Terry Callier was until a few years ago one of too many forgotten figures. His folk-jazz recordings were long since deleted, his many songwriting credits went unnoticed and the man himself had given up music for the steadier finances of the world of computer programming. However in two of England’s many subcultural cliques his name was held in almost religious awe. On the Northern rare record scene his ‘70s recordings changed hands for silly prices, while in London’s acid jazz clubs tunes such as “Ordinary Joe” and “Dancing Girl” became mini-anthems. As a result of this Callier was coaxed across the Atlantic and teamed up with some of the ablest musicians on the club jazz circuit. The ensuing concerts, repeated yearly since 1995, were magical, devotional events—overwhelming for both the audience and, it seemed at times, for the Chicago singer-songwriter himself. His profile rose, the old material was re-issued and two albums of new songs were released.
There were problems though. The studio output (Timepiece and Lifetime) was only patchily successful. The voice, always achingly fragile, seemed to crack occasionally. Worst of all, familiarity started to breed not exactly contempt but a loss of the exclusivity that cult status demands. A backlash has set in and heretical voices have been increasingly heard. Terry is past it and perhaps he wasn’t ever that outstanding, the argument runs.
This album, recorded live at Callier’s second home—London’s Jazz Cafe, allows some sort of balance sheet to be drawn up. It is a pleasure to report that, though some reservations remain, Callier and his excellent band emerge in credit as far as talent and listening pleasure are concerned. It is a pity that a live album wasn’t released earlier, thus easing the pressure on new material which even in this friendlier setting pales in comparison to the back catalogue classics.
From the opening guitar signature to “Ordinary Joe” to the rousing crowd pleaser “I Don’t Wanna See Myself” it is an uneven but winning journey with those two tracks the highlights. “Ordinary Joe” is a great song and the live version matches both of the studio efforts. “See Myself” works best as a live number, and is helped greatly by Veronica Cowper’s atmospheric backing vocals. Her contribution throughout is faultless but the rest of the band are not far behind. Jim Mullen (of AWB and Morrissey-Mullen fame) on guitar, Chris Kibble (keys), Mark Edwards (piano) and Gary Plumley (sax and flute) cover themselves with glory at every opportunity and make even the weaker tracks bearable. The rhythm section of Dave Barnard (bass), Dave Trigwell drums and Bosco De Oliviera (percussion) get less chances to shine but are self-effacingly efficient at all times. This is a tight, jazz-driven outfit and I look forward to any solo project Ms. Cowper might undertake with this group around her.
The three newer tunes (“Step Into the Light”, “Lazarus Man” and “Lament For A.D.”) are all thoughtful, political statements of which the last works best musically although all three are easier on the ear than in their rather ponderous studio forms. “What Colour Is Love” stumbles a little and “Dancing Girl” hardly approaches the towering Chess/Cadet version. This is hardly a criticism as that is one of the great records of the ‘70s—an epic of jazz and soul poetry. “Candy Man” is the same friendly blues that it always was (it is a re-working of “C.C.Rider”) but it has never been a favourite track and the inclusion of “People Get Ready”, by former schoolmate Curtis Mayfield, is a fair enough tribute to the late genius but adds nothing to the Impressions original.The nearest thing to a failure, vocally rather than instrumentally, is “African Violet”, where Callier’s vocals waiver and lose authority.Cowper’s vocals and Plumley’s flute come to the rescue and by the climax of this powerful song everything is as it should be.
So, a good band with some fine tunes and a lead singer not at the peak of his powers but still capable of the occasional mesmerising moment. Not bad, but what about the concert feel, the charm of Terry Callier, the sense of occasion? If you have seen this group then it is easy to conjure up the special atmosphere these performances engender. If not, then I suspect this album will be a pleasant but not earth-shattering experience.For those coming late to Callier at least this is a better place to start than the last two albums.
It is probable that those of us who heard those comeback concerts were present at the last, late flowering of a remarkable artist rather than the re-birth of his talent. If so, that is a shame but there is enough magic on this album to show what the fuss was all about—some great tracks, a gentle, spiritual person, and some top-flight musical touches. We should be grateful for this album if only as a reminder of those precious commodities.