Mike Nock: Past and Present

Mike Nock Trio Plus Hear and Know (FWM)

The Fourth Way The Fourth Way (EMI Japan)

The Fourth Way The Sun and the Moon Have Come Together (Take 5)

The Fourth Way Werwolf (EMI Japan)

Review by Phil Sandford

Hear and Know coverThe release of a new Mike Nock CD and the reissue of the three Fourth Way albums from the late sixties provide a chance to review some aspects of the pianist and composer’s contribution to jazz over several decades.

Hear and Know features seven Nock compositions played by his trio partners of several years, James and Ben Waples, with tenor saxophonist Karl Laskowski and trumpeter Ken Allars. The quintet format has proved an enduring one in jazz and this excellent album shows that it still provides a powerful vehicle for creative compositions, solos and group interaction.

The CD highlights Nock’s continuing development as a player and composer and the vibrancy and strength of some of the younger players on the Australian jazz scene.

The gospel-tinged title tune opens with piano and bass solos before breaking into a joyous second section featuring Laskowski and Allars in a joint solo.

‘The Sibyline Fragrance’, which previously appeared on Nock’s 1993 solo album Touch, is a beautiful melody that provides Allars an opportunity to demonstrate why he is regarded as an emerging talent on the Australian jazz scene.

A Satie nocturne provides the inspiration for ‘After Satie’, which Nock first recorded on his 1984 album Strata.

Laskowski is at his lyrical best on the gentle ‘Komodo Dragon’, while there are fine solos all round on ‘If Truth Be Known’.  ‘Slow News Day’ is a relaxed piece which again shows Nock’s maturity as a composer.

The appearance of ‘Colours’, which features some of the free playing that has been a characteristic of his work over the years, is a link to some of Nock’s earlier work as it first appeared on the Fourth Way’s Werwolf  in 1970.

Nock and violinist Michael White formed the Fourth Way in late 1968 after leaving John Handy’s band. Nock had contributed three originals to Handy’s Projections, recorded in April 1968 and reissued on Koch CD in 1998.

White and Nock were joined by drummer Eddie Marshall and bassist Ron McCLure and the band went on to record three albums: The Fourth Way (mid-1969), The Sun and Moon Have Come Together (late-1969) and Werewolf (June 1970).  However, for many years these were only available on hard-to-access vinyl.

The second of these appeared on CD some years ago on the German Jazzview label and was then recently reissued on the Swiss label Take 5. A related album, Between and Beyond, without Michael White, was reissued on MPS/BASF.

The release of the other two Fourth Way albums on Japanese EMI now provides listeners with the opportunity to hear the band’s work as a whole, while Norman Meehan’s excellent biography of Mike Nock, Serious Fun (Victoria University Press), provides a good account of the band’s development.

Some of the main characteristics of the band are the interesting compositions and solos, the solid rhythmic pulse from Marshall and McClure, the use of free improvisation, White’s lines behind Nock’s solos and West African influences (‘Ebony Plaza’). Reflecting Nock’s early years with Yusef Lateef, the blues are also floating in the background.

The distinctive sound of the Fourth Way came partly from the instrumentation, partly from the increasing use of electronics, partly from the interesting original compositions, and partly from their creative musicality.

While the violin has never become a major instrument in jazz it has a long tradition, including players like Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelli, Jean Luc-Ponty and younger players such as Regina Carter. White developed its use into previously unexplored areas such as modal (‘Openings’, ‘Sparky’) and free jazz (‘Dance of the Mechanical Men’, ‘Strange Love’).

With McClure using the bow on the acoustic bass this allowed for interesting textures with the violin, while his use of electric bass helped anchor the more rock-influenced pieces.

Joe Zawinul pioneered the use of the Rhodes electric piano in jazz when he was with Cannonball Adderley in the mid-60s and Herbie Hancock first used the instrument with the Miles Davis Quintet in June 1968 on Miles in the Sky. Nock had already attained considerable facility on the instrument by that time and he was one of the first to use the Ring Modulator, which allowed the instrument to be pushed towards a synthesised sound.

While Nock has three excellent solos on acoustic piano on The Fourth Way both he and McCLure have switched to electric instruments for the final album, which features more distortion on the Rhodes than on the previous albums.

Of the 19 tracks on these CDs Nock composed 12 and reveals his developing talent at writing strong lines with interesting harmonies that serve as excellent vehicles for the soloists in the band. These include the seven-four ‘Gemini Trajectory’, the melodic ‘Clouds’ and the mysterious ‘Tierra del Fuego’.

The Fourth Way emerged at a time of major social and political tension in the United States, a period of great creative energy in the arts. In jazz Miles Davis had stretched and pulled bop to its limits and was beginning to move towards electronic music, highlighted by the 1970 Bitches Brew.

The Fourth Way was part of this development and was an influential band in the formation of so-called fusion music. However, unlike some of those that followed in the 1970s, it was first and foremost a creative band willing to take musical risks.

The three Fourth Way CDs illustrate some of Nock’s innovative work in the late 1960s while Hear and Know illustrates some of his current acoustic work. Now, as then, he continues to probe and explore with strong compositions and interesting solos.

Visit Mike Nock on the web: www.mikenock.com

Purchase Hear and Know from Birdland Records >