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Ian Carr
From Blue Beginnings to Old Heartland

by Howard Lawes

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With so many great gigs (approximately 400) available during the EFG London Jazz Festival it is sometimes just serendipity that leads the jazz fan to some great music. This was the case in choosing to go to Milton Court to hear Nikki Yeoh and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) play Nikki's compositions Speechmik X-ploration and then a new, NYJO commission called Nucleus dedicated to the late legendary Scottish trumpet player and educator Ian Carr. The show was introduced by another Scot, Luca Manning who like Ian Carr looks destined to take jazz in new directions. 

'Nucleus' was the name of Carr's ground-breaking fusion band that hit the headlines in 1970 when it took the top prize at the Montreux International Jazz Festival. After an interval, NYJO, directed by the irrepressible Mark Armstrong, played new arrangements of four of Ian Carr's compositions.  Carr was one of the few jazz composers of his era to include strings in his music, as in the album Old Heartland, and this cohort of NYJO included a string quartet. The music sounded like it could have been composed yesterday, such was its contemporary sound that highlights the innovation and originality that Carr brought to his music plus of course, the excellent arranging by members of NYJO.

Ian Carr was born in Dumfries, southwest Scotland, but grew up in Northumberland and studied the piano as a teenager.  He was also very keen on literature and it was English that he studied as an undergraduate in Newcastle but as it turned out he was able to follow both music and literature as careers. After National Service and travelling in Europe, Ian became a teacher in Newcastle and also established himself in the local music scene, playing in his brother's band, the EmCee 5, but he was nearly 30 before moving to London where his music career really flowered by virtue of being the joint leader of the Don Rendell / Ian Carr Quintet.  This legendary band had Don Rendell on saxophones, Ian Carr on trumpet and flugelhorn, Colin Purbrook on piano, Dave Green on bass and Trevor Tomkins on drums. They released their first album, Blue Beginnings, in 1964 and it is considered to have marked a watershed in European modern jazz. It signified a departure from both the traditional New Orleans revival that had become popular in Britain and contemporary American jazz. It was re-released in 2021. The album is available here where you can also listen to the track Blue Doom.

Here is a video of the Quintet with Michael Garrick at the piano

playing Pavane at the Antibes Jazz Festival in 1968:

Apart from Michael Garrick taking over the piano stool in 1965, the Don Rendell / Ian Carr Quintet remained unchanged for several years and produced a series of remarkable albums.  Following on from Blue Beginnings there is Shades of Blue (1965), Dusk Fire (1966), Phase 3 (1967), Live (1968)  and Change Is (1969).  To this list can be added a recording that only came to light relatively recently when drummer Trevor Tomkins donated his personal archive for posterity and which has been released as Warm Up : The Complete Live at the Highwayman 1965 (2022).  During the 1960s Ian Carr often played with bands led by Michael Garrick and Joe Harriott.  He can also be heard on big band recordings playing with the New Jazz Orchestra, the Harry South Big Band and the Stan Tracey Big Brass. In 1969 Ian Carr and Don Rendell went their separate ways and Carr, along with Karl Jenkins, founded the group 'Nucleus'.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were exciting times in popular music. As so often happens, American super-stars such as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock received much of the acclaim for the new genre which came to be known as 'Fusion', but in the UK a whole host of outstanding musicians developed a parallel scene on their own terms with little reference to America. The so-called 'Canterbury Scene' included bands such as Soft Machine and Caravan while other bands like Colosseum (led by drummer Jon Hiseman) combined jazz and rock music to become commercially successful. Soft Machine, having toured America and supported Jimi Hendrix had to re-form back in the UK before releasing Volume Two (1969) and Third (1970), the latter widely considered to be their best album which set the tone for British jazz-rock fusion.


Here is a video of Nucleus playing in 1972. For about the first five minutes the video features Dave McCrea on Fender Rhodess and Roy Babbington bass before Ian Carr comes in to take over on trumpet followed by Karl Jenkins on oboe..

In 1970, Nucleus released Elastic Rock featuring Ian Carr (trumpet, flugelhorn), Karl Jenkins (baritone saxophone,  oboe, piano, electric piano), Brian Smith (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute), Chris Spedding (guitar), Jeff Clyne (bass) and John Marshall (drums). In those heady days, contemporary jazz and emerging talent were frequently featured on BBC radio,  Ian Carr was a regular presenter, and the Rendell-Carr Quintet and then Nucleus were often featured on mainstream programming.  The BBC, as the national broadcaster in the UK, entered Nucleus into the European Broadcasting Union competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival and Ian Carr's band took the first prize, part of which included representing Montreux at the Newport Jazz Festival in the USA.  Elastic Rock (listen here) is considered a milestone in Fusion that demonstrates a refusal to recognise rigid boundaries between musical genres and delivers a “total musical experience”.  Along with Soft Machine, Colosseum and others Nucleus ensured that British Fusion music was among the world leaders.


In the years that followed Nucleus frequently changed personnel but under Ian Carr's leadership maintained a consistently high standard. Following Elastic Rock releases included We'll Talk About It Later (1971), Solar Plexus (1971), Belladonna (1972), Labyrinth (1973), Roots (1973), Under The Sun (1974), Snakehips Etcetera (1975), Alleycat (1975), In Flagrante Delicto (1977), Out Of The Long Dark (1979) and Awakening (1980).  In the late 1970s, Ian Carr joined the United Jazz Rock Ensemble which was based in Germany.  The band included a significant British contingent with Kenny Wheeler on trumpet alongside Ian, Barbara Thompson on saxophones and Jon Hiseman on drums. Ian Carr remained with this remarkable band until 2002 when there was a farewell tour. In the 1980s there was less to hear from Nucleus but Old Heartland (1988) with its string quartet among the musicians harks back nostalgically to Carr's upbringing in Northumberland.  This album, with its pastoral feel,  also marks a departure from that jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s.

Listen to the lovely title track Old Heartland with Ian Carr (trumpet, flugelhorn) - Phil Todd (soprano sax, clarinet) - Mark Wood (electric guitar, acoustic guitar) - Geoff Castle (keyboards) - Dill Katz (bass) - Mo Foster (bass) - John Marshall (drums) - Steve Berry (double bass) and the Kreisler String Orchestra:

As well as composing and performing jazz Ian Carr presented radio programmes for around 40 years and a complete list of his work can be found here. As an author, he wrote Music Outside: Contemporary Jazz in Britain (1973, 2nd edition 2008), Miles Davis (1982) which was followed by Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography (1999), Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music (1991), and as co-author Jazz: The Essential Companion (1988) and The Rough Guide to Jazz (2004).  Award-winning arts documentary film-maker Mike Dibb collaborated with Ian Carr to create a film, The Miles Davis Story, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2001 which is available here


As an educator, Ian Carr was an associate professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and also used to run Jazz Workshops at the Weekend Arts College, which is where the pianist Nikki Yeoh first benefitted from his teaching. In 2006 a book, authored by Alyn Shipton, was published called Out of the Long Dark: The Life of Ian Carr, and in the same year Ian Carr won the BBC Jazz Award for services to jazz but sadly, by the time he came to collect his award Ian Carr was showing the first signs of dementia and he died in 2009. In the last few years of his life, many of his best albums were re-released as the originals were few and far between and attracted very high prices. In 2010 another book was published, authored by Roger Farbey, and called Elastic Dream : The Music of Ian Carr. Roger Farbey has also set up a website here dedicated to the man and his music.

Ian Carr was an outstanding figure in music who along with others helped to establish a uniquely British style of jazz that was and continues to be widely admired.  Nikki Yeoh has performed a great service to contemporary jazz fans in bringing to their attention a hero of British jazz and helping to reveal what a rich jazz history exists in this country.

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Ian Carr and Don Rendell

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