The word eclectic must have been invented with UK Afro-jazz-rockers Zzebra in mind. This was a band with huge character, crammed full of life, energy, and musicianship. Bringing together a whole range of styles, they thrilled audiences lucky enough to witness them. All of this helps to make this double disc re-release from Angel Air Records very welcome indeed.
Several lifetimes ago in the North London of 1972, sax player Dave Quincy and guitarist Terry Smith were trying to keep themselves busy following the demise of their previous band If by playing Sunday lunchtime slots at a local pub. After one such gig Dave noticed a figure dressed in black and white African robes, a bowler hat, and carrying a conga drum sitting outside. It was the late Lasissi (Loughty) Amao, formerly with the mighty Osibisa.
“He told me that he had tracked me down with the idea of forming a new band”, says Dave in the sleeve notes. Both Dave and Terry liked the idea, joined forces with Amao, and the three of them set about completing the lineup.
Amao and Quincy were both sax players but it quickly fell into place when Dave agreed to play alto and soprano, whilst Amao would provide the tenor. Soon afterward they teamed up with the Curtiss Maldoon Rhythm Section, adding bassist John McCoy, and drummer Liam Genockey. All that was needed was a vocalist. Enter Gus Yeadon of Love Affair. Zzebra had been born. Having signed to the Polydor label, they began to write, rehearse, and gig at places like the legendary Ronnie Scott’s club in London. Pretty soon they were in Escape Studios in Kent recording their self-titled debut album.
Zzebra, originally released in 1975, is an intoxicating mix of jazz, rock, funk, and heavier rock, all of which is enhanced by rich Afro flavours underpinned by a powerfully addictive rhythm section.
It opens with the seductive “Cobra Woman” and moves effortlessly through its eight tracks with a smoothly compelling, near timeless class. “Mr. J” kicks off with a bass intro before the band settle into a heady African vibe. The instrumental “Mah Yong” sensually fuses jazz into a track that is perfect for late night driving. Next, they deliver Nigerian folk for the superb “Ife.”
The instrumental “Spanish Fly” showcases the meeting of the saxes, before stepping aside to allow Smith’s Spanish acoustic flavour to ease through. The remaining tracks, a magnificent “Amuso Fi”, the up tempo “Rainbow Train”, and the live favourite “Hungry Horse,” all keep the quality and the spirits high.
The three bonus tracks are the single edits of “Mr. J” and “Amuso Fi”, and the Quincy/Smith composition “Zardoz” used in the Sean Connery sci-fi film of the same name.
Despite the album not providing the anticipated breakthrough, Zzebra was still very much in demand on the live circuit. The sleeve notes pick up the story: “…such a schedule demanded a certain discipline that (Terry) Smith failed to provide and was asked to leave together with (Gus) Yeadon.”
By the time their second album Panic was recorded, McCoy had been switched to rhythm guitar, and the band had made Tommy Eyre’s keys, which had previously graced Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, a fixture. Producer Ken Burgess also brought along his friend, one Jeff Beck, who can be heard on one of the bonus tracks, a previously unreleased version of “Put A Light On Me”.
Tommy Eyre brought along singer Alan Marshall and young guitarist Steve Byrd who describes working with Zzebra on the sleeve notes. He says, “I remember the personalities with the late great Loughty Amao being a wonderful crazy guy who loved life to the full. McCoy and Genockey having an insane and wholly lovable approach whilst at the same time being totally world class standard as musicians.”
They continued enthralling crowds playing the Reading Festival, an infamous gig in Amsterdam, and causing a near riot in France. Sadly, despite always going down a storm with live crowds, myself included, the album proved harder to market. It was 1976, the year of the punk explosion, and they found themselves out of step with the rapidly shifting music scene.
A cover of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” works amazingly well. The albums four instrumentals, including Tommy Eyre’s “Death By Drowning”, Amao and Quincy’s “La Si Si-La So So”, and “Quincy’s own “Karrola” all shine. The heady, blended mix of both “Liamo”, and “Tree”, lead to the playful funk of “Put A Light On Me”.
Bonus material includes that guest slot from Jeff Beck, an unreleased alternative mix of “Karrola”, and a live version of “Liamo.” There was also a long-lost third album which was shelved when Polydor decided to drop the band. It was finally released in 2001 by Angel Air as part of Lost World. Shortly after, Zzebra came to an end as the expense and logistics of transporting such a large lineup around Europe proved too much.
McCoy, Byrd, and Genockey worked together again alongside the legendary Deep Purple singer in the first lineup of Gillan. Dave Quincy and Terry Smith both remain active through a number of projects. Tragically, the larger than life Loughty Amao was shot dead in New York in 1988. In 2001 cancer claimed the life of Tommy Eyre.
However, this band should be remembered for their joyous enthusiasm and a live set that always brought huge smiles to those lucky enough to be there. This set captures all of that and more. If you had problems filling that slot in your music collection between Zappa and ZZ Top, then this is the answer.
For more details on this, and a host of other goodies, drop in on the Angel Air website.
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