Maybe it was pure vanity that recently led me to Google the words ‘Ashley Franklin Soundscapes’. Actually, I think that during an idle moment I became curious as to which entries about my old Radio Derby rock show would appear at the top. Interestingly, it’s ‘A Jade Warrior Special on Soundscapes’. This says much about the cult following of the band that fans would be so keen as to bother browsing the transcript of a two-hour interview all the way back to 1995.
The band guested on the show 12 years ago as they were back recording, the original flautist and multi-instrumentalist Jon Field having teamed up with bass player Dave Sturt who, coincidentally, had just come to live in my Derbyshire town. Since then, we’ve become pals. Just before Christmas, I came home to find Dave had called. Alongside a Christmas card was a package that lit up my eyes: all four of Jade Warrior’s legendary Island albums from the 70s, properly remastered for the first time. Also, Dave left a note telling me that after a long hiatus, Jade Warrior were recording again, with the original vocalist, too: Glyn Havard.
I can barely recall those initial vocal albums, released on Philips’ ‘progressive’ label Vertigo but it was after Glyn had left that the band’s imprint was felt – as an instrumental duo, comprising Jon Field and guitarist Tony Duhig. This musical romance began in the early 60s as a meeting between two factory forklift truck drivers. Fatefully, both found they shared an interest in jazz, African and Latin American music. In between forklift shifts, they began experimenting: Jon and Tony were passionately interested in the possibilities of multi-track recording and would spend hours in Jon’s bedroom building up multi-layered, overdubbed sounds which, in their memorable words, was an attempt to “build a cathedral with the sort of things you’d find in your back yard”. They weren’t kidding, either. They would incorporate sounds created by a fire extinguisher, teaspoons, a giant empty bottle of Teacher’s and even the wind blowing under the glass doors of their recording studio. Not that their music was ever avant garde as the noises created by these random objects were part of a rich, tuneful overall sound that included layers of flutes, guitars, keyboards and percussion, some of them played at half-speed and/or distorted and/or echoed. Listen to any of their Island albums and you’ll hear sounds so dense and intricate that even a synthesizer would struggle to reproduce them. “There are some incredible sounds on their albums that you just couldn’t re-create even with today’s digital technology”, comments Dave Sturt.
The reason we can hear those albums at all is down to Stevie Winwood. A devotee of their sound after Jade Warrior once supported Traffic, he urged his Island label boss Chris Blackwell to sign them. According to Jon, Blackwell’s interest may have been spurred by seeing Jade Warrior as Island’s answer to Virgin’s recent success, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (on which Jon had guested on flute).
Jade Warrior’s album sales paled in comparison to Oldfield’s but whereas Oldfield was creating melodic mélanges of rock, folk and classical music, Jade Warrior’s sound was more about the creation of atmospheric, exotic and idiosyncratic ‘sound paintings’ with more of an emphasis on jazz and ethnic music. Atmosphere was very important to Jade Warrior: “We always had tunes and tunes were easy”, says Jon. “But however wonderful a tune is, it won’t work if there’s no atmosphere. You can get an ice cream van to play a sequence of notes, which is what a tune is, but if there’s no atmosphere there, it doesn’t mean anything”.
Jade Warrior aficionado David Platt, who wrote the liner notes for the reissued CDs, provides a perfect and eloquent description of JW’s category-defying music: “It's often melodically simple, and rhythmically complex... or vice versa. It tends to have a characteristic sound... which changes to something completely different at the drop of a hat. It's subtle, quiet, lurking around back where you can just barely hear it... and then it leaps forward and stomps flaming circles around you. It's layered, complex, involved, inter-woven... and as pellucidly clear as a calm ocean lagoon”.
David also points out that these four Island albums – Floating World, Kites, Waves and Way of the Sun – show “a mastery of musical dynamics”. Essentially, dynamics in musical sound terms is, to quote its dictionary definition, all about ‘variations in force and intensity’. It can lend palpable impact to one’s music. Led Zeppelin were always masters of dynamics and so were Jade Warrior. In fact, the wide dynamic range of JW’s albums is what makes their appearance on CD so welcome. If compact disc technology had been available ten years earlier, Jade Warrior may well have sold more records. “The attempts to write for extreme dynamic range was a little over optimistic because of the limitations of vinyl”, observes Jon. “Right from the first Island album, we decided to create a very, very loud guitar but also one as softly as one could possibly have it. Think about your blackest black and your whitest white, and that’s what you’re dealing with in our records. Dynamics are extremely important. The loudest moment you can get is only loud by the dint of the quietest moment you can get. If it’s ALL loud or ALL quiet, then it’s all normal”.
Asking Jon how he feels about those Island albums causes him to muse philosophically: “These albums were the culmination of countless hours just talking through ideas, talking music, talking crap – I have no doubt! – but I forgive us. The past is a different country; they do things differently there. Listening to the albums again, there is stuff there I would not have included but given that we were a band waiting for the computer to be invented, I think that on balance we got close to what we wanted”.
Maybe Jade Warrior’s sound came too early. In those four albums were world music and ambient music long before the terms were coined. Indeed, Brian Eno cites their first release Floating World of 1974 as “a very important album” and one music critic hailed Jon and Tony as pioneers: “mysterious, evocative, disturbing, their soundscapes cleared a path for today’s Deep Forest, The Orb and other ambient, trance-dance, world and New Age musicians”.
Hopefully that legacy will one day be recognised. In the meantime, after confessing to “taking my eye off the musical ball” and delving into the world of illustration, Jon Field is back in the game, re-uniting Jade Warrior as a vocal band. Sadly, it doesn’t include his other half in those Island days – Tony Duhig: he died in 1992 – but Jon feels energised at the fact that he’s back recording and (eventually) playing live with his old vocalist Glyn Havard, especially as they’re on good terms after a fractious break-up back in the early 70s: “In those days we were kicking over chairs and raging at one another. Now, it couldn’t be more harmonious”, says Jon.
With Dave Sturt’s superb bass playing and creative musical ideas, this resurgent Jade Warrior – on the evidence of the four-track EP I’ve heard – sounds sharp, focused and edgy. It’s rock with a jazz inflection and those same great dynamics – soft one moment, savage the next. Interestingly, the name Jade Warrior comes from the term used in Japan to describe Samurai who expected to be artists and poets as well as deadly killers. It was chosen by Jon and Tony to describe “the contrasting and apparently conflicting musical styles they wished to blend”.
As Jon states finally: “The Jade in Jade Warrior is still there – we still seek tranquility – but we forgot the ‘Warrior’ for too long… and it’s back with a vengeance this time”.