When discussing The Hobbit Suite record two years ago, I offhandedly described John Sangster’s Lord of the Rings LPs as too ‘trad-jazzy’ for my tastes. I have been revisiting a few of these albums of late – prompted in part from reading Sangster’s autobiography Seeing The Rafters (1988) – and I’ve gotten new insights into the man’s work that have caused a revision in my thinking on these albums.
Sangster’s Tolkien-themed series of albums comprised, The Hobbit Suite (1973), Lord of the Rings (1975), Lord of the Rings Vol. 2 (1976), Double Vibes: Hobbit (1977), Lord of the Rings Vol 3. (1977) and Landscapes of Middle Earth (1978). All of these were double LPs released on EMI apart from the two hobbit records which were single LPs released on local jazz label Swaggie. The EMI records have all been excellently remastered and re-released on CD by Move Records. Swaggie have remastered and re-released The Hobbit Suite and selections from Double Vibes which features the aforementioned album plus four songs from the latter title. (Given the paucity of reissues of Australian jazz recordings from the sixties and seventies, this may provide some indication of the esteem in which these records are still held by people in the local music industry.)
The Hobbit Suite was apparently quite a spontaneous recording with a small ensemble and most of the tracks are first takes. After the success of this record Sangster was emboldened to try more ambitious arrangements for the new music he was writing and went to a major label that could support his vision. These records feature expanded brass and string sections in addition to the core jazz band.
For the past year or so I have been thoroughly listening to the first two LOTR albums and The Hobbit Suite which preceded them. (I haven’t heard LOTR Vol 3. or Landscapes of Middle Earth at all – and I won’t do for quite some time. Sangster died in 1995, his musical output was finite and I’ve got to make this stuff last.)
Firstly, despite the aesthetics of the cover art and the song titles being allusions to Tolkien at face value, Sangster’s autobiography makes clear that these records too, are autobiographies. His life, in musical form. For example, the ‘Knockabout Trolls’ from The Hobbit Suite? Those ‘trolls’ are Sango and Sluggsy AKA his mate, drummer Len Barnard, doubling on washboard out the front of the band! And as for the stoned laughter and banter in the background of Longbottom Leaf from LOTR Vol 2. well, let’s just say that they may well have been method-acting. Legolas et al may hail from Middle Earth, but the bird calls in the field recordings on these albums are clearly from natives of the New South Wales temperate forests, near Sangster’s home of Sydney.
In addition to these coded titles, the music itself represents the myriad of styles that Sangster has played in, beginning in the burgeoning Australian jazz scene of the forties. From his book: “If you want a musical autobiography, it's all there in the Lord of the Rings albums. A crazed montage of all the jazz (and other) idioms I've been involved with during my life. All the musics I love are in there; some plainly stated, some distorted and disguised a little bit the way memories sometimes go."
My dismissive description of the LOTR records as merely ‘trad jazz’ is just plain wrong; these records encompass a ridiculous range of music from within and without the jazz scene, such as old-style trad, ragtime, be-bop, big-band/swing, blues, film music, avant garde and musique concrète. The fact that the first LOTR record has a track like Uncle Gandalf Needs You followed immediately by Ents And Entwives is a feat of juxtaposition that shows how ballsy Sangster really was. Sangster worshipped old greats like Bix Beiderbecke and Ellington, but he was equally a fan of experimental icons like Sun Ra, Moondog and Xenakis and all these influences coexist on these discs.
I’m glad I persevered with these records as these are superb examples of Sangster’s work and are significant albums, not just for Australian jazz, but Australian music in general. Is it too much to hope that one day Sangster’s music will see a resurgence amongst the hipsters and the Oz music bourgeois alike, and Sango himself celebrated as an unheralded genius? I really hope so. Australians are famously unwilling to revere their own as cultural figures worth praising, but a talent like John Sangster must transcend this and take a rightful place in the antipodean cultural canon alongside the likes of Barry Humphries or Charles Blackman. On yer Sango.