Composer, pianist, bassist
British musician Bill Wells leads one of the finest modern-day free jazz ensembles in Scotland and has collaborated with everyone from the Pastels to Lol Coxhill. Yet the Scottish jazz community, and even some members of Wells’ former octet, tend to shun his work. This is because Wells, who resists playing by prescribed rules, does not merely imitate the traditional forms of his genre. Instead, he blurs his compositions—written in the spirit of 1960s-era soundtracks and film scores—with pop rhythms and elements of monolithic rock, embracing a sort of fusionist sound.
In spite of the reservations of many jazz purists, though, Wells does command a certain notoriety. In particular, the modern-day hipster crowd and underground music community in Glasgow, Scotland, have embraced Wells. His creations are “inspired, inspiring, wild, dangerous and tender. Just about everything you look for in music,” wrote the Pastels’ Stephen McRob-bie for a story in Scotland On Sunday. “Of course,” Wells asserted, who has also recorded with and arranged music for Belle and Sebastian, “I’m not actually sure if what I do counts as jazz. I think some people on the Scottish jazz scene might feel insulted if I’m included.”
Some members of the music press also showed support. Stevie Chick in England’s Melody Maker dubbed Wells the “British answer to Sun Ra,” while others likened his talent to that of Pat Metheny and film scorer John Barry. These varied comparisons, however, illustrate why Wells has not gained a wider audience. Similarly to so many other non-mainstream artists, Wells, in spite of his reputation as a superior writer and a creative musician, does not fit easily into any musical niche. Consequently, the industry—including some of his contemporaries—often sees him as an outsider.
Struggling to gain acceptance is nothing new to Wells, whose body of work only began to see the light of day during the 1990s, nearly 20 years after his first public performance. Unlike most contemporary jazz musicians, Wells never had the opportunity to study music in a formal setting. Instead, from his home in Falkirk, he learned how to compose and play on his own. Admittedly a painstaking journey, Wells began by reading about music and then studying the basics. But traditional fundamentals did not come easily to the aspiring musician. As a result, Wells would later insist that he never takes for granted that he can play or write music.
Throughout the course of his early studies, Wells drew inspiration from an array of unlikely sources, including the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up, John Barry’s theme from Vendetta, and Miles Davis’ Live-Evil. “I don’t know anyone who liked this kind of music when I first started,” Wells stated in an interview with David Keenan for the Wire. “In the long run, though, it was probably a good thing. I really had to work things out for myself. I mean, I just could not understand music—the whole idea of keys made no sense to me—but through that I really developed a style that was fairly unique, simply because I wasn’t relating to what anyone was doing around me.”
Besides composing, Wells also wanted to learn how to play music. Determined to master an instrument, Wells, who learned both piano and bass, put his own compositions aside to hit the club circuit in Glasgow. At the time, he believed he needed to pay his dues before striking out on his own and joined a Shadows-influenced pub outfit called Contrast. Though frustrating career-wise, Wells admits that the process proved a learning experience. “I actually thought I should learn the ropes so that’s why I did the club thing in the late 70s,” Wells said, as quoted by Keenan. “We were just backing all this crap cabaret, but looking back on it now it was a pretty amazing experience. You were put in situations where you’d have to be a complete virtuoso. You’d get people come on stage and say, ‘Right, I’m gonna do “MacArthur Park,” but I’m gonna do Donna Summer’s disco version.’And you only had guitar, bass and drums! Some of that stuff sounded absolutely amazing—completely by accident, of course.”
After a while, Wells, gravitating more and more toward jazz, left the pub scene to pursue his own interests. Eventually, Wells completed some arrangements that he thought were both intriguing and promising. He naively thought that other players on the scene, like Bobby Wishart, would also find them interesting. Unfortunately, no one wanted to use Wells’ compositions, and the hopeful writer soon realized that the only way
Born in Falkirk, Scotland.
Began playing in pubs in Glasgow, Scotland, 1970s; formed the Bill Wells Octet, 1990s; released debut album Live 93–94 on his own Loathsome Reels label, 1996; released the trio album Incorrect Practice, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Geographic Records.
to find an audience for his music was to put together his own band. Thus, Wells recruited players from the notoriously conservative Scottish jazz community to form early versions of the Bill Wells Octet. However, most of the musicians resisted Wells’ avant-jazz leanings, while Wells, in turn, resisted the players’ need to give his music a slick sound. The first few times the group ran through a piece, the unpolished, free feel was exactly what Wells had anticipated. “That was mainly because they were still getting to grips with it,” recalled Wells to Keenan. “Once they got it right it just didn’t sound so good.”
In addition, Wells’ preferred composing method also worried the members of his group. According to Wells, most of his music comes to him in his dreams, which he precisely transcribes when he wakes the next morning. During one fruitful period, according to Wells, music was coming to him at night three to four times a week. “There was a Beach Boys one, where I was in this bus and we were going to a Beach Boys convention, and there were all kind of Californian types with fair hair, and we stopped the bus to pick up some folk, and the whole of the bus just broke out into this amazing vocal coda. Just these awesome harmonies. That was a difficult one to transcribe,” recalled Wells. “Then there was the one where I was chasing a cat along a piano. It had these weirdly elongated legs, really cartoony looking. As it ran off, it played this melody on the piano. The next day I presented it to the Octet as ‘The Elongated Cat Theme,’ and I drew a picture of the cat and asked them to solo on it. Two of them walked out, on the grounds that I was completely off my head.”
Amid the comings and goings of personnel, Wells managed to compile a CD of live tracks. Released in 1996 on his own Loathsome Reels label, Live 93–94 turned Wells into a local celebrity. Although many members of the Octet dismissed the set as too lo-fi, others in Glasgow’s music community applauded his efforts. McRobbie—at the time just getting into the Impulse label’s reissue series of recordings from the 1960s—was especially impressed by Wells’ spirit. Finally, it appeared that Wells had found a place where his lack of conformity and non-traditional practices were actually celebrated rather than condemned.
Aside from promoting Wells, McRobbie also invited the musician to participate on the recording of the Pastels’ 1997 album Illumination. In 1998, he joined Sushi K. Dade’s outfit Future Pilot AKA, alongside Richard Youngs and the Pastels’ Katrina Mitchell, for the well-received The Bill Wells Octet Vs. Future Pilot AKA. Since then, Wells has remained the contributing musician of choice for underground and indie groups in Glasgow. “I had been involved in this awful jazz scene for so long,” Wells explained to Keenan. “It was like taking a step back and suddenly seeing the whole picture. I immediately felt more comfortable. These musicians just seemed to cut straight to the heart of whether something was good or not without bothering about any of the superficial aspects like flashy technique or whatever.”
In 2000, Wells released a trio set entitled Incorrect Practice, recorded with Stevie Jackson of Belle and Sebastian on guitar and harmonica, Octet associate Robert Henderson on trumpet, and Wells on piano and sampler. Incorrect Practice, featuring the tracks “Four Cows” and “Bad Plumbing,” continued to build upon Wells’ reputation. Free and dreamily atmospheric, the recording, concluded Playlouder reviewer Alix Bus-covic, leaves the listener “constantly discovering there’s more depth than was first apparent.”
(With The Bill Wells Octet) Live 93–94, Loathsome Reels, 1996.
(With Future Pilot AKA) The Bill Wells Octet Vs. Future Pilot AKA, Domino, 1998.
(With The Bill Wells Trio) Incorrect Practice, Geographic, 2000.
Melody Maker, November 28, 1998; December 12, 1998.
Scotland On Sunday, June 23, 1996.
Wire, December 2000.
Playlouder, http://www.playlouder.com (February 15, 2001).
RTE ACE: Arts Culture and Entertainment, http://rte.ie/ace (February 15, 2001).
"Wells, Bill." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 10, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wells-bill
"Wells, Bill." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/wells-bill
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