With Margaret Thatcher and Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards now retired, surely the most enduring figure to emerge from 1980s Britain is saxophonist Courtney Pine. After appearing on the cover of The Wire and releasing his debut recording, Journey To The Urge Within, in 1986, Pine achieved the sort of mass-media coverage and huge sales that most jazz musicians can only dream of. He has remained a charismatic and mesmerising soloist, and a musician who constantly searches for new directions and incorporates fresh influences.
Pine's family is from Jamaica, and he grew up in the Brixton area of south London at a time when race was a highly delicate political subject. He learned the clarinet at school and later switched to tenor saxophone in order to play in reggae bands. Hearing John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins changed the course of his musical interests and he became involved in the educational workshops run by free-jazz drummer John Stevens, later joining Stevens' band. Pine was concerned that jazz had too marginal a status in his own predominantly black community, and with fellow musicians Phillip Bent, Cleveland Watkiss and Gary Crosby set up the Jazz Warriors big band. Drawing on the best black musicians, the music celebrated their diverse backgrounds, as jazz was fused with calypso, ska and reggae rhythms. The band caught the mood of the times, becoming the foundation of a whole generation of top jazz careers.
In 1986 Pine was signed to the Island label and Journey To The Urge Within, his debut, became a phenomenon. The brooding vocal track "Children Of The Ghetto" (with Sousaye Greene) became a chart hit, and the sheer energy produced by these musicians as they grabbed their moment is still thrilling to hear today. Word of Pine was spreading: he toured with the legendary American bandleader and composer George Russell and guested with two of the most innovative drummers of modern jazz, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. It is to Pine's eternal credit that he took jazz-press claims that he was the next Coltrane with a pinch of salt, and even turned down Blakey's offer to join his Jazz Messengers, preferring to work on his own ideas.
Pine's subsequent projects - Destiny's Song And The Image Of Pursuance (1987), The Vision's Tale (1989)and Within The Realms Of Our Dreams (1990) - found him collaborating with stars of American jazz. Ornette Coleman's bassist Charnett Moffett and the Marsalis sidemen Kenny Kirkland and Jeff "Tain" Watts could hardly have provided more challenging backings for Pine - yet they're very much his records. He stamps real personality and authority on tunes by Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker, and further develops the distinctive style of original composition he introduced in Journey To The Urge Within. In an indication of his unique transatlantic status, Pine toured Within The Realms Of Our Dreams with an all-star band of Americans on both sides of the Atlantic.
If 1990 saw Pine exploring and re-energising the legacy of Rollins and Coltrane, he also threw new light on his Jamaican heritage with the reggae record Closer To Home. Produced by reggae supremo Gussie Clarke, and featuring Carroll Thompson, Closer To Home marked a considerable change of direction for Pine. He'd never again play jazz as tradition demanded it should sound, and embraced his Jamaican heritage while acknowledging contemporary pop sounds like hip-hop and club music. To The Eyes Of Creation (1992) ended his tenure with Island on a high, as a soaring version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" rubbed shoulders with deftly arranged versions of African and West Indian themes.
After such a meteoric rise and unremitting activity, it's hardly surprising that Pine used the next few years to take stock. He collaborated with Gang Starr rapper Guru on the Jazzmatazz project and contributed an arrangement of "Summertime" to Larry Adler's Glory Of Gershwin album. His public profile was heightened even more when his trio opened for Elton John on a European tour in 1994. The following year he hit his stride again with his first recording in three years, Modern Day Jazz Stories. This was Pine's most personal and cohesive recording to date, as a stellar jazz ensemble featuring pianist Geri Allen and bassist Charnett Moffett was locked into the rhythms of DJs Pogo and Sparki from the UK hip-hop scene.
Modern Day Jazz Stories and its follow-up, Underground (1997), confirmed that Pine's art had reached new levels of refinement. However, his status as the greatest ambassador for British jazz since Humphrey Lyttelton is equally important. He regularly broadcasts about jazz on Radio 2 and has recently been featured on TheSouth Bank Show and in a BBC documentary that took him to South Africa. He was awarded the OBE in 2000 and the same year released Back In The Day, which used studio mixing techniques in a highly creative way. The flavour of club music was well to the fore now, but the presence of "Lady Day And John Coltrane" suggests that Pine has never lost touch with his jazz roots.
Bio courtesy BBC London
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