Loose Tubes, a seminal 1980s British big band, split up in 1990, but a live album of theirs has just been released. This album, ‘Dancing on Frith Street’, was recorded in Ronnie Scotts (which is located on Frith Street, London), just before they disbanded.
I first heard Loose Tubes in August 1987 when they made an appearance at the BBC Proms. Their music fired my teenage musical imagination, and when a friend gave me their 1986 LP ‘Delightful Precipice’ it soon became one of my most played recordings. This and their other two LPs are currently only available second hand, so it is a great pleasure to see ‘Dancing on Frith Street’ being made available now. I want to focus on three tracks here: Yellow Hill by Django Bates, Last Word by Eddie Parker and Shelley by Steve Berry.
This is the third recording of Yellow Hill that I’m aware of, the first being on Tim Whitehead’s ‘English People’ LP (1983) and the second on Loose Tubes’ first, self-titled LP (1985). The ‘English People’ version is a warm-toned chamber arrangement, the only ‘tube’ here being Whitehead’s tenor saxophone. Iain Ballamy is the sax soloist on both the big band cuts; he sounds more at ease with himself on the 1985 recording, with Django Bates’ energetic, frothy keyboard accompaniment threatening to draw listeners’ attention away from his solo on the live album. The studio album also benefits from more pert percussion, and an intriguing mid-section dialogue between Bates and guitarist John Parricelli, with Bates deploying one of his typically gluey synth sounds.
Last Word has also been recorded before, on Loose Tubes’ 1988 album ‘Open Letter’. Here it is a bit faster, though just as tight, and you can hear a bit more harmonic richness and detail in some of the chordal passages (for example, start–0’30”). Try also to catch Bates’ little keyboard run at 0’45”. The piece really gets going around 1’20” with a trombone solo over a big Jamaican beat. Paul Taylor is good here, but I have to confess to being more taken with John Harborne’s super-raucous, hoarse solo on ‘Open Letter’ – just how they teach you not to play the trombone at music college. Iain Ballamy, to my ears, finds his feet in the live recording, in an energetic and fluid soprano sax solo (3’07”–5’55”). And if, like me, you are a bit of an anorak when it comes to music analysis, you will enjoy hearing another of Bates’ keyboard runs at 4’10”: something that seemed unimportant the first time round, but which acquires significance through repetition. By 4’58” this run has become longer and faster, and adds to the momentum of the piece as it nears its end (and which makes the ‘last word’ even more surprising).
Shelley is a truly beautiful tune by Steve Berry – joy tinged with regret – which also appears on the 1986 studio album ‘Delightful Precipice’. Opening in a slow and reflective vein, John Parricelli’s guitar tickles the beat to life at 1’29”; the central part of the piece is taken up with what is listed as a guitar solo, but which is really another Bates–Parricelli dialogue, Bates this time choosing a keyboard sound that blends with Parricelli’s electric guitar. This parallels the double sax solo of Iain Ballamy and Mark Lockheart that you find in the central section of Shelley on ‘Delightful Precipice’. Both recordings demonstrate the artistry and imagination of the Loose Tubes players.
I never got to see Loose Tubes live, and I treasure their studio albums. ‘Dancing on Frith Street’ not only adds to their recorded legacy, it also conveys something of what their live act was like. Speaking of the live album, Chris Batchelor, a trumpeter in the group, says in a recent article in Jazzwise magazine: “I think that it captures the spirit of the band in a way that the studio records didn’t”. Personally I think the studio albums are wonderful, but I’m sure they don’t catch all the anarchic, unpredictable energy and humour of the band. ‘Dancing on Frith Street’ goes some way to making up for that.
- ‘English People: the subterranean life at Richmond Lock and other locations’, Tim Whitehead’s Borderline (Spotlite Records, SPJ523, 1983)
- ‘Loose Tubes’ (self-titled, self-produced record, 1985)
- ‘Delightful Precipice’ (self-produced, LTLP003, 1986)
- ‘Open Letter’ (EG Records, EGED55, 1988)
- ‘Dancing on Frith Street’ (Lost Marble, LM005, 2010)
- ‘A dance to the music of time’, Jazzwise, October 2010, p.30