Spirit Level "A major force in British jazz... The pairing of Richard's sparkling keyboards with the distinctive, sumptuous tenor of Jerry Underwood produces a breadth of tone and emotion rarely seen outside the bands of Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders."
Formed in Bristol in 1979, the original line-up of this seminal UK band included Tim Richards (piano), Paul Dunmall (tenor sax), Paul Anstey (bass) and Tony Orrell (drums), a personnel which was to remain stable for ten years.
The high point of this period was probably their appearance on the main programme of the 1985 VIENNE Jazz Festival in France, supporting Horace Silver (and on the same bill as Miles Davis!).
They recorded three vinyl albums for the SPOTLITE label in the 1980s, two with trumpeter Dave Holdsworth (see discography).
The third, Killer Bunnies, was recorded after a Jazz Services UK tour in 1986 with US trumpeter Jack Walrath (ex-Mingus), whom they had met the previous year in Nimes (France). The album featured many of Jack's fascinating compositions and received a 4-star write-up in the US magazine DOWNBEAT.
Please click on the photos to enlarge
In 1989, SPIRIT LEVEL reformed with saxophonist Jerry Underwood, drummer Mark Sanders and bassist Andy Cleyndert, later replaced by South African bassist Ernest Mothle, recording the New Year CD for FMR Records in 1990. This CD is now unavailable.
The highlight of this second line-up was probably a concert in Bordeaux in 1990 opposite the McCoy Tyner Big Band.
See below for subsequent history of the band in the 1990s...
Tracks from all the above recordings are compiled on the CD Best of SPIRIT LEVEL, released with the GREAT SPIRIT CD on 33 Records in 1999, as a double issue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band.
"An important piece of British jazz history is combined with stimulating
new music to make up an excellent two CD set."
Chris Yates The JAZZ RAG
"An excellent look back at a fine band."
Kennie Mathieson JAZZWISE Magazine
"A valuable piece of Britjazz documentation."
John Fordham The GUARDIAN
"Everyone who reads this magazine should buy this album - it's British jazz at its best. The shared joy in music making is audible, evidence Richards is a far more important force in British jazz than he has been given credit for"
Stuart Nicholson JAZZWISE Magazine
(CD review - 4 stars - an outstanding release)
"It is heartening to hear music of this quality from this side of the water."
Mark Gilbert JAZZ REVIEW
"A Budget reissue that is excellent value offering
over two hours of great music."
SPIRIT LEVEL's third and final line-up retained Jerry Underwood (tenor sax), with the rhythm section of Kubryk Townsend (bass) and Kenrick Rowe (drums) .
They recorded the CD On the Level (1994, still available on 33 Records) and toured extensively in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, etc, occasionally playing double bills with such names as Miroslav Vitous, Joe Zawinul Syndicate, Joe Henderson, Jan Garbarek, etc...
This band was nominated "Best Small Group" in the 1995 British Jazz Awards.
During its 20-year history, SPIRIT LEVEL toured all over Europe and appeared at many festivals including Bracknell, Brecon, Vienne, Tourcoing, Strasbourg, Coutances, Angouleme, Stuttgart, Malta, Zagreb, Ankara, Izmir, Bolzano, Canary Islands, Brussels, Frankfurt, and many others.
They also recorded many broadcasts for BBC Radio, Radio France, WDR Koln and Radio Suisse Romande.
In 1999, with Jerry Underwood now living permanently in France, Tim finally called it a day, celebrating the band's 20th anniversary by forming a new 9-piece outfit, GREAT SPIRIT.
Everyone who head Jerry play will have been deeply saddened to hear of his death in France from a brain tumour in 2002.
The On the Level and GREAT SPIRIT/ Best of SPIRIT LEVEL CDs can be obtained by sending a cheque for £12 and £16 respectively (payable to Tim Richards) to:
Tim Richards, 111a Bovill Road, London SE23 1EL. You can pay by credit card (secure transaction) at www.jazzcds.co.uk
Both are also available on the internet from www.amazon.co.uk
A more detailed history of the band can be found in the 12-page illustrated booklet which accompanies the GREAT SPIRIT/ Best of SPIRIT LEVEL double CD.
Spirit Level 1979-1999
"As assured as ever and pianist Tim Richards'
compositions even more attractive."
Dave Gelly The OBSERVER
"One of Britain's longest running and most respected jazz groups."
STRAIGHT NO CHASER
"This is maximum punch jazz . . . an exhilarating experience."
"Spirit Level have evolved a distinctive collective voice and attack.
One of their greatest assets... the unusually gifted, blues-inspired pianist-composer Tim Richards."
The ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JAZZ
"Richards' great strength as a composer lies in his ability to provide pieces that are unfussy enough to be blowing vehicles, but at the same time reward repeated listening... providing perfect platforms for his own sparkling soloing..."
Chris Parker The TIMES
"One of the few glimpses of hope in the currently
overflowing post-bop scene."
JAZZ PODIUM (Germany)