Graded on a Curve:
Lol Coxhill,
Ear of the Beholder

On July 10th the great British improviser Lol Coxhill passed away at seventy-nine years of age. One of the most prolific and persevering of the generation of UK players informed by the strides of the American avant-garde, he was not only a cornerstone of England’s experimental jazz scene but also one of the top ten human beings to ever blow into a soprano saxophone. But as his 1970 debut double album Ear of the Beholder shows, he was as difficult to encapsulate as his music was rewarding.

As the sad fact of Coxhill’s death hit the web, the lore behind this truly sui generis musician began flying through the circuits with increasing frequency; how he backed up Rufus Thomas doing “Walking the Dog” on Ready Steady Go, how he jammed with Hendrix, how he served in Kevin Ayers’ post-Soft Machine band The Whole World, how he recorded with unruly punks The Damned on their somewhat neglected second LP Music For Pleasure, how he released a record with wildcard ex-Mott the Hoople member Morgan Fisher, and how along with such august figures as the late guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Evan Parker, and drummer Tony Oxley, he grew into one of the grand men of avant-Brit jazz.

And that status isn’t a bit surprising given that he’s credited with appearing on well over two hundred albums, roughly half with his name emblazoned somewhere on the cover. For a chap with that many recordings under his belt, Coxhill always came off as essentially unfazed by the labyrinthine trail they left behind, often registering as self-deprecating and at times even questioning in a manner that was undeniably British and absolutely working class.

In fact, the story goes that the very opportunity for Coxhill to make this still rather startling inaugural 2LP effort came about due to the late UK broadcasting legend and record collecting manic John Peel catching the horn man busking in Piccadilly Circus. Yes, Ear of the Beholder was issued on Peel’s short lived if deeply fascinating Dandelion Records, the only double set in the label’s discography, a roster that includes entries from such worthwhile names as Bridget St. John, Stackwaddy, Burnin Red Ivanhoe, Kevin Coyne, and the Kim Fowley-produced sole comeback album from rockabilly titan Gene Vincent.

While I haven’t heard all of the output stamped with Dandelion’s seal of approval, it’s a safe bet that outta the whole bunch Ear of the Beholder is the toughest, most sprawling nut to crack. And more so even then, for Coxhill came out of nowhere; previous to this release he’d appeared on only Fools Meeting by obscure Canterbury group Delivery, and Shooting for the Moon by Ayers and the Whole World.

And the sheer hugeness of this set really says something profound about the time it was recorded, an era where Peel, soon to be a wise, grandfatherly fly-in-the-ointment but then just another music-loving bloke, could run a terrifically eclectic record label distributed first by CBS, then by Warner Brothers and lastly by Polydor before the funds finally dried up like a puddle of rainwater after a mid-summer thunderstorm, but only after successfully encouraging a hopelessly obscure and wildly, warmly eccentric fringe horn blower to get enough material onto tape to cover four sides of vinyl. If it sounds like I’m romanticizing the past, just listen to a few of its selections and then please contemplate that Ear of the Beholder was actually given distribution in the US by the Ampex label.

Indeed, describing this one of a kind document as challenging is a bit like calling Ralph Sampson a tall person; it’s certainly accurate but greatly underplays the reality at hand. And yet the album is never difficult for the sake of difficulty or bereft of direction or discipline. Coxhill opens the proceedings with a bit of spoken modesty, introducing himself and explaining that it’s the first record made under his complete control and furthering that he likes much of the music included therein and that “I don’t hate any of it.”

“Hungerford,” an extended piece for solo soprano sax follows, very much in the mode of another departed master of the straight horn Steve Lacy, particularly in how it exhibits real edginess while keeping a firm finger on the pulse of tradition. Much of the reason likely comes right down to the nature of the soprano; an instrument similar to the clarinet, if overextended by the under-disciplined and highly excitable in an attempt to achieve sublime flights of wily abstraction, it will instead far too frequently simply end up sounding like gangs of pissed-off geese having a turf battle in your backyard.

Wise heads like Coxhill, Lacy and Coltrane understood this and so were more inclined to modernize the bedrock of Sidney Bechet then to boldly bend the standards of precedent. However “Hungerford” and much of Ear of the Beholder revels in a roughness of sound quality, at times unraveling like field recordings (and much of it is derived from live sources). In the process Lacy’s ESP Disk The Forest and the Zoo sounds like it was engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. This doesn’t really cause a problem since much of the music here is nakedly solo in nature, and in fact the raw aural template established gives “Deviation Dance,” Coxhill’s bout with a tenor sax run through a guitar amp, even more of a brittle, acidic edge.

From there the record takes the first of a few large digressions, finding Coxhill teaming up with singer, pianist, and composer David Bedford to indulge in a pair of Vaudeville/music hall chestnuts as thoroughly English as a pot of steeping black tea served with scones on the side.

Bedford is an underappreciated but key figure in the history of post-Beatles/pre-punk UK sounds, having been employed by Kevin Ayers as pianist and arranger for his ’69 psychedelic masterpiece Joy of a Toy. He and Lol also teamed up as the Coxhill-Bedford Duo for further exploration of the same unabashedly old-timey ambiance found here. Think of them as being in cahoots with Viv Stanshall, but more somber and far less humorous.

Side two leans toward the avant-jazz side of Coxhill’s creative spillage, though “Vorblifa – Exit,,” which features a pseudonymous Ayers (Kirwin Dear), drummer Dave Dufort,, and Mike “Tubular Bells” Oldfield, kicks up some killer rocksteady-style action, providing the record another sweetly oddball tangent. Also a treat is the bossa nova standard “Insensatez” appearing in a spare, often pretty duo with guitarist Ted Speight.

The sidelong “Rasa-Moods” finds Lol in tandem with Dutch drummer Pierre Courbois and two pianists, American avant-guardist Burton Green and prolific Dutchman Jasper Van’t Hof. The sheer loose length of the piece (twenty minutes and change) touches upon everything from the calm clatter of Euro free-improv to some early NYC Downtown action to post-Barrett/pre-Dark Side Floydian psyche. While not the track most listeners will gravitate to upon the first few spins of Ear of the Beholder, after familiarity it does provide an extended glimpse into what continues to make Coxhill such a vital and unique voice.

And side four’s truly tweaked rumination upon “I Am the Walrus,” sung by children while maracas rattle along and a piano plonks away in sideways accompaniment, proves just how uncategorizable this thick, bearded gent could be. Like some of their US counterparts, Brit and European free improvisers often had to dodge accusations of being stuffy, devoid of both humor and the sticky heat of elbow grease called swing. Coxhill is one of the biggest, most beautiful refutations to this sorta unfair assessment.

“The Rhythmic Hooter” draws equally upon opposing ends of the sonic spectrum, its beginning coming on like a solo throw down ala cohort Evan Parker, its second half blossoming into more of that wonderful Jamaican sound that took Britain by storm for the better part of two decades. Then it segues into a solo tenor exploration of the standard “Lover Man” that’s one of Ear of the Beholder’s true highlights.

Back in ’94 the See For Miles label issued a truncated single CD version of this set. That was a nice if imperfect gesture. Last year Esoteric/Cherry Red did it up in two-disc style with the Coxhill-Bedford 7-inch stuff as bonus tracks, and all of it available digitally. Naturally, the vinyl is the best way to go, but the long-OOP wax won’t be cheap. So for the merely curious an inexpensive MP3/streaming test drive might be in order.

The Ampex label went belly up two weeks after releasing this record in the US. Thus, the albums were immediately scarce. This kept the name Lol Coxhill off the lips of American outsider music fans for another decade or so, basically until the situation with independent record distribution improved enough to allow such major Coxhill LPs as Digswell Duets and Instant Replay to get a proper stateside hearing.

For once Lol started recording he never let up, making it effectively impossible for one person to spend ample time with the entirety of his output. This was absolutely fitting, for as much as any indefatigable jazzman Coxhill embodied the concept of music as a human need, not as an unhealthy compulsion but as an activity as essential as good exercise and healthy sustenance, a constant sonic evolution, a Way Of Life that helped this true peach of an improvising artist spend nearly eight decades upon the great greenness of this constantly spinning Earth.

And it would take at least that long to really soak up the wealth of his output. For anybody wishing to try, Ear of the Beholder is a fine place to start.


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