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the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

A Singularly Fine Day

Nigel Mazlyn Jones: music you should have heard but probably haven’t.

in Music , Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I’m pretty sure it was in 1980. I was in the VUB Aula something or the other (that’s Flemish University of Brussels in case you didn’t know) impatiently waiting for my then fave band, Barclay James Harvest, to come on stage. While I was waiting, I flicked through the standard issue glossy tour brochure, without finding much of interest. But one page caught my eye. Presenting the evenings’s support act, it was illustrated with this fairly wild record sleeve (you know, LPs).

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Well, that support act, Nigel Mazlyn Jones, never performed. I never found out why, but I was certainly intrigued enough to try to track down the record. Of course, back in them days you couldn’t just go on to Amazon - or BitTorrrent for that matter - and get it. Oh no. You had to embark on Ye Olde Record Shoppe Pilgrimage, an experience sadly denied to today’s teenagers. I eventually tracked down “Sentinel & The Fools of the Finest Degree” in one of the big music emporia in London’s Oxford Street - either HMV or Virgin - HMV, I think. I was pretty impressed, and it formed a major part of my first year university student soundtrack in London. The fact that it was as obscure as you get get didn’t do any harm, of course, but the blend of electronic-tinged folk, wonderfully constructed songs, multilayered lyrics and sheer charisma was irresistible. The next step was to track down Nigel’s first LP, “Ship to Shore”, which was something of a quest.

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Now, however, it’s got a lot easier. Nearly 30 years after their release, both LPs have been remastered and released on CD, with, gasp, extra tracks and lovingly crafted booklets. The sound quality is quite amazing, although knowing what a perfectionist - not to mention audio engineering wizard - Nigel is, I guess it is only to be expected. And you can buy them online.

I feel really guilty about this, but I still think Ship To Shore is his best work. It is incredibly mature for a first album, easily standing comparison with, say, John Martyn, Nick Drake, or Richard Thompson, whilst maintaining a strong personality all of its own.  The songs on Sentinel, and indeed later albums, are often just as good, but somehow there is a balance of urgency, clarity and drive in Ship To Shore which was never quite regained. The bonus tracks on Ship To Shore are really a revelation. Two songs, “All Brave Men”, and “The Hunter and The Lady”, easily compare to his best work, and I amazed they were never released. The lyrics are maybe just a touch immature, but hardly cringe-inducing. Anyway, it’s great to hear them at last.

In the late 80s, now going under the name “Mazlyn Jones”, he released a third LP, “Breaking Cover”, now sadly unavailable. Breaking Cover is his most “electric” work by far, as well as the most overtly political (from a committed, sincere and heartfelt green perspective), and songs like 20th Century and The Hare’s Leap remain all too relevant today.  After Breaking Cover, his work took a new direction, embracing some elements of the New Age movement, although personally I always felt a bit uncomfortable about the whole Glastonbury crystals stuff. Nigel himself was hardly likely to get trapped in this cliché ridden world, but some of his followers… well, I may be an uncharitable cynic, but I couldn’t, and still can’t, take this stuff seriously. Anyway. Breaking Cover was followed by “Water from the Well”, half songs and half instrumental. Much more laid back than Breaking Cover, although still remaining very much thematically linked. Water from the Well included what I think was his first attempt at a radio-friendly song, Papa Echo Alpha Charley Echo, and in generally had much more of a “studio” sound than previous albums.

As far as I remember, it was around about this time we met in person, and became friends, although like all my friends, I’m afraid I totally neglected the relationship. During the late 90s I tried to get Nigel signed up to the music label I was running at the time with David Wright, AD Music, but we could never work out how to keep everybody happy. Just as well, really. Never mix friendship and business, even with the best of intentions. Also at that time I seem to remember some talk of a “Ship To Shore” CD release. Recently I discovered a letter from Nigel, with a marked up and corrected print of a CD inlay I had designed. I’d completely forgotten about it. AD Music did at least try to promote and distribute Nigel’s instrumental album, “Angels Over Water”, which incorporated the instrumental half of “Water from the Well”. Also during that period I organised a gig for him at, I think, Christ’s College in Cambridge, and, along with Andrew Christy, performed a very short support set, possibly the last time I ever played live, certainly the last time I sang live.

When I moved to Switzerland, I cut the chord with just about everything and everybody, for a host of reasons. It was time for a new start. Nigel released two more albums during this period, a live CD from performances at Glastonbury and elsewhere (and which I’m afraid I can’t get into at all), and his most laid back songs album, “Behind The Stone”. He also embarked on the writing, recording and promotion of “Planet For Sale”, with a host collaborators. Actually, I’ve still got an early DAT master of “Planet”, so my chronology may be a little confused.

But finally I reconnected when I discovered that the two early CDs were released. Yesterday, Ship To Shore arrived, and blasting out “A Singularly Fine Day” on my iPod this morning almost brought a tear to my eye. It’s maybe time for another new start.