CULT CLASSIC: BERT MYRICK-LIVE ’N WELL.

Cult Classic: Bert Myrick-Live ’N Well.

Many record collectors have an album that has continued to elude them for many years. So much so,  that it is the equivalent to finding the holy grail. They’ve searched for years, and never come close to finding that elusive and rare album. It gets that they can’t pass a record store, junk shop or thrift store without looking for their musical holy grail.

When they enter the shop, there’s always the hope that this, time they’ll come out clutching the album that has eluded them for so long. It’s the one album that they’ve dreamt about finding, preferably a mint copy in the Dollar bin. This is something that all record collectors dream about. There’s always one particular record that for too long, has eluded them.

For some jazz fans, it’s the six albums the short-lived Detroit-based Strata Records’ released between 1973 and 1975. This includes Bert Myrick’s 1974 album Live ’N Well eluded them which is one of the rarest jazz albums ever released. The story behind this album began Motor City in 1930.

Bert Myrick it seems, was always destined to be a drummer. He was born in Detroit in 1930, and growing up pounded away at pots and pans. They were the drums that Bert Myrick never had, but always wanted. With money tight, drums were a luxury. However, Bert Myrick wasn’t going to give up on his dream of becoming a drummer.

Helping him on his way was his friend Elvin Jones, who was three years older than Bert Myrick. While Bert Myrick was born in Detroit, Elvin Jones was born and brought up in Pontiac, Michigan. Their paths crossed on the local music scene, and Elvin Jones took Bert Myrick under his wing. He became his mentor, and his Elvin Jones playing style would rub off on Bert Myrick. Elvin Jones would go on to play on many classic albums, including John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and never forgot his friend Bert Myrick.

When Elvin Jones returned to Detroit to play with a band, he would always ensure that Bert Myrick and his friends got in to see the gig. Even if it meant leaving a window open, which Bert Myrick and his friends would scramble through. Bert Myrick would sit and watch, and dram that one day, he would be sitting where Elvin Jones was.

That dream eventually came true. After his discharge from the US Military in the early fifties, Bert Myrick started studying and playing alongside pianist Barry Harris, who was one of the leading light’s of Detroit’s bebop scene. Soon, Barry Harris had become Bert Myrick’s mentor, and helped him find his feet in Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene.

Before long, Bert Myrick was the go-to-guy for any jazz musicians who arrived in Detroit without a drummer. He played alongside Joe Henderson, Sonny Stitt, Terry Pollard and Yusef Lateef. For Bert Myrick, this was the equivalent of his musical apprenticeship.

In April 1964, Bert Myrick was a member of drummer Bill Hyde’s quintet that played at Odum’s Cave. That was how Bert Myrick and trombonist George Bohanon first met. The pair became friends, and later in Bert Myrick was asked to join a quintet led by trombonist George Bohanon and tenor saxophonist Ronnie Fields. Sadly, the Bohanon-Fields Quintet was relatively short-lived, and once the job ended, the members of the quintet started founding their own bands.

This is how the band that played on Live ’N Well came about. It was formed in 1964, and it took a while to settle on a rhythm section. The problem area was the bass, and various players tried out. They never quite clicked with the rest of the rhythm section. That was until Will Austin, who arrived back in Motorcity after playing alongside Etta James and the great and good of jazz, including  Helen Hume, Jackie McLean, Joe Williams, Kenny Dorham, Philly Joe Jones, Wes Montgomery. Will Austin auditioned, and proved to be the missing link in the quintet’s rhythm section.

At last the quintet’s lineup was complete. The rhythm section featured drummer Bert Myrick, bassist Will Austin and pianist Kenny Cox. They were joined by trombonist George Bohanon and Ronnie Field on tenor saxophone. It seemed that Bert Myrick was following in the footsteps of the Jazz Crusaders, who had popularised the tenor and trombone frontline. This would prove popular and soon, the quintet were making waves around Detroit.

The quintet was soon one of the top band’s on Detroit’s thriving jazz scene. There was more to Detroit than soul, and many talented jazz bands were playing in the city’s clubs. However, Bert Myrick’s band was a cut above the competition, and when they took to the stage, were capable of creating musical magic. That was the case on the ‘4th’ of April 1965.

Bert Myrick’s band were booked to play at the University Of Michigan Student Union on the ‘4th’ of April 1965. Pianist Kenny Cox decided to record the concert. Whether he was thinking of trying to interest a record company in the concert is unknown. However, as Bert Myrick’s band took to the stage, thankfully, someone pressed record.

That night, drummer Bert Myrick lead his talented quintet that featured bassist Will Austin, pianist Kenny Cox, trombonist George Bohanon and Ronnie Field on tenor saxophone. They worked their way through a four song set that opened with Sevenths which gave way to Scorpio’s Child, Paramour and closed with The Latin Bit. As the quintet left the stage after a masterful performance, they received standing ovation. Despite this, the recording that became Live ’N Well lay unreleased for nine years.

Following the recording of what would later become Live ’N Well, Bert Myrick’s quintet continued to play live, and proved a popular draw. Mostly, they played in Detroit, but sometimes, ventured further afield. However, gig goers realised that when Bert Myrick’s quintet took to the stage, they were capable of producing fireworks. That was the case right up until the quintet split-up around 1967. 

Only Bert Myrick and bassist Will Austin remained in Detroit. They were never short of work, and spent much of their time playing alongside pianist Terry Pollard. However, the rest of the quintet, Kenny Cox, George Bohanon and Ronnie Field left Detroit’s jazz scene behind, and headed for pastures new.

Trombonist George Bohanon went on to forge a long and successful career. He had also been a regular member of Motown’s studio band The Funk Brothers, and his work with various jazz bands would stand him in good stead for the future. George Bohanon played on over 470 recordings as a session musician, ranging from jazz, funk, rock and soul. Meanwhile, Kenny Cox had plans for the future.

Pianist Kenny Cox and The Contemporary Jazz Quintet had joined forces, and in 1968, released their debut album Introducing Kenny Cox And The Contemporary Jazz Quintet on Blue Note Records. It was followed up a year later by Multidirection, which was released on Blue Note Records in 1969. However, when The Contemporary Jazz Quintet returned with a third album in 1973, it would be on a different label.

By 1973, much had changed for Kenny Cox and The Contemporary Jazz Quintet. They had Blue Note Records behind, and were now billed as The Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Kenny Cox was still The Contemporary Jazz Quintet pianist, and had founded his own record company, Strata Records. He had founded Strata Records in Detroit, and for the nascent label’s first release, chose The Contemporary Jazz Quintet’s third album Location. 

After the release of Location, Kenny Cox started thinking about what Strata Records’ second release should be. That was when he remembered the recording of the Bert Myrick quintet at the University Of Michigan Student Union, on the ‘4th’ of April 1965. It featured a masterful performance from Bert Myrick’s quintet, who had been a popular drawn around Detroit and further afield. This was the perfect addition to Strata Records’ discography.

When Kenny Cox approached Bert Myrick about releasing the recording of the concert at University Of Michigan Student Union, he agreed. The concert became Live ’N Well, which was released on Strata Records baring the catalogue number SRI-102-74. For  Bert Myrick, Live ’N Well was his long-awaited debut album.

Just like The Contemporary Jazz Quintet’s album Location, Bert Myrick’s Live ’N Well didn’t sell in vast quantities. However, it found favour with a small, but discerning coterie of jazz lovers. While the sales were disappointing, forty-four year old Bert Myrick had belatedly released his debut album Live ’N Well. It was something to celebrate.

Opening Live ’N Well is Sevenths, where from the get-go, the quintet play with urgency Bert Myrick’s drums and Will Austin’s bass propel the arrangement along. They’re join by the rasping, braying horns, that are played with power and speed. By contrast, pianist Kenny Cox playing is slower but confident, as he chooses each note with the utmost care. Up until then, Kenny Cox and the horns are stealing the show. That is until Bert Myrick unleashes a masterful solo. Soon, he’s making good use of his full kit. He powers his way around the kit, rapid-fire drums fills and rolls join hissing hi-hats during what can only be described as a drumming masterclass. It quite rightly receives a standing ovation.

Scorpio’s Child is the centre-piece of Live ’N Well, and at first, pianist Kenny Cox’s plays hesitantly, gradually finding his way as the horn brays and cymbals hiss. Soon, Bert Myrick’s drums are adding the elusive percussive element, as the piano meanders and flows along when the horns drop out. Meanwhile, Bert Myrick’s drums provide the heartbeat, and with Will Austin’s bass helps propel the arrangement along. However, the piano plays a starring role and is played with power, passion and confidence. This encourages Bert Myrick to raise his game, and the two together until Will Austin delivers his solo. Then the band reunite and the piano and horns play a leading roles. However, Bert Myrick never misses a beat. This is apparent when he takes centre-stage. His playing is crisp, clean and concise as Kenny Cox provides the perfect foil. With his help, Bert Myrick reaches new heights on this fourteen minute, progressive hard bop epic.

Paramour is a fifteen minute musical adventure. Initially, it’s just the piano the played confidently before Bert Myrick caresses the hi-hats. Sultry horns join the frae, as the arrangement meanders along. Bert Myrick’s playing veers between measured and understated to powerful and dramatic. As Will Austin’s walking bass helps propel the slinky arrangement along, Bert’s playing remains understated. This allows the horns and piano to take centre-stage. Soon, though the rest of the band make their presence felt, but don’t overpower the piano and horns. When the horns drop out, the rest of the rhythm section accompany Kenny Cox’s drums, and form an effective trio, which shows a different side to the band. Later, Bert plays with power and precision, which signals the return of the horns and the band reunite. Soon, the horns drop out and the arrangement becomes spartan as it dissipates, leaving just a memory of this beautiful, hopeful and dreamy opus.

The Latin Bit bursts into life, and soon, it becomes apparent that Bert Myrick is determined to close Live ’N Well on a high. It’s the piano and horns that play leading roles, leaving Bert and bassist Will Austin to power the arrangement along. Bert switches between drums and cymbals, as braying horns join the jaunty piano. Kenny Cox plays with care and confidence, sometimes pounding the piano, before the horns take centre-stage and sweep high above the arrangement, where they’re played with power.  When they drop out, the baton passes to the piano which is played with speed and precision. Meanwhile, Bert powers his way round his kit. Latterly, stabs of horns interject as the piano plays and Bert ensures that The Latin Bit and Live ’N Well ends on a memorable and melodic high.

Live ’N Well is one of jazz music’s long lost hidden gems. It’s an that should’ve reached a much wider audience. Sadly, the album passed most record buyers by when it was released in 1974. Sadly, that was a taste of what the future held for Kenny Cox’s Strata Records.

Detroit jazz collective Sphere’s debut album Inside Ourselves was released later in 1974. It was a familiar story for Kenny Cox’s Strata Records. They had released a groundbreaking album, but one that failed to find the audience it deserved. History repeated itself when Maulawi released their eponymous debut album later in 1974. Although it was early days, Kenny Cox’s Strata Records wasn’t exactly a resounding success.

As 1975 dawned, Strata Records made plans for their next release. The album they chose was The Lyman Woodard Organization’s debut album Saturday Night Special. Funky and soulful, it was an album that should’ve found a much wider audience. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and time was running out for Strata Records. When Larry Nozero’s Time which featured Dennis Tini was released later in 1975, it was another ambitious album that veered between jazz-funk to soul-jazz to jazz. However, when it failed commercially, it was the end of the road for Strata Records. 

Strata Records closed their doors for the last time in 1975, and now, forty-five years later there’s been a resurgence of interest in the six albums the label between 1973 and 1975. This includes  Bert Myrick’s hidden jazz gem Live ’N Well which is a reminder of a truly talented drummer as his one only album and cult classic shows.

Cult Classic: Bert Myrick-Live ’N Well.

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