Monday, October 23, 2006

Out of the Long Dark

Out of the Long Dark: the Life of Ian Carr
By Alyn Shipton

Ian Carr is a jazz artist probably better known in America as a man of letters, particularly for his biography of Miles Davis. In Out of the Long Dark, biographer Shipton explains how Davis exerted a powerful influence over Carr, as the careers of both jazzmen often moved in parallel directions.

Carr settled on music after a premature attempt at a literary career. Initially attracting attention in the Emcee Five, a group the included Carr’s brother Mike in the piano chair, Ian Carr rose to prominence in the UK jazz scene as the co-leader of the Rendell-Carr Quintet.

Carr’s compositions have often taken inspiration from literature, and frequently feature sly word play. Shipton explains the pun in the title of the third Rendell-Carr LP, largely lost on American listeners:

“‘Phase III’ was also a tariff of the London Electricity Board, and to those who heard the name in those days, it immediately implied late night heat, as well as the accumulation and release of energy.” (p. 76)

As Miles Davis plugged-in and turned to rock forms for inspiration, so too did Carr, with the formation of his cooperative band Nucleus. While Davis found his largest audiences through albums like Bitches Brew, Carr’s work with Nucleus was much more popular on the Continent, particularly Germany, than in his native Britain. Carr did have a seemingly unlikely champion, John Dixon of Capitol Records, a major American label. As Carr relates:

“But unbeknownst to me, in America, John Dixon at Capitol Records had every record I ever made. When he read in the trade press that I’d left Phonogram (who owned Vertigo), he sent a message to EMI in London saying ‘Ian Carr is free—sign him up!'” (p. 116)

The meeting between Carr and EMI was actually a disaster, with both parties deciding to take a pass. Dixon however, was not to be deterred by the British division’s lack of enthusiasm, saying according to Carr: “Never mind, we’ll sign him direct.” (p. 117)

As a result, Carr “had an American contract and with it, American levels of money.” (p. 117) Dixon would be an important friend in Carr’s life—one Shipton credits for his support during Carr’s bout with depression. Out of the Long Dark takes its name from the title of Carr’s first post-depression LP and the second and final under his Capitol contract.

Nucleus continued to be vital force, even after Carr was hospitalized for colon cancer treatment. Shortly after finishing treatment, Carr embarked on a grueling tour of Latin America for the British Council, documented in the trumpeter’s diary. While sniffing about the suspected but unseen poverty caused by “Milton Friedman’s monetarist policies” Carr relates the nuanced crash course in Chilean history he received from Peter Schwartz of the British Council:

“Allende’s two parties, socialists and communists, couldn’t agree and soon there were 18 parties in parliament. Allende made a law keeping prices low, and so big business refused to produce goods. For almost two years there was nothing in shops. Peter was offered a batch of 500 toilet rolls, when he only wanted a few, but he had to take them all or go without. So he used to trade them with his friends . . . He and his associates at the British Council took it in turns to queue all day for rice or work all day in the office. Peter got fed up with Allende. Eventually everyone in Santiago, except Allende, knew about the impending coup.” (p. 140)

Not surprisingly, Allende’s price controls were no more effective over-ruling the forces of supply and demand than they have been anywhere else. While Carr may not be a keen commentator on economics he is certainly an insightful writer on jazz, and a tireless advocate for British artists. His book on Davis is considered one of, if not the, standard biographies on the trumpet legend. Shipton is not so enthusiast in his reading of Carr’s biography of Keith Jarrett arguing:

“Ian’s fervent enthusiasm for Jarrett . . . in some ways makes this a less satisfactory biography than the earlier book on Miles. Whereas Miles was examined warts and all, I get the sense that Ian deliberately glossed over aspects of Jarrett’s life, not least in deference to Jarrett’s wish to retain his personal privacy.” (p.159)

Long Dark is certainly makes a passionate case for Carr’s place in music history and will intrigue American listeners who might be unfamiliar with his recorded output. At times though, Shipton’s criticisms of Carr’s Jarrett book might be applied to his writing as well. It does seem Shipton was also reluctant to plumb too deeply, lest it discomfort his subject. He does convey Carr’s music nicely, and leaves one wanting to hear more from one of Britain’s leading jazz artists.