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Jerry Underwood, gifted saxophonist on UK sceneby Ian Storror
Copyright © 2002 Ian Storror
Ian Storrer at the Bristol jazz venue The Albert Inn has issued the following obituary of Bristol-born saxophonist Jerry Underwood:
Jerry Underwood was a saxophonist and musician of real quality, whose modesty and personable charm made him a wonderful person as well as a musician of great talent.
His contribution to the development of jazz in Bristol for over twenty years was by no means small, and his overall body of work was from the top bracket of UK and European jazz.
Saxophonist Paul Dunmall was Jerrys mentor and teacher. Even before he had a sax of his own, he would go to the park in his lunch-breaks from a photography job and write out arpeggios. Paul soon began to introduce Jerry to live jazz situations, which he tackled with relish.
Work with Bristol jazz-rock outfit Tao established him as a saxophone player of note. His real passion for jazz emerged through bands such as Klaunstance, Bullet, his own quartet co-led with Geoff Williams, and later Spirit Level.
Klaunstance was a cutting edged group, named after a Charlie Parker tune and was fronted by two young, hard-hitting sax players, Jerry Underwood and Andy Sheppard.
The two were already friends having played together at the Gorge Jazz Club sessions in the late 70s and early 80s. Klaunstance was formed with Phil Gibbs (guitar), Paul Ansty (bass) and Tony Orrell (drums). Sheppard and Orrell had previously been in seminal band Sphere together. Klaunstance was to have the same fire as Sphere but the two-sax front-line gave it a new dimension. This high octane jazz style became unique to Bristol at this time, borrowed from a Coltrane legacy but firmly based in European rather than US styles. They were great to listen to and good to watch. The pair duelling in front of a driving rhythm section.
Bullet was a different kettle of fish, featuring strange, experimental and straight-ahead players. The contemporary and improvisational inspiration for the group came from its instigators the brothers Menter, Ian and Will. A different experience altogether with some unusual instrumentation in the form of hosepipes with funnels and the kitchen sink literally, with a trumpet mouthpiece attached. The mayhem was both entertaining and thought provoking with the strength of the sound emanating from messers, Underwood and Sheppard once again. At this time he was also collaborating with experimental electronics wizard, Ed Williams in Bristol.
In his own group co-led with another Sphere alumni Geoff Williams, he endeavoured to play closer to the hard bop genre, but with as much original material as possible composed by Williams and Underwood. Jerry had now developed his style and without tempering or compromising the driving, powerful technique added the smoothness and control of an American style player to his blistering solos.
In 1989 he took over the sax chair in Spirit Level, a Bristol based group when formed, which was later to be continued by original member Tim Richards (piano). He replaced another of his great long time friends Paul Dunmall who had left the band to continue his improvisational work with Mujician and Evan Parker. This band had a strong reputation, toured extensively and recorded five albums. Jerry played with the group for ten years until 1999. During this time he formed a strong friendship with the bands bass player Kubryck Townsend.
Jerry had moved to London in the early 90s and was working with a variety of top UK based players including Mervyn Africa, Gail Thompsons Jazz Africa and Elton Dean (The Vortex Tapes).
More work with old sidekick Andy Sheppard came along in the form of Sheppards second big band, Big Co-Motion, in 1993-1994. He toured and recorded with Carla Bleys big band in 1997 and joined Jacqui McShees Pentangle in 1998. All this as well as a five-year stint touring and recording with folk rock legend John Martyn.
Jerry moved to France in 1999, to live in Chambery with his wife Natalie. He played with many French musicians and came back to the UK often with his own groups and with the Dave Gordon Quartet.
Late in 2000, he was diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour. After a lengthy course of laser radiotheraphy, chemotherapy and alternative treatments in France he was close to being given the all clear in December last year. Even during this difficult time he would go jogging to try and improve his strength, demonstrating his characteristic determination. In January a further growth was discovered, which progressively weakened him. He passed away peacefully in his sleep in the arms of his wife Natalie.
Jerry was the most likeable and natural person you could wish to meet. Many clichés come to mind: "He had no enemies", "Only the good die young" very true of Jerry, but half a lifetime knowing him was better than not knowing him at all, both as a musician, and a beautiful person.
It is said that he was the first to combine the Euro/US styles into a voice of his own. Some players spend a lifetime without finding an individual sound, you knew immediately it was Jerry when the soaring yet very lyrical sax lines flowed freely from his horn, none better than on his own (and possibly best) composition, Now or Never.
Jerry Underwood touched many hearts and will be missed by his family, friends, fellow musicians and the many listeners who were privileged enough to have been touched by his music.
Jazz at the Albert, Bristol.
Ian Storror promotes jazz at the Albert Inn, Bristol