The 60s bands of UK born John Mayall are legendary for being the workshop where some of the eras most revered guitarists honed their chops. Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Eric Clapton (Cream) and Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones) all served under the benign yet exacting blues baton of Mr Mayall.
Yet by the end of the decade, John wanted—needed, even—a change. Essentially, he cut the power to his band, substituting the subtle acoustic guitar of Jon Mark for electric soaring, expanding the role of the multi-skilled Johnny Almond (ex-Zoot Money, Alan Price) on saxes and flute, retaining Steve Thompson on bass and ditching drums all together.
It was a spare, swinging, acoustically delicate band, captured superbly on the album The Turning Point (recorded live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, NYC, on 12th July 1969).
If you are not sure about ‘pure’ blues, this album is a winsome entry-point. Similarly, its jazz stylings (Almond was a jazz player, first and foremost) are blended into the modern blues context beautifully. It is a seductive record, not least because it sounds like the band are really enjoying playing together. Certainly they gelled very quickly as a unit.
Jon Mark and Johnny Almond enjoyed the experience so much that they went on to form their own band, the eponymously named Mark-Almond (not to be confused with Mr Tainted Love). This smooth unit recorded a number of soft-rock albums in the 70s, records we might visit at some point to explore their breathy vocals and jazz-infused arrangements.
But for now, it is a record in between these two phases that I want to feature. It’s an upbeat jazz LP Johnny Almond made in the US, and which was released with fabulous (uncredited) cover art on the Deram label in 1970.
The Johnny Almond Music Machine is a slightly odd title for a pickup jazz unit, suggesting as it does something carefully designed and constructed, but there’s nothing odd about the music. Five of the eight titles were composed by Almond and delivered in straight-ahead, honest jazz-blues style.
The cover of Ray Charles’ “Hot Rod” is a ripper, roaring along with tenor solos from Almond and Curtis Amy plus an organ blast from Charles Kynard. The most famous name in the group is guitarist Joe Pass, relaxed and clearly enjoying himself on these blues-based tunes. Lesser known names include Ms Vi Redd on alto sax (two tracks) and Hadley Caliman (tenor and flute). Johnny Almond’s flute gets a work-out too, providing nice tonal variation.
Hollywood Blues in an unpretentious yet satisfying LP that breaks no new ground, but brings a fresh energy to familiar territory. At times I’m reminded of Booker T and the MGs—high praise, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s that satisfying thing: an upbeat jazz-blues record that just wants you to have a good time. Hollywood Blues will blow your blues away.
I remember buying this LP sometime in the mid-80s. A small record store in Ascot Vale run by a little man who honed his retail chops in Newsagents. Having no knowledge of music, he found a knowledgeable and friendly music fan to staff the store when he was elsewhere.
Angela was (and is) interested in many types of music and lovely to chat to. Quite often, around afternoon tea time on her work days, I’d wander in with a packet of biscuits for a cuppa and a yarn. Sometimes others would appear too, including her equally music obsessed hubby. We all became friends.
Occasionally this friendship resulted in a tip-off that some interesting new stock had arrived. One such lead found me crouched over half-a-dozen plastic crates out the back of the shop, wedged between the filthy sink and a pile of mouldering cardboard boxes. Angela kept the kettle clean but refused to tackle the sink. Very sensible, I always thought. Not that I noticed the hazards on this particular day, the records were too interesting; mostly US imports from the 70s and well beyond the usual Top 40 fare. I bought Johnny Almond, the excellent live Little Feat double Waiting For Columbus and a really good John Mayall 2LP set called Back To The Roots. And doubtless other titles that time has erased from my mental spreadsheet. The shop went pear-shaped eventually, but they were good days.
Music and memories…