While bobbing around the huge melting pot of 1970s British rock, one of the more unique bands that floats to the surface is Jade Warrior. While not exactly dwelling in obscurity, neither were they fortunate enough to win the ‘right place, right time’ lottery that some of their contemporaries did. To their fans, of course, they are legendary, but there’s a wider contingent of people to whom they remain entirely unknown more than 50 years after the release of their self-titled debut. But that’s hopefully to change as a result of Cherry Red’s Esoteric label. The folks at Esoteric oversaw a strong and well-received series of reissues back in 2010 that focused on Jade Warrior’s mid-70s period when they were on Island, their second record label. Now, in their continuing and tireless quest to restore vintage gems of bygone days, Esoteric turn their attention to the band’s first three albums from the early 70s, when they recorded for the Vertigo label.
Incomparable to peers who trod more well-worn paths, Jade Warrior nestled into a niche they skillfully carved with their broad and exotic blend of psychedelic rock, world music, jazz fusion, and atmospheric soundscapes. This trio of albums was right at home on the highly respected Vertigo, before the switch to Island in 1974 saw a shift to a gradually more dreamy and meditative direction.
The trio delivered their debut album, Jade Warrior, in 1971. The eclectic record showcased Tony Duhig’s raunchy, distorted guitar lines paired with Jon Field’s chirping flute melodies and crisp, popping percussion, anchored by bassist Glyn Havard who also took on vocal duties. Highlights include the oddball A Prenormal Night At Brighton (where bass, guitar, flute, and vocals all follow the same melody line), Masai Morning with its feast of tribal percussion, and the multi-part Dragonfly Day, a wonderful psychedelic-folk suite with jangly guitar rhythms, layered vocals and fluttering flutes. The groovin’, attitude-laden Telephone Girl is presented twice on this edition, with a previously unreleased version included as a bonus.
Overall, Jade Warrior is something of a battle between styles, and indeed if there’s a criticism to be lobbed, it’s that the music can come across as directionless. It’s a strange album, to be sure, but it has a fearlessly naive charm and stands as a vital piece of the band’s story with some truly strong moments. And if you like congas and bongos, well, it’s chock full of ’em.
By the end of 1971, the band’s second album Released was… well, released, and this time employed the talents of drummer Allan Price. Further expanding the Jade Warrior sound palette was the capable saxophone work of Dave Conners, which cut through the heavier music in a way the more tender flute sometimes could not. The resulting work is more sure-footed, with a wider range and greater depth than the green debut. Unlike The Traveller which opened that album at a leisurely pace, Released roars to life with Three Horned Dragon King, a riff-based rocker accented by sax and the now trademark percussion foundation. The ballsy rock of tracks like Eyes On You and We Have Reason To Believe is balanced by more delicate pieces like Bride Of Summer and Yellow Eyes, as well as the deliciously jazzy Water Curtain Cave, a piece that would surely have not been possible on the debut with its absence of a drum kit. Minnamoto’s Dream is another killer rocker that was built around the riff from A Prenormal Night At Brighton played backwards (the result of a happy accident in the studio). All of this music is pretty far removed from the relaxing far Eastern-tinged instrumentals recorded just a few years later on albums like Waves and Kites.
The album’s biggest highlight is the jammy, energetic 15 minute odyssey Barazinbar, surely among the top tracks of the Jade Warrior catalogue. Field was an excellent percussionist and though he’s not shy with his playing on any of this music, he truly shines on this epic piece. A head-bobbing rhythm section leaves plenty of room for squealing sax and guitar solos as the piece gradually builds in intensity, driven along by relentless rhythms and Havard’s bass line, until fading away long before it wears out its welcome – and that’s really saying something for a 15 minute instrumental!
Duhig’s brother David was a part of the live lineup and came onboard with guitar and pen in hand for the band’s third album Last Autumn’s Dream, which many view as the peak of this early period (or any period, depending on who you ask). Tracks like Dark River harken back to the sound of the debut, while others have more in common with Released. But there was a distinct progression; by this point the band’s focus was tighter, and the more structured songs were stronger and more developed. Opening piece A Winter’s Tale conveys a maturity in the songwriting, with Havard’s vocals also having grown in strength from album to album. Noisy guitar slithers around the opening of the aptly-titled Snake, with Havard throwing down an absolutely vicious fuzzed-out bassline, and the commanding Obedience is crafted from a shimmering wall of guitar. The unique May Queen successfully blends multiple styles and is possibly the standout track, while elegant closing piece Borne On The Solar Wind recalls a melody from bookend opener A Winter’s Tale, solidifying the impression that Last Autumn’s Dream is the most accomplished and balanced of these first three albums.
While a further fifteen tracks were recorded the following year, the band’s Vertigo contract suddenly evaporated and they soon split up (this material was eventually released a quarter century later as the two albums Eclipse and Fifth Element). It would be great to see Esoteric weave their magic on that material too, and bridge the two 70s eras. Fingers crossed.
Each of these newly remastered editions features fully restored artwork and extensive new liner notes by music author and journalist Steve Pilkington who provides an informative history of the period interspersed with insightful thoughts from Field. While each album will ultimately wind up as someone’s favourite (mine is Released, though no thanks to the plain cover), they all have their key strengths, as do the strikingly different albums which followed. What’s important is that they are now in print again, reasonably priced and ready to be snatched up, either as first-time discoveries or upgrades to old copies. And they sound spectacular – finally – thanks to Ben Wiseman’s remastering giving them a sonic sparkle elusive in past editions (previous CDs had been muddy and problematic, with widespread fan complaints ranging from phasing and frequency issues to actual missing guitar parts!) I must admit, I was hoping these would be issued as one of Esoteric’s beautiful, glossy clamshell boxed sets, but there’s an advantage to releasing individual titles too, especially for newcomers about to dip their toes in the Jade waters.
Field and (Tony) Duhig reformed as an instrumental duo in 1974 and set sail on their new journey for Island records with Floating World. This period, sans Havard and bordering at times on proto-New Age, is what Jade Warrior came to be better known for, but for a lot of us this magical early era is where it’s at, where the band’s rawer sound was born from its attempts to merge their more tranquil Eastern influences with fiery jazz and psychedelic rock. Dragonfly Day, Barazinbar, Water Curtain Cave, Obedience, May Queen… man, they never sounded quite like this again.