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Pathos and Panache – The Life and Death of The Jazz Butcher as Told Through Final Album “The Highest in the Land”

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Like the perpetual underdog with a dogged belief in his own creative chops, Pat Fish, AKA The Jazz Butcher, despite significant hiatuses here and there and less-than-worldbeating sales figures, never threw in the towel because he couldn’t find it and had no desire to go looking for it. He was, in that sense, the definition of a lifer until death came on October 5th of last year and shut down the wit and spirit arcade that was the man’s restless creative spirit. While a shock and terrible shame that cut to the bone of his friends and fans (two designations that in Pat’s case seemed particularly synonymous), the manner of his passing – sat at the kitchen table waiting for his morning coffee to brew – was almost eerily poignant given how it could so easily have been a fleeting but necessarily unmissable detail in one of his own songs. Death, too, it would seem, is a Jazz Butcher fan.

Formed in 1982, The Jazz Butcher was a breath of fresh, odd, wryly inscrutable air that harkened back to, well, hardly anything. Kevin Ayers minus his Soft Machine wiring might due if one were determined to reach for an historic touchstone (and one, as it happens, Fish greatly admired for Ayers’ fuck-off pluck and artist’s self-determination) but in reality Mr Fish and his varying ensembles – most essential of which was his right-hand axe man Max Eider – were in many ways a one-off, albeit one that fit rather warmly inside a post-postpunk cohort of similarly wayward janglers and English eccentrics that included the Weather Prophets, June Brides, Jasmine Minks, and Biff Bang Pow! among multiple others. But even amidst that class of literate pop charmers The Jazz Butcher managed to stand out.

Soft and sharp in equal measure, both erudite and candid, bedroom and worldly, Fish’s work brought – and will forever bring – a keen but lovingly off-kilter focus to this otherwise unscalable life. From the tough yet ever-graceful humanity in his characters’ many narratives to a personal perspective that skewered the piggish political hypocrisy we all have to somehow live ourselves through no matter where we lay our head, The Jazz Butcher, from the beginning, had what felt like absolute control of a palette that swirled into one of the many shades created when pathos and panache cross paths

Stylistically, for those not familiar – a prospect we must admit is possible even as it leaves us aghast – one need only scrutinize that name for a moment. As tongue-in-cheek (lots of cheek) as it was bang-on, the vehicle known as ‘The Jazz Butcher’ has indeed, with a certain scampish consistency, been fueled by at least a bit of urbane sophistication, if one that still, somehow, felt bedsit-derived. And while that suggests, rightly, a sort of finger-snapping coolness to this Fish-Eider (and so many others) mission, it would be a mistake, even as it does inform the extraordinary level of ingenuity and craft at the musical heart of this long-running project, to let that be the main takeaway. Rather, we suggest, what most centrally accounts for TJB’s unique – and rare – binate achievement of longevity and quality is an undying and in fact unkillable sincerity that animates both purpose and content.

From the start and through it all, from that insane initial run of a dozen albums over the course of thirteen years, those gaps of various length that followed, to, very much not the least, the bittersweet existentialist bent of this sadly unplanned valedictory masterpiece, Pat Fish the individual and the Jazz Butcher persona converged into one, the latter infused with the former’s spark of genuineness, the former absorbing the not-half-clever dash of its continental counterpart. It was this yin-yang balance of pure heart and artifice, endowed with the born talent to pull it off, that account’s for the guy’s almost uncanny consistency over the many years. Go anywhere to any album in the Jazz Butcher discography (the earlier ‘Conspiracy’ iterations included), drop the needle – randomly if you like – and be prepared to never be disappointed, a claim only magnified here on The Highest in the Land, released this Friday, February 4th on Tapete.

Launching with the swing and jaunt that signals the Jazz Butcher’s customary wry savvy, “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar” is essentially a classic jazz-era movie script in song form, redolent as it is with the wah-wah parp and snark of Simon Taylor’s trumpet, strummy plummy (and ultra-clean) electric guitar and just the overall bouncy spring to its immortal step. It’s an opening that seems both a sly nod to one of the typical beats this artist walked from his earliest days and the undyingness of a particular bespoke art form – ‘look everyone, the 1920s in the 2020s, as alive as ever!’ – that echoed in his heart with a resilience that matched his own. As opening salvos go it’s a Butcheresque corker, giving the impression of a tossed-off tour-de-force that was this lot’s bread and butter (with maybe a touch of cornershop-bought paté) since first popping up on all the finest radars. It’s also but a taster for all the riches on offer here.

‘Sea Madness,” with its shuffling pacific warmth, its vaguely burnished regret, is a borderless pan-European paean to ‘what-is’ vs. ‘what-is-possible’ with an indelible double entendre at its heart (the two words of the title followed by “in the middle of England’s sadness”) hidden right there in plain sight. Next, gently luminescent like a late summer night sky, steeped in yearning and a hint of quixotic pique, “Never Give Up” is a ballad of sorts that could conceivably become the standard anthem of romantic chancers everywhere, “Running on Fumes,” structurally based in large part on Dylan’s “Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” distinguishes itself via Fish’s imperishable wit and drive even as the track is tackling the very diminishment of such in himself and those other artists of a similar vintage. The title track, meanwhile, is a masterclass in applying glints of Hitchcockian nous – somehow simultaneously cryptic and a direct hit – to the canon of the craftily allusive autobiographical, a class, by the way, that could use as its syllabus the entirety of the Jazz Butcher discography. However, as detailed some weeks ago by Alex, The Highest in the Land‘s centerpiece has to be “Time.”

Prescient in the best worst way, “Time,” among other things, presents itself as nothing less than an uncanny – and this being who it is, quite playful – self-obituary that could conceivably been written in an act of automatic writing, the pen surfing and diving across the page as the man writes “My hair’s all wrong, my time ain’t long / Fishy go to heaven, get along get along” and a host of other concisely chiseled gems that seem pulled from that flickering subconscious of his and straight on to the notebook page, the scrap of paper, his phone whatever he used. And yes the lyrics (here and elsewhere) swerve for a verse into the political, and yes the lines are ‘clever’ in that inimitable Jazz Butcher way but are as ever without a trace of the emotional reserve that word so often connotates. But above anything else the track is carried through its five-plus minutes with something of an unforced dandy-ish swing, the whole thing awash and a-slosh in the morosely effervescent snap and whoosh of noirish existential pop. It has, in other words and not atypically, a beat and you can dance – or at least sashay – to it, moving with an almost surreptitious grace across the kitchen lino as you wait for the coffee to brew.

Listening to any Jazz Butcher record from any time and certainly on this latest and last, one can be forgiven for throwing about the words ‘elegance’ and ‘eloquence’ with a blithe disregard for syntactical accuracy. They are, after all, two qualities that flash throughout the man’s work with a devilish interchangeability, each of them not only stepping nimbly over the other’s tail but having to do so within a constant dance of finely hewn, if typically dry, witticisms as it would seem only the British can summon. And while this indeed points to a not surprising irony – a UK-born artist that strongly self-identified as more a continental roué (just check this album’s cover, ffs) being at heart inescapably English – the primary gist is two-fold: the singular ingenuity and craft Fish brought to his work and his, frankly, irascible determination to not just ‘get it out there’ (when he chose, mind) but to be unbendable to any whims of fashion while doing so. Were it to be considered a formula – to the extent it was one it developed without design – it is by every metric an unfuckwithable one, one so quintessentially Fishian that none could seriously consider copping it but regardless, even if they did – and this is as true a statement as it’s ever been – that mold was forever broken back on October 5th, 2021. [embedded photo credit: Ruth Tidmarsh]