Trevor Watts formed the first Amalgam in 1967 during time out from the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which he’d co-founded earlier that same decade. After recording the first Amalgam album he turned his focus back to the SME until the mid-1970s before re-forming Amalgam, initially with a shifting lineup.
Drummer Liam Genockey first joined for the fourth Amalgam album, Another Time (1976). Bassist Colin McKenzie came on board for 1977’s Samanna. The same year’s Mad was their first outing trio outing, with Closer To You being recorded the following year.
Guitarist Keith Rowe later made up a quartet for Over the Rainbow and Wipe Out (both 1979), which Thurston Moore has cited as influential on the nascent Sonic Youth. Watts, however, subsequently took a more rhythmic direction, fusing jazz, African percussion and elements of Reichian minimalism with his various Moiré Music groups, only lately returning to freer music in partnership with pianist Veryan Weston.
This is the first reissue of Closer To You in any format since its initial release on Ogun, and Hi4Head have expanded it, adding five previously unreleased titles to the original four.
As the 1979 liner notes say, nothing here is slack. “The mood, feel and structure, as well as the themes” were all predetermined, so: “Precise timing is the essence … the musicians are always conscious of the pulse and know exactly where they have to lay down their lines in relation to it.”
‘De Dublin Ting’ makes for an urgent opening salvo. It’s a compact performance, and more uptempo than much of what follows. Watts’ impassioned sax sounds tart against McKenzie’s ruggedly pliant bass work as the trio twist and turn through knotty exchanges and tempo shifts.
For its first four minutes, ‘South of Nowhere (With Quiet Beginnings)’ (10:20) is a bluesy, twilight number, but then it restarts, propelled urgently along a bubbling electric bass line.
The album sounds pretty good for its age, but these uptempo passages expose a thin, boxy sound that particularly affects Genockey’s drums. Otherwise the sound is vividly immediate, and Watts has done a good job of re-mastering.
Amalgam never sound like straight fusion in the sense that, say, Ian Carr’s Nucleus did; yet though their sound has a distinctly modern jazzy, almost Harmolodic edge, it also evidences Watts’ feel for African rhythms and the rhythm section’s grounding in progressive rock and R&B.
Genockey had a prog background. Within months of recording this album he’d be recruited by ex Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan into the first incarnation of Gillan, and he’s been a member of Steeleye Span since 1989. McKenzie’s work as a session player in the 80s and 90s would see him backing the likes of Billy Ocean and Ruby Turner. But the Amalgam trio’s relationship was evidently tight, and for over a decade from the early 90s McKenzie and Genockey provided the bedrock of the Ghanaian rhythm-influenced Moiré Music Drum Orchestra.
The foundations are laid here, with the three musician’s parts interlocking, independent but not bound. That allows them to keep a track like ‘Keep Right’ (4:40) simple, Watts wrapping licks around the rhythmists’ mid-tempo rocking ebb-and-flow.
The original album’s concluding opus is something else. ‘Dear Roland’ (19:37) moves from a near silence studded by metallic percussion, vibrations tapped out on detuned bass strings, and raspy multi-phonic sax licks (which sound lie they’re played live á la Rahsaan Roland Kirk than overdubbed) to only slightly more concentrated intensities. While Genockey moves from snare to lightly malleted toms, McKenzie sets up a constant shimmer of overlapping tones, making his bass reverberate like a prepared piano harp.
Only in its final third does the piece slip into a firmer but still somnolent groove, as Watts moves from a simple melody etched in circular breaths – sounding overtly like Kirk now, so no doubts as to the dedication – to a firmer line souring in tone as the backing dissolves in peak abstraction, then finding new melancholia in an almost solo coda.
‘Dear Roland’ is a remarkable piece that prefigures an approach to sound and texture that’s only recently gained wider currency in contemporary improvised music.
The five ‘bonus’ cuts – four of which are around four minutes long – return us to the terrain of jazz-rock-fusion. The urgency of ‘Mad’ prefigures post-bop in a post-Zorn universe, particularly given its abrupt segue into the louche noir of ‘Seaside Blues’. Watts dredges up some steamy blues licks here, occasionally pushing into the red with loud, piercing cries.
‘Albert Like’ chugs along in gutbucket blues style, keeping closer to the groove than anything on its dedicatee Albert Ayler’s New Grass. There are more sudden transitions here, and some tape hiss that (pleasingly) evokes intimacy with the source tapes.
‘Bottle Alley’ (7:49) sounds like an open-ended improvisation, but its tamped-down tensions are subtly and creatively modulated and expertly released – Watts wailing hoarsely against relatively restrained backing, which is an Amalgam speciality – making it perhaps my favourite cut after ‘Dear Roland’.
The rousing ‘Latino Flo’ is the album’s shortest, tightest and funkiest cut, with McKenzie thumb-popping bass notes to nail the groove.
The extra cuts here do more than pad the album out. They flesh out the scope of the session. I wouldn’t argue with the initial track selection, but the expanded Hi4Head reissue adds real meat to what is anyways a significant item in Watts’ criminally under-appreciated discography.
Trevor Watts – alto and soprano saxophones; Colin McKenzie – bass guitar; Liam Genockey drums.
Spontaneous Music Ensemble – Withdrawal.
Veryan Weston and Trevor Watts – Dialogues for Ornette.
Trevor Watts String Ensemble – Cynosure.
Trevor Watts – Veracity.
Buy Closer To You direct from Hi4Head Records.