KEEPER OF THE FLAME – by Spike Wells
Being slightly too young to have witnessed the battle of Culloden Moor, I first heard Bobby Wellins by chance one night at Ronnie Scott’s in Gerrard Street where Johnny Griffin was topping the bill. Bobby only played the first set, a casual and impromptu affair in front of a sparse early evening audience, but at the end of the night there was no doubt in my mind that Scotland had coasted to victory over America in the “little giant” stakes.
A few months later in October 1965, I first had the privilege of playing with Wellins when he visited the university jazz club at Oxford. Our guest soloist arrived a little late, made his way through the crowd, unpacked his horn and without any warm-up or even a word launched into what has remained for me the definitive version of Exactly Like You ten choruses, each one somehow surpassing the one before, no hesitations, no anti-climaxes, an exquisite demonstration of the art of improvisation. This surely was what it must have been like to hear Lester Young jamming at the Cherry Blossom in ’34.
As things were to turn out, I did not see Bobby again for 12 years, but the impression he made that evening had not dimmed and was powerfully renewed when we finally met again last autumn. He is playing better than ever (if that is possible) and the purpose of this short appreciation is to broadcast the fact, together with a little biographical detail, since many people still fail to realise that we have among us a tenor saxophonist whom Victor Schonfield once, with some justification, described as “probably the most original and creative jazz musician to appear outside America since the war”.
One cannot really reach for the usual critical cliché “underrated” in Bobby’s case, because I cannot believe that anyone with an ounce of musical wit who listened carefully to him would underrate him. It is rather that, for a variety of reasons, some personal, he has been woefully underexposed and remained in the shadows, retaining a hard core of devotees (most of those I have met are themselves musicians) but not widely known to the jazz public. Bobby made his recording debut 22 years ago and his appearances on record … since then have been, as Brian Davis comments, pitifully few.
Bobby was born of musical parents in Glasgow in 1936 and he acknowledges a large debt to his father both for developing his ear and for making sure that the technical explanation of what could be heard was not overlooked. A thorough exploration on the piano of the chords of Swanee River (a vehicle which Wellins senior chose as containing most of the fundamental changes) sticks in Bobby’s memory. In the fifties, there was the traditional apprenticeship with the dance bands, including an incident-packed trip to the States with Vic Lewis.
One afternoon, emerging into the dazzling sunlight from his New York hotel, Bobby was confronted by an apparition familiar from photographs – silhouetted, languid frame topped by porkpie hat. He plucked up courage to introduce himself and spent the next two hours in the bar, proudly introducing the rest of the band to Pres. Other tenor influences are numerous: Hawk, Ben, Getz, Coltrane, Rollins, Wardell, Dexter, Harold Land and Teddy Edwards – a comprehensive list which actually gives little clue to the singularity of Bobby’s own mature style.
Apart from the masters of his own instrument, Bobby was digging Willie Smith, Johnny Hodges and Bird on alto, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. The vocal horn of Louis and the instrumental voice of Billie are perhaps recognisable ingredients in Bobby’s expressive playing and it is interesting that he singles out one particular Armstrong performance – the orchestral arrangement of Tiger Rag from the thirties – for the sound of Louis floating in half-time over the frenetic ensemble. The elongation of the solo line over a faster shifting background is currently employed in Bobby’s aptly titled composition Ba-lues which stretches over 24 bars and gives a similar feeling of slow motion.
After working with Buddy Featherstonhaugh and Tony Crombie, Bobby was by the beginning of the sixties advancing musically at a much faster rate than most of his contemporaries. His experiments with free form, which started in a bedsitter with drummer Laurie Morgan and an old tape recorder and which culminated in the concert presentation of Culloden Moor, were years ahead of their time. The legendary Culloden Moor performance involved the New Departures quartet together with a 14-piece orchestra evoking the battle scene in an unprecedented set of improvisations.
The pianist with the New Departures quartet, which was also at the centre of the jazz and poetry cult, was Stan Tracey (a former colleague in Tony Crombie’s band) and the quartet under Stan’s name and with Jackie Dougan on drums went on eventually to make the magnificent Under Milk Wood record, a suite of compositions by Stan inspired by Dylan Thomas and beautifully interpreted by Bobby. The writing and the solos were recognised as unique achievement in jazz and the record led to television appearances in England and Germany and to another excellent album With Love From Jazz. Somehow, however, the momentum created by the success of Under Milk Wood was not sustained and the group split up.
Bobby eventually moved from the problems and pressures of London to the South Coast where for a time he was only semi-active in music. But although the opportunities to work and record have always been limited, he has remained impervious to fashion and criticism and is sustained by a healthy belief in himself and his ability. This, it should be emphasised, is the necessary defence mechanism of the neglected artist and is in no way an indication of egotism.
Bobby believes as strongly today as he did 20 years ago in the idea of a genuinely co-operative group and he fronts his present quartet (Peter Jacobson on piano, Adrian Kendon on bass and the writer on drums) in as much a spirit of mutual inspiration as in the days of New Departures. Yet the group is totally and naturally under the spell of the Wellins magic, he says he is very happy with his music (if not with the number of outlets for it) at the moment and it is hard to imagine that his art could be further perfected.
While he is by no means averse to experimenting within a looser framework (he and Joe Harriott at one stage virtually comprised the British avant-garde and he has recently been playing some freewheeling duets with Lol Coxhill), Bobby has by inclination concentrated his talents within the traditional form of blowing on standard chord sequences. Indeed, he can squeeze so much out of certain sets of changes that several numbers which he has adopted will never be quite the same again. The most famous victim is the old song I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby of which Bobby’s cheeky parody is reflected in his alternative title Love With Variations.
As for saxophone technique and soloing methods, first and unforgettably there is the unique sound, pinched and fragile with an occasional slow vibrato which conveys a remarkable range of feeling from pathos to meanness, to mockery. Then there is the oblique approach to harmony: a strange choice of route through one progression, a seemingly naive negotiation of the next, sending the horn snaking around the changes on starkly original lines with a sardonic interspersing of earthy blues licks. Thirdly, one is struck by the total rhythmic facility, leading to outrageously witty displaced accents and the transplantation of whole phrases across the bar line quite beyond anything (at least on record) by Sonny Rollins, the acknowledged master of this game. A simple but arresting example is Bobby’s pet rendering of Now’s The Time which unnervingly runs most of the phrases of the tune together, ignoring the rests.
Thus, three major elements make up an overall style which somehow manages to combine vulnerability with fierce swing and complex subtlety with folksy directness. These paradoxes seem strained on paper but the impact on the ear of the music itself, enigmatic as it is, is wholly satisfying and achieves a logic irreducible to words.
Bobby Wellins is what the discouraged beboppers in the wilderness would have called “a keeper of the flame”. He has paid more dues than most and keeps coming back for more. In return for a contribution to jazz already massive and no doubt one day to be recognised, he has hitherto received paltry acknowledgement. Interest is mounting in the debt of gratitude we owe Bobby for all he has already given us and he deserves the greatest of good fortune and encouragement for the future. The one is in the lap of the gods but the other is up to the great British public.
(c) Spike Wells 1978