Jazz pianist Gordon Beck, who will be remembered for his album Experiments With Pops and as a sophisticated Bill Evans stylist with a melancholic slightly elegiac edge, passed away yesterday, 6 November.
Born in London on 16 September 1935, although his birth year is sometimes reported as 1938, Beck studied piano at school but was mostly self taught. Before he became a professional musician inspired by George Shearing and Dave Brubeck he spent nine years as a design draughtsman in aeronautical engineering in London and Canada, and he even held a pilot’s licence.
On the early-1960s London jazz scene he worked with the likes of groups led by Tony Kinsey, Bobby Wellins and Tony Crombie, and in 1962 joined the Tubby Hayes quintet that toured abroad. At Ronnie Scott’s with his trio from 1965 he worked regularly and also accompanied visiting US players. His first albums were jazz versions of the Doctor Doolittle and Half a Sixpence film scores, popular at the time, but Beck also did a great deal of work in the recording studios before breaking off to became a member of the Phil Woods European Rhythm Machine, working in Europe and in the States. Beck then formed his own group Gyroscope and also reformed his trio, and since the late-1970s he became widely known to French jazz fans, partly through recording for French labels. But he also found a new international audience by working with the singer Helen Merrrill, recording with her on the Music Makers Owl label album in 1986 (along with Steve Lacy and Stéphane Grappelli) that included Beck’s own composition ‘And Still She Is With Me’.
Another important association was with the expat English guitarist Allan Holdsworth with whom he toured in the States and Japan, while as an educator Beck during the 1970s and 80s taught at the famed Barry Jazz Summer School in Wales. As a composer he spread his net wider to experiment with new computer technology in the 1980s and 90s but above all he’s remembered for his jazz interpretations of pop music with Experiments With Pops and the music of fellow pianist Bill Evans. Beck’s later albums include For Evans Sake (1991) with Didier Lockwood, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, paying tribute to Evans, and with Phil Woods’ European Rhythm Machine he features on the Atlantic album At The Frankfurt Jazz Festival along with such luminaries as Woods himself, Henri Texier and Daniel Humair.
Just four years ago a batch of three Beck albums Jazz Trio, solo set Reflections made up of mostly Bill Evans material and Not The Last Waltz were reissued when the US label Art of Life revived his career. Art of Life also reissued Gyroscope and Experiments With Pops. Originally released in 1968 on Major Minor records Beck was joined on what became known as a classic British jazz album by the late Jeff Clyne on bass, John McLaughlin on guitar and Tony Oxley, drums. Tracks included Beck’s informed take on the likes of ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, and ‘Sunny’. In 2005 he recorded live at the Appleby Jazz Festival in Cumbria with Jeremy Brown on bass and Tony Levin drums performing standards including ‘Solar’ and Beck’s ‘With A Heart In My Song’. The same year he was also captured live in a Paris jazz club for the album Seven Steps To Heaven in a quartet setting. This burst of activity made an impression on new audiences, not just in France but also in England, although Beck’s appearances were few and far between in recent years as he had been suffering from poor health.
– Stephen Graham