Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

"The Story So Far..."...Oh Really"

by Steve Miller/Lol Coxhill
Cuneiform Records, Silver Spring MD, nd
Double-CD; $21.00
Cuneiform Rune 253/254

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


When I was a junior in high school, a journalistic friend two years older got review copies of record albums from his university's paper. He shared with us Lol Coxhill's 1971 solo album Ear of the Beholder, recorded on John Peel's Dandelion Label. Experimental jazz was in the air, but we were especially amused and intrigued how Coxhill peppered this album with examples of early 20th century "parlour" songs, or ditties from that British music hall tradition that sometimes informed rock songwriters Ray Davies in the Kinks, or Paul McCartney in the Beatles. Coxhill's "Two Little Pigeons", "Don Alfonso", and "Mango Walk" were odd departures for a jazz saxophonist of that time.

In the early 1970s, White Panther Party rhetorician John Sinclair exhorted Midwestern youth to embrace out-there saxophone squeals and squalls. John Coltrane! Archie Shepp! Albert Ayler! Pharaoh Sanders! Now, I hate to think the reason that we liked Lol Coxhill was that he wasn't a stern and challenging black man, that we were sipping our jazz sweetened and lightened, like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra fans fifty years before us. We were certainly smart enough to prefer black blues players over white. Yet Coxhill's was admittedly just saxophone playing, not "Black classical music" freighted with historical importance as manifestation of liberation struggle, played by intense musicians. Coxhill seemed one of these humorous British blokes like Andy "Thunderclap" Newman: lumpy, bespectacled, "safe as milk". In his Dada insouciance he appeared more like a Bonzo Dog Doodah Band member than a harbinger of fiery revolution.

Coxhill's sax teacher Aubrey Frank was among the first British bebop players. In one photo in the booklet accompanying this two-CD album, bald Lol is glimpsed through a rainy window and looks like philosopher Michel Foucault. Coxhill appears to be in his mid-forties, while piano player Steve Miller looks a decade younger. Miller was cursed with the same name as a rock songwriter-guitarist from the US, who was all over the radio in the 1970s. Coxhill and Miller played together since 1968, when Coxhill joined Miller in Bruno's Blues Band, which had played with touring Chicago bluesmen Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Soon the band changed its name to Delivery to pursue jazz-rock and improvisational fusion. According to Michael King, historian for the innovative and eccentric musical scene around Canterbury, Coxhill "introduced the gift of freedom to their musical conception and the surprise of performance art to their lives--on and off stage". The Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock noted their "slightly goofy, jazzy-type stuff with all Canterbury fans will immediately recognize and appreciate." In 1970 Coxhill joined Kevin Ayers' Whole World, though toured that year with Delivery too. After Ear of the Beholder, he made a second solo album in 1972 before rejoining Miller for this project.

"The Story So Far..."...Oh Really" was originally on vinyl, then out of print for a quarter-century before its reissue and expansion on CD. The opening cut, "Chocolate Field", finds Miller and Coxhill mutually respectful and attentive, floating along together as in two audio kayaks in tandem, soon giving gentle parry and thrust as if each pretending to capsize the other with his oar. This is the music of skillful and contemplative practitioners of fly fishing as a competitive sport. "One for You" presents Steve Miller's thick elegant chords beneath Peter Miller's Santana-esque guitar, which sometimes gets intrusive. "Portland Bill" has staccato bursts and arpeggios over simmering piano. The rumbling bass is laid upon it like a layer of sod, peppered with a granular patter of cymbals, above which Coxhill's solo bleats erect a flimsy tower. Some cuts feel reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's solo piano recordings in the 1970s, until Coxhill's friendly soprano sax chirps like a cartoon gooney bird. "Maggots" has Coxhill's double-tracked "messy phones".

Coxhill seems to find the street as inspiration, for "Bath 72" credits children, tapes and motors, alongside a man playing saxophones in a public place. One recalls a similar track on his 1971 solo album, which included conversations with children concerned with "a tortoise", perhaps at a zoo, where another animal in the background wailed like a baby. This cut's ambient capture also evokes Captain Beefheart "bush recording--we're recording this bush" on Trout Mask Replica (1969), and another track on that collection where we hear a homespun stuttering story told (I always imagined, in a small-town hardware store) of someone shooting at rats. Coxhill also gives us tape loops comparable to those ending "The Great Pretender" on Brian Eno's 1974 "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)". "Will My Thirst Play Me Tricks/The Ant About to Be Crushed Ponders Not the Where Withal of Boot Leather", a little under five minutes, is more interesting than a full-length Pixar or Dreamworks bug cartoon, though sports a title almost as long.

"God Song" is played by Delivery in a recording from a concert at the Playhouse Theater in London in November 1972. The full band is distinguished by Richard Sinclair's clear vocals, as Coxhill lassoes his band mates into coherence with his saxophone runs. Here Steve Miller's electric piano playing is reminiscent of Steve Winwood, or of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen.

The second disc opens with a pleasant Miller solo piano version of "Chocolate Field", recorded in Holland in 1972, almost a Randy Newman show tune. Like the following "One for You", it makes use of descending arpeggios. "Coo-Coo-Ka-Chew" has crystalline Rhodes electric piano, while "Song of March" gives us two electric pianos over Laurie Allen percussion. Miller once wrote of a sense of his limitations as a piano player, which becomes evident; at moments he seems to have spent too much time in the Elton John creamery.

Soon we are in the realm of Coxhill’s absurd, Bonzo Doggish song titles. "In Memoriam: Meister Eckhart. From the Welfare State Epic of the Same Name Starring Randolph Scott" wears an electronic drone, ducking beneath a saxophone flying around and exploring, boasting fascination with an insistent little riff repeated ad nauseum, a child in a cathedral (yes, that’s cathedral organ). "A Fabulous Comedian" is a joke performed before inattentive schoolchildren. "The Greatest Off-Shore Race in the World" is a bandstand rave up, danceable and funky, trumpet and trombone. "Soprano Derivitavo" is a goofy samba, while "G Song" is nothing like the late Sean Good's "A Song". "Tubercular Balls" is a spacey yawp alluding to Michael Oldfield's multi-tracked Tubular Bells project; Oldfield appeared on Coxhill's 1971 solo album.

And what of Coxhill and Miller since this recording? In the 1970s Coxhill played with the Digswell Art Trust, which was described in The Wire as "a pioneering multi-arts hothouse before its transformation to a residential care home for the elderly". Steve Miller died young, in 1988. Upon the release of 1990s recordings on a label called "Emanem", Signal to Noise's Ed Hazell noted that Coxhill had made recordings of "Star Trek" and "The Flintstones" television themes. In 1999, Downbeat writer John Corbett noted "Over his 40-year career, Coxhill has earned a reputation as a surreal clowner" but found his sessions with Veryan Weston "leaves more overt vaudevillian tactics on the shelf" to play sax suggestive of Pee Wee Russell.

In all, much of Lol Coxhill's saxophone style could be called sketchy, even the often-derogatory term doodling. Yet his is an artist's sketchbook, experimental and fluid, involved and detached in the swirling life around him, and wholeheartedly reflecting the moment. Immersed in collective improvisation, Coxhill is his own man, continually interesting. The phrase "flights of fancy" seems to apply, and he is never bored, employing his sax to amuse himself and, hence, his band mates. And us too.



Updated 1st March 2008

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST