tue 23/07/2024

Music Reissues Weekly: Barney Wilen - Zodiac | reviews, news & interviews

Music Reissues Weekly: Barney Wilen - Zodiac

Music Reissues Weekly: Barney Wilen - Zodiac

French jazz curio with an impeccable cultural context resurfaces

At the Club St. Germain, Barney Wilen blows. Bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark is behind himJean Larivière

In 1966, the combo fronted by French sax player Barney Wilen issued an album of musical interpretations of each sign of the zodiac. In the US in 1969, Mort Garson released 12 albums, each dedicated to a single sign.

Two years earlier Garson was behind the one-sign-per-track Cosmic Sounds album, credited to The Zodiac. Back in 1945, bop pianist Mary Lou Williams made an album – over six 10-inch discs – titled Signs Of The Zodiac.

Taking inspiration from the signs of the zodiac wasn’t unusual. But Wilen’s album approached what could have been cheesy from a perspective acknowledging that this was potentially daft. His album was jazz as such and musically serious-minded though playful, but its cover satirised the idea the signs of the zodiac were sacrosanct. Taurus the bull was seen bearing the banderilla of a bullfight.

Barney Wilen - ZodiacFor Wilen’s Zodiac the cover artist was Jean Larivière, a fan of Wilen’s outfit. As Siné, Larivière worked as an illustrator – in 1961, he created striking covers for French rock ‘n’ roll band Les Chats Sauvages. He also had ties with Salvador Dali and assisted film maker Chris Marker. Larivière became Louis Vuitton’s favoured photographer.

Wilen’s curriculum vitae was similarly notable. Born in Nice to an American father and French mother, he moved to Paris in 1957. That year, he played with Miles Davis on the improvised score to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Lift To The Scaffold). He then worked with Kenny Clarke on a couple of other films and, in 1959, contributed music to Les Liaisons dangereuses alongside The Jazz Messengers and Thelonious Monk. American jazzers accepted him. Wilen became a Paris Left Back fixture and was resident at the Club St. Germain, where Larivière was often in the audience. A little later, in 1968, a band named Barney Wilen and his Amazing Free Rock Band issued the Germany-recorded album Dear Prof. Leary. Dedicated to LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, it was a bats mix of jazz and psychedelic rock with versions of “The Fool on the Hill,” “Ode to Billie Joe” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.”

When it came out, Zodiac exemplified an earlier form of cultural porousness: jazz met art in an eclectic contemporaneous context. Original pressings of the album sell for around £300 and, at the time of its release, it can’t of been a big seller despite being issued by the Vogue label, the home of Françoise Hardy, and its connections with what was embedded in French culture. It’s previously been bootlegged, but the new reissue of this curio appears to be its first official reappearance.

Barney Wilen - Zodiac_Les Chats Sauvages – Je Veux Tout Ce Que Tu Veux 1961Musically, it’s not free jazz as its most challenging but it’s clearly the result of improvisation despite each of the 12 tracks bearing a Wilen composer credit. The vibes on Side One’s closer “Balance” are particularly spectacular. Wilen is accompanied by Carl Heinz Berger (piano, vibes – German, and his wild first solo album appeared on New York’s ESP-Disk in 1967), Jean-François Jenny-Clark (bass – he was also collaborating with Don Cherry at the time of Zodiac’s release) and Jacques Thollot (drums). The album’s most satisfying cut is the far-out “Lion,” where every player roams all over the place. Overall, the atmosphere suggests that this could be a soundtrack or, at least, accompany images. (pictured left, a 1961 EP by French rock 'n' roll band Les Chats Sauvages with a cover by Siné aka Jean Larivière)

Fittingly, then, Larivière and Wilen tried to get an animated film soundtracked by Zodiac off the ground. It never happened but some initial work was done. Larivière drew sketches and devised a plot involving a superhero. The surviving material is collated in a booklet included with the reissue (the package has no liner notes).

Had the film of Zodiac happened, it would obviously have become a future cult item – like the album. But as to how it would have been received at the time, it’s impossible to know. While listening to Zodiac raises irresolvable questions, it’s also clear the music was enough.


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