Play It Again, John
My entry into the music of John Mayall, British blues pioneer and mentor of many great musicians, including Eric Clapton, happened sometime during 1974. I was in class 9 and an older friend had two albums (both of 1969 vintage), Turning Point, which was a live recording, and Empty Rooms, a studio effort. I remember two things that happened to me when I first heard those two (both were Polydor vinyls): a) I fell in love with the blues; and b) I couldn’t stop marvelling at the fact that Mayall (who played the harmonica, guitar and keyboards), while using guitarists, bassists and a flautist-cum-saxophonist, didn’t employ a drummer on either of the records and yet produced such a full sound.
Brought up till then on a steady diet of music with drums, with disproportionately large helpings of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I had got used to hearing the drummers as part of bands – so what if on occasion it included, er, Ringo Starr. Yet, on the Mayall albums, the absence of drums was barely noticed. Partly, it was because of the bassist, Steve Thompson. Thompson played the upright bass as well as a fretless bass guitar with such finesse that you didn’t require the beat keeping function of a drummer. But that, as I said, was just part of why you didn’t miss the drums. On these two records, Mayall had two exceptional musicians – Johnny Almond, who played saxophones, flutes (on Turning Point, mouth percussion), and Jon Mark, who played guitars, including an acoustic finger-style guitar. On both these albums – more on the live Turning Point – you can sense the near-perfect chemistry between Mayall, Mark, Almond and Thompson.
I have often discussed with friends who like both those Mayall albums as much as I do about whether a drum line would have enhanced the music on them and the consensus that we always reached was a big “No.” Drums wouldn’t do a thing for either Empty Rooms or Turning Point; they sound great as they are. But that is not the point of this column. Although I have CD versions of both Turning Point and Empty Rooms, I had not heard those albums in a while. But last week, as I was randomly sampling a cachet of podcasts, I came across a track by a band called Johnny Almond’s Music Machine. The name struck a chord and, as I was listening to it, I realised that it was none other than the saxophonist-flautist whom I’d heard on those early Mayall albums. Almond has a characteristic style – a somewhat plaintive, melancholic tone – in his flute and sax playing. I should say “had,” for I realised soon after that he died in November 2009.
Exploring the Internet, I discovered another surprising fact. Almond and Jon Mark, the finger-style guitar player who also played on the two Mayall albums, actually had a band in the early 1970s called Mark-Almond. I went and bought three albums – Mark-Almond I, Mark-Almond II and The Best of Mark-Almond. The two may have played the blues with Mayall but on their own albums, the duo produce a sound that straddles the disparate worlds of classical, jazz and blues music – very satisfying and very calming. As I write this, I’m still exploring Mark-Almond and the stuff they did together 40 years back.
I went back too, last week, and fished out all my Mayall albums, Turning Point and Empty Rooms, of course, but also the Bluesbreakers albums, the ones on which besides Clapton, rock greats such as Jack Bruce (Clapton and he were part of Cream later), Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood (yes, both formed Fleetwood Mac, as did John McVie, another Mayall alum) and Mick Taylor (who later joined The Rolling Stones), played. On most of those Bluesbreakers albums, there were drummers too doing diligent duty. I enjoyed them but willy-nilly, I kept going back to Turning Point and Empty Rooms, the two great albums bereft of drums.
Mayall, incidentally, is in his late seventies and six years ago he was awarded an Order of the British Empire. It is ironic that he never got any award from the music industry – neither a Grammy nor even a hit. Yet, the number of musicians who passed through the School of Mayall before they became great names is quite impressive. That probably doesn’t faze Mayall himself. His latest album, Tough, came out in 2009. Listen to it and you will see that he hasn’t lost his touch.