My journey with Jess – An appreciation of The Jess Roden Anthology – Part Two

4 05 2013


A new day, and I sit back and re-open this splendid anthology, a beautiful hardback ‘coffee table’ book, with 3 of the 6 discs neatly embedded in both the front and back inside covers. It is a great read, and peppered with enough photographic memorabilia and liner notes to have even the most jaded completist salivating. It is against this backdrop that I re-commence my listening. We’re on Disc 4, and despite the Spanish sunshine, “Easy Way” ‘s introduction is heralded by a breaking thunderstorm, dueling with sublime Fretless bass, Rhodes and Soprano saxophone. I’m back in that time tunnel, circa 1982. There’s no vocal, but you ‘hear’ Jess in this track, you feel his soul. It is no exaggeration to posit that tracks such as this pre-dated a great deal of what we now refer to as ‘the ambient genre’. This track just spirits you away. It’s fading Sax figures begin to echo John Barleycorn -era Traffic, then it’s gone, and we’re into ‘Player not the game’ territory, and a track dripping in quality, with a glittering constellation of players doing such justice to a Jess composition that shows just what an amazing writer he really is. “In Me Tonight” just oozes class, and his vocal soars over Leon Pendarvis’ classy arrangement.  “Believe in Me” finally reveals in its digital reproduction, the care that was taken in the recording. Having previously endured a rather unforgiving and worse-for-wear vinyl version of this for the sake of the song, it’s with some pleasure that I let the track wash over me, pristine at last.

The contrast between “Believe in Me” and The Rivits’ “Oo She Do” , recorded just a year apart is striking, 80’s Electronica replacing Pendarvis’ slick production, but once again it is Jess’ consummate vocal that provides the continuity. Another Seven Windows track, and one of my personal favourites, “Parachutes” wraps itself around you like a familiar overcoat, such a deceptively effortless performance, an essay in understatement, it builds almost imperceptibly, but by the middle 8, it is glorious, and it fades beautifully with a muted tribal tattoo on the drums.  The final four tracks of Disc 4 comprise two beauties from The Player not the Game – “The Hardest Blow” and “The Quiet Sound of You & I” – two Roberts/Bronfman compositions that are absolutely stunning examples of songcraft. The former switches beautifully between Jess’s vocal and some soaring tenor sax from Harold Vick, the latter, in this writer’s opinion, one of the finest things Jess Roden has ever committed to tape. On a song like this, no-one can touch him. The other two, are lovely surprises: “Peace within me now” benefits from a very creative arrangement, a lightness of touch and economy of instrumentation serve the song beautifully, as does another cameo on backing vocals by Jaki Whitren. Something of a signature of this Anthology is the signing off on each disc with a bit of a ‘gotcha!’ – and Disc 4 is no exception: Jess’s personal take on Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Goin’ On”, just him and his guitar. It’s often said that the acid test of whether a song is good or not, is to sing it with nothing but a simple acoustic guitar, and when you are blessed with a voice like this, “What’s Goin’ On” passes that particular test with flying colours.

Disc 5 begins with “Intro” there’s no info about it, but it’s clearly The Alan Bown Set steamrollering through 42 manic seconds of “Satisfaction” and “I Can’t Explain” – so I’m guessing it’s around ’64. It sets the scene beautifully, because, like the CD says, we’re ‘On the road’.  It’s the JRB up first, they come racing out of the traps, all guns blazing…hell, pick a metaphor and they’ll warrant it…it makes me long for the days when it was possible to see them on stage. then we’re tumbling back to 1966, ( okay, I was two years out with the intro!) a little more rough and ready than the JRB, but the Alan Bown Set had energy to spare and always delivered the goods live. Disc 5 gives us the wonderful opportunity to hear previously unreleased live recordings by the JRB. It’s interesting to hear the Jess Roden Band’s live work (some from ‘Blowin’) juxtaposed with The Alan Bown Set’s tracks from the ‘London Swings’ album. A decade separates them, but the common denominators are many: quality musicianship, energy, and THAT voice.  I always loved Jess’s take on Newman’s “You can leave your hat on”, and it’s a curious fact that the song connects Jess with another of my favourite bands, The Dan Reed Network , who did a great live version of this also. There’s some lovely guitar work on this between Steve Webb and Bruce Roberts, one doubling the bassline, the other chopping out a metronome tight rhythm – just superb, it creates an effortless roll in the track somehow. By the time you hit track 5 “Down in the Valley” by The Alan Bown Set, the distinction between the bands is blurring – you’re simply front row at one helluva gig. One thing that strikes me is how assured and mature Jess sounds on the early tracks…it’s astounding. Like I said in part one, DNA.

Next up, “Can’t get next to you”. as with “Hat on”, the Jess Roden Band were responsible for introducing me to these classics for the first time. I’d never heard the originals. Like the young Beatles fans who lapped up their version of the Isley’s “Twist and shout”, to me, these were the originals. I identify with this previously unreleased version of The Temptations song – it was recorded live at The Marquee on the day I turned 18! The take-down trade off solo between Billy Livesey’s Electric piano and Steve Webb’s guitar is a highlight of this version. You can hear the fun these guys were having as the song draws to a close. It’s celebratory!

The JRB had an innate ability to channel the funk, sometimes their groove was breathtaking, as evidenced by “Get ta Steppin”, “In a Circle”  and “Me & Crystal Eye”, the latter from”Blowin'” the former a previously unreleased cut from The Lyceum. “Get ta Steppin” announces its intent via Pete Hunt and John Cartwright laying down a vicious drum/bass groove – and we’re off, staccato brass, wah-wah guitar, feel the funk y’all! “Crystal Eye” has always been one of my favourite Jess songs – I remember using the bassline as a practice piece as I learned my trade.

Disc 5 see-swas between The Alan Bown Set of ’66 and The Jess Roden Band of ’76, but there is one imposter, from 1996: Jess Roden and The Humans, and Joe Tex’s “You Better Believe it baby” from their “Live at the Robin” album. I remember exactly where I bought The Humans studio album. I was touring with my band in the West Country, and on a day off went into a record shop in Swindon. I was beside myself to find a new Jess Roden album!  Not only that, a glance at the liner notes revealed that his guitarist was Gary Grainger, whose work with the underrated band Strider I loved.  Needless to say, The Humans more than hold their own in the illustrious company of the Alan Bown Set and The JRB. It’s fitting that this Anthology acknowledges the importance and stature of the JRB as a live band with a superb collection of previously unreleased live recording from venues across the UK.

Perhaps the most important disc of The Anthology is Disc 6 – named ‘The Sub’s Bench’. It contains tracks that, set aside for consideration after Neil and Jess had spent so much time poring over hundreds of ours of material, eventually were deemed too good to exclude. It gives us a clue as to the real wealth of music that Jess created throughout four decades, namely that, even with such an all-encompassing project such as this, it is incredibly difficult to do true justice to the legacy of such a diverse, creative and gifted artist.

“Storm and Stone” is fast becoming one of my favourite Jess Roden tracks. Featuring a stellar line-up including Robbie Blunt, Mike Kellie and John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, it’s perhaps where Bronco might have any rate, it’s a scary thought that, were it not for this project, this song would have sat gathering dust in some God-forsaken storeroom somewhere, deteriorating by degrees, while good money goes into promoting the likes of Jedward. Where on earth did we go wrong? A beautifully preserved Alan Bown Set demo is up next, with a lovely brass/keys signature – “Love Me”. I can see Paul Weller frugging to it. This disc offers, along with the previously mentioned “Storm and Stone” several gems from sessions with Rabbit in 1972, “On your Life” and the delicate “Loving in your Sake”. One can only imagine how great an album’s worth of this productive union would have sounded. Also included here is a JRB live favourite – The Eagles’ “Desperado” – illustrating just how well they could take even a well-known song and make it their own.  We’re well over three minutes in, it’s Billy Livesey and Ronnie Taylor on Piano and Sax, holding the room. No-one has set a scene better, then we’re into the verse, and Jess owns it. What’s not to love?  Listening to this, and further live unreleased gems from the JRB on this final disc – including the wonderfully restrained”Too Far gone” and the acoustic led and beautiful “Feelin’ Easy” – I marvel at their mastery of light and shade. They effortlessly move from a whisper to a roar, and back again, at will. There is no greater pleasure  than to observe a band playing with this kind of ease. It is pure joy.

Disc 6 offers a number of lovely surprises, such as an alternate version of The Humans’ “Surrender to your Heart” augmented by Steve Winwood and the late great Jim Capaldi.  Another curio is Jess with “The Muscle Shoals Swampers” on  Capaldi/Winwood track “Let me make something in your life”, produced by Island supremo Chris Blackwell, it seems to channel Alabama, where at least part of it was recorded.

The Anthology closes with a stunning version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It’s always been a singers song. It’s one of those that sorts the men from the boys. Here, there is no arrangement to hide behind. It is simply Jess, strumming a guitar and singing as only he can. It is the distilled essence of the entire project, of a career. A man with an extraordinary voice.

I flip the page. My name is in the liner notes. I think back to the fourteen year-old boy behind the sun-dappled curtains of a Bournemouth Living room, ‘Bumpers’ on the stereo, listening to his voice for the first time…..what a journey. Thank you, Jess.

Kev Moore