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Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Humph at the Conway by Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band

When I found this battered Parlophone disc in a Santa Monica used record store, I immediately knew I must have it.  Unless you are up on your British jazz history, the name Humphrey Lyttelton will mean nothing to you, but in England, the man was an institution, and this album in particular is a choice historical document.

1972 to 1973, my year in Oxford, I found, to my delight, a jazz radio program each week featuring an affable trumpet player and his band, The Foot Warmers.  It was classic jazz, spanning New Orleans to blues to 1930s style swing.  Despite the arcane repertoire, the performances were neither precious nor brittle.  On the contrary, the music was spirited and alive with fun.   Humphrey Lyttelton had a clarion trumpet delivery and introduced guest artists with the perfect combination of warmth and a literate insouciance.

Our Album of the Week, Humph at the Conway, finds a 28-year-old George Martin, the future Beatles producer and acknowledged genius of the recording process, overseeing an experimental recording.  The idea was to record a concert much like it would unfold were you to see it live.  This was 1954 (Sept. 2nd), and long-playing technology had just recently allowed for such "experiments."  Since this band held court each month at the Conway Hall, it was decided to record them in situ.  The Conway Hall, by the way, was founded by the South Place Ethical Society (today we would call them secular humanists) in 1929, and the fifties found it home to "chamber music recitals, Trade Union get-togethers, lectures on the cure for stammering, and meetings of the London Society of Magicians." 

The recording equipment was set up in a little room apart from the auditorium, with no windows.  Perhaps the album's success is partly due to the fact that last minute technical problems with the tape recorder stopped the band from doing the scheduled sound check, allowing the musicians a last-minute refresher at the nearby pub.  Luckily, the problem was soon fixed and the show went on.  George Martin ran messages back and forth between the band and engineer Peter Brown.  The last piece, Mo pas lemmé ças, includes audience participation.  At the last minute, George Martin absconded with the pianist's microphone and held it aloft in the middle of the crowd.  As Humph writes in the liner notes: the pianist's "indignant protest has been expurgated from the final tape!"

The condition of this record was not good.  In restoring it digitally I felt as if I was restoring the Dead Sea Scrolls, in that I had to reassemble quite a bit to deal with the skips.  I lovingly hand-smoothed nearly all the (plentiful) scratches.  The result is a slice of time that never grows old.  I see now that I could have ordered a CD of it, but my intimate working with the material has helped me appreciate Humph and his excellent band all the more.

Have a listen to some of the record on Emusic here!