Percy Jones & MJ-12 @ Otto’s Shrunken Head

MANHATTAN, NY—Percy Jones has been playing progressive rock and jazz fusion since the late 1960s. He began teaching himself to play bass in the early ’60s while attending grammar school in his native Wales. At the time, he was inspired by the early American rock and roll he heard on Radio Luxembourg. As American soul music started getting popular in the mid-1960s, Jones played locally in a rhythm & blues band. He relocated to Liverpool, England, in 1966 to study electronic engineering at the university and joined a rock and roll band called the Liverpool Scene. He was listening to American blues, but once he was introduced to jazz, there was no turning back. He moved to London in the early 1970s, worked at a construction site and started participating in Wednesday night jazz jam sessions. This led to him becoming a founding member of Brand X, one of England’s pioneer progressive rock/jazz fusion bands, from 1974 to 1992, and Tunnels from 1993 to 2006.

Jones is known for playing the uncommon fretless bass guitar. He purchased his first fretless bass in 1974 because it offered him the low end and amplification of the electric bass guitar, but also the tone of the upright bass. He has played fretless ever since. He then began playing a five-string fretless bass, which is even more unusual, in the late 1980s, giving him extra range in the low end, down to 32Hz instead of 41Hz.

Jones married a beautiful American in the 1970s and has been based in New York for decades. In recent months, he has performed low-key showcases in his adopted hometown with his new band, Percy Jones & MJ-12. Although the personnel has been flexible, the present configuration consists of Jones on bass, Dave Phelps on guitar, Stephen Moses on drums and Jack Warren on theremin.

At Otto’s Shrunken Head on April 10, the quartet jammed well on the very fine edge between progressive rock and jazz fusion. The compositions were instrumental, and allowed room for the musicians to flex loosely in tandem with each other within a skeletal framework. A clever riff or structure defined the piece, but the musicians often found the space to improvise what they felt. It was built like jazz but delivered with the intense power of hard rock. The guitar, bass and drum sounds were exceptionally fresh and nuanced. The theremin, on the other hand, proved to be both an innovative addition and a distraction. The favorable aspect was that the electronic wavelengths it introduced often enhanced the originality of the musical works. The distraction was that the theremin is a failed accompanying instrument. When the guitarist took a lead, for instance, it was nearly impossible for the theremin to harmonize or synchronize with the bass and drums in the manner in which a keyboard or horn section might fall into the background. Perhaps the key would have been to moderate the use of the theremin to where it was most useful instead of featuring it in every minute of every composition.


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