Courtney Pine belongs to a generation of jazz musicians born in England (in his case in 1964) to parents born in the Caribbean. The great immigration of Gastarbeiters arrived by ship to fill a lot of jobs in Britain from the late 1940s onward. By the early 1980s the immense musical abilities of the very young Pine had emerged publicly from a very rich immigrant musical culture—by way of an overlap with the contemporary jazz to which Pine made such a notable contribution.
His earlier music-making has been compared with that of his contemporary Wynton Marsalis. There’s a basis for comparison between this recording and the music of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and what its leader has been doing of late with and without that band (I reserve comment on at least some of his public verbal statements, and express reservations about related deliveries from Stanley Crouch).
Wynton the Musician has become concerned with remedying a disconnection between general, often misinformed awareness (both on the part of musicians and that of the public) and music of more-than-transient ephemeral worth. A major element in this is actually making such music. Courtney Pine has become concerned not so entirely with the same music—although he has broadcast on BBC Radio on the history of jazz. He has been working for some years within a matrix of the community music of the ethnic population he grew up in.
This is why Devotion is of only occasional jazz interest.
Pine does use the commonplace contemporary electronic kit, obviously on an opener less than one minute long, with a sort of hip-hop dialogue over propeller aircraft noises. But he’s not so far at times from the Stax sound of the very young Shepp. The second track is close to an Arethra Franklin performance with electronic aid in the backing, but with Pine’s solo soprano sax in the singer’s place. It’s a well-sustained but not remarkably creative saxophone feature. I suppose it’s a noisier version of unsmooth “easy listening” (a term applied by one hack with reference to Paul Motian’s performance of Broadway tunes with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell—kind of me to call him no worse than a hack!).
Ska and reggae are part of Pine’s musical matrix, at times there’s just more roughness, more volume and extroversion, than on a recent Telarc disc of Monty Alexander with Ernest Ranglin. (Like the earlier Caribbean jazzmen of Britain, from Bertie King to Joe Harriott, Ranglin lived in London as an immigrant musician rather than a musician from within an immigrant community),
All the music here relies on a consistent and insistent rhythmic background. There are three guest vocalists, each on one number. I take Telarc’s word that their performances differ somewhat from their other work—and agree that their performances are more than satisfactory: especially the velvety gospel-influenced singing. The electronics simulate strings behind another singer, elsewhere they are mainly if maybe not entirely responsible for some croaky neo-Stax saxophone section accompaniments. For quite a bit the keyboard is played in effective R&B-cum-Soul style. Pine’s invariably accomplished saxophone solos belong for the most part to that nearly venerable genre, as performed by musicians rather than sax-honkers unable to manage more.
There is use of sitar and other Indian instrumentation on a few tracks—not to make music ambitious like the John Mayer Indo-Jazz collaboration with Joe Harriott, but to incorporate Asian elements just as Bebop jazz had its Cuban inclusions. The naturalising of the Indian instruments produces colour and variety rather than any challenge to the listener. But only an enormous musical competence could have worked this: a lot of trouble and some exercise of mind.
Any notion that Pine is somehow just selling out really ignores his musical context and his range of options. Another veteran British saxophone master, Lol Coxhill, has alternated sessions of free unaccompanied blowing with gigs using the saxophone-echoing-doubling technology Pine here uses on a non-routine basis to good effect. The non-routine aspect of Lol Coxhill’s use of the equipment was that it happened on a “Glenn Miller” band tour from which the baritone saxophonist was missing. If I mention such Englishmen as Andy Sheppard (who plays with Carla Bley and has like Pine worked with George Russell) and Dave O’Higgins and the different, versatile Alan Barnes, it’s because I question Telarc’s hype in calling Pine the UK’s top saxophonist, certainly here. I’m not sure he is, but though he has a claim on the title it’s his wider musical abilities which were relevant here. There really isn’t all that much of sheer jazz interest on Devotion.
From a High Jazz viewpoint he’s popularising, addressing a lot of strictly instrumental music in extended performance to a wider audience commonly not given enough song without words. The presence of a trumpeter and a trombonist on two tracks does raise the jazz level of his playing, but I wish Telarc had let me know who the players are. If the trombonist isn’t Annie Whitehead I’m still very happy to recommend her own recordings anyway.
Some of the R&B which crossed water from the USA—and enthused Caribbeans from the 1940s on both sides of the Atlantic—didn’t make much call on musicians’ gifts. Here, where we don’t simply have record producers trying to turn a few dollars; the musicianship is decidedly superior and shows a wide extent of its roots. There are indeed longtime familiar things among all the rest, but no cheap or hackneyed tricks.
The penultimate title has some nice conventional jazz guitar and very respectable preaching trombone, and as is often the case it segues interestingly into what follows. Here it’s flutes, at least partly artificial, over organ. The slow dance subsides peacefully like a waltz at the end of a dance. This is I suppose really the heart of an evening performance by Courtney Pine’s showband, recorded under studio conditions to ensure concision, avoid longeurs and repetition. See reviews on www.amazon.co.uk for interesting reactions to the English issue of this set last year, in relation to Pine’s related touring gigs. If you go for the R&B instrumentals of long ago you could be very happy with this. Funk, R&B, Latin Jazz, and other interests on the edge of the jazz mainstream are variously served in this addition to an edge of jazz series of issues from Telarc: represented variously by John Pizzarelli’s bossa music and the Alexander-Ranglin collaboration. It breaks down barriers, not by connecting with the range of jazz, but with a mixture of Caribbean and jazz and contemporary mass-appeal music naturalised within Pine’s native community. Very definitely produced by musicians rather than big business marketeers, with Pine’s high profile in his native land it might just render less mixed jazz much less remote than it is to some listeners.