“Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated”

1965 Ace of Clubs LP Liner Notes

By Charles Fox



 People have a habit of getting set in their ideas. Once it was de rigeur to imagine that the only worthwhile jazz was blown – and in odd moments, too – by manual labourers in Louisiana. An equally romantic legend nowadays bids us think of blues as indissolubly wedded to guitars and harmonicas and the grittier species of singer. All the more reason, therefore, to welcome the defiantly individual rejoinder provided by the music of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. The original Blues Incorporated – which virtually began British rhythm-and-blues when it opened the Ealing Club on St. Patrick's Day, 1962 – included a harmonica player, and a very fine one too, in the person of Cyril Davies. Yet even at the start Alexis Korner was determined to use jazz players, especially very modern jazz musicians. "They're the ones who get that shout inside their music," he says, "And after all it's not the instrument that matters, it's the player." Ever since Cyril Davies left the group in the autumn of 1962, Alexis has been the only member who came out of country blues rather than jazz. Yet the sound, the tilt of country blues still runs through all his music. Indeed, one of the aims of this particular LP was to deploy avant-grade jazz against that grass-roots sound. The music was recorded at three sessions during the summer of 1963. On saxophones were Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen, both, at different times, members of prize-winning Cambridge University Jazz Bands. (Even more importantly, they happen to be two of the finest and most trenchant saxophonists that Britain has produced.) Johnny Parker is best known for his long stint as pianist with Humphrey Lyttelton's band, although his work here may surprise aficionados who remember him only in that setting. Mike Scott, a Mancunian, played bass, while the drummer was Phil Seamen, without doubt one of the greatest jazz musicians to be found anywhere in Europe. Three days before the first session, Alexis Korner got out his guitar and sat down before a tape-recorder. Between midnight and dawn he worked out nine of the compositions heard on this LP. They are quite startlingly diverse. He describes Blue Mink as "really a country blues, but dedicated to Monk and Mingus", yet the piece builds up like a pyramid. There are five choruses in all, the first and last being ten bars long. The one right in the middle – Chorus No.3, in other words – lasts for twelve bars and has the two tenor saxists weaving round one another, using different root-lines. On either side – Choruses 2 and 4 – are eleven-bar sequences. The final seven bars of the former (yes, you really do need pencil and paper) are played by Dick Heckstall-Smith, while Art Themen pops up in the corresponding passage of the latter.


 Yogi – named, of course, after the universal bear, - is every bit as unorthodox. The theme – 20 bars long, in 3/4 time – is a stretched-out blues sequence, with Themen playing the first tenor solo and Heckstall-Smith heard after the piano-and-guitar duet.


 Rainy Tuesday (a sort of sequel to Stormy Monday) and Navy Blue are straightforward twelve-bar blues. The former has Art Themen playing a solo on his white plastic alto saxophone (it looks just the same as Ornette Coleman's) and also contains one of Alexis Korner's rare guitar solos. Another guitar solo – probably the finest Alexis has put on record – occurs in Sappho, a 32-bar tune named after the bandleader's daughter. As for Royal Dooji, a twelve-bar blues, this lopes along in 4/4 time but has Dick Heckstall-Smith moving on top in 3/4 and 6/8.


 Preachin' The Blues, adapted from a 1936 recording by the obscure yet superb blues-singer Robert Johnson, is decidedly offbeat. "You might call it a Mississippi blues gone Greek", explains Korner, for on this track he plays bouzouki, a Middle Eastern instrument which looks, as he puts it, "rather like a pear cut in half". The unique reverberations are created by using the blues guitarist's "bottle-neck" technique, although the object which Alexis slides along the strings was actually a door-key picked up off the studio floor. The 22-bar theme is played in 8/8 time over Phil Seamen's 12/4 and 12/8 ("It's basically African drumming"), while the tenor saxophonists pitch a quarter-tone apart, aiming at a certain ambiguity. The Captain's Tiger enshrines an arcane piece of information, for this, it appears, was the name given aboard the old sailing ships to the special steward who waited on the captain, and who wore a yellow-and-black striped jumper or waistcoat. The composition itself, a twelve-bar blues, is basically in 3/4 time, but the theme and the soloist – in this case, Art Themen – coast along in 9/8.


 A Little Bit Groovy and Chris Trundle's Habit were both written by Johnny Parker. The former (which has Alexis and the two reed players sitting out) is a twelve-bar blues, but Chris Trundle's Habit (the title was inspired by a fragment of graffiti discovered in the Thames Valley area) opens with a 16-bar section, followed by a middle-eight and a final eight, and includes a sequence of "fours" by Phil Seamen and both saxophonists. (The first man off the mark is Art Themen). Anything For Now, conceived and executed by Dick Heckstall-Smith, might be called an oblique genuflection towards Sindney Bechet, the saxophonist's first great hero. The LP ends with Trundin', best described as a blues pushed along four bars. (It begins with the subdominant and ends in the tonic.) Once again the tenor soloist is Dick Heckstall-Smith. Sleeve-notes that explain too much are likely to put the more timid customers off. Yet the performances on this record deserve some kind of analysis – and knowing how the pieces work ought to add to the enjoyment. Still, it should be emphasised over and over again that the music is essentially emotional, essentially passionate. Experiment, after all, need never rule out excitement. What Alexis Korner has done here is to reveal the blues in yet a few more of its many guises. And underneath everything is the rock-hard integrity of musicians who are involved in what they play. "A blues player," says Alexis, "has got a blues feeling whatever he does. That's what really counts."


Charles Fox




“Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated”

1996 CD (SEECD457) Liner Notes

By Mark Troster



From his earliest days playing the skiffle and fork club circuit during the 1950s, through to his final recordings in late-1983, Alexis Korner was always in search of new sounds and fearless of grafting a variety of styles such as Blues, R&B, Jazz and Gospel to create a sound which was uniquely his own. As a probable consequence of his receptiveness towards the nudging of artistic boundaries – by way of example Alexis considered that Rhythm & Blues undoubtedly embraced " ... everything from Louis Jordan to Martha & The Vandellas" – the prospect of ploughing any one previously well trodden musical furrow held no interest for him.


 Blues Incorporated received much acclaim during the hot summer of 1962 for the trailblazing recitals of Chicago Blues standards it had delivered at Jazz clubs in both London and the Provinces. However, much to the chagrin of Cyril Davies, Alexis could not – or would not – resist an insatiable yearning to deviate from the 12-bar form and by September of 1962 he had begun to show considerable interest in experimenting with "jazzier" material. In fact a demo session recorded for EMI around this time included many takes of Duke Ellington's Dooji Wooji – each being driven along a strong theme by piano and tenor saxophone – and, although the tune is basically a 12-bar blues, Cyril's uncharacteristically eccentric harmonica accompaniment clearly demonstrated his difficulty in aligning with the stylistic change. Matters deteriorated further for him when Alexis registered his intent to draft in the mercurial Graham Bond on alto saxophone to complement Dick Heckstall-Smith's excellent tenor work and, by early November 1962, Cyril had left to form his own "Rhythm & Blues All-Stars". With Cyril's departure the way was clear for Alexis to supplement the tried and tested Blues Incorporated repertoire of straight-ahead Blues tunes with original compositions showing his deference towards jazz greats such as Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.


 But what of the performances on this issue? They were captured by Vic Keary at Lansdowne Studios in London during May and June of 1963 – just twelve months after Blues Incorporated's session for Decca Records from which the seminal, now legendary, album R&B From The Marquee emerged – and they serve to perfectly illustrate just how quickly and enthusiastically Alexis seized the opportunity to "jazz it up" once Cyril Davies had moved on.


 With twelve new titles in the can and relations between Alexis and Decca in spiraling decline – he had grown increasingly frustrated by, as he saw it, Decca's long-standing negative approach to the marketing of his wares – Alexis was actively in search of a deal with a more supportive concern. He quickly found a willing, if unlikely, potential sponsor in Joe Marsala who was an American entrepreneur with the Seeburg Jukebox Company of Chicago. Marsala had probably heard the band perform in London and, from the experience and contacts he had gained during an earlier and successful career as a jazz clarinettist, considered that Blues Incorporated might well have been favourably received across the pond. However, despite his efforts to persuade Seeburg to issue the "Lansdowne" recordings on jukebox discs – it is unlikely that the discerning American public would have found them to their particular taste – and his pedalling of a test acetate around the record companies of Chicago and neighbouring states, it is unsurprising that by the mid-winter of 1963 Marsala had failed to secure any kind of American deal for a jazzy Blues band from the west end of London. The twelve titles remained on the shelf until early 1965 when, following a bizarre twist of fate – the irony of which was imperceptible to Alexis – a hazy licensing acquisition lead to their issue on an imaginatively titled Decca album Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. Johnny Parker cites the "Lansdowne" sessions as being among the highspots of his recording career: "I listened to those old Blues Incorporated takes, the first time in years, and was surprised just how good they sounded. Alexis had been offered the chance of some late-night studio time at a much reduced rate and it was only a day or so before we were due to go in for the recording session that he told us what we were going to be playing." As many ex-Korner sidemen will testify, Alexis' penchant was for musical spontaneity and rehearsal sessions were therefore the exception rather than the rule. "Almost all of the tunes had literally only just been composed – Alexis wrote most of them, although myself and Dick contributed one or two as well – so before we went into the studio we had a run through the new material at The Flamingo Club". Listening to the rough tape recording made by Alexis in the days leading up to the "Lansdowne" sessions it is remarkable to hear just how expertly and incredibly quickly the band converted very simple renditions of new tunes – performed on acoustic guitar – into powerful, virtually flawless, pieces of astounding invention. Throughout his career Alexis always maintained a happy knack of surrounding himself with fine musicians and Johnny has clear memories in particular of the creativity poured out by drum maestro Phil Seamen: "I remember sitting in the studio watching the guys do several takes of Preachin' The Blues and, although Phil was experimenting with different drum patterns, each of the takes had an entirely different conception which remained absolutely musical."


 The downside for Alexis' sidemen was that his apparent passion for continued progression away from the basic Chicago Blues sound – which not all of his recruits, including Dick Heckstall-Smith, were fully in accord with - often had the effect f bringing about regular (and mostly intentional) changes in personnel. In fact it was only days after the first twelve titles of this issue were committed to magnetic oxide that Mike Scott fell out of favor and discovered that his tenure of the bass seat was decidedly terminable. Scott was succeeded by Vernon Bown, a Bristolian, who had endeared himself to Alexis after stepping in at the eleventh-hour to 'dep' at a Flamingo Club 'all-nighter'.


 Blues Incorporated returned to Lansdowne Studio a few weeks later for a further session, with Bown having replaced Scott and the Control Room duties once again in the hands of Vic Keary. In stark contrast to the May session, which had yielded only instrumental performances, this latest exploration placed a much greater demand upon Alexis' vocal chords and two of his early vocalisations, Tabbo Man and See See Rider, have survived for inclusion here. Taboo Man sees Alexis alerting womankind to his irresistible powers and See See Rider, an arrangement of the much covered twelve-bar blues penned by Ma Rainey during the 1920's, is driven along by saxophonists Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen who unite their tenors to provide a wonderful and appropriately sordid sound.


 Anyone who knew Alexis will tell you that he was seldom able to deliver of his best within the studio environment, much preferring the motivational buzz of an audience to the sterility of acoustic screens and vocal booths. However, I believe that this issue captures some of Blues Incorporated's very best performances and, in common with many other Alexis Korner enthusiasts, am delighted that the folks at See For Miles have allowed them to be shared again (and this time in glorious Stereo) for first time in over thirty years. Enjoy!


Mark Troster




“Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated”

2006 re-mastering CD Liner Notes

By Neil Slaven



 It wasn’t all sweetness and light back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Blues was just a music that Jazz fans also liked. It’s one thing, then, to become the Father of British Blues, but a few bitterly-fought paternity suits occurred before the matter was settled. Alexis Korner’s later identity as the Grand Old Man of the Blues fraternity came after a period of less benevolent activity, as various factions strove to assert their ascendancy. Ask Lonnie Donegan about the ‘Skiffle Is Piffle’ war of 1956 – if you could. And while Alexis and Cyril Davies were certainly the leading Bluesophiles of their day, their’s wasn’t always a comfortable alliance. Having dealt a death blow to Skiffle (as they thought), they set about dispensing their distillation of Blues to those who could listen.


 That distillation combined Davies’ absolute dedication to authenticity with his partner’s less rigorous attitude to Blues and music in general. As Alexis explained, “Cyril got this bug that you had to live it to understand it and therefore wanted to do everything that Leadbelly had done” – including the odd bout of physical violence when called for. Alexis himself had a broader vision, hinted at by the band credit for their 1958 Tempo EP, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, an evocative name thought up by his wife Bobbie, to which they would return. Such a personal indentification with the music, although Alexis’ was the better-known name through his work as a broadcaster and writer, may have caused some resentment on Cyril’s part. On the other hand, perhaps their uneasy alliance contained the essence behind their desire to play and publicise the music.


 It doubtless also helped that Alexis possessed an irresistible allure for woman. As Anthea Joseph told Harry Shapiro, in Alexis Korner – The Biography, “I was sixteen years old and up in London for half-term weekend and went to Collet’s to buy a record I wanted. This exquisite creature was talking to the owner, Jill Cook, in a voice like bitter chocolate – tight black curly hair, a waisted tan jacket down to the knees, check trousers and beautiful hand-made boots. I didn’t know who he was, all I knew was that he was gorgeous.” A memory she obviously kept bright and burnished over the years. This animal attraction probably helped at the solo gigs Alexis had to find in order to pay the mortgage, especially if he was on a percentage of the door.


 Alexis was on the periphery of the burgeoning Folk scene, as well, and at a party thrown by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott he met Davy Graham, one of the best and most eclectic guitarists at that time. They formed a partnership that lasted about a year, during which they backed Australian singer Shirley Abicair and cut an EP together in April 1961, as well as making a number of TV and radio appearances of their own. Alexis worked his charm upon the guitarist, as Graham told Shapiro, “All I could do was shut up and play some interesting chords. I had the facility, he had the intensity – passion compensating for technique.” It was also in 1961 that Alexis met bassist/composer Charlie Mingus, along with Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, a major source of Alexis’ inspiration. From Mingus he learned the concept of ‘Rotary Perception’, a phrase suggesting modality the bassist preferred to the word ‘Jazz’.


 Cyril Davies had a narrower vision of the Blues he wanted to play, and most of it emanated from Chicago. With the arrival of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker on bass and drums and tenor player Dick Heckstall-Smith, it was clear that Blues Incorporated’s repertoire was going to change. With his penchant for brutal honesty, Cyril turned up to one rehearsal and, ignoring the chorus of greetings, “he made his way straight to the decrepit upright piano in the corner of the room and upended his briefcase over the top of it. An enormous number of harmonicas flowed out, rather like a liquid, and he cursed roundly and obscenely.” Taking it was a personal insult, Heckstall-Smith nevertheless realised that Cyril “liked my playing – he just didn’t like what it was played on”.


 All of which led to a parting of the ways between Cyril and Alexis at the end of 1962, even though Blues Incorporated had begun to enjoy a measure of success, what with the band’s recently-released Ace of Clubs album, R&B From The Marquee (check out CMRCD1371), its residencies at the Ealing Club and The Marquee, and a full date sheet. “Cyril and I came to (a) splitting point …very largely over my involvement with Jazz, which had been permanently there, and very much over my involvement with Charlie Mingus. A climactic gathering at the Korner home in Moscow Road led to the tense but civilised announcement of Davies’ departure. When Alexis revealed that Davies’ harmonica would be replaced by the alto saxophone (and organ) of Graham Bond, Heckstall-Smith realised, “He’d already thought the whole bloody thing through”.


 The irony of hindsight would prove Cyril Davies right, for the British Blues Boom, of which he should have been the vanguard, meant that bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds would make Chicago Blues the jumping-off point for the Rock Revolution. But Cyril died on January 7, 1964 at the cruelly young age of 32.


 However, Alexis was causing alarm even among his advocates with the direction his band was taking. Jazz News published a sneering put entitled ‘All Mod Cons’. “Notice how the wheel has turned full circle in the R&B world? Alexis Korner’s mob, Blues Incorporated, more or less started life as a spot in Acker Bilk’s programme just under a year ago in Ipswich. The musicians were all either ex-Trad or direct from the early Blues part of the Jazz spectrum. The whole personnel has changed since then …Alexis used to threaten to write a number called ‘What Will The Boys Down Ronnie’s Think?’. If he goes on acquiring modern players at his present rate, there won’t be any of them left down there to think anything.”


Meanwhile, the new Blues Inc. set about cutting a single. On January 3rd, 1963, they went into Decca’s West Hampstead studios and recorded a number of songs, many of which have never seen the legitimate light of day. Just Two, ‘Night Time Is The Right Time’ and ‘Early In The Morning’, would appear on a compilation album, Rhythm & Blues, some eighteen months later. On the recommendation of Heckstatll-Smith, there was a new singer with the band, Ronnie Jones, stationed in England with the USAF, had a background in Gospel. “Alexis really wanted me to sing in the band,” Jones told Shapiro. “He told me he would pay my rail fare from the base and give me £3 each time so that I didn’t have to spend my Air Force pay. Shortly after I started the money went to 5.”


 Brave as they doubtless were, these tracks now sound very much of their time. Jones had a strong voice, but his reliance on the injection of one too many nows and the odd “yeah yeah yeah reduces the undoubted Live impact that his vocal style had. Graham Bond’s alto sax lets loose over the final verse and then takes a daringly modern note-splattering solo. Jack Bruce’s bass leads off the brooding ‘Early In The Morning’, with some tentative but persistent slide from Alexis, before the bass riff brings the tune to a close. Three weeks later, the band did a session for the BBC at the Paris Theatre, from which Rockin’’ is taken. After the theme statement, Bond once again lets rip for a brief solo, followed by 24 bars or so from pianist Johnny Parker. Sadly, this was all the world would hear of this particular group of musicians.


 Graham Bond was no mean organist, as well, and Alexis fell in with Bond’s idea of letting him, Ginger and Jack play intervals between Blues Inc. sets. Trouble was, this fed a hunger that turned into a need. After a relatively successful gig in Manchester, the trio left Blues Inc., took on guitarist John McLaughlin, and set off on adventures of their own. Alexis played the gentleman, but was deeply disappointed by their departure. He rebuilt his rhythm section with bassist Chris Thompson and the infamous, uncompromising but inspired Phil Seamen, Ginger Baker’s mentor, on drums. Seamen subsidised his heroin habit by doing sessions, but the other musicians shied away from his drumkit if he brought his dog with him, since it had a habit of urinating up their legs during a take. Invited to the control room to hear a playback one time, Seamen responded to producer Dick Rowe’s comment, “It really swings, don’t you think so, Phil?, with “Yeah, Dick. Like the Queen Mary sailing through a sea of Mars bars.”


Art Themen, a medical student whose skills became usefull in the inevitable emergencies that drug addicts find themselves in, took over the alto sax chair. Thompson, another heroin user, didn’t last long and was replaced by Mike Scott. Bad habits and a lack of money ensured that a lot of heated arguments whiled away the hours on the road. Alexis stared disaster in the face on an almost daily basis, but managed a professional smile onstage. Johnny Parker told Shapiro, “(Alexis) had great ambition but everything seemed to go wrong for various reasons. (He) was always juggling one account to pay another and the band always seemed to be the last in the queue.”


 And, there was always the question of a record deal.


 As part of his never-ending quest, Alexis met Joe Marsala, an American clarinet player who was working for the Seeburg Corporation in Chicago. Alexis worked his charm to such good effect that an agreement was made whereby Blue Inc. would provide the jukebox giants with an album’s worth of tracks, which they could distribute among their machines spread over the length and breadth of the United States. Three days in May 1963 were set aside at Lansdowne Studios for these recordings, to be produced by Vic Keary. But what emerged on May 12th, was probably not what either Marsala or Seeburg were expecting. Alexis had followed his brief, but the dozen riff-based instrumentals were neither easy to dance to, nor seduce the floozie on the next bar-stool to. Result; no deal. Then, two years later, Decca acquired the Seeburg catalogue and released Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated on Ace of Clubs, as a belated sequel to R&B From The Marquee. However, by now these recordings already sounded dated, and were reviewed essentially as collector’s curios.


 It all has to go down as a brave experiment. The tunes were put together by Alexis and Dick Heckstall-Smith over the course of one long night – the sole exception being Duke Ellington’s Dooji Wooji, itself a simple Blues (NB: the previous Blues Inc. line-up had recorded it as a demo back in September 1962). As a result, you’ll have to look elsewhere if you’re looking for a memorable melody. Most were riff-based arrangements, vehicles for blowing, the sort of thing the band would improvise at some point in an evening’s playing. ‘Blue Mink’ was intended as a tribute to Thelonius Monk’s epic ‘Blue Monk’, with as extra nod to Charlie Mingus. Alexis also added a fleeting reference to ‘Smokestack Lightning’ to a tune that never really takes flight.


 That was achieved during the album’s longest track, ‘Rainy Tuesday’, a slow Blues that probably contained the best of the few solos Alexis granted himself. ‘Yogi’ upped the tempo but maintained the quality, although you get the impression Johnny Paker wanted to take Alexis’ solo somewhere else. This is also one of several tracks that suffers from the under-recorded (or under-mixed) drums, which may be down to recording equipment rather than a producer’s ears – although it could also be Phil Seamen’s lightness of touch. He gets to wander at will around his kit behind Alexis’ bouzouki in PreachinThe Blues’ (which is roughly based on Muddy Water’s ‘I Be’s Troubled’), whilst the saxes indulge in some deliberately discordant harmonies in the background. Alexis’ slide playing is effective, but listeners might not have known the instrument it was played on if it hadn’t been mentioned on the sleeve. But then we’re all suckers for exotica.


 The obtuseness of ‘Chris Trundle’s Habit’, and the Trundlin’’ that follows it, was down to Johnny Paker’s trip to a urinal, the wall of which boasted a graffito declaring that said Trundle “fucks pigs”. Pork was never my favourite meat. Unsurprisingly, like ‘A Little Bit Groovy’, this is fundamentally a piano solo, in this case leading to Phil Seamen and the horns trading fours over the last couple of choruses.


 When the album was first released on CD, in 1996, the song ‘Taboo Man’ was a previously unissued addition. It’s a Pop-oriented ditty, consisting of a number of sexually boastful verses, altogether gentlemanly, in which Alexis politely suggested “I’ll make you roll in dirt and you won’t get hurt”. Good chap. A couple of further bonus sides appear here, one a rather over-energetic version of ‘See See Rider’, cut at Lansdowne on the first day of June 1963; the other, despite its title, ‘Blues A La King’, is in essence an out-take of ‘Navy Blue’, recorded a couple of weeks earlier. Like the Seeburg tracks, these side stayed on the shelf for a couple of years, before finally being paired up as a single on the independent King label, also in 1965.


 By the time that the bulk of these sides were issued, in 1965, there’d been a couple more Blues Incorporated albums and singles (check out At The Cavern [CMRCD1372] and Red Hot From Alex [CMRCD293]), along with a number of changes in personnel, including the departure of Dick Heckstall-Smith to greener (or more lucrative) pastures. Alexis was still at the helm of his ship of state – and it was still in something of a state. But since when hadn’t that been the case?


Neil Slaven



“Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated”