Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

[The first part of this article ran in Issue 53]

Demarcating generations of musicians on the basis of their music is a hazardous critical practice. One reason is that two musicians, assigned to different generations, are often close enough in age to be considered contemporaries. When Max Roach and Cecil Taylor gave their historic concerts at Columbia University in 1981 (so historic that the resulting album bore the title Historic Concerts without pretention or overstatement), they were each universally hailed as a leading figure in discrete generations of jazz innovation. Granted, Roach had been at the forefront of bebop for well over a decade by the time Taylor made Jazz Advance in 1955 (the year Charlie Parker died); then, throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the stylistic gulf between their respective music widened exponentially; and even though by ‘81 the scope of Roach’s music spanned pieces for solo and ensemble percussion, works for combined jazz and string quartets, and extemporaneous exchanges with Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, Roach was unfailingly portrayed as the elder and Taylor as the firebrand. The rub to this construct stems from Roach being just five years older than Taylor.

There is a similar dilemma in how generational lines remain drawn between British improvising musicians. There’s only three years separating pianist Steve Beresford – arguably, the critical second generation improviser – and Barry Guy, whose work with Howard Riley’s trio, SME, Iskra 1903, Amalgam and LJCO placed him in the thick of the first generation. Further blurring the lines are several improvisers that emerged at the end of the ‘60s like percussionist Paul Lytton and violinist Phil Wachsmann who have been assigned to neither generation, pivotal figures in part because they largely, if not entirely bypassed mainstream jazz. Wachsmann never worked in the idiom, coming to free improvisation after studies with Nadia Boulanger, and performing works by Cage, Cardew and others, utilizing contact mics, and homemade ring modulators, electronic processors and routing devices – his classical background also gave him the means to stealthily slip occasional quotes from Tchaikovsky and other composers into improvisations. Lytton played jazz gigs, but he was also immersed in studies with tabla master P. R. Desai, and was a member of the pioneering electronic pop band White Noise, which included former BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. When they took the plunge into freely improvised music, they made their initial mark with central figures of the first generation – Lytton in a duo with Evan Parker; Wachsmann with Tony Oxley’s ensembles.

However flimsy the criteria cleaving London-based improvisers generationally may be when applied to some, the identification of Beresford, guitarist John Russell and drummer Dave Solomon, among others, as second generation holds water on three counts. They did not have a working relationship with jazz in the main, jazz being the crux of what the first generation primarily reacted against. As was the case with many rock-weaned guitarists then on the brink of majority, Jimi Hendrix loomed large in Russell’s imagination when he dove headlong into free improvisation. Although Beresford played outbound jazz while still at York University, he was influenced by disparate musical spectra, everything from pop singles to classical warhorses – his first recordings were with the “amateur” Portsmouth Symphonia.

Secondly, the 2nd gen had the real-time, flesh-and-blood examples of Bailey, Stevens et al. The teenaged Solomon was catching gigs by Bailey, Bennink and Parker around the time of The Topography of The Lungs session, as well as participating in events led by Stevens, with whom he later took lessons. Russell’s eureka moment was a Parker solo during a ‘72 LJCO concert at Ronnie Scott’s – he subsequently sought Bailey’s tutelage. Solomon met Russell at a Co-op gig. Beresford had promoted gigs for Bailey and others while still at York; immediately upon his arrival in London in ‘74, he began going to gigs at the first generation’s bastions – the Little Theater Club and the Unity Theatre, a left-wing theater club the Co-op used for Tuesday concerts – soon performing at both venues.

Most importantly, the second generation had little to no use for fixed groups. It is easy to attribute this to the lack of performance opportunities; however, this was a condition that did not deter their predecessors from using ongoing concerns like SME to frame a critical ethos and a cultural mission. This should not suggest that the second generation lacked commitment to free improvisation, which, Russell asserts, “is, if nothing else, something that is firmly fixed in its own time and place.” As such, the 2nd gen’s embrace of free improvisation had a proto-punk streak, rejecting the conventions that had seeped into the first generation’s fixed groups. Instead of modeling the earnestness of a Stevens or a Prévost, the second generation pushed back with cheeky group names – Beresford and Solomon used the moniker Sorry; Russell, Solomon and multi-instrumentalist Dave Panton dubbed themselves The Three Clots – and irreverent performance practices ill-suited for an erudite audience, whose sensibilities far more closely aligned with Herbert Marcuse than Monty Python. Russell recalls several first generation principals being in the house the night the Clots ended the evening by dancing on an upturned piano frame and breaking bottles. Only Bailey showed approval. According to Russell, “the thing he liked most about happenings wasn’t so much the thing the happening was trying to do but the way things went wrong around the edges. And he loved the fact that they ‘always went wrong.’” His penchant for disruption undoubtedly led Bailey to secure an invitation to Russell and Solomon to join the Musicians’ Co-op (once on board, the upstarts successfully lobbied for Beresford’s membership). In doing so, Bailey let the punks into the gentlemen’s club.

The growing ranks of the 2nd gen are a measure of how the London improvised music scene had cultivated a national constituency, attracting keen young players like saxophonist Gary Todd, who relocated from Leeds in 1974 expressly to play improvised music. (Coincidently, Todd’s father, a dance band and jazz journeyman, was a close friend of Bailey’s.) The 2nd gen quickly became regulars on the card at Musicians’ Co-operative concerts at the Unity Theatre, though they rarely collaborated with the 1st, Bailey being the notable exception. They cultivated a wide swath of venues. Russell curated weekly sessions at the Artists’ Meeting Place in Covent Garden (where Todd first played in London), while occasional gigs were put on at validating institutions like the Institute of Contemporary Art on The Mall, as well as grassroots settings like the upstairs room at the Engineer pub in Primrose Hill and the Centreprise book shop in Dalston.

Like many emergent pools of artists, the 2nd gen reached a tipping point in 1975, where a high-profile concert or a recording on a respected label could give them at least a moment’s notice in print and broadcast media, perhaps yielding, if the track record of prior waves of British jazz musicians is any indicator, a brief period of increased activity. Conventionally, the tipping point is managed by middlepersons – managers, presenters and producers – but DIY had become the norm in London for musicians outside the mainstream. Additionally, in the case of cutting-edge jazz artists, there were several prominent tandems of artists and their spouses furthering their respective causes. Bassist Harry Miller and his wife Hazel founded Ogun Records, which yielded an enduring catalog of albums by the South African exiles, and London-based artists like saxophonists Elton Dean and Mike Osborne – Hazel also managed The Brotherhood of Breath. Jackie Tracey gave up her position as the first woman producer for Decca to manage her husband Stan’s career, including the operation of Steam, the imprint that richly detailed the pianist’s evolution, particularly as a composer. Hazel and Jackie also collaborated as the Lambeth Music Society, presenting regular concerts by their overlapping circles of friends and colleagues.

Improvised music also had its life partner tag teams. Emanem, whose catalog is essential for any substantive understanding of the improvised music scene in London in the ‘70s and thereafter, is a phonetic spelling of the initials of recording engineer Martin and Mandy Davidson; although concert presentation was a decidedly secondary activity, they produced the historic duo concert by Bailey and Anthony Braxton at the upper-crusty Wigmore Hall on 30 June 1974. Spearheading the promotion of the second generation was Bailey and his partner Janice Christianson, a London presenter with occasional national reach. Sixty days prior to the Bailey/Braxton summit meeting, Christianson presented Eleven Improvisers at Wigmore Hall. Had it been recorded, the concert would, by now, have considerable iconic weight. Instead, to understand the importance of the concert, one must rely on two contrasting reviews published in journals with a well-qualified readership: Davidson’s in Musics – which the Davidsons and several musicians including Bailey and Parker launched in ’74 – and Jack Cooke’s in Bells, published by Berkeley, California saxophonist Henry Kuntz.

The difference in tone between the two accounts is obvious from their respective leads. Davidson’s review – which referenced the concert as Ten Improvisers, as bassist Simon Mayo missed the concert due to illness – opened with a half-column discussion about why writing about improvised music is fraught with inadequacies. In a lengthy parenthetical tract, he even weighs AACM trumpeter Leo Smith’s position that improvised music should not be criticized at all; but, Davidson conceded that criteria used in jazz criticism – if only to judge pianist Oscar Peterson “a complete and utter bore” – has at least limited utility. Given these limitations, Davidson admitted that he “resorted to the prop of describing the music in terms of its apparent influences, as free improvisers are influenced just as all their predecessors were. Having said that it must be emphasised that none of the ten musicians involved are copyists – they are all developing their own voices and dialects and some show signs of starting their own languages.”

Cooke had no such hesitations; with a lead befitting a hard-boiled beat reporter who not only counted heads in the house, but took note of who was in the audience, he bottom-lined the concert to be “at least partially successful in its aims, in that it got a few influential figures to come and listen, but a wider audience in general terms seems as far away as ever. Attendance was not too good, and largely made up of people who can be seen any Monday at the Engineer or every Tuesday at the Unity, and so on. Still, this did make it all very homely, despite the empty seats, and in addition the musicians weren’t under any unusual pressure to be especially ‘good’ in front of people seeking justification for being out on a rainy night.”

Davidson and Cooke had similar takes on most of the proceedings. The opening duo of Solomon and alto saxophonist Herman Hauge caused both commentators to rely on comparisons with more prominent musicians, with Davidson noting that Hauge employed “elements from the unlikely pair of Peter Brötzmann and Trevor Watts,” while, in Cooke’s estimation, the duo “devolves through Trane-Elvin and Ayler-Murray to something that stops just this side of Parker-Lytton.” Cooke also thought the duo was a shrewd programming move in that Hauge and Solomon “prepared the ground for the more far out things to come. And in doing so, with the energy and imagination they brought to their music, proved once again how much life there is still in these forms.” There was also consensus on the two sets following the interval, and more comparisons to the first generation improvisers – Davidson characterized guitarist Peter Cusack, who played with percussionist Terry Day (“depping” for Mayo) as “post-Baileyian;” Cooke complained that Ray Ashbury, “playing a typically post-Bennink setup, rendered Russell almost inaudible” in the concluding trio with Todd, who Davidson approximated as a “more straight-ahead Evan Parker.”

For both writers, the quartet of Beresford, violinist Nigel Coombes, guitarist Roger Smith and Day was the most provocative of the four groups. Their unorthodox methods elicited namechecks spanning the deadly serious post-serial pianist and handmade electronics pioneer David Tudor and the zanily spoofing bandleader Spike Jones from Davidson, who opined that they “work in an area that could be described as visual noise (using ‘noise’ as defined in most of the learned books on music).” However, Davidson did not contextualize their use of found instruments – Coombes bowed amplified tobacco boxes, Day manipulated balloons, and Beresford, who could not play the house piano due to an excessive rental fee, set off wind-up toys and played toy instruments – and their absurdist high jinks in terms of creating aesthetic distance between them and the 1st gen improvisers. For Davidson, Beresford planting an “irreverent inflatable flower” in the formal floral bouquets the house placed at the edge of the stage was the “visual highlight” of the performance, not a cutting metaphor for the 2nd gen’s relationship to the 1st, their use of kitsch and absurdity disrupting free improvisation’s movement towards becoming a carefully arranged idiom.

Cooke went there. He thought the set was rife with “random configurations and haphazard-seeming improvisations [that presented] to the listener a careless, apparently inconsequential surface, studiously mannered and with at times maybe an edge of latent hostility towards the listener.” He was sure that had a wider – read: unsuspecting – audience showed for the concert, they would have quickly bolted for the door. Still, Cooke recognized “that under this offhand, sometimes consciously silly approach, lie some very deep and important questions about, first of all, the nature of music itself, the urges that crystallise in music-making and, second, the value judgements that have grown up with it, imposed themselves upon it, and to some extent shaped it over the last several hundred years. So the point is not whether the notes or sounds Beresford makes on his toy pianos make up ‘good’ phrases or not, or how far Terry Day’s balloon-blowing can be continued as a technique, but why they’re doing this, and why they think it’s music, and whether they can open your ears and mind to accepting the alternatives they are offering.”

Perhaps emboldened by the influential figures in attendance, Bailey again placed his thumb on the scales following the Young Improvisers concert, deciding to debut the 2nd gen on an Incus album. By this time, Incus had ceased being a close, collaborative effort between Bailey, Oxley and Parker. The drummer made a legendarily acrimonious exit; subsequently, Bailey and Parker took turns shepherding projects as funds allowed. As Parker had just launched Kenny Wheeler’s Song for Someone – a breakthrough for its juxtaposition of the trumpeter’s lustrous big band writing and freely improvised small group interludes – it was Bailey’s turn to pursue a project. However, his approach to instigating what became Teatime was at odds with how the 2nd gen worked. Bailey selected Beresford, Coombes, Russell, Solomon and Todd for the project, which smacked of a major label boss plucking winners out of a nascent musical movement. From a practical standpoint, it was not an expedient choice, as their infrequent Unity Theatre gigs required nine months to stockpile enough material for consideration. (Coincidentally, it was Davidson that Bailey engaged to record the gigs.) Given the speed at which their sensibilities were evolving, the early recordings may have gone stale for them, as only two brief percussion codas from the earliest of the four gigs made the cut.

Still, on several counts, Teatime adequately documents how 2nd gen’s aesthetics went against the grain of the 1st. Their preference for fluid line-ups and egalitarianism is supported to the degree that the five improvisers do not appear as a quintet on any track, nor does any one improviser play on every track. Their propensity for disruption is well represented by a post-production approach modeled on Misha Mengelberg’s cutting of the ICP album with Bailey and Tchicai, which Davidson called “brutal editing.” With seven of the album’s eleven tracks clocking in under four minutes – and two under one – the resulting jump-cut feel of the album goes to the crux of the 2nd gen’s disruptive impulses. “We simply listened to a bit we liked and then got the razor blade out when we found it was becoming boring,” Russell recalled in the album’s CD reissue booklet. “It seemed to fit perfectly the music we were making back then.” So too did the blunt, even affronting track titles like “Irritating tapping,” “Graham shows his teeth,” and, most provocatively, “European improvised music sho ‘nuff turns me on.”

Even though the snarky humor of the latter title hasn’t aged well – “I didn’t get up this morning,” a title that takes a swipe at clichéd blues lyrics, is nuanced by comparison – the music hasn’t sagged forty years on. A Dutch tinge repeatedly seeps to the foreground in Solomon’s drumming – particularly his ability to make sudden forceful intrusions and approximate the sound of a trunkful of kitchen utensils being dumped down a staircase – and Beresford’s meandering piano. However, they proved to be keen listeners, particularly when paired with the two string players, both of whom were prone to being swamped on a crowded bandstand (Cooke noted that Ashbury all but buried the unamplified Russell at the Young Improvisers concert), achieving a delicate dynamic balance; when Coombes and Russell pluck busily in “European ...,” Solomon sustains a chattering undertow at a remarkably low volume. When Todd replaces Coombes on “I didn’t ...,”, a Brötzmann-like intensity repeatedly flairs, causing Russell to vigorously scrape his strings and trigger searing overtones, and Solomon and Beresford to take the gloves off. The concluding extended duet between Todd and Russell is a gripping 11-minute, feedback-punctuated squall; by virtue of it appearing to be the only unedited improvisation, it suggests the album could have been equally, if not more persuasive had they been more sparing with the razor blade.

By documenting improvisers willing to get way out on a limb, embracing the consequences if it breaks, Teatime established the second generation’s bona fides as disruptors. Their reputation quickly spread internationally, even though it took months for the actual record to reach North America – it was August ‘76 before Bells reviewed Teatime. Publisher Henry Kuntz’s commentary is particularly germane because he recognized the gist of their sensibility as they lurched down an increasingly spindly limb: “It’s, in fact, a music built almost entirely around the tangents it is continually going off on ...” Subsequently, Kuntz questioned the long-term viability of their approach. “It’s hard to say how widely applicable are Teatime’s efforts at aesthetic self-caricature or how far they can go before becoming cliché,” he concluded, “but they work well here most of the time.”

Media inevitably dubs a member of even staunchly collective artistic movements the leader – John Stevens being the case in point – occasionally employing the smokescreen that the anointment is already in process, if not completed, to obscure their own fingerprints. Cooke’s adroitness in this regard is exemplary, as he literally placed – at least for North American readers – the news that Beresford “is increasingly coming to be identified as the leader, decision-maker, within this cooperative framework” in parenthesis.

The presumption of Beresford’s leadership propitiously – or fatefully, depending on perspective – coincided with Bailey’s formulation of Company, which the guitarist conceptualized along the lines of a theatrical troupe that cast actors on a project-by-project basis – basically the initial framework of Instant Composers Pool – and further galvanized by the ad hoc proclivities of the 2nd gen. Not only did the Company model allow Bailey to sidestep the limitations of set groups; it also gave him a platform to reset the standing of improvised music at a point when the UK gig economy mirrored the downward spiral of the overall British economy. In 1975 – the year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tories – Bailey told Michael Walters in a Sounds interview that he was getting “fewer gigs than before, because over the last three or four years I’ve mainly been solo, and I no longer get to work in bands so much.” In Improvisation, Bailey said he turned almost exclusively to solo playing at the time “out of necessity.”

Granted: this necessity birthed several enduring solo recordings – including Tap 1-3, a series of reel tapes released on Incus in ‘73, Lot 74 – Solo Improvisations (Incus), and improvisation (Cramps, ‘75) – that challenge the prevailing narrative of piano and saxophone hegemony in the realm of solo music in the 1970s. The importance of the latter extends to its backstory, which illuminates how Bailey, Parker and their contemporaries worked increasingly on the continent, facilitated by an outbreak of enthusiastic presenters and producers with healthy budgets. Area, an Italian progressive rock unit, was the money behind the Cramps label; their practice of taking weeks to lay down a track informing their decision to give producer (and avant-garde composer) Walter Marchetti four days to record Bailey solo. Needing only the first day to record the album’s 14 tracks, Bailey – presumably with Marchetti – drank wine on studio time for the next three.

In addition to giving him access to more lucrative markets – he cleared enough cash from his first tour of Japan in ‘78 to buy a car upon his return to London – Bailey’s mobility as a solo improviser allowed him to extend his network of collaborators beyond his early allies in Holland and Germany, where, arguably, improvised music was making real institutional inroads – 1974 saw the release of the validating 3-LP box set Free Improvisation, a 3-LP box set that included a disc of Iskra 1903, on Deutsche Grammophon, the gold-standard label of Herbert von Karajan and other iconic classical musicians. In London, however, improvised music was no longer the newest sound around. If Company is considered in a larger context than just that of Bailey articulating a framework for his preferred “semi ad hoc” meetings, but one that triangulated the increasing internationalism of improvised music, and supportive funders, presenters, and broadcast and print media in the UK, Company had the makings of an impactful project.

To this end, the first Company concert was presented by the Jazz Centre Society not at a community-oriented venue like the Little Theater Club or Unity Theatre, but the Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre, a complex steeped in post-war British cultural identity. Unlike comparable US complexes like the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts or Lincoln Center, the pedigreed chamber music space was not prohibitively expensive. Victor Schonfield, who contracted the room for concerts earlier in the decade, was not surprised that the program did not mention specific grant funding. “For all its reflected glory,” explained Schonfield, “the Purcell Room was quite affordable. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that it was put on without the aid of a grant.”

Bailey did have the aid of the mainstream press in the run-up to the 8 May 1976 concert, with The Guardian running a snappy headlined, half-page article in its Friday weekend arts preview section the day before: “Ad-libbing for a living.” The offset box for the article is pungent, bundling the headline, a synopsis that frontloads Bailey’s previous-life contract work with the likes of show-stopping singer Shirley Bassey and the comedy team of Morecambe and Wise, and a photo of Bailey looking at the headline and synopsis as if he is beginning to cringe. Noting that Bailey “is the most admired musician of his kind in Britain,” Ronald Atkins points out that “80 per cent of his playing is done in Europe where the market for, and the marketing of free music far exceeds what he can expect here.” Atkins also devotes a paragraph to the then nearly completed Improvisation: its nature and practice in music, namechecking Latimer as the publisher and Radio 3 as the original forum for the interviews Bailey conducted with improvisers from various traditions that make up the bulk of the book. Even though Atkins devotes several column inches to Bailey making his usual taut case for free improvisation, it is doubtful that the article drew unqualified listeners to the Purcell Room; but it had all the ingredients for a potent exhibit in a grant application package.

For the Purcell Room concert, Bailey brought on Parker, Dutch bassist Maarten van Regteren Altena, and cellist Tristan Honsinger, an American ex-pat. Altena and Honsinger were both conservatory trained and prone to broad theatrical gestures. While developing his own solo music in 1973, Altena fell down a flight of stairs and broke his left wrist, inspiring him to cast the upper end of his bass’ neck and record an album of solos entitled Handicaps. Altena exploited the rattles and strangely dampened tones produced by the casts, using his impeccable arco and pizzicato technique to compensate for his limited strength and flexibility in fingering, and creating a uniquely engaging album in the process. Honsinger was all but unknown in the UK, having spent his first two years in Europe primarily busking in Amsterdam and throughout France – where he met Bailey, who first brought him to London in early ‘76. Improvisations from their Verity’s Place gig and a next-day studio session became Duo, the cellist’s first full album – it is unknown if Bailey had Honsinger’s participation in the first Company concert in mind when he produced Duo, but the finished album was not ready in time. Slight with a long face melding Buster Keaton-like obliviousness and Stan Laurel-like bemusement, Honsinger can keenly deploy quips, addled singing, and shrewdly fumbling gestures and movements to augment an improvisation with a Beckett-tinged comic touch.

If Altena and Honsinger represented the disruptive impulses Bailey valued, Parker was the ballast that the guitarist never acknowledged was equally necessary in improvised music. The saxophonist can be fairly characterized as an incrementalist, someone who painstakingly developed stunningly original methods and materials over a period of years; his skill set and vocabulary requiring rigorous practice, a liability among puritans. However, if one focuses exclusively on his virtuosity and its maintenance, it is easily overlooked that Parker’s great strength as an improviser is the center of gravity he generates through instantaneous editorial acuity, cohering untethered and even warring tangents and (to appropriate jazz terminology) taking it upstairs when indicated.

Unfortunately, there is no surviving recording of the inaugural concert to ascertain how these four distinctive improvisers interacted as a foursome. When they reconvened at Riverside Studio the following day, quartet and duo improvisations were passed over for Company 1. Instead, excerpts from improvisations by the four possible trios were issued. Bailey’s editing is consequential, but not brutal. Standard practices like a long windup and a longer search for an exit are trimmed to the lean. The four tracks are unfailingly engrossing; it works as an album, even if Bailey’s unilateral approach to post-production undercuts the egalitarianism – and the volatility – at the heart of Company’s charter. Cuts notwithstanding, “No East” exemplifies the mercurial nature of collective improvisation. Honsinger sets the tone with skittish bowing, riding in the draft of Bailey’s icepick-like harmonics, shimmering overtones, and robust picking and strumming, and Parker’s soprano sputters and growls; Honsinger and Bailey approach the outer limits of lyricism during a brief lull, before reigniting an intense trio finale.

Four additional editions of Company reconvened a total of seven times in the UK before the end of 1976, mostly at high-profile venues like the Bracknell Jazz Festival, ICA on The Mall in London, and Ronnie Scott’s. Only the second Company – the trio of Bailey, Parker and soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill that played Bracknell – was not documented on an Incus LP. The next three editions are represented by successive Company LPs, each recorded after their respective gigs: Company 2 is by the trio of Bailey, Parker and Braxton, which performed only once in August; 3 by Bailey and Bennink, who played Ronnie’s in September; 4 by Bailey and Steve Lacy, who had three gigs in November. A session taped in February by Bailey, Parker and Paul Rutherford for Radio 3’s Music in Our Time, replete with an introduction by Bailey, aired using the Company name in November. (In a letter to Roger Parry years later, Bailey conceded that they did not use the Company label at the time of the session.) This close coordination of gigs, broadcasts, and recordings expeditiously brought to market (1 and 2 were issued in the first half of ‘77; 3 and 4 by year’s end), constituted what was, in contemporary terms, an astonishingly rapid branding campaign for a DIY musician.

It is safe to say that Bailey conceived the first Company Week roughly current with, or shortly after the first Company concerts because of the lead time necessary to secure Arts Council funding, confirm the availability for a week of the likes of Braxton and Lacy, then two of the busiest musicians in jazz and improvised music, and book the ICA for five consecutive evenings – followed by a long day’s journey into night at The Roundhouse the day after. His itinerary for the first four months of 1977 supports the idea that Bailey had a deft touch for the build-up to a major event. Bailey held no Company events in the first quarter, kept a low profile in the UK (his only recording being a studio session with Oxley that sat in the can for over 20 years before being issued on Incus as half of Soho Suites), spending much of it working in Europe (where he recorded Drops with drummer Andrea Centazzo). Well-timed with the release of Company 1, a short April tour saw the reunion of Bailey, Parker, Altena and Honsinger – with Rutherford added for three dates. Writing about the three strings players’ performance at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in Musics, John Hall opined that “Bailey seemed to be in control over the sounds he made and therefore to eschew allusion,” allusion being “the moving into moments of emotional security – secure because they were previously shaped and have acquired poignancy through familiarity.” For Hall, this stood in stark contrast to the “physical” Altena and Honsinger who “were playing within a greater area of risk,” where control of their instruments was called into question.

Control, real or perceived, had become a cleaving issue among improvisers. For some, control meant the technical ability to make precise statements; but, this is something of a red herring when it comes to Altena and Honsinger, both of whom had ample conservatory training. It is far more the case that the statements important to them required short-circuiting the protocols and sense of propriety that had developed over the previous decade, statements that, at their core, equated freedom with abandon. Regardless of who imposes them, such restrictions are what artists of various disciplines seek freedom from – Beresford subscribed to this, as well. Undoubtedly, going into Company Week the last week of May, Bailey saw Altena, Beresford and Honsinger as yeast-like agents who would make the music rise to a new level, or least get a rise out of their counterparts; unlike Altena and Honsinger, who were still little known in the UK, Beresford was already being positioned in the London press as an enfant terrible.

However, what got sufficient rise from the editors of Melody Maker to give Steve Lake a full-page preview of Company Week is suggested by the unlikely lead: “From America – Anthony Braxton, Melody Maker Jazz Critics Poll board-sweeper, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and a more than noteworthy composer. The man who once said ‘Jazz from Louis Armstrong to Albert Ayler is new music. The reality hasn't really changed, only the spectacle ...’” In an extraordinary suspension of standard, event-pegged music journalism practice, the event, the venues and the dates are not mentioned until the 12th paragraph. The intervening short paragraphs on the other participants – first Leo Smith, Lacy, and Honsinger, the other Americans on the card; then Altena and Bennink, the other imports; and, finally, the locals – Coxhill (including a nod to his stint in Soft Machine co-founder Kevin Ayers’ The Whole World), Beresford, Parker and Bailey – seem designed to reinforce the newsworthy, if not spectacular nature of the event.

Once in the body of the piece, however, Lake’s interview with Bailey details his approach to programming the six-day event, setting the groups for the first two nights, then leaving the rest open. Acknowledging “several pairs of apparently complete opposites within the group,” Bailey suggested that the line-up also included several probable intermediaries, emphasizing that all groups would be voluntary. “I hope the thing will work by itself. But there's no reason why anybody should have to play in combination with anybody he's not into playing with ... Then, remember, the majority of these players have a natural affinity, anyway, and have played together many times, so, actually, there would be no problem working exclusively with more or less ‘guaranteed’ combinations ... But head-on collisions seem to me pretty unlikely and if they happen, I don’t think they will do much damage.” Bailey ended the interview by smoothly suggesting the Roundhouse concert would be something of a best-of, dangling the prospect of solos by Braxton, Coxhill and Parker, and a last round between Bennink and himself.

Having pulled a large audience to the ICA, Bailey opened the first night with tested, if not fully guaranteed groups. The trio of Altena, Bailey and Honsinger led off, having an inkling of familiarity because of Company 1 and their recent, enthusiastically received Cambridge Poetry Festival performance, The duo of Lacy and Parker followed, a familiar pair even though their prior recorded encounters were in larger groups – Saxophone Special, one of three Lacy albums released in the ‘70s on Emanem and the two Globe Unity Special LPs on FMP. Company Week seemed for a moment to be on a glide path, demonstrating to funders and media that free improvisation remained a serious, albeit commercially marginal art form and merited an expanded forum like Company Week. Then the shit hit the fan.

In the midst of the third set with Altena, Coxhill and Honsinger, Beresford – who referred to himself as a “s--- stirrer” in Lake’s preview, pushing back on the assertion that he was the enfant terrible of improv – produced a hot water bottle and poured water into the bell of his trumpet, letting it run through the horn and onto the stage deck. Reactions were immediate and strong. In his notes that ultimately became the Incus-published booklet Company Week, poet Peter Riley likened Beresford splashing the spilt water to “infant urination delights.” “It pissed Evan off,” Beresford remarked in an interview with Impetus editor Kenneth Ansell. Smith was offended, believing Beresford’s action to be a desecration; upon his return to the US, the trumpeter bad-mouthed Beresford to musicians like Eugene Chadbourne (which, ironically, piqued the guitarist’s interest in Beresford). Beresford instantly became a pariah: Braxton, Parker and Smith thereafter refused to play with him. For the remainder of the week, Beresford was the only improviser limited to one set every night, usually with some combination of Bennink, Coxhill and the strings players, players comfortable with disruptive extra-musical actions.

The marginalization of Beresford extended to the three still-lionized LPs recorded during Company Week, appearing only on Company 6 and 7 – and then only on a single track on each – whereas Braxton plays on all five pieces issued on Company 5, and five of the twelve spread out over 6 and 7, reinforcing the notion created by Lake’s preview that Braxton was the big-name ringer. Company 5 was recorded after the third night’s concert and featured combinations that did not perform publicly: an album-opening septet that excluded Bennink, Beresford, and Coxhill; two duets by Braxton and Lacy; and two trios by Braxton, Honsinger and Parker.

The septet is an exception to the general rule that the fewer the improvisers the better. Layers of counterpoint are created by busy, darting lines offset by long tones joining together to create crescendos and decrescendos. Passages taper off; the ensemble then being resuscitated a voice at a time. Smith and Braxton are especially robust throughout the 25-minute improvisation; the latter inspired to frequently switch between alto and sopranino saxophones, clarinet and flute, creating contrasts with Lacy and Parker’s sopranos. Ordinarily, the pungent push and pull between Braxton and Lacy in their duets, and the sparks thrown by Honsinger at Braxton and Parker in the trios, would be centerpieces on most recordings; here, they take a back seat to the septet.

Similarly, Company 6 begins with a quintet initially spurred by Smith’s almost fanfare-like opening lines, typical of the trumpeter’s ability to improvise melodically without tipping his hand as to where he might go next, avoiding common harmonic contours and predictable resolutions of cliff-hanging phrases. The difference in open space and the resulting options improvisers have in terms of entering, altering and exiting an exchange is considerable, allowing Smith and his cohorts – Altena, Braxton, Honsinger and Lacy – to adroitly shape the piece with subtle application of colors and textures. In the septet and the quintet improvisations, the musicians achieve something similar to a compositional goal of painters – placing elements on a canvas that keeps the eye moving, without resting on one and making it dominant.

The main reason both the septet and quintet are successful is the presence of form-seeking improvisers like Braxton, Lacy and Smith. Each is capable of creating a gravitational field that draws even instinctually wayward improvisers like Honsinger into close orbit. This is not an exclusively American trait – Altena and Parker also improvised with strong formal qualities, but, at least at this point in time, their emphasis on egalitarianism prevented them from overtly pulling their collaborators in one direction or another. What the American contingent shared was considerable experience leading their own ensembles and developing original idiomatic compositional languages, which seeped into their work with Company.

Subsequently, pieces like the septet and quintet have a cohesion born of facility and intentionality. They make strong first impressions and, therefore, persuasive cases that free improvisation presents form in real time, that its relationship to avant-garde jazz retained vitality, and that technique was integral to content – all tenets of the first generation. In the few improvisations scattered throughout the Company Week LPs where he plays with fellow disruptors like Bennink and Honsinger, Beresford is not the Guy Fawkes he’s made out to be; in a quintet with Altena, Bailey, Bennink and Honsinger included on Company 7, it is the cellist’s frenetic bowing and madcap vocalese that threaten to blow the joint up. More often, the disruption is surprisingly subtle, as is the case with the quartet of Altena, Bennink, Coxhill and Honsinger on 7, which initially seems destined to be unrelentingly earth-scorching until Bennink suddenly dropped out. Bennink is unique in that he is as disruptive when he suddenly stops playing as he is when he barges into an improvisation. Like a car whose drive belt has snapped, the remaining musicians then race the engine even as the car slows to a stop. However, in the end, these episodes are significantly outnumbered by those that argue free improvisation was no longer a simple rejection of idiom and form – Bailey’s rhetoric and Beresford’s head-on collision notwithstanding – but a means for idioms, forms, and their negations to co-exist, if not coalesce.

Based upon Company 6 and 7, Beresford’s ideas – particularly his assertion to Ansell that most men entering into free improvisation had “adolescent motivations” – were more dangerous than his playing, probably because most of his contributions were on the receiving end of brutal editing. Regardless, the first Company Week was the wrong forum for any exponent of the 2nd gen to fully assert their individuality, Bailey’s agenda being so obviously centered on building a platform validated by media and arts institutions. However, 1977 also saw the formation of Alterations, the quartet of Beresford, guitarist Peter Cusack, percussionist Terry Day and multi-instrumentalist David Toop, a group renowned for employing a massive pile of indigenous, modern, and found instruments to create music that could be severely jarring one moment, and gleefully banal the next. Even though Day was technically of the first generation by virtue of his membership in the anomalous People Band, which had no fixed personnel and pioneered an aesthetic of “whatever” in their happening-like performances, Alterations’ mash of genres, emphasis on unlikely sound sources (everything from wind-up toys to kitchen utensils and drum machines), and their nose-thumbing of avant-garde orthodoxy made them a quintessential 2nd gen ensemble – one whose membership remained the same throughout its improbable nine-year run.

Despite the best efforts of free improvisation purists to control their messaging with print and broadcast media, maintain a critical posture towards funders and presenters, and generally remain well beyond the reach of compromise, Company Week was a significant step towards monumentalizing and institutionalizing free improvisation as an idiom; not only did it generate three LPs to continue a uniformly designed series of recordings already large enough to comprise a box set, but it inspired an entire issue of Impetus magazine to be devoted to Company. Throughout the interviews with every Company Week participant – and additional exchanges with Day, Mengelberg and Rutherford – the issue of whether or not improvised music was an idiom was approached from various, mostly oblique angles.

When asked about the advantages of Company Week bringing together what Ansell called “various improvisational strategies,” Parker replied that it brought focus to the issue of whether or not free improvisation is, or is not, an idiom in itself. “I think it’s possible for [free improvisation] to have an identity in itself and yet, at the same time, have a built-in capacity for change. It seems to me that if free music is an idiom then that’s the kind of idiom it is.” Parker conceded that free improvisation was at a transition point and that “(m)aybe at the moment cybernetic models would be more appropriate, thinking tools for us than language models ... our thinking and playing have reached a point of refinement where we now need a new model. It seems to me that it should be a model about information processing and information exchange, information and control, feedback pictures and so on.”

Intriguingly, Parker identifies not Beresford – perhaps he was still pissed off – but Toop to represent the 2nd gen’s “pressure to find a new thinking model. With one or two of the younger players now it’s not easy to describe what they do in terms of language and instrumentality. It means we need to broaden the definition of the musician some way.” Questioning how far and how successful this broadening may be brought Parker back to Bailey’s essential experiment with Company, seeing “how far a recognisable personal style interferes with, or excludes, the possibility of group interaction ... I would guess that Derek would agree with me in saying that a group can be more than the sum of its parts, but I suspect that he finds that to be a fairly rare state of being and that this work with Company is perhaps directed towards an attempt to generate a higher success rate in that respect and certainly directed towards investigation of this phenomena.”

It is impossible to dispute that Bailey achieved a high success rate, given Company’s staying power and ever-increasing stature. In addition to dozens of Company events, Bailey organized 14 subsequent Company Weeks (including editions held in New York and Tokyo), the last held in 2002, roughly coinciding with the onset of the motor neurone disease that claimed him on Christmas Day 2005. Over a dozen discs document how the aesthetic orientation of the participants expanded markedly to include, among others, classical pianist Ursula Oppens, metal guitarist Buckethead, and tap dancer Will Gaines. In the process, Bailey’s idealization of the semi ad hoc meeting ironically yielded one of free improvisation’s most venerated institutions.

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