❉ The intelligence and musical nous that spans these two discs is really worth diving into and enjoying.
Ars Nova, not a name that many folk over here would remember, unless of course you’re a fan of legendary Birmingham beat combo The Move, who covered Ars Nova’s Fields of People (in fine proto-progressive style) on their Shazam! Album (Not that I’m a Move expert, or have a book coming out about them, oh no) and this newly curated double disc anthology from those deep diving folks over at Esoteric Records collects both albums that Ars Nova released, and we can finally have a listen and see why they cropped up on the radar of Roy Wood.
Ars Nova was formed by Wyatt Day (guitar/keyboard/vocals), Jon Pierson (trombone/vocals) & Maury Baker (drums) – all alumni of the Mannes College musical conservatory in New York City. Day & Pierson had graduated in 1965 and spent a few years travelling in Spain before returning to the states. With Bill Followell (trumpet), Jonathan Raskin (bass/vocals) and Giovanni Papalia (lead guitar) swelling the ranks they started performing music that was radically different to their peers, in fact the band’s name Ars Nova is latin for new art.
After coming to the attention of the legendary Jac Holzman they ended up with a deal on Elektra Records, and paired with Doors producer Paul Rothchild they worked on their self-titled debut, released in 1968.
The debut was something totally different for the musical ears of 1968, and still sounds fresh and exciting today, when you think of the great albums of ’68, like Abbey Road, White Light/White Heat, The United states of America (also available on Esoteric), The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, The Move, Electric Ladyland, This Was, Caravan or Wonderwall Music shows how influential the year was and yet Ars Nova with its wide spheer of influences has nothing in common with the trends of the year. The only albums that it can be vaguely compared to is either the Velvet Underground or United states of America, both bands that, like Ars nova bucked against existing trends and the fag-end of pyschedelia, instead preferring to go their own unique way.
In that sense this sounds radical and alternative, even now with influences coming from their classical musical studies, and it shows the difference between bands formed by music students compared to the more ramshackle or rough and ready sounds coming from the art students.
This approach of blending many different styles and different sounds is more progressive than even the most progressive bands got, and meant that Ars Nova were always a step outside of the mainstream, or indeed the underground, and with the opening beauty of Pavan For My Lady (Fall,Winter, Summer And Spring), the fantastic album In Your Mind and Automatic Love, the band really flexed their musical muscles and with a pared down, sparser sound, driven by the use of the trombone and trumpet, set themselves apart from their contemporaries with a unique, fresh take on song writing.
The aforementioned Fields of People – which the Move expanded and went full on psychedelic with on their curate’s egg album Shazam! is where I first heard of Ars Nova, and listening to the original shows the difference, far more restrained than the Move’s histrionics, but still full of the emotion and power than the Move overwrought, it is a perfect anthem and one of the highlights of the album.
All in all Ars Nova is a different, eclectic and exciting debut album, showing how a different approach to song writing pays dividends, however it was the same old story how the band didn’t quite survive making the debut.
Dropped by Elektra and then ending up on Atlantic, the reconfigured Ars Nova saw Wyatt Day and Jon Pierson building a new band with Sam Brown on lead guitar, Joe Hunt on drums & percussion, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, Art Koening on bass and Warren Bernhardt on keyboards, and the sophomore album Sunshine and Shadows was released in 1969.
Again giving us a really strong song selection, and showing that the band were ploughing their own unique furrow they became a hit on the concert circuit, however the album release was delayed, which knocked the band’s momentum before they finally disbanded for the last time.
Which is a mighty shame, as the tracks on Sunshine and Shadows picks up where the debut left off. With their originality and eclecticism, Ars Nova had a unique musical vision, and tracks like the title track, Temporary Serenade, Well, Well, Well (not to be confused with the John Lennon track of the same name) or Rubbish (which it definitely isn’t) showed how far the new line-up had developed and progressed.
This is American progressive music, and takes the art of music making into a different genre, an alternative alleyway, and the intelligence and musical nous that spans these two discs is really worth diving into and enjoying, and it’s always great to get to hear albums like this, as it provides a counterpoint to the contemporary of the time and gives a real insight into the underground and alternative scene of that era.
The beauty of being underground and away from the mainstream is that something that is not of its time ends up being timeless.
❉ ‘Ars Nova: Fields Of People – The Elektra & Atlantic Recordings 1968-1969’ (QECLEC22711) is out now from Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records. £11.99. Click here to pre-order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.