Reviewed: [April 2020]
Released [2020 Blacklake]
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
For such an elaborate gag, how the folks behind Jazz Sabbath missed the obvious opportunity to issue this album on April Fool’s Day boggles the mind. Yes, I know April 1 is a Wednesday, and album release day is Friday, but still – even if that schedule has now been blown all to hell by COVID-19, which has fucked everything up for everyone.
But if you’re going to go through all the trouble to concoct a fantastical story and build an entire history – which includes a 16-minute video “documentary” that can be seen at the link below – all while keeping tongue firmly in cheek, to merely toss this onto the regular release pile is a missed opportunity that is downright unforgivable.
Nevertheless, here are we are. The Jazz Sabbath “story,” in a nutshell, is as follows: they were a pioneering English jazz combo in the late ’60s and had a debut album teed up for release when founder/pianist “Milton Keanes” suffered a debilitating heart attack. As a result, the album was shelved while he was recovering. In the interim, however, metal versions of the songs mysteriously turned up on Black Sabbath’s first two albums.
The original Jazz Sabbath recordings – and, somehow, all of the albums that had been pressed – were then thought lost in a fire at the label’s warehouse. Fifty years later, copies of the master tapes were uncovered and are now ready to be released – revealing Black Sabbath as thieving opportunists and offering songs like “Iron Man” and “Children of the Grave” in their “original” form. Or so the story goes.
Needless to say, Jazz Sabbath is not metal – though there is a connection to Black Sabbath in project mastermind “Milton Keanes,” aka Adam Wakeman, son of Yes legend Rick Wakeman who has played guitar and keyboards with Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne’s band. But this resembles nothing of either in the slightest.
Instead, Jazz Sabbath is exactly as advertised. If you can imagine what “Iron Man” or “Children Of The Grave” might sound like if they were being jammed by a hepcat trio on piano, drums and standup bass in some smoky bar like The Simpsons’ immortal “Jazz Hole,” well then there you go. But I wouldn’t call it a spoof – a la Spinal Tap – instead, this is more of an homage, and a pretty good one at that.
Once you get over the initial shock, and get past the rather silly back story schtick, the music itself is whimsical, well executed and pretty entertaining. “Iron Man” has almost Gershwin-like elegance to it as Wakeman lends it an especially gentle hand, until the raucous finale that echoes the metal version we are all accustomed to. “Evil Woman” – which doesn’t quite fit the narrative, since it was originally written by the Minneapolis band Crow, but whatever – and “Hand Of Doom” also ride supple, chill rhythms, though Wakeman’s playing here is more demonstrative, giving the tracks some genuine verve.
“Changes,” though, seems like an odd choice, since it is one of Black Sabbath’s mellowest tracks to begin with, and got most of its impact from Ozzy Osbourne’s poignant vocals. Without vocal accompaniment, which is true of all the material here, it gains little shock or awe from its somewhat conventional interpretation, despite Wakeman’s occasional flourishes.
“Fairies Wear Boots” and the instrumental “Rat Salad,” though, offer spry, almost jump-bluesy takes, with “Rat Salad” showcasing “Juan Také’s” frisky drumming – just as it did for Bill Ward with Black Sabbath. As an opener, “Fairies” provides the sort of “what the fuck?” raised eyebrows that “Changes” does not, while at the same time revealing that when you get right down to it, Jazz Sabbath is no joke.
On the back end, “Children of the Grave” delivers much the same as the finale. Rendered almost unrecognizable until Wakeman mimics the vocal lines with his nimble fingers, it is a fiendishly clever re-imagination that gets some extra zazz from the addition of organ accompaniment and guitar and sax solos.
At seven songs and about 44 minutes, Jazz Sabbath is packaged just about right. More would have grown tiresome, less probably would have seemed more gimmicky that this ended up being. And even though some more obvious tunes – “N.I.B,” “Black Sabbath,” “Paranoid” or “War Pigs” – are left off in favor of songs that perhaps better fit the jazz format, those that are featured here are done with panache and deference. They are meant to make you smile, not laugh – and for the most part do the trick.