Kidderminster born Jess Roden began his recording career with The Alan Bown Set and sang on their single ‘Emergency 999’, a track which made them stars on the Northern Soul scene for a short while. When Roden left after recording the album “The Alan Bown !” to form his own band Bronco, a band which included guitarist Robbie Blunt who went on to work with Robert Plant in the 1980s, his vocals were re-recorded by his replacement Robert Palmer. Roden’s original vocals however were left on the US release of the album with Palmer only appearing on the UK issue. After recording two albums with Bronco, “Country Home” and “Ace of Sunlight” in the early seventies he began to formulate ideas for a solo album whilst working as a session singer and musician. During this time he appeared on many albums including Keef Harley’s “Lancashire Hustler”, “Wildlife” by Mott The Hoople, “Rendezvous” by Sandy Denny and Paul Kossoff’s ‘Back Street Crawler”. However, the solo album plans were put on hold when he was approached by former Doors men John Densmore and Robby Kreiger and invited to join their new project The Butts Band in America. Roden recorded just the one album with them, their self titled debut in 1973 before returning to England and finally embarking on his solo project in earnest.
“Jess Roden” the album, was recorded partly in London at Island’s Basing Street Studios and Olympia Studios and partly in New Orleans where the talents of The New Orleans Horns, Allen Toussaint and Art Neville were used to give the album that trademark New Orleans jazz and blues feel.
The album kicks off with ‘Reason To Change’ a strutting soul and jazz track which features plenty of tempo changes and immediately displays the benefit of having Toussaint and Neville on board as they contribute some great organ and piano work. The use of the horns is also paramount to the success of the song and Roden delivers a trademark passion filled vocal.
‘I’m On Your Side’ starts off like something from a musical or love story movie with a Roden arranged string introduction before he comes in and delivers of vocal which is a mixture of dreamy laid back jazz crooner and anguished bluesman. A nice saxophone solo midway from George Lee breaks the song up nicely.
‘Feelin’ Easy’ is probably my favourite track on the album. A slow almost acoustic song it features great perfomances again from Toussaint and Neville. The opening having Roden singing over only a Toussaint piano before the rest of the band come in gradually in classic jazz style. By the time the horns come in Roden’s pleading passionate vocal will have wrenched your heartstrings down to your knees and back again. A beautiful song and the perfect vehicle for Roden’s voice it is surely one of the most criminally neglected songs in the history of music.
‘Sad Story’ is a faster track with another jazzy, but this time more funky, beat. It features a great jazz guitar solo from Steve Webb and once again Toussaint, Neville and The New Orleans Horns are on the top of their game.
‘On Broadway’, which is the only non Roden composed track on the album, boasts a lavish string arrangement introduction and starts the second half of the album off in sweeping swirling fashion for a full minute and three quarters before Roden finally starts to sing. Not many singers would start a track with such a long intro but Roden has the mind of a composer as much as a singer and the decision is justified in the way it allows the track to build into something quite powerful. Mickey Feat on the bass and Alan Sharp on the congas give it a nice beat throughout but it is the flute from Steve Gregory that challenges the intro and Roden’s vocal for the honour of being the songs highlight. A perfectly structured track it has claims to be the best version of the track ever recorded.
‘Ferry Cross’ is a funky and folky acoustic guitar driven song on which Roden plays drums, guitars and bass as well as providing the vocals, including some good falsetto. The only other musician to appear on the track being Richard Smith on the piano and organ. If there can be such a thing as funk-folk then this is surely it.
‘Trouble In The Mind’ is a mid tempo jazz soul track and once again The New Orleans Horns, Toussaint and Neville are the perfect foil for Roden’s typically soulful vocal. There is also a nice wah wah guitar solo and Reebop Kwaku Baah beats out a good rhythm on the congas.
‘What The Hell’ features yet another passion filled vocal from Roden and is a nice bluesy laid back end to the album. The drumming of Simon Kirke and the organ and piano of John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick give it a very Free like feel and it is not difficult to see why Roden had been linked to the vacant microphone position in Deep Purple a year earlier given Ritchie Blackmore’s desire to go for a more bluesy sound.
“Jess Roden” has claims to be one of the finest debut solo albums ever recorded and it remains a mystery to me and a lot of my musician and writing friends that he isn’t more widely known and mentioned when the subject of world class vocalists come up. Maybe it is the mixture in styles and this worlds need to pigeon hole. The crossing of the boundaries between soul, jazz, rock, blues and funk may well have been what prevented him from achieving the worldwide success he should have had. It certainly wasn’t down to a lack of talent. Sadly if you mention the name Jess Roden to most of the general public you will get a blank stare in return. Mention his name to a musician of his time or one of us that have been enjoying his music for years and you will be told with no lack of passion that he is the greatest neglected talent that Britain has ever produced …… and for Jess Roden that may well be fame enough.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM December 2011