Vinyl Frontier: Billy Jenkins, Uncommerciality

Most of the albums pulled from the collection are likely to be familiar to at least a few of those milling by; here’s one that probably isn’t in anyone’s collection.

Perhaps that is wrong, and I do hope so, for Billy Jenkins should be listened to by all lovers of waywardly brilliant guitarists.

The album has a ‘review copy’ sticker on the front and it was delivered by hand to the house in Lewisham where I rented a room. Jenkins later expanded this into a series, but here is the 1986 original: six tracks from the man John Fordham of the Guardian called “South London’s free-jazz catalyst”.

I first came across Billy when he played in Trimmer and Jenkins, a duo who described themselves as possibly being “alternative musical comedy”. Behind the larks and the inspired silliness, there was a solid core of music; and as Billy moved on, he concentrated more on the music, although the jokes never went away.

At around the time we met, Billy ran Wood Wharf Studios in Greenwich. In 1984, his uncle, David Jenkins, was consecrated as Archbishop of Durham. Uncle David triggered accusations of blasphemy when he compared the resurrection to a “conjuring trick with bones” – comments said to have been widely misquoted.

Two nights after he was consecrated at York Minster lightning struck and the cathedral suffered a devastating fire: some blamed the arrival of Billy’s uncle.

Billy had been making music for a few years by then, releasing albums including Sounds Like Bromley, with the Voice of God Collective.

Apologies for the preamble, but you always get a degree of incidental detail with Billy Jenkins. What you also get is a man who seems chaotic but knows exactly what he wants to do.

Billy was reviewed by the serious music press. Richard Williams said in The Times of this album: “An impressive example of a man in absolute command of his materials. Vibrant in a way that often recalls the spirit of the late Charles Mingus, Uncommerciality is an accomplished and sometimes provocative piece of work.”

Also writing in The Times, John Bungey described the expanded series as “a landmark in warped jazz pleasure”.

The six tracks begin with Brilliant and the music is full of barely controlled energy, breathless, reckless guitar solos and great honking sax from Iain Bellamy and Dai Pritchard, with drumming from Roy Dodds. It all sounds as crazily vibrant now as when first heard all those years ago when Billy rode round to drop off this copy. In fact, I reckon this album is better than I recall, and finding it in the vinyl vault known as the wardrobe in the spare room has been an absolute pleasure.

All these years later, it deserves to be heard again. As for Billy, he is 62 (aren’t we all) and still around on the fringes

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