Reviews

Spencer's Nighthawks 4 CD (+1 bonus) Compilation

This 4 CD set (Plus bonus CD) of Spencer's Washboard Kings/Nighthawks is an exciting event for lovers of Hot Jazz. Carl Spencer has amassed an incredible selection of broadcasts and other recordings of his band, and from the 60's right through to the present day. Most of these have not been heard since then.

Many of the musicians featured can also be found leading the smaller band-within-a-band offerings, and these, together with solo performances, make up the compilation. Five CD's of wall to wall hot jazz sounds a lot, but these musical cameos break it up nicely. The CD's are arranged chronologically (except the opening numbers on each of the first four CD's, which are selected from their '71 recordings) so on each CD you can hear the late 1964/early '65 band, right up to recent days. It makes for easy listening, hearing how the band developed.

Carl Spencer started playing the cornet in 1962, (after a grounding on piano) and was obviously influenced by Bix, but players such as Louis, Oliver, Keppard, Ed Allen and Nick La Rocca, plus several other early Dixieland players, also figure strongly in his playing. His use of mutes on the recordings is excellent and some of the cornet solos with authentic two bear rhythm section support are highlights for the reviewer.

Spencer's Washboard Kings first recorded in 1964 and went on to tour the jazz and cabaret scene with TV and Radio appearances and also releasing pop singles. The band disbanded in 1972 when Carl subsequently became Deputy Managing Director of the UK Yamaha musical instrument company (Yamaha-Kemble Music), a position he successfully kept for 12 years. In '86 he started his own group of companies handling the UK marketing and distribution of several well known brands i.e. Hammond Organs. In '95 he sold his business to Suzuki (who had just brought Hammond) and the lure to start playing again culminated in him restarting his band in 1997. A twenty five year embouchure dissolving gap! Therefore his collection comprises of recordings from 1965 to 1972 and then 1997 to the present day.

The amazing range of musicians on these recordings, over the years, is quite astounding. A few examples are – Piano- Keith Nicholls, Neville Dicke, Colin Goode, Martin Litton and Henry Davies. Reeds – Malcolm Everson, Mac White, Brian Hills, Frank Fennell. The jazz colossus Don Weller, marvellous on Bass Sax, and the outstanding Trombonists, Ray Wordsworth and the great Bob Hunt (the latter can be found on two tracks).

The Rhythm Sections are always swing and some of the best Tuba players that I have ever heard are featured with the band. The band's success, apart from the obvious musicianship, is the attention to detail. The arrangements are carefully sculptured and even the old high spirited vocal can quite easily be forgiven as the feel of the recordings is right. The repertoire is by far the most interesting (and daring) of any 20's style band of the time. So far so good, but how does it sound?

The four recordings from early 1965 are charming and feature a young Bob Kerr of second cornet (CD3 Track 2) and reeds. The original tape's condition only adds to the highly authentic sound. The King Oliver's (I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody) and Freddie Keppard's (Stomp Time Blues) quite take your breath away with the captured realism of those styles, and then there is the fun stuff along the lines of the Happy Six (Pick Me Up & Lay Me Down In Dear Old Dixieland) and the Savoy Orpheans “Masculine Women Feminine Men”. The early '65 full version is Track 1 on the Bonus CD, the track on CD 4 being the subsequent mid '65 Polydor Single. By '66 the band has tackled some of the sparking Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks numbers such as Gonna Get a Girl. To these they added their own original arrangements in similar vogue i.e. Varsity Drag, Cup of Coffee, Somebody Stole my Gal.

As the band matured, some quite brilliant music was recorded which included, from late 1968 & 69, Dreaming the Hours Away, Shanghai Shuffle etc etc. These are all atmospheric, wonderful pieces, played with some great solos. A large majority of the CD's recordings are from this period. The band, at this time (Apr-Oct '68), had been playing every evening on the Central Pier in Blackpool and it shows. These recordings are in a class of their own.

The 1970 to 71 recordings suffer from the dreaded reverb that cursed many a recording studio in the 60's. However, they are very adventurous. Tracks like Meadow Lark are minor works of art. Dicty Blues and Borneo are also impressive vehicles for the Washboard Kings. The tricky arrangements are mainly the work of Henry Davies, a pianist and multi-instrumental who has done much for the Classic Jazz scene.

The present band (including many original members) is also featured on this compilation. Although lacking the fire of 1968 the group's playing has matured and still manages to create some of the 'old magic' in numbers such as The Chant, Dr Jazz & Beale Street Blues, three excellent Morton offerings. The solo spots from Litton, Whiting, Nichols, Dickie, White and the loyal and legendary Brian Hills are all excellent. Banjo fans are catered for with solos from Parle, Stephens, Langham and the great Charlie Smart. A mention must be made of Henry Davies's sublime version of Grace and Beauty.

So in total 122 tracks, a bonus CD with alternative, mainly earlier, versions and strange chart attempts (well it was the 60's!) Crazy vocals and some lovely jazz. Most of the early recordings are historically important and a must for any serious collector of Jazz. If you like music when melody and hot solos were the order of the day, with all the polish and finesse of the Art Deco era, then this collection is a must for you! Highly recommended.

- Tom 'Spats' Langham