Reviews of Recent Recordings
It’s hard to say whether it’s ambitious or sheer madness to launch a new label by organizing a 3-day festival of British Free Improvised Music in Berlin and then documenting it with a deluxe 4-LP boxed set on 180g vinyl, including a booklet of essays and interviews and a lushly produced festival booklet. Throw on top of that, the fact that the planned follow-up is a feature-length documentary retracing the history of free improvised music in the UK. The whole thing was dreamed up when Luxembourg-based film director Antoine Prum became friends with Tony Bevan while working on Sunny’s Time Now, Prum’s documentary about Sunny Murray. The two worked out a plan for the festival, collaborated with Total Music Meeting producer Helma Schleif, and lured a multi-generational group including pioneers Lol Coxhill, Eddie Prévost, Trevor Watts, and Phil Minton; second generation British free players Bevan and Steve Beresford; stalwarts John Edwards, Mark Sanders, and Orphy Robinson; musical experimenters Rhodri Davies, Gail Brand, Alex Ward and Matthew Bourne and a handful of musicians just hitting their 30s who are starting to make a mark including Dominic Lash, Tom Arthurs, and Shabaka Hutchings. The sixteen musicians convened for three days in October 2011 for the twenty-two sessions of ad hoc duos, trios, and ensembles, many of which are documented on this 4-LP set.
Any undertaking like this, invites questions and second-guessing: Is there any meaningful notion of a national approach to improvisation? In the booklet that accompanies the boxed set, Wolfgang Seidel grapples with some of these issues, tracing the improvisation scene in Great Britain back to the fifties and sixties, with a generation of musicians including Coxhill, Watts, Prévost, Minton who had come up through formative encounters with jazz balanced by exposure to innovations of composers from Schoenberg to Stockhausen to Cage. By the seventies and eighties, improvisers like Beresford, Sanders, and Edwards were intermingling improv, situationist theater, and home-made electronics, setting the stage for intersections with punk and Rock Against Racism in the eighties. Musicians coming up now, like Dominic Lash, can be found playing free improv in a group like The Convergence Quartet one week, and performing compositions by the Wandelweiser Collective the next.
All of this history draws convenient lines to triangulate on, but the music produced by this cross-generational group manages to simply ignore it altogether, instead looking for overlaps, sometimes playing to common strengths, and sometimes playing to the contrasts. Eschewing regular groupings, the diverse combinations work like a kaleidoscope of constantly morphing permutations. And while free collective interaction provides the foundational starting point for these pieces, it is intriguing to hear a willingness to allow line, lyricism, and even an open sense of time enter in to the mix. Listen to the way that Alex Ward and Lol Coxhill kick things off on their duo as Ward’s lithe clarinet playing bobs across Coxhill’s burred flutters and smears which dip in and out of bop-like phrasing. The duo performance by Coxhill and Prévost takes this to a masterful level as Coxhill moves in and out of lyrical free melodicism and skirling freedom against the drummer’s punctuations which toy around the edges of open shuffle and skewed pulse. There is a casual economy to their playing, revealing their deep collective musical experience at every turn.
Coxhill and Prévost are joined by Trevor Watts, John Edwards, and Phil Minton for a probing quintet that transforms the traditions of the instrumental roles in thoughtful ways. Edwards resonant bass becomes an anchor here, providing a sonic fulcrum for the snaking, intertwined reeds, Minton’s vocal acrobatics, and Prévost’s pinpoint percussive shadings. The five ratchet things up to dense torrents, pull back for boisterous spatters of ping-ponged activity, finishing off with a torrid burst of energy. Compare that to the brashness of a quintet with Ward’s slashing electric guitar, Shabaka Hutching’s garrulous tenor, Tom Arthurs’ fillips of trumpet, Mark Sanders’ jump-cut percussion, and Edwards’ resolute bass anchor. The group moves in and out of muscular physicality and spare collective interplay, dropping to a burred whisper two thirds of the way through their 20-minute set only to charge off into caterwauling density.
A quartet with Rhodri Davies, Orphy Robinson, Trevor Watts, and Mark Sanders shows yet another take on ensemble playing by utilizing a particularly unexpected juxtaposition of musicians. I’ve not heard Davies’ play in a context like this, but he and Robinson gel to hang string/vibes resonances against Sanders’ scrapes, pops, and sputters which Watts plays off of, his keening, vibrato-rich reeds charting its way with peripatetic inventiveness. In contrast, a quartet with Bevan on bass and soprano saxes, Hutchings on tenor along with Edwards and Sanders sounds almost traditional, starting out with keening reed cries over bass arco and percussion chatter and building with waves of propulsive energy. And while the trajectory ebbs and flows, particularly in an open section toward the end where the form opens up for revolving focus across the ensemble, one can hear the specter of free jazz in the interactions of the two horn players with bass and drums.
The sets of trio interactions included provide a different lens for group interaction. A trio with Davies’ harp, Hutchings’ clarinet, and Dominic Lash’s bass is a study in compact timbral exchange as the sharp attack and hanging resonance of harp, the woody reverberations of plucked bass, and the warm chalumeau clarinet lines crisscross with laser focus. A trio with Beresford’s oscillating electronics, Bourne’s bent-note inside-piano playing, and Arthurs’ hissed and fluttered trumpet flits along in fits and starts, eschewing linear progression, instead building collectively from the intersections of textures. Beresford, this time augmenting his electronics with piano, encounters Gail Brand’s trombone and Edwards on bass for a more conversational give and take, with the trombonist’s insistent exhortations providing a spirited edge to the proceedings.
A trio with Bevan on bass sax and the twinned basses of Edwards and Lash plumbs the bottom-end sonorities, with particularly effective chemistry between the two bass players. Bevan’s dark grumbling horn is a nice touch, but at times, the linearity of his playing sounds at odds with the roiling freedom of his partners. A trio with Watts, Bourne, and Sanders maximizes a linear approach to arc, with Watts’ fire-spitting alto, Bourne’s crashing clusters, and Sanders’ churning drums driving waves of energy across an abbreviated four-minute excerpt.
Why include one set of musicians? Why exclude others? Should one go deep in one particular scene or wide across a more diverse set? One might wonder why musicians like Evan Parker, John Butcher, John Russell, Paul Dunmall, Tony Oxley, or Steve Noble weren’t included (to name a few). Why include Eddie Prévost but not any participants in his Workshop session? Why not more musicians from the fertile Oxford scene? Does this set define, in any way, a British approach to improvisation? One can easily enter into a healthy debate on any of these questions. But any festival is defined by the choices that were made and the results delivered. And based on that, this set is a resounding success.
This was amongst Lol Coxhill’s final performances before his death in July of 2012 and the duo with Coxhill and Eddie Prévost alone makes this an invaluable set (though the quintet where he pairs off with Trevor Watts is not far behind.) And this captures some of Trevor Watts’ strongest playing on record in a while, calling up some of his incendiary sessions with John Stevens. While the meetings between Dominic Lash and Rhodri Davies with musicians like Tom Arthurs and Shabaka Hutchings may not be definitive for any of the players, it is certainly intriguing to hear them grapple with finding common ground. According to the Web site for the label, the documentary film accompanying this is due to come out some time in 2013, and based on these recordings and the accompanying booklets in this set, one looks forward to what they come up with.