Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Corey Mwamba, © Katherine Cory


In 2019, Corey Mwamba proved the old adage that when one door closes, another opens. The twist is that the closing was not just intentional, but long in the works, whereas the opening came out of the blue.

On March 23rd, the vibraphonist/educator/activist gave his final public performance in Derby, his hometown, citing his personal dissatisfaction with an objectifying music scene, particularly his too-frequent encounters with low-intensity racism throughout the UK. Mwamba did not ascribe any significance to the date when he made his decision in ‘15. He only knew that he was done “working in places that were, frankly, disrespectful and hateful, where you’d get called out by someone in the audience, the kind of thing I call exquisite racism, because it’s barely perceptible and surgical and very well-mannered in a way; and you go away feeling slightly dirtied but you can’t quite put your finger on it.”

Mwamba also knew casting his exit date a few years into the future would test his resolve, allow him to bring various aspects of his activities to a proper end point, and ready himself for the next, uncertain chapter. As his farewell concert at Baby People open performance space drew closer, the impact of his leaving the field sank in among his colleagues and supporters; yet, except for a news article published online by The Wire a week prior to the concert, and a lengthy review posted on London Jazz News, Mwamba’s departure was largely met with crickets. It’s not that Mwamba had been ignored by critics; he had been boosted as “arguably one of the most complete vibes players to emerge since Gary Burton” by author Duncan Heining more than 50 years after Burton’s arrival. The media’s failure to examine an extraordinarily problematic situation belied its occasional woke postures as little more than product endorsements.

Hosting a BBC radio program was not on Mwamba’s radar when he left the field. He was caught off guard when Joby Waldman, a director at Reduced Listening, London-based producers of eclectic radio programs and podcasts, pitched Mwamba that summer. Waldman had found Mwamba to be very engaging during chats at his London gigs, knew he had a lot to say about music, and had read his exit statement; after learning that Radio 3 was interested in filling a schedule gap with a show focusing on jazz and improvised music, Waldman seized the rare opportunity to enlist an established practitioner without production-disrupting performance schedule conflicts. Mwamba signed on.

“BBC initially had a very different idea of what the show was going to be,” Mwamba said of the make-or-break meeting at Broadcasting House. “They were interested in the new jazz coming out in the UK. I had this application called The Rhizome that I made with Tom Ward, who is a saxophonist and a wizard with JavaScript, which is an ongoing snapshot that tracks all the people who classify themselves as improvisers within Britain and Ireland. There were about 1,400 people that had signed on. So, at this meeting, I opened up my laptop and brought up the map, and filtered bands in London that started up in the last five years – 47. And I asked: Do you want me to focus on these 47 bands, or do you want the map? And they said they wanted the map. They understood it.”

Radio 3 announced the addition of the program in early September; although its purview was described as “exploring cutting-edge, adventurous jazz,” it was yet unnamed, and Mwamba was not mentioned. The formal rollout came later that month at the launch of the 2019 London Jazz Festival, a scene Mwamba remembers as weird and funny, as a few attendees were puzzled by his presence prior to his introduction, which prompted scattered gasps from the assembled industry types.

Freeness took over the midnight Saturday slot that November, just seven months after Mwamba’s public exit. The format is a perennial, with each episode featuring up to eight tracks with introductions and commentaries; but the material presented on Freeness goes against the grain of programming typical of that timeslot – it’s the antithesis of slow jams that prompt turning on the blue lights in the basement. Pacing is everything with this template; knowing which contrasting tracks to play back-to-back, how to drop the temperature, and change it up, is necessary to keep listeners for the entire hour, arguably a tougher hurdle when presenting material that refutes commercial values – and, in some instances, is sufficiently underground that it is commercially unavailable. Yet, Freeness moves right along – Mwamba credits lead producer Rebecca Gaskell. Ultimately, however, programs like Freeness are on-air personality driven. Mwamba is relaxed and inviting; his tone is not that of an expert or an industry insider, but of an enthusiast who occasionally waxes poetic and even sighs at the end of a particularly inspiring track. He makes arcane music more approachable, more human.

“When we discussed what the show would be, the thing we all agreed on was that it would be a method-oriented show, not genre-oriented,” Mwamba explained. “What I talk about is the qualities of the improvising in the tracks that we play, and I respond to that. Sometimes I hear the music before the show, and I’ll pick some things out. There are times when we’re doing the show and Becca plays something I am hearing for the first time when we’re recording, and I respond. Responding to the music honestly is a guiding principle for me.

“We also try to have parity in terms of gender, geography, and context, and we try to be approachable, having the potential of giving a voice; because at the moment there’s a narrowing of experience going on at a societal level. There’s a wider world out there. There are multiple, smaller worlds that we inhabit, and it’s interesting to see what those worlds are like; but that music gets played on the BBC only if a gatekeeper is there. I am in that position, but I try not to act like one. Becca, the other producers of the show, and I, work really hard on the selection of music and the ordering of the music; so, we are gatekeepers because there are things that we play and there are things that we don’t play. The show is only an hour long, and there is so much coming in. So, we gatekeep. It’s a role I don’t deny.”

Now halfway through a renewable four-year term, Freeness deftly shuttles between multiple musical worlds each week, and, in the process, Mwamba has become not just a gatekeeper, but a credible ambassador.

 

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Mwamba was never a stranger to navigating cultures – his father was Zambian and his mother was born to Jamaican immigrants. Until he was 5, his family lived in Normanton, one of the more diverse suburbs of Derby, where he was born in 1976. However, when his father, a mining engineering student, moved the family to Putney, London, to continue his studies, Mwamba remembered feeling not particularly welcomed when he entered primary school. When he was eight, his father moved the family to Mufulira, the hub of Zambia’s copper industry, when he was recalled to fulfill his scholarship obligations to the Zambian Corporation of Copper Mining.

At the time, African music culture had little appreciative impact on Mwamba – that changed as he grew older. “Zambia has a strong music culture,” he said, “but it’s also surrounded by countries with much stronger music cultures, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was then called Zaire, and Zimbabwe – people like Thomas Mapfumo and the rumba bands. But Westernization is a totalizing force, and Zambia is a conservative, very Christian country, so you couldn’t really escape country and western music, and Jim Reeves. A lot of the music I heard there when I was young – soul, disco, reggae, all of which were in the house, as well as country and jazz – just kind of washed over me. My parents were really big into taping music. They taped everything, and I’ve carried that on.”

His parents were also keen on Mwamba’s education, with early and sustained expectations of high marks and degrees. This led his father to buy an Amstrad CPC464, an 8-bit computer with a green screen. His father was very insistent that Mwamba learned how to code. “If I wanted to play with the computer, then I needed to code BASIC,” Mwamba explained. “It had a sound function, where you could control the envelope and the pitch and the time. I wrote little programs that made sounds, which essentially what is now called live coding, but I was eight. So, my first experience in music was just making sounds.”

After three years, his family returned to Derby, initially staying with his maternal grandparents while his parents found a home. With Mwamba approaching adolescence, his parents insisted he had “an activity,” which turned out to be organ lessons. “It was my first proper experience with an instrument,” he related. “I started with a Yahama electric organ with the pedals. I still have the whole series of organ books that I had then, with harmonic and melodic tests. You were supposed to listen to the song first, and then you open the book, look at the music and learn how to play it. I remember very clearly listening to the music, sort of looking at the music, and concentrating on my feet, playing the music, but not actually reading it. I ended up doing these classes and got through two grades, Grades 1 and 2, but I hadn’t read anything.”

The lessons stopped when Mwamba changed schools to focus on sciences and languages. To improve his listening comprehension, he tuned into French-language news channels using a short-wave radio. That’s how, at 15, he stumbled upon a Jessica Williams concert where the pianist played Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Even though his father’s records by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and others, had always been part of the home aural environment, music had never been a serious interest for him. That changed on the spot.

After Mwamba moved to South Hampton for college A levels, studying math, chemistry, biology, and French, his mushrooming interest in jazz led him to the college’s music library, where he could check out headphones, listen to CDs, and read the books on jazz shelved nearby; he also regularly ventured into the reference library to read issues of Down Beat. Mwamba also credits Humphrey Lyttleton’s Radio 2 program for broadening his perspective. He hadn’t thought about playing until he met a young woman saxophonist and accompanied her to a rehearsal of the college jazz band, led by Dan Mar-Molinero, who later won The Times’ Young Jazz Musician of the Year award. Mar-Molinero noticed Mwamba tapping on a chair and asked him to play on a gig two days later. Mwamba agreed, mainly to impress the saxophonist.

“At the time of this first gig, I was listening to a lot of British jazz: Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Tommy Smith – Paris is a great album,” Mwamba said of his preparation. “I had a Walkman, so I snuck into the percussion room and try to copy what was on the tape. How does this work? What do I do? How do I keep my foot going? All of these basic questions. In the end, we couldn’t transport the bass drum, so I ended up just playing snare, high-hat, and ride. So, I had to be resourceful – it went as well as you can expect.  Everybody thought I played really well, but I didn’t really want to play drums, and I didn’t want to play keyboards, either. What else could I do that would transfer the keyboard skills I had developed playing organ that wasn’t a keyboard? I had bought [Jazz; History, Instruments, Musicians, Recordings] by John Fordham, a book with photos – this is what it’s like; this is how it’s done; one of those jazz primer books. In it, there was a picture of Orphy Robinson playing the vibraphone, and I thought it looked absolutely cool. The description read: ‘Orphy Robinson plays jazz, funk, African music.’ And I thought, that’s what I want to do.”

There were a couple of hitches immediately facing Mwamba: he didn’t own a vibraphone, nor did he have access to one without sneaking into practice rooms, using passcodes given by friends; and because his parents were insistent on his pursuing a career-oriented education, he surreptitiously found a teacher, a percussionist named Louis Dyson, whose approach confounded Mwamba. “I came into the first lesson and he sat me down and taught me how to read chords in like ten minutes,” Mwamba recollected. “Here’s what the letter and numbers mean, and ignore the rest. In the second lesson, he used a snare drum to teach me the action to strike a drum – keep your arm straight, go up down up. Still haven’t touched the instrument. In the third session, he talked about Beethoven for an hour. The fourth session, he talked about being a musician, and I still haven’t touched the instrument. We played George Gershwin’s ‘Funny Face’ on the fifth session. He said that sometimes they tell you to play this G chord with four mallets, but usually you can get away with just using two. Using four is really only necessary if you’re going to play four notes. If you use three, this is how you hold them. And then he said, that’s it. What? That’s it; you don’t need lessons. I told him I really hadn’t thought I’d done anything, but he told me I’d be fine.”

By the time Mwamba began work on his chemistry degree at the University of Birmingham in the mid-1990s, he had a firmer idea of what he wanted. Although he had a CD player by this time, he still had to sneak into the music department to practice. Despite not having his own instrument, he joined the big band, and even formed a sextet that played Monk and Shorter tunes. During his second year, his activism found it stride, when he formed the Birmingham Jazz Society, and worked with Birmingham Jazz to get group prices for concerts by touring artists like David Murray’s big band and Terrance Blanchard, playing with Jean Toussaint’s group. On top of that, Mwamba, who was commuting between Derby and Birmingham, managed to work the door at Derby Jazz on Saturday nights, and at The Bear in Bearwood on Sundays. Between the two venues, Mwamba was able to hear everyone from the venerable tenor saxophonist Andy Hamilton at The Bear and Pat Thomas at Derby Jazz.

Through a monthly Saturday morning jam session/workshop at the Midlands Arts Center in Birmingham, Mwamba also came in contact with Tomorrow’s Warriors, the organization run by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons. Still without an instrument, Mwamba would take the Jazz Society to listen to the TW band – Jason Yarde, Robert Mitchell, Darren Taylor (now known as Vidal Montgomery), Gary’s son Daniel Crosby, and Julie Dexter – whose dense, harmonically rich originals and fresh takes on standards encapsulated what Mwamba then thought to be distinctive about British jazz. After their set, teenage participants sat in, including saxophonist Soweto Kinch and James Morton, and pianist Tommy Scott. He would then ricochet between Birmingham and Derby for the rest of the weekend, going to as many gigs as he could.

“I didn’t do a lot of chemistry at all,” Mwamba admitted. “It was the end of the second year and group theory and reaction rates mechanisms were doing me in, but Tomorrow’s Warriors were finishing at the MAC and Orphy Robinson was going to be a special guest. So that meant I could play, but they were very up front in saying that I wasn’t going to solo, which I was fine with. Thanks for asking me; it’s a great opportunity. It was also my mum’s birthday, 28th of July, 1997. I get to the rehearsal and we were playing ‘Ju Ju’ and I decided to take a solo and Orphy came up behind me and said, stop. I thought, oh no; but, he gave me a set of sticks and told me to use them in this song. It was mind-blowing. The gig was a big thing for me. Gary came up to Soweto and me told us we were the next ones. A few weeks later, Orphy called me up just for a chat, which was the most heartwarming thing.

“After that, Derby Jazz had some workshops with Pat Thomas,” Mwamba continued. “We had a group called Derby Improvisers Group, which included Walt Shaw, a really fantastic percussionist/sound artist. With Pat, there was this expansion of what was available and permissible for me. Permission is important to a younger person; what you’re allowed to play; what you’re not allowed to play; what you should sound like. I fell victim to that with Tomorrow’s Warriors because they were very clear about not being supportive of completely improvised music. But Pat was very encouraging and very open. Not living in London, and not wanting to live in London, drove a bit of a wedge between me and Tomorrow’s Warriors – not the people, but the organization. ‘Do you want to come to London?’ ‘No, I like living in Derby.’ Even after these gigs, I didn’t really have the feeling I was going to be a musician. Pat and Orphy convinced me, and they did it by just being really nice to me.”

This affirmation led Mwamba to successfully apply to the Prince’s Trust in 1998 for a grant to buy a vibraphone. Hooked into a bait and switch by a local shop, he ended up with a beaten-up Premier 701, which many vibes players consider an inferior instrument because the bars are narrower than on a Musser. Mwamba could hear the difference when he hit a bar in the center and when he struck it off-center. Because the bars were smaller, he had to be more accurate; because it was old and rickety and literally held together with twine, it was an ongoing struggle just to make it work. There was the unintended upside of the instrument producing unusual timbres as its bindings loosened or were entangled with parts of the instrument, which Mwamba exploited in varied settings – a duo with Shaw; BET4, a multi-disciplinary collective whose works incorporated physical theater, dance, visuals, and sound art; and dance companies rooted in Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Ukrainian, and contemporary traditions.

Throughout this period, Mwamba constructed solo works from improvised materials, using a Windows 98 PC with a Sound Blaster 16 card, and a £2 mic to achieve his desired gritty, low-fi sound. He began to stockpile pieces employing conventional instruments (including vibraphone, guitar, and a Yahama PSR-280), traditional instruments (dulcimer and ocarina), objects like a Pilates exercise ball, and processed field recordings of birds, breeze, and Aurora Borealis VLF activity. Some emphasized his budding virtuosity as a vibraphonist; others were adamantly abstract. By 2003, he was uploading pieces onto Myspace; in 2006, he self-released a selection of them as Sipping Rioja at Home (now accessible through Mwamba’s bandcamp page). The album unfolds like an episode of Freeness, with mingling colors and subtle provocations.

Some jazz CDs sell, modestly; however, a few that don’t nevertheless circulate among influencers in print and broadcast media, as well as concert and festival producers – and the philanthropic and governmental sources for funding they rely upon. Sipping Rioja at Home was apparently heard by the right people, as Mwamba was selected for 2006-7 edition of Take Five, an initiative administered by Serious Productions and underwritten by both the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the PRS Foundation (longtime Mwamba colleague, bassist Dave Kane; trumpeter Tom Arthurs;  and the late trumpeter and Assistant Artistic Director of Tomorrow’s Warriors Abram Wilson, were among the chosen). “The whole point of Take Five is to give musicians access to knowledge about a whole range of business and creative opportunities,” then Serious Director Claire Whitaker was quoted in a promotional document penned by Take Five writer-in-residence, Daniel Spicer. According to Whitaker, the aim was to “help the very talented jazz musicians that we have in the UK go along that journey with a few more tools in their kit-bag. We want to stimulate creativity, raise aspirations and look at how musicians survive and thrive in today’s jazz community.”

Artist development programs like Take Five seek a virtuous circle of art and commerce, one that builds audience for adventurous music. “Take Five offers musicians the chance to acquire the skills and knowledge to break out of their own little worlds through a series of specially tailored workshops and seminars, culminating in February in a week-long residency at Bore Place, an idyllic rural retreat deep in the Kent countryside: a kind of jazz-ashram, if you will,” Spicer elaborated. “While there, the musicians discuss among themselves – and with leading international figures from all arenas of the creative music business – such illuminating subjects as composition, strategic direction, promotion and publishing and public funding.” The musician in residence was John Surman, an exemplar of this virtuous circle.

The impacts of programs like Take Five can be robustly debated. What is indisputable is that it raises the profiles of the selected artists for a season or two. That was the case with Mwamba, who was then short-listed with Evan Parker and others for the Jazz on 3 Innovation category of the BBC Jazz Awards in 2008 (Jazz on 3 host Jez Nelson – now broadcasting on Jazz FM – also produces the long-running Jazz in the Round concert series at the Cockpit Theatre, making him a prominent London gatekeeper during the last two decades). The winner was the cheekily named FRAUD, a buzz-generating London quintet: a few months after their eponymous 2007 debut was issued on the Babel Label (administered by Oliver Weindling, who also oversees The Vortex, arguably the second-best known London jazz venue after Ronnie Scott’s), they played the Serious-produced London Jazz Festival, garnering comparisons to trendsetters like Polar Bear in the pages of Jazzwise along the way.

“After that, people started taking a little more notice of me, although everyone thought I lived in London,” chuckled Mwamba.

 

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Although Mwamba has enjoyed fruitful collaborations with London-based musicians – he points to his duos with pianist Robert Mitchell and saxophonist Rachel Musson – the bulk of his work in the last ten years was created with musicians either from the Midlands or the North of England. They project a different temperament than musicians who are of London, where jazz cosmopolitanism remains alive and well, and whose commercial allures were dimmed only by the pandemic. Long-haulers like saxophonists Martin Archer and Nat Birchall represent a push-back to a narrative typified by a 1988 profile of Archer by Richard Cook in The Wire, which led with the notion that “(t)he dilemma [Sheffield musicians] face is whether or not they can move beyond their very small circle of appreciation.” Although he praised the scene’s spunk and resilience, and encouraged readers’ support, Cook’s boosterism is eclipsed in his concluding paragraph by emphasizing Archer’s “few illusions about Sheffield’s new music storming the bastions of world popularity. Several years of trying to shift records out of the Midlands and trying to organize local gigs are probably enough to convince anyone that they won’t be anybody’s next big thing.”

More than thirty years later, Cook’s market-oriented worldview seems snarky and patronizing, even if one considers his target was the status quo, which it frequently was. Implicitly, it applies a Londoncentric metric that values media buzz and being slightly ahead of the curve; it was and remains irrelevant concerning these musicians. Cook’s mistake was thinking they were disadvantaged. Most likely, had the relevant data been available then, it may well have resembled the Rhizome map, indicating sustainable scenes throughout the UK. That Archer, Birchall, and others continue to create spectra of engaging music without regard to the bastions of world popularity and the next big things makes the case that grassroots are stronger in colder climates. Placing Mwamba in this regional context – particularly his work with YaNa (a co-op trio with bassist Dave Kane and drummer Joshua Blackmore), his stint in Birchall’s quintet, and various Archer projects – yields insights that complement those gleaned from considering him in the arc of black jazz history in the UK.

It is noteworthy that Mwamba and Kane were among the few Take Five participants in 2007 that were not based in London. Born in Northern Ireland, where he studied with composer Brian Irvine, the bassist worked in London with Elton Dean, Paul Dunmall, and others before relocating in Leeds, where he co-founded the Leeds Improvised Music Association. Mwamba and Kane played as a duo before tapping Blackmore, who played with Mwamba while still a teenager, prior to the drummer’s studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Their first gig as YaNa took place in November 2008 in Stratford-upon-Avon. Mwamba brought some of his compositions, but realized that free improvisation was the best fit for the trio by the end of the first set.

Walt Dickerson is the only vibraphonist of note who made as many consequential recordings with just bass and drums as Mwamba has with YaNa. Stylistically, Dickerson and Mwamba are comparable on a few counts: a dry sound in brisk tempi, and measured use of sustain and tremelo in space-privileging passages; a penchant for clean lines that avert lush flourishes; and unerring responses to the unfolding moment. Something of the same can be said of both Kane and Blackstone, which is why albums such as hear us listen, In the Vortex, and 7ArtSpace – all of which were recorded between March 2009 and February 2010, a supersonic pace compared to Dickerson’s trio dates – ripen with repeated plays. Like all adroit improvisers, YaNa never stays in one place too long; and when they shift their emphasis, it is seamless.

In 2011, Mwamba began a three-year stint with the Manchester-based Birchall. Although John and Alice Coltrane’s names quickly drop in any discussion of the tenor and soprano saxophonist, Birchall is something of a dotted line in the flow chart of Coltrane-inspired UK saxophonists, emphasizing soul-stirring pleadings and hosannas over high-velocity labyrinthine lines. Birchall’s recordings featuring Mwamba are often deeply satisfying (anyone who covers “John Coltrane” from Clifford Jordan’s Glass Bead Games deserves kudos); but, Birchall’s penchant for pieces that waft ethereally or see-saw between two chords limited Mwamba in his options as a soloist. Particularly on Live in Larissa (Sound Soul and Spirit, 2014), Paul Hession’s powerhouse drumming and Adam Fairhall’s Tynerish thunder all but submerged Mwamba in the ensembles – it is telling that they all but lay out for his solos. There are occasions where Mwamba briefly shapes the space around him – such as “World Without Form” from Live in Larissa – but, more often than not, Mwamba is strangely secondary to the proceedings, almost something of a fifth wheel.

Whereas Brichall has reinforced a core aesthetic over the years, Archer has asserted a panoramic sensibility, project by project. When he is not reimagining storytelling traditions as a two-hour sequence of compositions, or recasting the age-old virtues of English songs (the latter with Julie Tippetts), Archer plumbs influences as varied as electric Miles and the midwestern structuralists. Subsequently, Archer emerges not as a torchbearer, but as a critical thinker, seemingly driven by the question: Where can I take this next? All issued on Archer’s Discus imprint, three recordings including Mwamba outline Archer’s scope: Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites (2012-3); Story Tellers (2015-6); Anthropology Band (2018-9).

Archer’s affinity for first wave AACM-affiliated composer/improvisers is thoroughly explicated on Blue Meat ... for twelve musicians. His sure hand in structuring the numerous improvised passages stitched throughout the hour-plus sequence is particularly evident in those including Mwamba, who lingers like smoke in a muted exchange with violinist Graham Clark and then darts about a larger grouping – Archer also wisely gives Mwamba an unaccompanied solo, a good example of how he can shift the listener’s focus in short order. The same holds true for Mwamba’s solo interlude on Story Tellers; and within a sextet, his mingling with Archer, trumpeter Kim Macari, and guitarist Anton Hunter stays in the foreground. Archer skillfully appropriates Miles’ juxtaposition of themes built on long tones and a swift undercurrent of electric keyboards and guitar for the septet disc on Anthropology Band (the second features orchestrations of the same pieces for an eleven-piece ensemble of brass and winds). When Mwamba isn’t slipping between Pat Thomas and guitarist Chris Sharkey to add metallic highlights, he runs wild, fanning a fiery Christine Keefe trumpet solo, fraying the edges of a rock-heavy theme, and generally boosting the music’s amperage.

Mwamba’s association with Archer facilitated Discus’ release of NTH, with pianist Laura Cole, bassist Andy Champion, and drummer Johnny Hunter. Not only was this the last group Mwamba toured with prior to his leaving public performance, theirs is the only CD released outside Mwamba’s bandcamp subscription series since his quitting public performance. It is noteworthy that they went into the studio less than 90 days after Mwamba’s “sequestration” concert; however, the four-month hiatus subsequent to their swing through the north and Midlands gave the quartet the benefits of shared history and fresh ears. There are several glints of Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson’s incisive interactions on the pianist’s Judgement! in Mwamba and Cole’s work. At times, bassist Andy Champion and drummer Johnny Hunter also tap into mid ‘60s innovators who stretched tempo into pulse and stripped harmonic conventions. For the bulk of the album, however, there is a regard for space and the unfolding of materials – a temperament – that is quite different from the strivings of the ‘60s, the past that still hasn’t passed. NTH – signifying “north,” not an extreme degree – reflects a pre-pandemic conviviality, one grounded in community.

 

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Mwamba spent the first half of the 2010s working a variety of day jobs in data entry and community libraries, eventually becoming a database project coordinator for Southern Derby Mental Health. Since he doesn’t drive, Mwamba had to take trains to gigs, requiring him to load the bars into a bag that he put on his back, and carry the frame and the resonators. Beyond being cumbersome, this led to many encounters that contributed to his decision to cease performing publicly. “Some of the treatment was shocking,” he recounted. “That wore me down a lot. It didn’t matter where you went, there was always somebody; it makes you heightened to various situations.”

Having earned his chemistry degree, Mwamba also pursued a Masters in Music Research under the supervision of Rajmil Fischman at Keele University. Mwamba’s thesis examined three notational systems used in medieval European music for relevance and applicability to a cycle of the new works. At the outset of his thesis essay – crafting clarity: the design of notation and process for new dark art – Mwamba cited Earle Brown’s “The Notation and Performance of New Music” (a 1964 lecture included in a 1986 issue of The Musical Quarterly), in which Brown made connections between the graphic notation systems he and other members of the New York School devised to give performers new interpretative latitude, and notation systems used before 1600. Medieval musicians (who memorized stockpiles of materials, much in the same way as mainstream jazz artists) used common rules and practices to interpret notation. Both approaches relied on performers reaching consensus as to what the notation meant; the medieval reinforced practical conformity, while the modern was decidedly non-conformist.

Medieval music and Brown’s methods in works like December 1952 formed a messaging arc that Mwamba wanted to extend through new dark art, which references both his resulting notation system and the pieces he wrote using it. His thinking about and application of medieval notation systems evolved throughout the research and composition phases of the project. The use of neumes is representative; initially, their pitch contours were exact, but Mwamba eventually modified his approach, specifying only their last pitches and opening the routes that led to them, employing traditional stress markings such as the virga and the punctum to indicate a rise or fall in pitch.

Devising his notation was one issue; rendering it for rehearsal and performance was another. Although writing the piece by hand was a pleasurable task, revisions copied by hand were time consuming.  Mwamba turned to Gregorio, a computer program for generating plainchant scores. However, the program could not replicate what was new in Mwamba’s notation system. He found a workaround with LibreOffice, which has a component for mathematical formulae, allowing the user to compile a library of symbols and to choose a layout for the printed page. The score could then be converted into PDFs, easily distributed to musicians via email.

Mwamba began workshopping pieces from the cycle in 2014. As part of the closing celebration of Glasgow 2014 (officially known the XX Commonwealth Games), he performed dare not speak in early August with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and actor Tam Dean Burns. Unfortunately, Mwamba’s only documentation of the performance was a recording made on his mobile phone. Later that month, Mwamba rehearsed the saxophone quartet new dark art with members of Madwort Saxophone Quartet, including Cath Roberts (a principal of Lume, London-based presenters), Tom Ward (of the Rhizome), and Chris Williams (of Led Bib) – Colin Webster rounded out the foursome. Encouraged by the results, Mwamba scheduled two performances for the following May, the first in Darby, followed by a London performance at Long White Cloud in Hoxton.

Composing new dark art for saxophone quartet made eminent sense in relation to Mwamba’s alterations of medieval notation; accomplished saxophonists can easily accommodate the sliding pitches and varied accents once they learn the code. Intriguingly, Mwamba twisted the trajectory established with Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 37” almost fifty years ago with a high-contrast mix of horns – sopranino, alto, tenor, and baritone, which was roughly mirrored by ROVA – by scoring the work for two altos (Roberts and Ward) and two baritones (Williams and Webster), limiting him to two pitch ranges instead of four (or more, when doubling is involved). Forgoing the piquancy of a soprano or sopranino, and the sweep of a tenor, Mwamba emphasizes the heft of altos and baritones, a robust, even muscular sound that nevertheless conveys the small inflections that permeate his score.

The recording made in London tenaciously balances the unique demands of the score with the saxophonists’ charge to improvise. The structural intricacies of the piece require a finely calibrated temperament from the foursome – one wild swing would wreck it all. However, this should not suggest that a muffled cool prevails, as there are full-throated passages throughout the piece. A brilliant concept, thoroughly explicated, new dark art is beyond category.

It was at the London performance that Mwamba first seriously thought about quitting public performances. “I was listening to the saxophone quartet and I thought, I’m not playing, but I’m ok with that.” he recalled. “Playing isn’t making me happy. I was in a long state of existential dread, because we’re constantly told that playing is the thing you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go to London; you’ve got to go to play with the greats; learn bebop; pay your dues; put a suit on – all of those things. Smile for the crowd, but not too much. Be like Miles, not like Pops. It’s a constant mythologizing. And some of it is really damaging. I thought if this is the thing that’s causing me so much angst, drinking lots, depression, all those things, then I really ought to stop.

“But, the idea of stopping was horrible. I set myself a date several years into the future – the 23rd of March, 2019. I don’t remember the significance of that date, but now it’s significant for something else. I set that date and wrote a little countdown script on my website, and I started to make plans to withdraw. I had been playing in a lot of people’s bands as a vibes player, and I had stopped making things like Sipping Rioja at Home. I had made a couple of siblings in 2008, Popular Delusions and in 2011, Songs for the New Folk, which were electro-acoustic, but I hadn’t really done anything else. With the trio I had with Dave Kane and Joshua Blackmore, it was completely improvised music, the music I actually felt like making; but I had this angst that there were various aspects of my practice that I had neglected – working with electronics, working with the computer, working with audio processing, looping. I had stopped doing them.

“I started doing them again, slowly and quietly, and not doing as many gigs, not working in places that were, frankly, disrespectful and hateful, but, most of the time, you can’t put your finger on it. That’s why musicians here don’t examine the problems of racism in the British and Irish jazz scenes. They don’t think it exists or they don’t think it’s a problem or they don’t want to talk about it. With a music with commercialist roots like jazz, historically, racism is part of the business – the commercialism begets a power dynamic that allows the racist structures to continue. Here, there’s not seeing it and then there’s not wanting to see it, not wanting to talk about it, and being dismissive of it.

“When I posted publicly about pulling out, some people were very shocked, others thought I’d be back in a year, and others thought it was a stunt. I had to put up with that for about a year. As the day got closer and I was recording more and started my subscription service, which felt honest; I was making music for people that want it and love it. I was communicating directly with them, which felt much more wholesome to me. By the time I got to the 23rd of March, 2019, I was ready.

“Then, on the 23rd of March in 2020, England went into lockdown because of COVID and I immediately realized that there are a whole bunch of people in my community – the music community – were exactly in my position, not doing gigs, but they didn’t have the years to prepare. I observed this grief, which really resonated strongly with the grief I had at the beginning. The difference was that I was able to accept it, because I knew I wasn’t going back, and the reason I wasn’t going back was because this country is going to remain racist for a very long time.  And by then my livelihood wasn’t dependent on gigging, because of a series of coincidences. I stopped gigs, finished my PhD, and when I was handing in my PhD, Reduced Listening, the production company, contacted me about doing what became Freeness. I applied for a job at Birmingham University, which I didn’t get, but they hired for the radio show – a complete coincidence. The radio show started on my birthday, another coincidence. I remember Joshua Blackmore saying it was like I planned it. No, mate, it’s not something I could plan.

“The more I reflected on stopping, I think I was wrong to use the word ‘retire,’ because retiring was not what I was doing. I was stopping; stopping because the conditions to me, personally, were unacceptable. The feeling I have is much more of a protest. I will come back if things get fixed. But things aren’t going to get fixed, so I’m not coming back. I think that’s a reasonable position to take. Why should I put myself in potential harm’s way just to make other people happy? That’s what it boils down to. I have this human desire to make music for those people who want to hear it. I have no interest in the word ‘industry’ in relationship to what I do. It’s not industry. No one needs my music. It’s not necessary for entertainment – it has different uses. I don’t have to stay within the boundaries of what I’m supposed to be doing, wearing a suit, only making music as some sort of gateway drug so that the kids can get into it. I don’t need to understand those things. I don’t need to be part of a machine that I have fundamental disagreements with.”

 

* * *

 

“Access” is a word that crops up throughout conversations with Mwamba, particularly when discussing his activities as a presenter and a broadcaster. “Some people talk about giving access to the music,” Mwamba observed, “but mostly they are giving access to their marketing and data collection. It does little to bring new people to the music.” It is the expansion of the audience for adventurous jazz and improvised music that has motivated him in these arenas.

Before the pandemic, he ran a series called Out Front, which began as The Family Album and the idea of a relatively inexpensive household ticket, whether the household was comprised of two or three generations, or a single person with kids. Mwamba would have a 6pm start time at a venue that served food, achieving what few presenters have done – make adventurous jazz and improvised music family-friendly. After a few years and an infusion of Arts Council funding, Mwamba extended his outreach with single-note ticket gigs, allowing people entry with a five or ten-pound note.

With his presenting suspended by the pandemic, Freeness became the focal point of Mwamba’s access agenda, and with it, an intensified sense of purpose. “Access isn’t much if doesn’t lead to an immediate experience that has meaning,” he explained. During the summer of 2021, he honed the point. An early August program featured an interview with Maggie Nicols that centered on The Gathering, the singer’s long-standing improvisation workshop that welcomes all comers, regardless of ability or experience. Nicols’ work with The Gathering exemplifies how access builds community.

Throughout the segment, Mwamba reiterated the virtues of being a good host, opening the floor to the guest, and providing unobtrusive pivot points. Both traits are particularly essential for interviewing Nicols, who converses like she improvises – centered and keenly responsive. Her recounting of her initial, late-1960s experiences with John Stevens and Trevor Watts emphasized her initial timidity, and how their support gave her the necessary sense of safety to improvise. “It’s a bit weird that people say, don’t let people get safe,” Nicols remarked. “I think, if I don’t feel safe, I’m more likely to cling to my clichés. If I feel safe, I’m ready to take risks.”

By the inception in 1991 of The Gathering, Nicols realized that experienced improvisers were not always as open to newcomers as Stevens and Watts were to her. Subsequently, generosity became her guiding principle, her push-back against creeping standards in improvised music. She sought a situation where “we stop worrying about musical aesthetics – because who decides what’s good musical aesthetics, anyway?” Because of this stance, Nicols asserted, “The Gathering was quite revolutionary, and some people thought it was quite beyond the pale. What’s all this? Anybody can come in and spoil our beautiful music?”

After playing “Beauty and the Beast” from The Gathering’s For John Stevens (Emanem; 2003), Mwamba commented that one of the “really striking things through that piece is the clarity. You can hear everybody.  The collectiveness and the individuality, that freeness, the tension between the two.” Both Mwamba and Nicols then laughed at the apparently inadvertent mention of the f-word. “I think freeness is such a great word, actually,” Nicols responded. “It acknowledges within the limits of our response to the horrendous inequalities that exist, we only have freeness. It’s a practice. We’re practicing freedom but we’re not there. We can glimpse it. We can experience it.”

Mwamba ended the program with an excerpt from Creative Contradiction: Poetry, Story, Song & Sound (Takuroku), Nicols recent download-only solo album, followed by tracks by Jean Toussaint and the duo of Anne Lanzilotti and Adam Morford. He then signed off, the glimpse of freeness going dark for another week.

 

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