Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Battle For Northwest Six - Keef Hartley


Together with Colosseum, the Keef Hartley Band of the late 60s, forged jazz and rock music sympathetically to appeal to the UK progressive music scene.
Drummer Hartley had already seen vast experience in live performances as Ringo Starr's replacement in Rory Storm And The Hurricanes. When Merseybeat died, Hartley was enlisted by the London based R&B band the Artwoods, whose line-up included future Deep Purple leader Jon Lord. Hartley was present on their only album, "Art Gallery" (now a much sought-after collectors item). He joined John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and was present during one of Mayall’s vintage periods.

Both "Crusade" and "Diary Of A Band" highlighted Hartley's economical drumming and faultless timing. The brass-laden instrumental track on John Mayall's "Bare Wires" is titled "Hartley Quits". The good-natured banter between Hartley and his ex-boss continued onto Hartley's strong debut, "Halfbreed". The opening track "Hearts And Flowers" has the voice of Mayall on the telephone officially sacking Hartley, albeit tongue-in-cheek, while the closing track
"Sacked" has Hartley dismissing Mayall! The music in-between features some of the best ever late 60s jazz-influenced blues, and the album remains an undiscovered classic. The band for the first album comprised: Miller Anderson, guitar and vocals, the late Gary Thain (b. New Zealand d. 19 March 1976; bass) , later with Uriah Heep; Peter Dines (organ) and Spit James (guitar). Later members to join Hartley's fluid lineup included Mick Weaver (aka Wynder K. Frog) organ, Henry Lowther (b. 11 July 1941, Leicester, England; trumpet/violin), Jimmy Jewell (saxophone), Johnny Almond (flute), Jon Hiseman and Harry Beckett. Hartley, often dressed as an American Indian, sometimes soberly, sometimes in full head-dress and war-paint,
was a popular attraction on the small club scene.
His was one of the few British bands to play the Woodstock Festival, where his critics compared him favourably with Blood Sweat And Tears. "The Battle Of NW6" in 1969 further enhanced his club reputation, although chart success still eluded him. By the time of the third album both Lowther and Jewell had departed, although Hartley always maintained that his band was like a jazz band, in that musicians would come and go and be free to play with other aggregations.

Dave Caswell and Lyle Jenkins came in and made "The Time Is Near". This album demonstrated Miller Anderson's fine songwriting ability,
and long-time producer Neil Slaven's excellent production. They were justly rewarded when the album briefly nudged its way into the UK and US charts.
Subsequent albums lost the fire that Hartley kindled on the first three, although the formation of his Little Big Band and the subsequent live album had some fine moments. The recording at London's Marquee club saw the largest ever band assembled on the tiny stage, almost the entire British jazz/rock fraternity seemed to be present, including Chris Mercer, Lynn Dobson, Ray Warleigh, Barbara Thompson, and Derek Wadsworth. Regrettably Hartley has been largely inactive for many years apart from the occasional tour with John Mayall and sessions with Michael Chapman

The second Keef Hartley Band album was, according to Hartley's own sleeve notes for this re-issue, recorded without the restraints of the first album, Halfbreed. In reality that meant the group had a whole two weeks to record everything! The title of the album stems from the fact that the group were forced by Decca to record in the label's own studios which were, to say the least, antiquated and more used to recording Mantovani than a five-piece band and horn section. Although only recorded a few months after the first album, there were a few changes in personnel. Hartley (drums), Miller Anderson (guitar and vocals), Gary Thain (bass) and Spit James (guitar) remained of the core band with Mick Weaver taking over from Peter Dines on organ. The first class horn section of Henry Lowther (trumpet, flugelhorn and violin), Harry Beckett (trumpet and flugelhorn), Lynn Dobson (tenor sax and flute) and Chris Mercer (tenor sax) were augmented with Jim Jewell (tenor sax), Mike Davis (trumpet), Barbara Thompson (baritone sax and flute) and Ray Warleigh (flute). Even future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, who was at that time in the Bluesbreakers and sharing a flat with Hartley, makes an appearance on the final track.

Given the short time period since the release of the debut album, stylistically the music had changed quite a bit. Not so heavily blues influenced, there is an overall greater feeling of experimentation. This is clearly evident on opening number The Dansette Kid / Hartley Jam For Bread which is a very rhythmic tune allowing Spit James free reign to solo with Lowther's brass arrangement adding that extra bit of spice. Don't Give Up shows that Anderson is not just adept at singing the blues, but can also be a bit of a crooner! A more acoustic side than previously displayed, the dual flugelhorns add a different timbre to the song, particularly on the fade-out where each instrument solos independently and yet still manage to provide an integrated sound. Heading back to the blues, Me And My Woman is a showcase for Anderson who not only sings but provides lead guitar. The baritone sax is evident and the jazzy piano can just about be differentiated playing along in the background. For those who like the sound of the flute then Hickory will be a particular delight. Warleigh handles the main theme and improvisation whilst Thompson and Dobson provide a counter melody, a delightful piece with the organs, drums and guitar laid back to provide a basic backing that doesn't interfere with the flautists. Don't Be Afraid is a number that stems from the early days of the band and could easily have been included on Halfbreed as it is very much in the style of the music on that album, with the Hammond playing a more prominent role.

Not Foolish, Not Wise makes full use of the enhanced brass section who battle it out with the guitar and keyboards for pole position. A drum solo splits the song before Jewell lays down a tenor sax solo that is jazzy whilst simultaneously not being jazz. Waiting Around is another number that takes the group away from the original blues base. Piano added to a totally different vocal style from Anderson certainly display the originality of the newer compositions, although whether this can, as the original sleeve notes intimated, be viewed as a maturity of writing is debatable. A section of a long 12-bar blues improvisation largely featuring Weaver's organ forms the basis of Tadpole. Being a massive fan of the various sounds created by the Hammond organ, I love this track! Jim Jewell lays some tasty tenor sax down and Spit James complements it all with some understated guitar licks. Poor Mabel is a rather tongue-in-cheek country number with an uncredited harmonica. Largely forgettable but with some amusing lyrics it provides a bit of a break before the final track which showed 'an important step forward for the band', although I am not sure how! Nonetheless, Believe In You is a decent enough track, enhanced by Lowther's violin solo and the presence of Mick Taylor's guitar (although barely heard) in the middle and end passages.

The Battle Of Northwest Six is certainly a decent enough follow-up to the group's debut album and although featuring a few stand-out tracks lacks the edge of Halfbreed. Still, there is certainly enough to entertain anyone who found enjoyment in the first album, although as with the debut, the progressive aspects of the music are few and far between. Even so, it is good to have this music available once again and all credit to Esoteric for reviving albums that have an importance in musical history.

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