Monday, March 7, 2011

Mark-Almond – S/T

It’s Sunday night, a mug of java at my side, a computer open before me and a seemingly endless litany of paperwork to take care of.  Not complaining mind you, just setting the mood.  For tonight, I need something smooth, something organic, but warm with soul and texture.  I peruse the massive stacks of vinyl that seem to take up nearly every square inch of my office, searching for that perfect sound. The perfect accompaniment to tonight’s plan.

My fingers flip through album after album.  Many, like Riot or Triumph are just too loud for tonight.  Some, like Nilsson, are too soft.  Some, like Kraftwerk, are just too processed.  I need something real.  Earthy.  Jazzy.  Something organic.

Then my fingers stumble upon this slightly scuffed, definitely ripped and tattered, dollar-bin find, and the moment crystallizes in awareness.

Mark-Almond is the one.

Not to be confused with Marc Almond, the former lead singer of Soft Cell, Mark-Almond featured two John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers alum, Jon Mark on guitar/vocals and Johnny Almond, on sax, flute and harmony vocals. Fleshed out by Tommy Eyre on piano, flute and guitar, and Rodger Sutton on Bass, Mark-Almond fashioned a respectable career for themselves across the Atlantic during the ‘70’s, but, as is so often the case, failed to translate that success Stateside.  And that’s simply too bad because Mark-Almond is a lost treasure, a long-forgotten masterpiece of jazzy-fusion, rock and soul.   If you like the jazzier textures of Van Morrison, or the songwriting depth of Al Stewart, or the sophisticated jazzy touch of Steely Dan, then this is something you need to check out.

Beginning with “The Ghetto,” they just don’t write em like this anymore.  Spartan piano and hushed, whispered vocals tread languidly over the gentle jazz beat.  But surely, it builds.  The piano picks up in tempo, the keys hit harder, and Jon Mark unleashes a full-on fury of understated, yet gospel-inflicted, soulful vocals.  Bring in a gorgeous, smoky sax solo, and some jazz-club-worthy stand up bass work and we’re really onto something.  There’s more soul in this one song than in a thousand “songs” produced by Timbaland or any other innocuous purveyor of dredge today.  Most importantly, Mark-Almond give the song plenty of time to breathe, to grow, to mature at its own pace.  Silence and the space between notes are just as important to the composition as are the notes themselves.  For my Sunday evening, it just couldn’t be any better.  Jazzy, soulful, and still a rock and roll heart. 

I was just reading in Classic Rock Magazine about Mick Taylor, the enigmatic guitarist who “dared” to leave the Stones, and how he got his start as a 17 year-old guitarist with John Mayall.  He praised Mayall's tutelage at turning him into a musician.  Before him, Mayall had Eric Clapton and Peter Green.  Somewhere along the way he had Mark and Almond.  Talk about a scout for talent!  Another master performer who’s success never really translated to the States, based on this album alone, I know I need to go back and explore more of Mayall’s catalog.

Just as “The Ghetto” ends, “The City” begins.  An eleven minute, thirty second, multi-part, latin-tinged, jazz epic.  Again, Mark’s vocals are understated, but perfect for the song.  This is about as close as a rock band can get to a smoky, underground jazz club flair.  The whole song just kinda saunters with an unrushed, sultry soul.  Almond’s sax is incredible here, like the sound of a man making love to the woman of his dreams.  It moans and purrs.  Meanwhile, the latin soul dances on, percolating with a rhumba beat.   When Sutton brings in his improvised bass solo, I’m in heaven.  Pour me a martini, let me stare at the woman in red at the end of the bar.  Let me pretend I’m cool.  Just for a moment, I'm cool.

Don’t go to Mark-Almond looking to rock out.  Some will undoubtedly find the album too slow, particularly if they’re using the Mayall’s Bluesbreakers as their jumping off point.  While there are blues in this album, it’s not a blues album.  Rather, Mark-Almond struts a smooth path of pure jazz, art rock fusion.  It's a prog album of it's own sort.   “Tramp and the Young Girl,” is a bass-led ballad of such authentic jazz that it could’ve been hidden on Roberta Flack’s amazing first album.

The multi-part suite “Love”, another 11 minute extended, jazz improvisation kicks off with some beautifully picked flamenco-styled guitar that quickly melts into a flute and guitar acoustic passage of near classical elegance.   Then, just when you think the song may be getting too precious, that bass-- that huge, slap-happy, stand-up bass-- comes trodding back home, leading us down the beat-jazz path once again.  Almond picks up the vibe sticks and lays down something that’d make Milt Jackson proud, while that bass just keeps on going on, and on.  Then the vocals come in.  Not understated this time.  Not hushed.  These are full-throated, and raw, painfully soulful, backed up by a killer sax.  We’re rocking this time.  Full on rock mode, but still carefully hidden in the context of jazz.  Amazing. 

Rock, jazz, and blues all melt together once the harmonica comes out and the song gets a bit dirty.  A bit funky.  This is a jam, my friends.  A clinic in musical dexterity from classical to jazz to rock to blues without ever losing itself up it’s own ass.  “Song for You,” brings on a slow-burning, gospel vibe to the slapped bass and emphatic vocal.  This is the most underground beat club cut on the album, nearly subversive in it’s intensity.

Perhaps not an album for every mood.  It certainly doesn’t “rock” in the classic sense.  But for my Sunday night, it simply couldn’t a been better.


Buy here: Mark-Almond


Mighty High said...

Racer's taking us to school! Nice one.

NorCal MINIs said...

This was one of my favorite albums growing up. I learned to play "The City" because it is a wonderful jazzy jam piece that is easily played with other musicians. In the late 70's Mark-Almond used to play a coffeehouse in Solana Beach, CA. The audience sat on old couches and recliners as the boys played. Always a great time. Thanks for this blast from the past.

Penfold said...

Taking us to school indeed! Do I get a late pass thanks to not being born before this album's release? No? Really? Fine then...I'll take a listen anyway. See if I don't! Oh wait...I can track down my parent's doctor. He can give me a doctor's note. That'll show you!

Chris said...

I own this album and it's in a similar condition to the picture. Picked it up in a thrift shop a year or so ago. Don't think I've listened to it yet. This review has inspired me to do so. Thanks.

The Ripple Effect said...

Thanks, Chris. And thanks for tuning in. Let us know if the album works for you.

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