Gregg Simpson: Avant-Garde from Vancouver
AAJ: Retrospective is a very significant documentation of that music. Could you comment on Retrospective?
GS: The Al Neil Trio's double CD, Retrospective 1965-68, came out in 2001 on Blue Minor Records, from Vienna. The label was started by the late Richard Anstey, who passed away of a heart attack very unexpectedly in 2004 which was a great shock to me and all his friends and family. He also put his own music such as Aromatic Journeys (One2One Music, 1999) and 2000 Years in the Footsteps of Jesus (Blue Minor, 2000)the latter produced for Millennium pilgrims in Israel, where Anstey was living, although he was himself not Jewish. He is however buried in a cemetery in Tel Aviv, due to the immense amount of goodwill he built up while living there from 1985 to 1999.
AAJ: What happened to the trio?
GS: After about three years the trio split up with Richard Anstey forming his own group and Al and I continued as a duo until his wife Marguerite joined us on violin and vocals and made it a trio again. I continued until 1970 and we toured to Toronto and across the Prairies, playing in Edmonton and Regina. Then in 1972, Richard and I again joined Al and Annie Siegel (flute and alto sax) to form the Al Neil Jazz Probe, which played a few concerts in Vancouver and Victoria, some of which were recorded.
AAJ: Where's Al Neil today?
GS: Al is retired now at about age 81. Until recently he was both playing and exhibiting his art, but now confines his playing to solo piano musings in his home in Vancouver. I just completed an archive of eleven recordings of Al's work from 1968 on. Hopefully these will be released in some form one day.
AAJ: There were other groups that you were part of, namely the NOW Orchestra, Lunar Adventures, Sunship Ensemble, and maybe others. I'd like to know about those groups.
GS: The next ensemble which I joined with Anstey (on soprano sax now) and Neil was the Jazz Probe, which lasted less than a year but played some very strong jazz. We also had Annie Seigel in the group, fresh from New York. She played flute and alto sax and gave the group a completely different edge. It was a kind of free jazz with fusion elements. Most of the pieces were totally improvised and we did a number of concerts at art galleries and other venues.
The next group which again featured Anstey and myself was the Sunship Ensemble, a CD of which was released in 2004. The group was formed out of the 1971 New Atlantis House Band, a trio with me, Anstey and guitarist Al Sharpe. This was the nucleus of Sunship, which also included Bruce Freedman (tenor), Ross Barrett (flute, tenor sax and keyboards) and Clyde Reed, bass. This group
The Sunship Ensemble, which formed in 1974, was a group in tune with its times. The incorporation of world music, drawn from many cultures, was evident in many celebrated jazz groups of the early 1970s. The group incorporated even more extended free form improvisations than the many other groups of the time who played Afro-Latin tinged fusion. Although international in outlook, the group also reflected was a regionally-based music, which grew out of the west coast, rainforest environment.
Then in 1976 I started playing with pianist Paul Plimley, again with Bruce Freedman on tenor sax and John Giordano on bass. This was the Vancouver Sound Ensemble and it was lucky enough to be the house band in the jazz room of a large club named Oil Can Harry's. We played between engagements of people like Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and many other big name bands. The music was very much in the Cecil Taylor tradition, but also displayed other sides of the spectrum with swinging blues and sift ballads on occasion.
Out of that group was formed the New Orchestra Quintet with the addition of Lisle Ellis, bass, Paul Cram, reeds and Ralph Eppel, brass. Beginning in 1977 we also formed the New Orchestra Workshop Society, which included the C.O.R.D. Orchestra, [Community Orchestra Research and Development] who collaborated with vibraphonist, Dr. Karl Hans Berger of the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, in several workshops and concerts.
Other ensembles formed under the NOW banner were Sessione Milano, with flutist,Don Druick, the NOW String Quartet and Trio Non Troppo in addition to staging many concerts, festivals. The New Orchestra Quintet released an LP, Up Til Now in 1979 which featured many sides of this group from totally hard driving bop-influenced pieces to conceptual works and raucous free improvisation. The group was a mainstay of Vancouver's jazz scene for a number of years and launched several generations of improvisers in the city. A four-CD box set of the band's best work is set for release in 2006.
After 1980 NOW split into several smaller groups, including A-Group [Cram, Eppel, Simpson and guitarist Bob Bell] followed by E.S.B. [Eppel, Simpson, Bell] which toured Canada and released an LP, Music for the Living which covered a huge range of electric fusion, world music and free jazz.
In 1981 Paul Cram released his LP Blue Tales in Time (Onari, 1981) with the same personnel as the New Orchestra Quintet, but minus Ralph Eppel. Following that quartet, the Paul Cram Trio [Cram, Ellis, Simpson] took off on a cross-country tour that would last two years and saw us playing in literally hundreds of venues from concert halls to cafes. The music of the trio was all original compositions by the three members. Ellis had replaced the string bass with a Fender bass and this provided a basis for our approach which varied between rock fusion influences and what has been called funky free bop. We had been very impressed by Ornette Coleman's Prime Time which had recently played in Vancouver
Following that trio I helped form the quartet Lunar Adventures with saxophonist Coat Cooke, who currently leads the NOW Orchestra. Along with guitarist Ron Samworth and bassist Clyde Reed, this group again played only original works by Cook and myself. We played a very free wheeling kind of free bop with many of my compositions displaying a distinctly Celtic sound, due to my own research into my Scottish heritage (which it turns out also has a lot to do with the French, the name Simpson being part of the Fraser Clan, itself a derivative of Frazier, from Normandy).
Lunar Adventures achieved a bit of celebrity locally opening for Ornette Coleman's Prime Time Band and also Michael Brecker. The group made it to New York and played a few nights at the Knitting Factory and released a CD, Alive in Seattle (Nine Winds, 1990) and appeared on two NOW compilation CDs.
During the 1990s, I was in a bebop trio with Henry Boudin, an ex-Montreal tenor player, who once toured with Dizzy Gillespie. I also led my own world music inspired group, Tribal Dynamics, which also featured Francois Houle on soprano sax, Bruce Freedman also on soprano, Daniel Kane on tenor sax, two brass players: Ralph Eppel and Brad Muirhead plus bassist Clyde Reed. The music of this group is featured on my latest CD, Harmolodic Highlanders (New Orchestra, 2005).