Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Saturday, 12 March 2011

SHAKE KEANE - An Angel Horn - His solo albums

I don't think that anyone would dispute that a major part of the success of Joe Harriott's experiments in jazz was the interaction between Harriott and Shake Keane.
The two men were temperamentally dissimilar but musically they understood each other and worked together to produce exciting and exploratory music.
Both Harriott and Keane were from the West Indies, Harriott from Jamaica. As well as being a jazz musician Keane was a literary man - his nickname was Shakespeare, shortened to Shake. When he first arrived in Britain from the West Indies it wasn't to make a career as a musician but rather to work in the BBC World Service where he read poetry and did interviews.
Quite rightly his work with Harriott and Michael Garrick is seen as the high points of his career. However, I feel that his solo records are rather unjustly over looked.
Keane had played in a number of styles before becoming involved in avant-garde jazz and, like most British jazz musicians was at home with big bands.
When Keane finally left the Joe Harriott Quintet it seems that there was some frustration over the lack of success that the group had achieved. Despite pushing the musical envelope, gigs were hard to come by and money was tight.
It seems to me only natural that Keane should have taken an opportunity to try something more commercial. The result is Shake Keane with the Keating Sound. Although this was not his first record under his own name, it was his first LP and teaming up with Keating must have seemed a very commercial move. Keating was a successful big band leader and he was not above being experimental - witness his Johnny Keating and 27 Men LP, with Keane in the band and arrangements by Basil Kirchin.
However, there are no experiments on this record. Given the poor reception that Harriott's free form recordings had gathered this was probably deliberate. It is tempting to imagine a poor, hard done by, jazz cat being forced to record music in a style he doesn't care for. However, given the nature of Keane's solo efforts I just can't believe that was the case.
His playing is marvelous. I particularly like the ending of Makin' Whoopee and the quite passages of I Have  A Dream.  Even old chestnuts like Jobim's Meditation has a wonderful moment when Keane seems to be about to leap out of the genteel arrangement and threatens to play a storm. Keane is very much to the fore throughout the record.
Keating's arrangements are fine and they have their moments and if its not 'red hot' music it is not intended to be.
I do wonder about the cover though. There's Shake, the epitome of jazz cool in his crumpled suit, loose tie and ever present shades. You might think that the music on the record was 'proper' jazz rather than smooth jazz.
However, the design department at Decca clearly liked the photo because here it is again on his next record.
But those clever design guys have just reversed it. In fact they were so cunning that they cropped out his watch - just so you couldn't see that his left hand had switched round.
Decca also took a slightly different tack with this record.
Gone is the Keating Sound. Instead Shake has a small group of friends almost all of whom had played with Joe Harriott.
On tenor and oboe was Bob Efford who had played in the front line with Harriott in Tony Kinsey's Quartet in 1957, Pat Smythe, Coleridge Goode and Booby Orr had all played with Keane in Harriott's Free Form group. Finally Olaf Vas provides some lovely flute. Pat Smythe relinquishes the piano stool to Stan Tracey on three tracks.
One might think that with such a great group Decca would have allowed them to stretch out and try something new.
However, the lure of commercial success was obviously too great and someone obviously thought that covers was the way to go. However, unlike his previous LP, Shake and the band leave the standards behind and have a go at some contemporary pop covers.
Therefore we get some Stones (As Tear Go By), Beatles (Girl), Dylan/Byrds (Mr Tambourine Man) and Smokey Robinson (My Guy).
However, it must have been difficult to completely control a band of seasoned jazz-men as they managed to sneak a few original compositions in as well. Shake, as its his record, has two. The beautiful and brittle New Sunday which has some really lovely interplay between Keane and Efford and the wonderful Latin-tinged Fidel. I would imagine that the Fidel in question is Mr Castro from Cuba. Is there some kind of political comment in the choice of song title? Perhaps some call for Caribbean revolution? More likely it was just a name that Shake liked the sound of. Stan Tracey's piano is wonderfully off-kilter in a Monk kind of way.
The other original is Morning Blue by Joe Harriott - although perhaps its a bit of a stretch to call it an original as it appears on the Harriott Quintet's Movement LP, on which Keane, Smyth, Goode and Orr played. Their version is swinging nicely and Efford's oboe is a nice touch. On balance though I'm not sure that Keane's flugelhorn can take the place of Harriott's tenor.
Otherwise stick to side two which has some great covers of Tony Hatch's Downtown which includes some outstanding playing from Coleridge Goode and Donovon's Colours.
Overall an intriguing record which succeeds more that it fails.
Which is why the choices behind the next record are so hard to fathom.
No doubt the ever elusive commercial success was, again the driving force.
Dig It! sees Keane supported by the Ivor Raymonde Orchestra and Singers. In 1968 when this record was released Raymonde was still riding high on his chart success most notably with Dusty Springfield.
The choice of Raymonde must have been similar to the way that today you might get a famous producer in to give a contemporary feel to a singer's record (step forward Madonna). However, the sound is so Ivor Raymonde that there sometimes doesn't seem to be much space for Keane to do anything except blow his lungs out over the top.
I would guess that it is Raymonde himself on organ in so many of the tracks.
He provides some solid backing for the standout tracks. It might be completely impossible to produce a cover of Green Onions that doesn't feature some prominent organ and Keane's version is no different. However, after Raymonde's organ and a tasty guitar solo about half way through and the arrival of the backing singers there isn't very much room for Keane. That doesn't stop him and he produces a really individual performance that simply takes over the second half of the song and, when its finally faded out, leaves me wanting more.
Interestingly he again covers The Stone's As Tears Go By and not with any more success.
Raymonde's selection of songs goes from pop (By the Time I Get to Phoenix, a very slow Goin' Out of My Head and Sunny), rock (the aforementioned Stones, Bend Me Shape Me) and soul (Green Onions, Chain of Fools). He may have been trying to cover a lot of different tastes but instead only manages to drag all of them into a mid-ground of orchestrated mush.
However, the whole proceedings are saved by the one original. Make Like Shake is by Raymonde and is wonderful. It opens with some driving funky bass before Keane comes in over the top. He bows out and the strings take up the challenge, repeating his parts. But Keane is not having that and he comes back harder than before. However, now he has to contend with the backing singers but they can give no serious opposition and fade out. The guitar joins the fray and for a moment takes over but Keane is on to him in a moment and just blows him out of the water. As Keane and guitarist tussle the track fades. Its not jazz but it is a great piece of funky sixties instrumental action.
By now it must have seemed clear that commercial success was going to elude Shake Keane. He had had the backing of a major record label, had been
produced by Johnny Keating and Ivor Raymonde, both of whom were successful band leaders and had tried his hand at covering some of the most popular songs of the day.
His final solo effort therefore was a much more subdued outing. For a start he was no longer on a major label but instead on the budget Pama label. Best known for putting out cheap reggae compilations, the Palmer brothers who ran the label also tried to encourage local talent. Rising Stars at Evening Time stands as their only jazz record. Like all budget labels the Pama story is complicated. If you want to know more you should go here: http://www.studiowon.com/pama/index.asp
In many ways to my ears, this is the most successful of all of Keane's solo LPs. When I first bought it, I was expecting some blistering free form jazz action. So when I put it on and found that it contained gentle delicate arrangements, and on some tracks wordless singing that reminded me of Esquivel I very nearly took the record back to the shop and demanded a refund.
I am very pleased to say that I didn't. It is a record of rare beauty and charm.
Keane's playing is, as you would expect, impeccable. But more than that, he is not competing with massed strings, or heavy production techniques to make himself heard. And because it is comprised soloey of originals it seems far more timeless than the pop covers of previous records.
Admittedly on some tracks the smoothness goes too far and everything falls into a kind of stupefying mulch. But when it works, particularly when the Hastings Girls Choir are used, the music is simply lovely.
Keane has three of his own compositions on the record. Perhaps the most successful is Ruanda (is it allusion to Rwanda?). It would, of course, have been greatly improved if the person playing the organ had been Stan Tracey but you can't have everything.
His version of the his 1962 track, Bossa Negra has also grown on me and it is still a tremendous song.
For my money the song Rosing Star is worth the effort of getting the record alone, however, the otherworldly A Song of Romance is also very intriguing.
There were to be no more Shake Keane records. He worked in Germany with the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra and also with the Clarke-Boland Big Band (who I am sure we will come to in another post!). But as Coleridge Goode points out in his autobiography "..he was frustrated that he had not received the recognition he wanted and clearly deserved."
It must indeed have been a cause of deep unhappiness to have tried so hard to find commercial success and for it to have alluded him. He had, played the game, as it were and had nothing to show for it. From ground breaking jazz to radio friendly covers it  must have seemed to Keane that he had tried everything to make it in  British jazz. He had played with some of the best musicians that Britain had to offer and he had make four records under his own name. However, money was still tight and the name Shake Keane was still a long way off from being well known.
Goode writes very movingly about his friend. He quotes a poem the Keane wrote in 1997. It goes
When I was born
my father gave to me
an angel-horn
with wings of melody.
That angel placed her lips
upon my finger-tips,
and I became, became
her secret name.

....

Now light is low,
new angels come and go.
The passion-tree
spreads as dense as destiny.
But this old angel-horn
strives like the lifting dawn.
Love moves to claim, to claim
our secret name.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for a very informative article. The Angel Horn - Collected Poems is available @ http://www.spdbooks.org/Search/Default.aspx?SearchTerm=shake+keane and www.amazon.com

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  2. Thanks HNP
    Everyone should own this collection
    He was a real renaissance man

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  3. Hi
    Just picked up your site and the piece on Shake. Excellent reading.
    Would love to get a back cover scan/photo of 'Rising Stars' or at least a track and personnel listing if you still have access to the record. This is for personal use only of course.
    Thanks in advance - I can be emailed at bird3klacto@msn.com
    Keith.

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  4. thanks for great reviews of these records i havent heard dig it but i agree 100% about the other to. rising stars at evening time is beautiful some of the tracks have been released now on cd+ mp3 download on rising star by shake keane + michael garrick- its available on amazon prob other places as well. theres 3 tracks on this taken from the rising stars at evening time album- they are *evening time **bossanova triste ***a song of romance im guessing the other tracks are from a michael garrick album that shake played on but i dont know. theres 1 track called troubles on the cd thats only credited to shake so dont know where thats from- does any1 know?

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