Karl Jenkins: Penumbra II (Jazz in Britain)

There’s a whole wave of unreleased material of fabulous vintage being unearthed across at Jazz in Britain and ‘Penumbra II’, in addition to being of  clear interest to readers of this blog, might be one of the best yet. Dating from a lost radio broadcast from 1971, not long before Karl Jenkins jumped ship from Nucleus to join Soft Machine, this is a suite in three parts cumulatively clocking in at 30 minutes, (the length of a contemporary radio broadcast at that time). And it contains both musical styles and personnel common to both groups around this time, albeit that Jenkins somewhat turns the tables in that as bandleader and composer, Ian Carr (here on flugelhorn) is one of his subordinates (rather than vice versa as things were in Nucleus).

Chris Spedding

As detailed in Aymeric Leroy’s typically thorough and incisive sleevenotes, this session was so buried in Jenkins’ memory banks that he hadn’t been able to recall it in a conversation for the ‘L’Ecole de Canterbury book’ around 20 years ago (that was rectified for a more recent conversation specifically for this release, snippets of which appear within the 16 page booklet) – that’s perhaps surprising given the coherence and significance of this excellent performance. The 10-piece collective performing ‘Penumbra II’ is peppered with familiar names: Jenkins, Roy Babbington, John Marshall, Ray Warleigh and Alan Skidmore all had, or would have connections with Soft Machine; Dave MacRae would go on to play with Matching Mole; Brian Smith and Chris Spedding also appeared with Nucleus.  Whilst the opening movement, a 4 minute introduction, is really just a scene setter, the centrepiece is the wonderful second movement, particularly once it breaks out of a beautiful Macrae-led piano trio melody (on which Roy Babbington plays double bass). Babbington switches to electric bass and the piece is built around his admirably metronomic groove as the various band members whirl around him. Star of the show may well be the deft licks of guitarist Spedding but there are wonderful crescendos, strident blares, muted responses and exultant solos from the 4 strong brass section, as well as hints of later, more exotic Nucleus grooves, thanks to the augmentation of Frank Ricotti’s  marimba and congas to Marshall’s backbeat. This ambience of this piece is reminiscent of the wonderful laid-back detachment of 1970’s ‘Elastic Rock’, held in glorious suspension whilst tension rises slowly, is released, then builds again…

John Marshall

Whilst the highlight is undoubtedly this 19 minute second movement, the third movement will be instantly familiar to Soft Machinists, with a somewhat different version of what would become ‘Fanfare’ on Soft Machine ‘6’. At the risk of alienating a significant number of people here, I’ve always regarded the 6/7 era as a slightly muted affair, where for all the notable underpinning themes, the soloing sometimes seemed strangely soulless, stripped of the unpredictability of its predecessors, with ‘Fanfare’, with its flattened saxophone theme the embodiment of that approach. If that is indeed the case, then the version here is its antithesis: a multi-faceted blast with fluid soloing and upbeat interjections all around the room – its conclusion might be somewhat messy but is symptomatic of a rather joyous addition to our collections.

Roy Babbington


One thought on “Karl Jenkins: Penumbra II (Jazz in Britain)”

  1. Just for accuracy’s sake, the booklet has nearly my entire conversation with Karl rather than “snippets” – the interview was marred by technical issues on my side which required a lot of patience on Karl’s behalf, and after I kept him waiting three times for my computer to reboot, only to let us down again and again, I decided what I had would have to make do. It worked out pretty well, I think, in the end.


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