Once Upon a Time is one of an amazing 20 albums tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore appeared on in 1969 and 1970 (including several veritable classics of British jazz, Mike Gibbs' Tanglewood 63, John Surman's How Many Clouds Can You See?, Stan Tracey's Seven Ages of Man, and Graham Collier's Songs for My Father). The lineup of this particular quintet, which represented Britain at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival, is truly stellar: in addition to Skidmore there's Canadian trumpeter/flügelhorn virtuoso Kenny Wheeler, pianist John Taylor, bassist Harry Miller, and percussionist Tony Oxley. Two of the six tracks are credited to John Surman, and one, the sultry "Old San Juan," is penned by John Warren, Surman's collaborator on Tales of the Algonquin, another classic release from the same year. If the Surman material reveals the discreet influence of the late-'60s Miles Davis quintet, Oxley's "Majaera" begins to explore the more dangerous territory of free playing he would return to the following year on his Four Compositions for Sextet. Elsewhere, John Taylor's "The Yolk" is a boisterous, brilliant piece of hard bop, and the last three tracks, segued together as a suite, explore a similarly wide range of styles. So much so that Skidmore aficionados tend to prefer the greater coherence of the following year's septet release on Philips, TCB, but Once Upon a Time remains one of the landmark albums of British jazz.
AllMusic Review by Dan Warburton