no-one quite the stature of a Tony Coe or Stan Tracey. The compositions produced by the Quintet do not stand head and shoulders above other British jazz compositions. So why does one instinctively feel that the group has got something others have not got?
The answer, I think, certainly does not lie in one of those convenient explanations about how the members have worked so long together that they now play automatically as a team, follow each others moves, all laugh delightedly at exactly the same time etc etc. They do have this kind of rapport, but then so do the other groups I mentioned, all of which have been together more or less from the beginning.
Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that the Rendell-Carr Quintet have not been together from the beginning. Whereas a group like the Mike Westbrook band has musically grown up together, the Rendell-Carr Quintet unites players who probably do not always see eye to eye on things and who have led independent musical lives before and since joining the Quintet. Such a situation might have led to disintegration, but in their case it seems to have produced a special kind of creative tension and untiring freshness.
Don Rendell, for instance, had gained a reputation, long before his present colleagues were heard of, as one of the hardest blowing yet most inventive tenor saxophonists in Britain – the first time I ever heard him was in the 50s in a pub in Portsmouth, opening the eyes of the locals in front of a neighbourhood rhythm section, and this must have been a typical set of surroundings for him for many years.
On the other hand, Ian Carr first attracted attention with the EmCee Five as a trumpeter whose floating gravity-free lines contrasted sharply with the doggedly busy playing of almost everyone else. (For “trumpeter” read “trumpeter-and-flugelhornist” as in the old days one understood “trumpeter-or-cornettist”.) It was, in fact, as if after years of dormancy, Clifford Brown’s heritage had suddenly borne fruit.
And Michael Garrick, when he first began to be heard of in the early 60s, was leading a quartet which found it hard not to sound like the MJQ, playing like an unbluesy John Lewis and composing busily in all directions at the same time. It seemed possible that he was an infant prodigy destined for glorious obscurity.
Since they joined forces almost half a dozen years ago (with Garrick a slightly later arrival) these three unlikely colleagues have had an immensely fertile effect on each other’s music. Carr has acquired a new robustness, Rendell has allowed the sensitive side of his playing to blossom forth, and Garrick has matured amazingly into a confident player whose mercurial flamboyance, even dandyism, irritates a few but delights many more. Listening to the other two has obviously opened the eyes of each of them to new possibilities in playing and, more recently, writing.
But the most important thing seems to be, as I suggested, their continuing differences. During any one of their numbers the perspective shifts constantly as each of the soloists tugs things round to his way of looking at them, yet without ever moving the centre of gravity too far from where it should be. It means perhaps that they never provide quite the single-minded intensity that a group like Mike Westbrook’s can, but it also means that they are more constantly surprising than any other group in Britain. Sometimes they set themselves too exacting a course and fail to last the distance – much more often they achieve a constant excitement which is the genuine article.
The other members of the group are Dave Green on bass and Trevor Tomkins on drums, and the leaders have often complained that these two are not given their due credit. In a way this is the same compliment that is paid to good film scores or football referees, that one has hardly noticed them, because their role is not really the now traditional role of being up with the front line – they are still behind- the-scene workers and magnificent ones too.
It is commonly said that today’s groups have returned to the spontaneous interplay of early jazz in a different form, and it is often true, but not, I think, of the Rendell-Carr Quintet. They seem to me to have fulfilled much of the potential inherent in the small groups of the 40s and 50s, to have found a way of using three soloists fully without sacrificing their individuality to musical egalitarianism, and in the context of today’s jazz it is an achievement rare enough for them to be extremely proud of.
London Jazz Centre Society programme Oct 11th1968