My Journey with Jess – An appreciation of The Jess Roden Anthology – Part One
It’s been well documented on my various sites and blogs that I owe a great debt to Jess Roden, one of the U.K.’s finest ever singers. It might not always be apparent in my diverse live and recorded work, but I assure you, along with a very few others, he was instrumental in igniting the spark that took me from my hometown of Derby to some of the greatest venues in the world. I can count on one hand the musicians that have inspired me to become a professional, and Jess is one of them. His voice just spoke to me above so many others, from the first time as a 14 year old, holidaying with friends in Bournemouth and discovering the ‘Bumpers’ compilation in a second hand shop. The current generation perhaps cannot understand the pleasure of bringing home a prize such as this: a gatefold-sleeved double LP feast – a cornucopia of diverse artists on the forward-thinking Island label. I immersed myself in it. Bronco’s ‘Love’, written by Jess quickly becoming a firm favourite. He seemed to dip off my radar for a while then, until a friend turned up on my doorstep with a new LP. “Look how COOL this is!” he exclaimed, producing it with a flourish. Cool indeed it was, it looked like a vintage Fender amp, the illusion continued on the back, where you could see the speakers. Closer inspection revealed the amp logo not to be Fender, but rather ‘Butts Band’.
Always blessed with a forensic nature where music was concerned I was delighted discover this album featured Jess and a fair old proportion of The Doors. That album became one of the soundtracks of my life, and I followed Jess’s career diligently from then on.
Let’s dolly back, fade to black and cut to many years later. I have relocated to Spain and I’m surfin’ the internet as us 50 somethings are prone to do in an attempt to remain ‘with it’, whatever ‘it’ is. I’m searching for info on one Mr. Roden. Except there really isn’t any. This completely baffled me. I mean, you can find anything on the internet, can’t you? I’d already been managing a fairly widespread online presence myself, both alone and via the bands I work with, and I had an idea. I began a series on a specially created blog called ‘Unsung Heroes’, as a means of highlighting artists that I considered worthy of attention and not having received the recognition they deserved. Jess was Number One. I just threw it out there, on the cyber winds…and something magical happened. It was as though I’d wandered down a virtual highway singing ‘Sweet Danger’, and from every corner, every nook and cranny, people poked their heads out and smiled in recognition. One by one, the comments from strangers the world over flooded in, overwhelmingly stating ‘YES!- HE was the man – I thought I was the only one who ‘got’ him!’ – I was staggered at the outpouring of love for Jess’s music. It was heartwarming to find so many people who felt as I did, true appreciation for an artist who emerged from a time when music mattered – and to these people, it matters still. Their enthusiasm, their dynamism powered the engine. We were rolling, and a certain Mr. Neil Storey heard the rumblings, as did Jess’s brother, and soon, there was talk…there were dreams…and it began to unfold. We had a singer, we had an audience, and we had a curator. Someone who cared about this stuff, who was close to this stuff, and was prepared to work to make something happen against all the odds.
It’s almost impossible to conceive, if you’re not in the music business, the enormity of the task that lay ahead for Neil and Jess. Thousands of hours of tapes to be found, never mind listened to, deteriorating, mislabeled. A task that would have put off many a chap. But, as those of you who now hold The Jess Roden Anthology in your hand are now aware, Neil Storey is no ordinary chap. He cares about the music. Simple as that. I doubt very much there are too many of his ilk left in the industry today, more’s the pity. One of the joys for me is the pieces of pure gold that have been unearthed in the course of compiling the anthology. I can tell you know, I feel a huge amount of pride for having played a small part in helping these songs see the light of day. I would go so far as to say it is one of the things in my musical life of which I am the most proud.
I have begun listening to the Anthology today. I received it on Monday. “Why wait?” you may ask. I needed to give it the time it deserved. I will not allow my first listen of this incredible achievement assume the role of wallpaper while I do something else. It requires, no, demands, my full attention. What struck me immediately is how exactly right Jess was to insist that they not succumb to modernity, simply because they could. As I faded back in time with The Alan Bown recordings, they weren’t so much ‘now’ as opposed to ‘then’, beautifully mastered, as crisp and vibrant as the day they were created. Thereafter, I am in a time tunnel through the 60’s , 70’s and beyond, with Jess’s voice as my guide, as he effortlessly wraps his voice around each era, his take on the times. Sometimes, I’m smiling with familiarity, sometimes delighted when one of those unheard gems I’ve spoken about pops up…Joys & Fears, and Song 3….was ever a title so understated? It’s an oft used phrase, but Song 3 actually moves me.
As I move through Discs 2 & 3, I re-appraise the Jess Roden Band. No backing band this, an integral, living breathing funkin’ thing, at one with the Voice. Damn! they was funky! I saw them live in Derby in the 70’s. That’s real live music, and I mourn its loss. But here, they jump right out of the speakers and reclaim their crown, one of the very best British band son the live circuit. Not many could live with them. As I listen to ‘Raise your Head’ they are pushing Jess – his vocal responding to them, the perfect foil, exactly what a band should be.
It’s not just the unheard tracks that are a delight in this collection. Many of the familiar songs are presented on CD for the first time, and getting the treatment they deserve. The Bronco material for instance, sounds beautiful and crystal clear, compared to the ‘double CD’ that’s out there.
As a bass player as well as a singer, I really need to throw a spotlight on the simply wonderful playing of John Cartwright – a delight to these ears, listen to the effortless switching back and forth between fluid, funky lines and consummate wah-wah bass on “What took so long?” – just divine! I can’t pretend to be as acquainted with Trombone as I am with the bass, but by God, Chris Gower knows one end of it from the other. His fluid, soulful playing is a huge JRB trademark.
Ray Charles’ “Black Jack” is another fabulous surprise. The number of white English vocalists who can deliver this song so soulfully must be very few and far between indeed. You can’t learn this sort of thing. It is innate, part of Jess Roden’s DNA. Just when you think that’s polished disc 4 off nicely, you’re blown away by a sublime version of “Blowin'”, right out of a Gospel left field, Jess’s voice accompanied by a beautiful piano courtesy of Billy Livesey. Phew.
Songs from The Rivits and the hugely underrated Seven Windows project which surely deserved to be in as many homes as Windows 7, lead us into Disc 4, and there are some lovely moments, including a brace of songs with superlative B.V.’s from Jaki Whitren. Then, after the familiar yet beautifully arranged “Misty Roses” – another undiscovered gem, the hauntingly beautiful instrumental “Vital Sign” , with Jess on synthesiser and Peter Wood on synth and Piano.
As I gaze out of the window over the Sierra Cabrera, I notice the sun is going down now as “Bird of Harlem” glides out of the speakers and seems to blend beautifully with the early evening light. It’s time to put away this box of treasures until tomorrow. So much more to discover. This is a very, very special collection indeed.