Ronnie Ross – Cleopatra’s Needle (Fontana SFJL 915)

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Discographical Details

Artist: Ronnie Ross.
Title: Cleopatra’s Needle (Fontana SFJL 915)
Label and Catalogue Number: Fontana
Personnel: Ronnie Ross (baritone saxophone); Art Elefsen (tenor saxophone); Les Condon (trumpet); Bill Le Sage (piano and vibraphone); Spike Heatley (bass); Ronnie Stephenson/Tony Carr (drums).
Side 1: Dolphin Square; Smiling Jack; Eucalyptus Kid; U69.
Side 2: Cleopatra’s Needle; Tibufa; Stand By; Brewer’s Castle.
Recording Date: June 1968 in London, United Kingdom.

On The Record

Selection: Cleopatra’s Needle

Ronnie Ross is one of those musicians most people have never heard of but, unwittingly, they have probably heard at least one of his recordings. It’s bad enough that most leading lights of the 1960s British jazz scene go unremembered nowadays but Ross made his place in posterity even harder to secure through choosing the baritone saxophone as his main instrument. After all, how many prominent baritone players can the average jazz fan name? Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams and maybe Serge Chaloff before the well starts to run dry…

Yet there are things that count in Ross’ favour. He was saxophone teacher to the 12 year old David Bowie (David Jones at that age). That wasn’t forgotten when Bowie co-produced Lou Reed’s 1972 LP Transformer and Ross was invited to play that solo on Walk on the Wild Side. Ross also occupied the alto saxophone chair in Tubby Hayes’ big band but, by the 1970s, earning a living from jazz wasn’t economically viable so Ross’ parallel career as a session musician took precedence. For me, though, the single most important item in the credit column of the Ronnie Ross ledger is Cleopatra’s Needle. Ross had previously recorded three records as co-leader but this was to be the first and last under his sole leadership.

This hard-to-find 1968 release is a niche classic and exudes the aroma of London in the swinging sixties more than any other jazz record in my collection. Recorded in London, it features a coterie of that city’s hip jazz and session musicians like the effortlessly cool Le Sage, the prolific Heatley and mysterious Elefsen. Plus the title and cover art deliberately place this record at the heart of the nation’s capital.

The music is never less than interesting with a rich spread of instrumentation and strong ensemble playing. Ross’ baritone, of course, gets most attention but both drummers provide drive and guile and bassist Heatley delivers several highlights. Three tracks are immediate attention grabbers – Dolphin Square, Brewer’s Castle and the stand-out title track but that’s not to say the remainder of the LP is lacking. Plus you’ve got to love an LP that boasts a track (U69) allegedly titled for a microphone, though I haven’t been able to prove the existence of the specific model that merited this garland. The recording and pressing quality is great and being a stereo-only release doesn’t hamper Cleopatra’s Needle in the slightest. In general, by this date, engineers had got to grips with the stereo sound stage and it suits groups with six or more instruments anyway.

Soapbox alert: Cleopatra’s Needle is another example of the criminal neglect of native British jazz recordings from the 1960s. We still seem to suffer a chronic inferiority complex in relation to our trans-Atlantic cousins yet I struggle to think of many US baritone saxophone releases of the same vintage that better this album. The tragic result is, after the original Fontana first pressing of 1968, this record has never been re-issued on vinyl in Europe or America. This makes it a highly desirable and awkward proposition to acquire not to mention an expensive one if you care about condition. A quick check on Discogs statistics at the time of writing shows nine members of that august community own the first pressing but 143 want it (i.e. almost 16 times more people desire this record than actually own it) and only five copies have been sold through the site with about 40 eBay auctions for it in total.

So what’s the alternative? At present, on vinyl, there’s only one option: the 2006 180g audiophile Japanese remastered limited edition re-issue (Fontana UCJU-9053) that appeared as part of the quaintly named in translation Fontana And Philips Illusory Masterpieces series of 14 titles which also included four Tubby Hayes re-issues and one Dick Morrissey re-issue. This pressing is a little more readily available and certainly less expensive than the first pressing but I can’t offer an opinion on the sound quality. Bear in mind that you are also likely to have to factor in shipping costs from Japan as part of your budget so you may as well target a well-preserved copy complete with the traditional Japanese “obi” paper ribbon.

Between The Lines

I can usually identify the author of liner notes but the Patrick James credited with this set has eluded my detective skills. If you have any pointers to the true identity of this writer, please let me know. The other vexing aspect of these liner notes is the design decision to lay them out as a single full width column rather than two or three narrower ones. This makes them hard for the eye to scan in the first place but the faux pas is compounded by having the flow of text broken up by a great big photograph in the middle. I’m sure the concept of an unidentified exotic female posed before an enigmatic sphinx had an appeal at the time but it would get low marks in a modern graphic design examination.

All of which, I’m ashamed to say, pre-disposed me negatively against the liner notes. They are conventional in almost all respects. We have the usual biographical notes about the star performer’s career to date enlivened by one or two interview quotes but discussion of the music on the record is limited. There is, however, redemption of a sort in the final paragraph. The last sentence could be taken as much as an epitaph for the liner notes as a comment on the LP: “No attempt is made to prove anything – except, maybe, what a good idea it was to make the record”. I’d certainly concur it was a good, much more than good, idea to make the record. I’m not so convinced it was a good idea to invite Mr. James to pen the liner notes. They leave me with the feeling that he still needed to prove and improve much.

For Collector’s Only

Both sides of my copy have the smooth turquoise and silver Fontana labels that replaced the earlier black and silver rough-textured labels. Side 1’s deadwax has a stamped “886507 1Y 1” matrix number with a small inverted triangle between the “Y” and the final “1”. Closer inspection also shows a faint orphan stamped “1” lurking in the three o’clock position. Side 2’s stamped matrix number reads “886507 2Y 1” with another small inverted triangle in the corresponding position. This time there’s no other obvious machine stamped marking but there is something that could be interpreted as a hand etched “1”. It’s a lovely pressing and registers a perfectly respectable 133g on the scales.

The cover manufacture is the typically thin card flipback construction common to British records of the 1960s. The front is laminated and is in exceptional shape apart from one or two minor blemishes. The rear is unlaminated but well-preserved and unmarked.

This, then, is a well looked after first pressing of a neglected gem.