Three notes of the clarinet were all it would take. Probably that amazing deep velvet vibrato echoing in the lower register, rich and sensual as dark chocolate fudge cake eaten in a warm bath. Or perhaps the slightly nasal but still full and hugely vibrant middle and upper reaches. Unmistakable, instantly recognisable, despite the player missing half a finger and, amazingly, his two front teeth. Step forward, Mr Bernard “Acker” Bilk.
For me the Paramount Jazz Band was the best of the many ensembles that came together in the late 50s with the sudden (and still inexplicable) boom in Traditional Jazz in the UK. Backed with piano, bass, banjo and drums, Acker appeared out of nowhere with Summer Set in ‘60, jumped to 5 in the Hit Parade and two years later, out of jazz mode, became known across the world for Stranger on the Shore. To be frank, Summer Set would have been consigned to the floor of Columbia’s editing studio were it not for the unique sound of Acker’s clarinet. The subsequent appearances of his waistcoated and bowler-hatted Paramount Jazz Band were largely held together by his skill, tone and inventiveness, the other players being good but not much better than many found playing early Sunday afternoon sessions in your local pub even today.
If you listen to those 1960 recordings, most of them are saved from mere competence by Acker, whose ensemble playing, in both its tone and its invention, literally soars above all the other stolid front men as if he were in another world. Ken Sims (trumpet) and Johnny Mortimer (trombone) solo adequately; but Acker always instantly solos off in a different direction, now on the beat, now lagging just behind, creating a whole new song of rich full notes dancing like sunlight in a lake, surging cadenzas, urgent trills, triplets, swoops up and down like a mating lapwing through all three registers. In fact his very best jazz recordings – such as East Coast Trot or Acker’s Away – feature just his clarinet backed by the band minus Sims and Mortimer. Three minutes of solo musical invention and invariable foot-tapping body-sway delight.
His sound was unique, as immediately identifiable as Benny Goodman or Peewee Russell. Certainly there’s been no other non-classical UK clarinettist within a country mile of his inventiveness and instant tonal recognition. I’ve recently taken to playing his 1960 jazz recordings, about 100 minutes’ worth, over my headphones when on a train journey. They make me tap my feet and play finger-drums, they make me sway and smile because they’re still so fresh, still full of young life and confidence, but urged on and gilded by Acker’s impro and superb musicianship. And above all they offer That Sound, that haunting breathy deep vibrato which was Acker Bilk’s alone .
Acker’s Away, just him and his rhythm section, would be in my Desert Island Eight. I’d need to be happy.