Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robert Wyatt, THE END OF AN EAR

CBS, 1970; reissued by Columbia; available

9 tracks, 47:03

This odd little gem was recorded by Wyatt between Soft Machine's THIRD (still their absolute masterpiece) and FOURTH. For this effort, he assembled quite the cast of Canterbury all-stars. Caravan's Dave Sinclair provides organ, while Soft Machine associates Mark Charig, Neville Whitehead, and the late Elton Dean respectively provide cornet, bass, and alto saxello. Percussionist Cyril Ayers and pianist Mark Ellidge* are also featured. Wyatt is credited with piano, drums, organ, and "mouth"; this last description is very accurate, since Wyatt doesn't sing any identifiable words on THE END OF AN EAR. Instead, he scats, chants, and croons wordlessly, all to excellent effect. The music itself is just as unusual. Bookended by two wild versions of Gil Evans' "Las Vegas Tango Part 1"**, this is definitely from the jazz-influenced side of Canterbury prog while being much more free-form than almost anything else from that scene. The songs are each dedicated to friends of Wyatt; charming titles like "To Saintly Bridget" and "To The Old World (Thank You For The Use Of Your Body, Goodbye)" are fun in and of themselves, especially when you figure out who each is dedicated to. While most of these tracks are in the two to three minute range, the aformentioned "Las Vegas Tango" pieces and "To Nick Everyone" exceed eight minutes, allowing for some delicious contrast. Each side feels like one unified piece, flowing from one song to the next. Certain themes and ideas reappear, and for the most part this sounds like a highly structured form of improvisation. Wyatt's later masterpieces (ROCK BOTTOM being my personal favorite) have overshadowed THE END OF AN EAR, and he himself says it's mostly a bit of childish fun. I beg to differ, and while ROCK BOTTOM really is a better introduction to solo Wyatt, this should be every bit as essential.

*The late Mark Ellidge was Wyatt's half-brother, as well as a photographer for the Sunday Times.

**Curiously, the first track on the album is "Las Vegas Tango Part 1 (Repeat)", while the last is simply "Las Vegas Tango Part 1". No research has uncovered the reason for this quirk.

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