This archival project is a sublime curiosity. Sublime because the two-CD package is so beautiful. Curious because Jack Sels, a long-dead Belgian tenor saxophonist, is so obscure.
In the 1950s and early 1960s a number of players came out of Belgium and made a name for themselves internationally: Toots Thielemans, Bobby Jaspar, René Thomas, Philip Catherine. Sels was not one of them. He stayed home in Antwerp, recorded rarely, and in his last years seldom played in public. All the same, he was important to the development of the modern jazz scene in his native country, where he became a cult figure. He died in poverty at 48 in 1970.
From the first track on CD 1, “Spanish Lady,” it is clear that Sels was a badass. You hear many familiar voices in his powerful, clarion sound: Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine, Johnny Griffin, late Ben Webster. Sels may have been derivative, but he assembled the best tenor saxophone practices of his generation into a personal language. He could not read music but he played with commanding authority, and he always swung his ass off.
CD 1 contains 19 tracks by six different ensembles. The sources are Sels’ few studio recordings and previously unreleased radio tapes. He was more than a shouter; he had range. “Blues for a Blonde,” with an organ combo, proves that he could get as credibly filthy as the best “soul jazz” tenors of the era. “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” is a very modern abstraction of Sigmund Romberg’s lilting song. And this aggressive alpha-male musician had a tender romantic side. Two ballads, his own “Rain on the Grand’Place” and “It Might as Well Be Spring,” reveal an emotional authenticity that cannot be feigned because it comes straight up from the soul.
The eight tracks on CD 2 are live concert tapes, some from private collections. The audio is cloudy, but these recordings provide secret glimpses into fleeting moments of jazz history, otherwise forever lost. Sels slows down Miles Davis’s “Walkin’,” then turns it loose as rolling thunder.
Minor Works, a labor of love by the Belgian SDBAN label, is produced with admirable elegance and attention to detail. The little hardcover book contains photographs from every stage of Sels’ short life, plus album covers and memorabilia. The liner notes by Lander Lenaerts tell Sels’ story, sad yet uplifting, like all tragedies. He could hold his own with the finest tenors of his time, but no one outside of Belgium knew it. Until now.