Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gordon Beck: From Two Perspectives – Solo & Duo


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“It concerns me that, now, at the time of his passing, he won't be accorded the place he's so clearly earned. The proof is there in the records. The literature exists. It's self evident.

… his music is all about color and light, shards of amazing brilliance, real earthy moving soulfulness and fire  - and he did have that glorious and singing keyboard sound.

Gordon Beck was a musician apart, he was special and he was great.”
-Colm “Red” Sullivan, 01/09/2012

“There cannot be many jazz musicians who have simultaneously possessed a flying phobia and a pilot's license. That has long been a favorite anecdote about Gordon Beck, the lean, stonily impassive and technically awesome pianist, who has died aged 76.

Beck had the license because his first career was in aeronautical engineering, and the phobia because his complex personality mixed deep-seated anxieties with a fearless appetite for freefall adventures, evident in his jazz improvisations.”
- John Fordham – The Guardian, Nov. 14, 2011

“Gordon Beck can do it all!
- Phil Woods, alto saxophonist

By the late 1960s, Jazz was on a collision course with anonymity.

The Halcyon Days were waning, the music was slipping into obscurity and Jazz musicians were sliding into the recording studios to make TV commercials, radio jingles and “full orchestra” albums for rock stars. As the late alto saxophonist and flutist Bud Shank remarked about this transition from performing in clubs to on-call playing in the studios: “It was a matter of survival: you gotta eat and pay the rent.”

Clubs like Shelly’s Manne Hole and The Lighthouse had moved away from resident groups to book “big names” such as Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley in order to keep the clientele flowing and their doors open.

One such marquis appearance occurred at Shelly’s in the Fall of 1969 when alto saxophonist Phil Woods came to town for a week-long stint at the club.

I should say of Phil’s visit that is was more a triumphal return to the states with his European-based quartet as he had left the country a few years earlier to take up residence in Paris after becoming totally disgusted with what he saw as Jazz’s march into oblivion.

Phil named his quartet “The European Rhythm Machine” and I suspect that he may have chosen this appellation to quiet the critics who were always disparaging the quality of European rhythm sections. The Irishman in Phil never ran away from a good argument or failed to stand its ground to make a point.


“The European Rhythm Machine” was a quite exceptional rhythm section with George Gruntz on piano, Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. I couldn’t wait to hear it in person.

Except when I got to Shelly’s on opening night [along, it seems, with every alto saxophone player in the city], Phil introduced his pianist as “Gordon Beck” and his bassist as “Ron Mathewson.”

Changes in the personnel that make-up Jazz groups are very common, and Daniel Humair, one of my all-time favorite drummers was still a part of the group, so I just sat back with my glass of vino and waited for Phil and the group to let it happen.

And boy, did it happen, but not in the way I expected.

Phil called a blues to open the set, a not uncommon occurrence as playing on its simple structure is a typical method to get the group to relax and into the flow of things.

Making music isn’t like making anything else: you have to adopt a mind-set that follows its conventions but, most of all, you have to concentrate.

Phil took the first solo, but instead of Gordon Beck being up next, the solo order moved on to Ron Mathewson on bass and to trading 12-bar breaks with Daniel before Gordon took over.

And did he ever – take over!

The rhythm section laid-out and Gordon played a series of unaccompanied 12-bar choruses that were at once - riotous, rollicking and riveting – he totally knocked us out.

It was one of the most gripping performances I had ever heard by any musician, anywhere.

I may not have known who “Gordon Beck” was when I went into Shelly’s that night, but I never forgot who he was afterwards.

Gordon went on to make two recordings with Phil’s Group Phil Woods And His European Rhythm Machine [Inner City 1002] and Phil Woods And His European Rhythm Machine At The Frankfurt Jazz Festival [Embryo SD-530].

And in 1978, I came across Gordon’s The French Connection which Jean-Jacques Pussiau produced for Owl Records [#11], the same producer and label that was to issue some of the recordings involving Gordon’s famous collaboration with singer Helen Merrill.

It is a solo piano album and it contains many examples of the brilliance and originality that Gordon put on display that night at Shelly’s as a member of the Phil Woods European Rhythm Machine.

Almost twenty years later, I “met up” with Phil and Gordon again this time courtesy of their two CD “Complete Concert: Live at the Wigmore Hall in London” [JMS 18686-2] for which Phil wrote the following insert notes.


“I first met and played with Gordon Beck in April, 1968. Gordon led the house trio at Ronnie Scott’s London club that included Tony Oxley on drums and Jeff Clyne on bass. Ronnie’s was my first stop when I began my five-year expatriate existence.

The European Rhythm Machine was formed right after this gig and George Gruntz was the first pianist. When he left after the first year, Daniel Humair our drummer, and bassist Henri Texier, both agreed with me that Gordon was the perfect choice to replace George.

And he was the perfect choice!

Gordon and I have shared many musical and life adventures. We always dined with [tenor saxophonist] Ben Webster when we were in Ben’s neighborhood, we hung with Dizzy [Gillespie] and Dexter [Gordon], we triumphed at the Palermo Pop Festival, no mean feat in the early seventies.

We recorded with [vocalist] Lena Horne playing the arrangements of the master, Robert Farnon, and with Mel Torme playing the exquisite orchestrations of one of England’s best, Chris Gunning.

Gordon also played on three of my albums done in London with a large orchestra. Gordon can do it all!

We were together at the last riot-torn Newport Festival and most memorable to me, we hung with Shelly Manne when the European Rhythm Machine played his great club and I saw GB make his first dive in Shelly’s swimming pool, a perfect one and a half gainer that garnered a perfect 6.

If you don’t believe me call Ron Mathewson, he has the films to prove it. Yes Gordon and I have been around the block a few times.


Our friendship has withstood the test of time and, at last, we are able to realize one of our dreams, and dear listener, you hold the results of our warm encounter in your hands.

This concert is complete and unedited. What you hear is what happened. We did not “fix” anything.

Perhaps, a seam shows, but to these old ears, it sounds like two old friends [who have plied their craft for decades] getting together to share in one of life’s greatest pleasures, improvising music.

There are great moments on this CD. When I used to ask Dizzy how he was doing he would disarmingly reply: ‘Well, I don’t think I’m getting any worse.” I think the same could be said for Gordon and me.

Thank you Gordon. Thank you Jean- Marie [Salhani, the producer of the CD for JMS Records] for documenting our humble efforts and than you for buying this CD.

June 18, 1996

Phil Woods”

Should you like more detailed information about all facets of his career, Gordon has a website devoted to him which you can locate a www.gordonbeck.net.

I thought it might be interesting to feature musical examples of Gordon’s work in support of this feature about him from two perspectives: his solo piano work and as a duo with Phil Woods.

The ace graphics team from CerraJazz LTD has once again come to our assistance in developing the following video tributes to Gordon and to Gordon with Phil Woods to enable me to do just that.