March 25, 2014

"A perfectly ordinary 15-guinea violoncello". The Brian Meredith interview (part one).

Finally, as promised, here's the first part of an exclusive interview with one of the most mysterious men behind the Third Ear Band story: cellist Brian Meredith.
Now 69 and living in Southern California (USA), he's been so kind as to contact me through this Archive just to share his memories about the past, the very beginning of the Third Ear Band... The meeting with Sweeney and Minns, his playing for 16 months with the band (though apparently no recordings exist!), the relations with Clive Kingsley and his loud electric guitar... Another big mystery revealed!

Brian Meredith nowdays.

What do you recall about your first meeting with Glen Sweeney?

"I first met Glen in 1962. Glen Sweeney and Carolyn Looker and I all had jobs at Liberty of London, which is an old upscale department store where celebrities like to shop.
Glen helped the salespeople in the furniture department move their things around. Beautiful Carolyn worked in the beauty department. She sold makeup or nylons, I forget which. I was an art school dropout at the time who was selling suitcases in Liberty's luggage department.

The day Glen and I first talked music, I was excited to have been showing some cases to the American jazz pianist Erroll Garner. He had asked me to show him a steamer trunk and I'd hurried downstairs to blow the dust off the only one we had in storage.

I doubt Glen and I even knew each other's names. To me, he was just some hip-looking little dude I'd seen lurking about in Liberty's basement. But to get that one great steamer trunk upstairs, I asked Glen if he'd please help.
Well, during the huffing and puffing that followed, I seem to remember our chat rapidly shifting from Erroll Garner to Lennie Tristano and on to Cecil Taylor. Maybe Glen even name-dropped Sun Ra. Glen was big on Sun Ra.

The legendary Sun Ra.
Glen definitely let me know he was actually a professional drummer with an R&B band. Well, two nights a week he was. I remember because, being very much an amateur, I was impressed. I told Glen I played a bit of piano and cello in a 'free jazz' quartet. Well, weekends I did.

Anyway, Luca, here's where we must bid farewell to the late great Erroll Garner's special guest appearance in my answer to your interview question. No, he didn't buy that big trunk from me that day, but he did help Glen and I get acquainted.

After that, I began seeing Glen and Carolyn as a couple around town. Carolyn's sister, as it so happened, had begun dating a pal I used to hang out with named Geoff Wood. Geoff was the multi-instrumentalist leader of that amateur jazz group I was a part of back in '62. I'm pleased to be able to add that he has remained a good friend to this day". 

When did you join Geoff Wood's group?
"Well, it was more like we joined each other. I mean we were just four teenaged friends who each played an instrument or two. We simply hoped that playing them together as well as we could might make something akin to jazz come out. And sometimes it did. 

Brian Meredith (left) and Geoff Wood (right) in 1962.

By the way, the rest of us saw Geoff as our best player, so we made him our leader in case we needed one someday. I'm thinking this was 1959...".

Was the jazz you played based on 'hard bop' style? Tell me more...

"'Hard bop' made a big impact on us. For example, We'd been fans of The Jazz Couriers in the late 1950s. Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott moulded that U.K. band in the hard bop style that Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers had put their stamp on in the U.S.

By the time our own group started getting together, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Lacy and Eric Dolphy were all key figures whose styles had excited us.
Then again, the four of us all loved the 'chamber jazz' groups that Chico Hamilton formed in the '50s. He had Fred Katz at first on cello, then Nate Gershman. They really interested me.
And we quickly became immersed in Gunther Schuller's 'third stream' music with the Modern Jazz Quartet.The MJQ had always been wonderful, but this was introducing quite a new twist.
Right around the turn of that '50s decade, along came Ornette Coleman with his 'free jazz' recordings. And, a split-second later, Joe Harriott in the U.K. was showing us the brand new direction he wanted to take. I'm talking about his 'free form' jazz recordings. They were superb, I thought. Still do.

Not more than a year or so later, you'd have found The Geoff Wood Quartet absorbing Bud Shank's collaboration with Ravi Shankar. It seemed like there was simply no stopping jazz at all! That was a tremendous period, and we kept lapping it up. It all influenced us". 

The Geoff Wood Quartet in 1960: Geoff Wood (alto sax, flute, piano), Oliver Chadwick (clarinet, basset horn), Dave Lawrence (drums, percussion), Brian Meredith (cello, piano, glockenspiel).

Where are you playing in these photos of that quartet? Are you on some boat? 

"We were playing aboard a motorised houseboat on the Norfolk Broads that we had rented that summer. We lived on it for a week and played every day. That's another delightful memory, Luca.
We had created our very own little jazz cruise. We'd had ourselves a sunny holiday that was all about making music and lazily chugging our way around some pretty waterways. Geoff Wood and I were talking just recently about what a pleasure that experience had been".

Did The Geoff Wood Quartet perform anywhere?
"Yes, we did perform anywhere... anywhere there wouldn't be an audience to disturb us. Look, we were very realistic amateurs, Luca. None of us were Mingus or Monk. None of us were Coltrane or Elvin Jones. No, we were just keen teens trying to hear ourselves make a kind of music now and then that, even when it is made by geniuses, scares a lot of people away.
Seriously, whether people would have described us as making music or making a racket, we just wanted somewhere to make it. So we'd very often exploit the acoustics in my parents' kitchen. I still can't quite believe how my folks could have been quite so forgiving.
Sometimes before sunset, though, we'd meet up and carry a few instruments with us into a thickly wooded area near where we all lived. Then we'd split up and stroll off among the trees, moving just far enough away to be out of sight of each other. Apart from bird calls, we'd be surrounded by silence. And then we'd begin to play. 

The late Oliver Chadwick (in phone box) goofing around with Brian Meredith in 1960.

All these years later, Luca, I get a tingle just recalling those sessions. Being really responsive to the music flowing from one another's instruments is such a rich experience under any circumstances. However, being 'in the moment' musically while being a part of that kind of natural environment was always special.
Anyway, enough about this. After a few short years of musical get-togethers, we all relocated and became involved in careers or romances or... well, whatever else that was waiting for us. Let's move on, Luca".

Returning to our main story... what about Paul Minns? When did you first meet Paul?

"Paul Minns and I first knew each other in the 1950s. We were both pupils at the City of London School, which was still located on Victoria Embankment in those days.

Paul and I weren’t classmates, but we were around the same age and had somehow discovered we were both Miles Davis fans. Every now and then we'd find each other in the schoolyard or lunchroom just long enough to natter about whatever jazz had grabbed us since we'd last talked.
Paul was more scholarly than I was. I know I came to associate him mostly with classical music and being very serious about everything. He would be off playing oboe with the school orchestra, I remember, while I'd be sitting in the lectures of the school's jazz society".  

A very rare picture of Brian and Glen Sweeney (behind) playing on stage in 1967. He tells: "Carolyn Looker may recall that, once she had designed, cut and sewn all our band uniforms, Glen picked one of our first 1967 club appearances to have a photographer take a whole bunch of pictures of us from various angles. This was one of those shots".
So when did you all start playing music together?

"That wasn't until the spring of 1967. Paul and Glen and I all met up one day in Notting Hill, which is where we all rented bed-sitting rooms, and Glen explained that he was thinking of forming a new group.
He said he was curious how the three of us might sound playing with a guitarist from Earls Court that they both knew. I realise now that the three of them already knew how they might sound playing together. This was all about auditioning me.

None of us were working just then, so Glen just went ahead and booked us some time in a rehearsal space a day or two later. I showed up with my cello, and, along with Carolyn, Glen was there on drums, Paul on oboe, and Clive Kingsley on electric guitar.

I don't recall if Glen just played hand drums during that first session or if he used some part or all of a kit. I do remember that an hour or two later, when we were packing up our instruments, there was quite a lot of satisfaction being expressed. We all felt we might be at the start of something that could work.

Then, before we had any club dates or Carolyn had come up with the name for our group or any of that, we made sure we got together and played regularly. We did that for probably close to three months. I was always surprised at how efficient Glen was at finding rehearsal spaces that cost us little or nothing during that period".  

Who composed the first tracks of the band? Was it Clive Kingsley, as he stated recently during an interview with me, or was it a collective effort?

"Well, Luca, here’s what I think. Without Glen or Paul being around any longer to perhaps take issue with what Clive, rightly or wrongly, believes, I think I’ll leave this one alone. I know that I personally stake no claim whatsoever to any of the tracks the group ever recorded, nor any of the compositions they continued to play after I left the group,

Clive Kingsley in 2009.
In case it might be of interest, however, here's how I remember our music most often coming into being.

We'd find a theme and then just work it and work it. Pretty much any time we reapproached a piece that was becoming part of our repertoire we'd be trying to refine its shape or perhaps soften or sharpen its mood. Sometimes these pieces were based on nothing more than a fragment of melody or a brief riff, yet we found they were enough for us to take as a motif we could improvise over. And let me get some praise into print here for those hand drums of Glen’s that underscored everything. Glen’s beat never faltered.

Anyway, in the course of developing what I’ve just been describing, one or other of us would give these musical pieces names. I shall leave this subject on that note".

Who was leading the band in the earliest days?

"Glen was always the leader, and from an organisational point of view I wouldn't have wanted it otherwise. He was a hipster and he was a hustler. He made the contacts, got us the gigs, got stuff done. We looked to him in those areas. Glen was both the man with the vision and 'the man with the plan'. It would have been nice if he’d shared that vision and that plan with the rest of us, but you can’t have everything. What hustler is ever really open with you? But I digress.

Another way I might answer your question about leadership is like this. Some drummers who become group leaders always provide that particular musical voice that characterises any bands they lead. The drummer Chico Hamilton, who passed away just months ago, springs to mind as that kind of leader. But for me, in the case of our group, no matter what the rest of us were contributing musically, the essential voice of TEB was Paul's.

Paul Minns live on stage in 1970.
The sound of Paul's oboe was so distinctive. It was wholly, unarguably pure. So I felt from the start that if audiences were going to be responsive to what what we were doing, Paul would be the primary reason. Solely in that sense, Paul was almost leading us by default. But perhaps I’m just muddying my answer here, because I don’t want to give the impression Paul ever directed us. He didn’t. Though in retrospect, perhaps he should have.

There were times we all sounded like we desperately needed a leader of any description. In fact, to my ears, and probably to too many audiences, we too often sounded like crap".

What kind of cello did you have?

"My cello was a perfectly ordinary violoncello that I'd bought at a provincial musical instrument store. I still remember exactly how much money I had to save up as a schoolboy to buy it. It cost 15 guineas.
But you're probably asking about my cello's 'electrification' or electronic add-ons. In that regard, I give a lot of credit to Glen Sweeney. It was Glen’s prompting that got me to see how I might transform the cello's sound at all. I'd only been around acoustic instruments previously, so I was a complete dummy.

Here's what happened. Once the four of us began playing gigs, Glen quickly became concerned about the loudness of Clive Kingsley’s electric guitar-playing. Part of what was bothering him, he said, was how Clive kept drowning out my bowed passages. As a counter measure, Glen hooked me up with a contact microphone to try out. Wow! I'd adhere the mic to the body of my cello at the start of each performance and, arco or pizzicato, it was now hear this! That was a major change for me right there.

So then I began wondering what other possibilities needed to be explored. Glen was kind of nudging me to get curious, and I was taking the hint.
I started checking out the new guitar accessories that were showing up in the Charing Cross Road music stores. I certainly don't recall anything anymore about what amp or pre-amp configuration I ended up with on stage. I couldn’t even tell you now how many effects pedals I may have experimented with.

But I do remember how precious to me my phaser and fuzz box became. I absolutely do remember those little sweethearts. They enabled me to introduce sounds on the cello unlike anything else being heard. Sure, at times they let me get away with murder, but oh boy, I loved it!".

(end of part one)

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