- SUN RA ARKESTRA The Croft, Bristol (November 2008)
- TOOT The Cube, Bristol (November 2008)
- PARKER/ HAWKINS/ EDWARDS/ MARSH The Vortex, London (December 2008)
- FLOWER/ CORSANO DUO The Portland Arms, Cambridge (February 2009)
- MIXED RECEPTIONS Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (March 2009)
SUN RA ARKESTRA/ SPACEWAYS
The Croft, Bristol. Monday November 10th 2008
THE SUN RA ARKESTRA
Under the direction of Marshall Allen
Marshall Allen (joined 1958): alto sax, flute, EVI / Charles Davis (joined 1955): tenor sax/ Knoel Scott (joined 1979): alto sax, vocals, percussion/ Rey Scott (joined 1988): baritone sax/ Cecil Brooks (joined 1988): trumpet/ Dave Davis (joined 1997): trombone/ Farid Abdul-Bari Barron: keyboard/ Dave Hotep: guitar/ Juni Booth (joined 1967): bass/ Luquman Ali (joined 1964): drums/ Wayne Anthony Smith Jr.: drums/ Elson Nascimento (joined 1988): percussion
Marshall Allen is incredible. The oldest member of the Arkestra, he was nevertheless the only one of the reed section who remained standing throughout; at 85-years old he was clearly a little shaky on his feet, but still willing to execute a little dance during a particularly rocking number. And his saxophone solos were intense, bodily and loud. He stood there, knees slightly bent, in his glittering sequined red ‘space costume’, throwing his fingers on and off the saxophone keys to create extraordinarily visceral bursts of sound, shredding shrawks from his white-heat alto melting the air around and illuminating the cosmic particles dancing within.
Meanwhile, the ‘space sounds’ of his sparingly-employed EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) could be said to take the place of Sun Ra’s atonal electronic keyboard freakouts. Operating four keys, while twisting a circular dial at the base of the squat black instrument, he moved from floor-shaking low frequencies and swooped to ear-piercing electronic shriek.
And that was only his soloing. Allen is clearly very much the musical director of the Arkestra, though he’s not the complete centre of the band in the sense that Sun Ra was. (Saxophonist/vocalist Knoel Scott shouted out the announcements of tune titles and band members). Lifting and raising his hands to cue the band in from massive sound slabs to riffed backgrounds to solos, his role as ‘conductor’ relied on simple, yet effective gestures, as with Sun Ra himself.
The other musicians were up to the mark too. Charles Davis was the only man on stage who had played with Ra as early as Allen; he seemed subdued in himself, almost withdrawn, but played superbly. Juni Booth plugged away on bass, the instrument’s acoustic sound not really favoured by the live sound setup, but heard to good effect for a brief solo on a blues number. Keyboard-player Farid Barron’s instrument sounded a little tinny at times, but what he was playing on it was fine enough: what started off as straight blues solos ended up in pounding dissonance, keeping up the stomping beat, and retaining the basic blues harmonic structure, while subverting expectations through dense textures and unexpected chordal juxtapositions. Knoel Scott was the showman of the band; as well as saxophone, he busied himself by pounding hand drums, his lips pursed out, to give added rhythmic impetus, and wailing blues vocals (including Lou Donaldson’s ‘Whisky-Drinking Woman’) alongside the more familiar ‘space chants’.
The concert opened and ended with Arkestra members threading their way through the crowd (and having to force their way through the audience in the jammed space of the pub’s back-room), singing the jubilant ‘We Travel the Spaceways.’ In between, there was a wide variety of material, from some crowd-pleasing and infectious, but musically fairly conventional blues numbers, to the familiar space chants (‘Rocket Number Nine’, ‘Space is the Place’, etc) and Fletcher Henderson numbers. ‘Angels and Demons’ at play was cued up in a heavier version than the delicate album version from the 1960s, with Allen reprising his flute solo before wailing out on alto.
With only eleven members (only four of whom are from the original Arkestra – vocalist Art Jenkins was recovering from illness), it’s obviously not the same as one of Ra’s massive 60s or 70s Arkestras, but they play with soul and guts for double their number. It is of course a show – there were no lights shows, and no dancers, but there were shiny ‘space’ costumes, singalongs/chants, dramatic dynamic contrasts, and such technical feats as a fluent saxophone duet from a transcription of an improvised John Gilmore solo. Like the original Arkestra, in its various incarnations, this was clearly a tightly-drilled band (perhaps to be expected, given Sun Ra’s emphasis on discipline), but one with a fluidity to it that could be very exciting. In fact, for me, the best thing about the evening was the way that everything seemed so loose – Allen would cue the next tune by singing a musical phrase to a band member, sparking half the band to rustle through reams of sheet music to find the right piece as the other musicians launched in; problems with microphones only added to the feeling of improvisational alchemy.
Opening act Spaceways, a Bristol group apparently influenced by Ra, were entertaining enough, doing no more than required – obviously people were waiting for the ‘main course’. Some rasping saxophone and Roland-Kirkish flute solos could have gone on for longer, feeling a little bit constrained within the riffing big-band framework, and the electric-bass grooves felt a little nu-jazzy, but it was worth for the final moments of the final tune, ‘Cairo’, in which the band erupted into a crescendo of ragged vocalisation before a brief burst of ridiculously fast tempo wailing. This was unashamedly playing to the crowd, but it was hard not to get excited by. Meanwhile, the Arkestra’s live experience was not just exciting, but intensely joyous and involving. “England is the home of theatre” declaimed a grinning Knoel Scott after the gig, still dressed in his space regalia, and brandishing a gold ‘Egyptian staff’ which appeared more than a little out of place on the greyness of a Bristol street.
Jazz journalists, in their typically snooty way, would have us believe that the whole space trappings were a load of nonsense, and get in the way of the music, but this gig showed how much they part of the whole experience. ‘Great black music, ancient to the future’, couldn’t be a better tag, even if Sun Ra didn’t think of it himself. I’d rather Ra’s outer space ‘gobbledeygook’ than whatever po-faced dullard piano trio gets the seal of approval these days. Space is still very much the place.
The Cube, Bristol, The Cube, Bristol, 28/11/2008
This, one of the gigs in a five-date UK tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this fine trio, was a lesson in how to improvise well. As Toot told us that night, through their music, it’s about control, about not going for the climax (that comes, but it comes naturally and thus feels like the result of an actual journey, not just something you think you have to put in there because it will make the punters happy or will make you happy, or both), and above all about letting the sounds be sounds. That sounds mystical, Toot is far from mystical, but there is a patience to it, and that in fact takes great skill – just to concentrate on one sound, or one set of sounds, for a minute or more. And that concentration, demanded of audience too, and so hard for the players sitting there in front – perhaps harder with a big audience, so the Cube’s tiny crowd could get drawn in: witness the one-minute silence at the end, staring at the purple-red lightshow on the floor.
Dorner, purple-suited, immobile on the left, his concentration, staring ahead, sliding valve on the trumpet or just blowing in, adjusting amplifier controls on his left (though apparently the sounds he made were all acoustic). Lehn in the middle, black T-shirt, glasses, no shoes, foot on pedal, his analogue synth enclosed in some sort of carry-case which obscured one’s vision of what exactly he was doing, and gave it that much more of an alchemical feel: he seemed to discover the sounds as he went along (though of course he knows the instrument inside out), hands flicking on and off, as loudness built at certain points slapping the side with his hand, twitching energised wired. Minton, on the left, was just as animated (as is his wont), his mode of producing sound unutterably tied to the theatrics of his posture, as he possesses the sounds or they possess him, flopping his hand, wrinkling his nose and emitting high bird-whistles, a baby’s cry, a herd of frustrated improvising hippos.
We have much to learn from people like these, in their very different approaches, about control, discipline, humility, sensitivity. It is in the making of the thing the thing exists at all.
EVAN PARKER/ ALEXANDER HAWKINS/ JOHN EDWARDS/ TONY MARSH
The Vortex, London, 18th December 2008.
First Set: Band straight in, Parker’s tenor blowing down hard low honks following highflung cries. Straight away I notice the visual aspect of Marsh’s drumming (which is very much connected to how it sounds): eyes closed, head moving, wired to the music’s mainframe, his whole body rhythmic – quite a contrast to the virtual immobility of Tony Oxley, where only the hands flash out from left to right in furious motion. Marsh’s playing tonight has a hardness to it, like Parker’s: this is a hard set, not so much in that it’s ‘difficult’ music (of course it is that, but it’s by no means the most intellectually ramped-up free improvisation I’ve heard), more in the sense of sheer solid impact, steely momentum. Hawkins is for the most part Parker’s shadow, laying down chords, playing a certain figure which he keeps referring to, as if it’s something he just can’t get out of his head and which keeps running out from under his fingers, almost beyond his control. Occasionally he breaks out for brilliant flashes high up the keyboard, quickly scampering back down to return to the middle register. Parker is clearly the dominant force in the group, at this early stage, the ‘lead voice’ – perhaps down to the acoustics of the room and of the microphones as much as to anything else – and perhaps that’s why he takes a breather, sensing a certain endangering of the collective, contributory group dynamic. And so we get Hawkins solo, high register crabhand scuttlings and then a little delicate wave in to John Edwards, whose breath you hear breathed in rhythm to his playing. It goes quiet, then a sudden sound like a ropesnap; Parker smiles wisely into his beard, and the solo ends hard.
Applause and Parker comes back in, mysterioso now. Edwards and Marsh hit/pluck the rhythm– for under it all there is a rhythm, but it’s one of swaying and evasion rather than of strict timekeeping, and indeed, now I think about, it’s to be found Parker’s playing almost more than in that of the ‘rhythm instruments.’ Hawkins is locked into a particular split up-roll, the effect at once jerky and flowing, as near-mellifluous phrases are jaggedly juxtaposed, spliced-up and made to leap on their toes. Now mysterious, more delicate, less broken; Hawkins is playing single lines more than chords at this stage, freed up, perhaps, from the accompanying and shading role he played at the start, limbered up to interact in quick linear flashes. He and Parker come closer and closer in their interaction, not from echo or imitation but from independent parallel trajectories – the lines converge and briefly they’re locked into a melody, could get ready to ride it over the rhythm but no – it cuts off and the momentum’s still there, the joining moment forgotten as musical data keeps punching on and out and all around.
Suddenly you’re aware that such a buzz of energy is being generated – headshaking, floorshaking – but that this has happened incrementally, evolved in such a way that the process is felt not thought, so that at one moment one’s aware of the ‘mysterioso’ passage and at the next things have hotted up by quite a few degrees. Like those moments of sleep when one nods off without realising it, that disjunct in time. What happened? What did I miss? Was I asleep hours or minutes or even just seconds? Except in this case almost the opposite has happened – one’s become so sucked into the music that the effect reached is maybe close to sleep – some kind of trance, of concentration so high and so focussed that it becomes the full force of thought and cannot be viewed ‘from the outside’ as some process happening to myself, but is a process simply filling the whole field of the mind for however long it lasts. And then you just snap out of that, and the point of the music is vibratory to a deeper pulse hitting hard, in the gut, such force that these acoustic instruments come near to an amped-up, cranked-up electric guitar – a near-simultaneous Parker tenor scream with a particularly vicious Marsh cymbal hit make the two very different instruments (sax and drums) sound almost as one. Parker’s eyes are closed, his face always with a slightly red flush to offset the white beard, but with that characteristic refusal to leap into acrobatics or callisthenics indicative of the great effort he’s making. The other three, though, clearly indicate that this is a music which involves immense physicality: Edwards gnat twitching up and down and back to move music out of his bass, to force its sound out as movement, Marsh’s circling head, Hawkins’ hands bouncing up and down on the piano keys, shifting round on the piano stool like Cecil Taylor.
Things have turned into a circling near-nightmare, Parker’s Coltrane upshrieks crying some sort of pain: these men have something to say and saying it is what makes it exist. The saying and what’s said are the same. And if that might even be malicious – Parker’s tenor bark and a flicker of snarl as he thrusts up notes into the air – then that’s in it too; is not beauty fraught and the violence done to it makes it what it is? It makes me twitch all over – so it makes you know the truth of what Cardew says in ‘Towards an Ethic of Improvisation’ – you do have to be there, in that room and at that time, it is in the moment the music makes itself and makes the moment, recordings are the after-image, the ghost, the not-quite-presence of what’s gone. You knew you ‘get it’ when you hear the recordings, but you know you don’t really – not quite, not quite this – and in front of it, in front of the performance, it’s harder to look away or drift off, and you are now the one put under the microscope: the musicians have become your critics, when you thought you were the one going in safely to watch their exhibit from your nicely candle-lit table.
‘Modern jazz’ turns up as someone’s (burning) old hat, tossed on the piano, onto the bass, tangled up in gut strings, stretched on a snare and beaten until all that’s left is shredded in the bell of the saxophone, to be sent off back to the jazz police. A drum ‘solo’ slams out scattered gunshots, with purpose – and Edwards is buzzing, his eyes closing up and his mouth hanging slightly open. Even Marsh’s never-changing face is shaded by something of destructive elfish glee. Once more I notice the way that the sounds he makes are the audible manifestations of his physical movements: that he really strikes and hits his kit, sticks his sticks to it, that most basic instinct of the child to hit things hard, with wicked joy. Still I’m a little uneasy with the continuing sense that Parker is the ‘leader’ (he earned it, ne c’est-pas?), and that he’s almost too much a motor – wind him and he’s off whatever Hawkins happens to scrabble underneath the crests of his saxophone waves.
From what Hawkins is scrabbling it’s clear that the piano player’s getting more and more into his ‘own territory’ – not that he’s just ‘doing his own thing’ regardless, but that he’s in a place where his playing emerges out of his genuine creative intelligence and to the height of his capabilities rather than anxiously shading what the ‘living legend’ might choose to play. Boxy but delirious chords, then under the lightglare sweaty hands slide up the keyboard sideways: like shunting a truck, pushing hard, the same desire to beat and to force the instrument to break point as Marsh. And from that extreme to some very jazzy phrasing, strongly reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, so that for a moment the group sounds like the Coltrane Quartet without Elvin Jones (Marsh is too much into his own thing to toss of any Elvin Jones polyrhythms). Given Parker’s increasing Coltrane influence that’s not too much of a surprise, but the level of explicitness is still somewhat unexpected – not that that’s a bad thing, in the small and surprising dose to which we’re treated here. And those Tyner-esque stacked fourths are wonderfully chunky and less rhythmically stolid than McCoy’s tended to be. Piano phrases keep dancing round ‘A Love Supreme’ – the 1965 live version, not the tamer studio recording – and it’s that 1965 period I keep hearing in Parker’s playing. All this is very nice but risks a loss of interest if it carries on too long and becomes default mode – and of course that won’t happen.
Dimming sax, bowed bass, trembling bass; just a trio now, minimal drums and piano, frightened lyric from bass, saw-song-sound. This never feels like an obviously signposted transition, though transition was what was needed – it wasn’t as if Edwards decided ‘I’ll go for the bow now because we need a change’ but that it emerged from what went before as unforced necessity. Up to this point Hawkins has tended to absorb Parker’s style of phrasing, but now he trusts his own – shivery chords and shrill, speed-freak runs – no temptation for the rhythmic regularity of Tyneresque left-hand chord-comping, not really too much Cecil in there, despite the Cecil-style licks and runs, but a distinctive stream of melody flowing over the whole keyboard, barely room for any pauses at all. I say that, but yet it also feels like some odd cutup of Tyner and Cecil – the two particularly obvious influences that night – simultaneously channelling their spirits through his fingers – and that’s the first time I’ve heard that combination. But, again, as with Edwards, it doesn’t come from a too-obvious desire: it’s not ‘I know, let’s jumble McCoy’s fourths with Cecil’s arpeggiated runs’ – it comes from, in, and of, the moment, that mysterious interface between intention and whatever occurs, seemingly outside the bounds of intention, at that particular point. Yes, ‘channelling’ would be the appropriate metaphor – diverting off the main river – or rather, the opposite of what that implies – the McCoy/Cecil ‘channels’ flow into the Hawkins ‘river’, the keyboard-stream. And it strikes me that that’s just a superb example of how ‘influence’ works its way into one’s playing, of the vacuum-less-ness of music. This has philosophical implications: all these things, these influences, are there as potential, always – does that mean that, always, they somehow both are (they exist) and are not (they do not exist)? Maybe I need to brush up on my phenomenology…
As Parker comes back in, hacking sound from the shadows, a more febrile touch displaced by lowhorn spasms, you can feel Hawkins’ sound even if it’s not heard, hands in constant, blurred tremble-chords, left hand in violent low-down hits then high-up runs, sliding glisses with the back of the hand. His physical study of Cecil is really evident in his playing, more so than when I last saw him perform (reviewed in the previous issue of ‘eartrip’) – so that, for instance, chords are played with the palm of the hands rather than with the fingers, for added force – and music that strong has to end, can only be sustained so long (though of course Cecil stretches that out beyond the limits of what seems to most people to be the possible).
Parker’s knack for an ending comes into play – for sensing that perfect moment when everything should just stop, even then it could carry on – and things end with what seems like a bang, though in reality things had quieted for a few seconds. But the ‘bang’ is what is felt, and I realise that what happens and what is heard – or, I should say, what is experienced, in the totality of action and audibility – are two different things, in a way that I can’t understand, but which might teach us something rather interesting about the way the brain functions. And I say ‘Parker’s knack for an ending’, but that knack does seem also to be independent of the musicians themselves – or, let’s say, almost beyond their control. When you have that heightened a group experience it just gets to that point where things happen of their own accord and the music itself lives. If, for Adorno, “Works of art do not say what their words say,” then in this case the work of art says more than the musicians play. Not in the way that Adorno means – not as sedimented historical knowledge – but as something altogether more mysterious. Even the pragmatic Derek Bailey ended up talking about the ‘magic’ of group improvisation, and, until we can find a way of ‘objectively’ analysing the complexity of these phenomena which manifest themselves in musical performances of this kind – and I’m not at all certain that’s even desirable, or gets the terms of the argument right – that’s what we critics will have to do too.
FLOWER/ CORSANO DUO
The Portland Arms, Cambridge, Tuesday 17th February 2009
According to Nietzsche, we are “fools for rhythm.” Is that such a bad thing? The Flower-Corsano Duo are all about that relentless rhythmic surge, that urge to pound and strike a drum-kit until it gives off a million sharded beams of hard light, a near-mystical beam with an aura enhanced by twanging plucked scales. It’s a beam that emerges with such clarity only out of a sheer single-mindedness, as opposed to diffuse hippy mysticism, messing around with weirdness. These guys know what they are doing, and do it – they go straight for the peaks, even if, on this occasion, it took a while to get going (this was by no means the best Flower-Corsano performance I’ve heard).
I hate to say it, but it’s hard not to avoid terminology like ‘consciousness altering’. This music offers an alternative of some sort, to the packaged and the satisfied. In its desire to always maintain that state of yearning on which its power to move the body and mind is based, this music refuses a satisfaction and a comfort with ‘how things are’ – the desire to prolong that sheer enhanced experience is inherently a desire that acts against the diurnal jackboot tread, or what poet Sean Bonney calls “that shameful but essentially boring public murder.” And yet I’d hesitate to make this too political – not only because I know nothing of Chris Corsano and Mike Flower’s political views, but because what they create too is a commodity, aimed at a particular crowd. They provide a vaguely ‘spiritual’ experience for an ‘experimental’ scene which doesn’t believe in the spiritual but wants to get those same kicks in a ‘justified’ left-field setting.
That’s the too-cynical reduction; swing to the other extreme, and they offer a hope of some sort, or a burning desire; or, hell, I like it anyway, even if its ‘spirituality’ is actually just constant rise to climax (masturbatory or coupling, take your pick), even if all it is is repetition to orgasm and serene aftermath of that jerking trance.
And fuck the sexual analogies, it must be said that Corsano is an excellent drummer. Some drummers play something for a while, then stop and move on because it’s too much effort, but he can stay in the zone, in the pocket, stopping only when the music dictates a new tack; his arms moving at pummelling speed, his dexterity is that of a boxer as he consistently rains down blows on his kit, plays very loud and very fast. It’s not polyrhythmic complexity so much as single-minded determination and drive, building to the inexorable bodily mysticism that the duo pull off so well: a hard-hitting prayer, a religious punch to the gut.
The structure is not so much about note choice but about the creation of a continuous sound stream which retains its interest through a control of dynamics which is actually quite subtle. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Both Corsano and Flower vary the loudness in a manner that could be quite instructive for certain bands ‘on the scene’. Flower’s ‘Japan Banjo’ is laid horizontal on an ironing board, of all things; his somewhat decrepit face hidden by straggly hair, his jeaned legs kicking it to ecstasy shudder, his quivering body and bobbing head in electric shock at the electricity of his performance and of his own electric instrument.
The sincerity embodied in that drugged-up trance (where music is, as far as I can tell, the only drug, at that particular point in time) – that sincerity is a belief in sound or ‘vibrations’ as Albert Ayler would have it. And that doesn’t seem like a hippy catchword when one senses the drum-pound tremble the floor slightly, undulation/ underlation, over and over, constant motion. It’s waves, ebbs and flows; it’s mostly that inexorable rhythm lull, some ex-hippy’s eastern-tinged vision in a temple where they all take pot; though it emerges from and back into drone sunrises, a sitar-sounding drone which must have been playing throughout the performance but which one only notices when Corsano calls it a day and Flower switches off his amp.
Such a matter-of-fact conclusion indicates that, for all one might talk about the ‘spirituality’ of the Flower/ Corsano experience, in reality what happens is that one is shuddered into an instructive awareness of one’s own body, an awareness that might make one value the unclean thing, rather than evading it in a quest for clean perfection. This is a messy mysticism, the dirtied but still utterly valuable legacy of some kind of psychedelic hippiedom that never really existed in the 60s when that sort of thing was most conceivable; but it exists now, beats into broken dreams its brilliancy.
MIXED RECEPTIONS [Kettle’s Yard New Music Mornings]
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, Sunday 15th March 2009
“Featuring works for radio reception and transmission, with pioneering works by Cage alongside new composition and site-specific soundworks from artists in Cambridge and beyond.” Thinking outside the box, this sort of programming, and all the better for it. What was so refreshing about the concert was its lack of boundaries. Yes, that phrase and its attendant concept is so often paid lip or pen service to when really nothing of the sort occurs; rather, the uneasy forcing together of two seemingly opposed strains only serves to reinforce that opposition and ensure that a real understanding is forever forestalled for the glittering surfaces of actual bad construction. But here there seemed a more genuine openness, if I can say that with any certainty.
Cage provided the supposedly ‘classical’ element to the programming, allowing it to be classed as officially-viable ‘new music’, to hang in the air around the surrounding ‘serious art-works’ by the likes of Ben Nicholson and Gaudier-Breszka, while really opening up a far less officially-defined (and constricted?) space. For the Cage pieces performed were the 1956 ‘Radio Music’ and ‘Variations IV’, which was not performed in a self-contained manner, but swarmed outwards to occupy the entire concert-ritual-process. At least, I think that’s what was supposed to be happening: the programme notes were a little unclear as to how exactly the ‘Variations’ were realized: “Today’s performance encompasses the whole running time of the concert and shorter performances,” one reads, yet this seems to cross over with the ‘experimental PA’ performance by Jo Brook, entitled ‘Local Radio’, in which she moved around the space with a portable PA, setting off various streams of microphone feedback or radio static. Not so much because of this uncertainty – after all, it becomes somewhat absurd when one begins to debate whether random radio noise is the ‘work’ of John Cage or of another performer – but because of the somewhat frustrating character of the perambulatory acoustic element itself, this felt like the least successful part of the concert; as Brook prowled the area dangling various microphones in the air or on upper gallery walls, she seemed oblivious to the musicians’ intensely focussed activities, her drifting presence an all-too distracting visual element which could have prevented the tightly concentrated listening which the music demanded.
But that may be to quibble – and if experimentation causes an artist’s spoken introductions to his songs to compete with feedback, perhaps it’s not too high a price to pay. One must not forget, either, Brook’s role in putting together this concert: as a member of LEAP (Live Experimental Arts Performance Society), the curators of this particular occasion, she’s providing a valuable service to the Cambridge community, too often starved of opportunities and audiences for new and innovative musics.
To unfold the events in order: the Cage radio piece began proceedings, assembled participants intently squinting at (presumably) copies of the score in front of them, its detailed instructions nonetheless completely open to the whim of chance at the same time. Listening to the sounds produced, it was hard not to think of what has come since – industrial and noise music for one – and it was hard not to wonder if this had influenced the supposedly influence-less sound for which Cage was aiming. Nonetheless, it was hardly ‘Cage Redux’, and it’s hard to know quite how the piece could have been realised any better.
Stepping out of the radio ensemble, Cambridge fingerpicking guitarist C. Joynes was then given a brief showcase. Introducing four selections, he sketched out the way in which his wide listening history has influenced the more overtly folky sound of his playing. Thus, a ‘prepared guitar’ piece (well, one object shoved between the strings, as opposed to the abundance of Keith Rowe’s set-up) brought out not only the influence of John Cage’s prepared piano works but of the similarities in timbre between the heavy thumb attack of finger-picking and the timbres found in certain sub-Saharan instruments. Shot through all this was a clear love of melody and line – even though line would periodically be obscured by ringing harmonics, it would always re-assert itself with added force when it next poked up its head – legitimising Joyne’s claim that he is a ‘folk musician’ influenced by the avant-garde, rather than vice-versa. Not quite ‘free folk’ then, but an intriguing mixture of the two which also carries on over into the American jazz tradition: firstly, a piece inspired by the likes of Ornette Coleman and Alice Coltrane, all solemn sonorities, for which Joynes was joined by bowed cello, and, to conclude, a version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ which took only the chord changes as it basis, dispensing with the melody in favour of more abstract explorations. At times phrases which might have come from a sweet jazz cover of the tune entwined themselves round the often unresolving chords around, and the feel was oddly like the Derek Bailey of the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, as documented on the rehearsal recording of Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’, in which an extremely odd balance between jazz and free improvisation emerges.
A lot of ground covered in barely twenty minutes then, and more still to be traversed as Joynes made way for a freely improvising duo. Cos Chapman’s duet with an un-named cellist, a series of short improvised pieces, represented the first time these two performers had even played together, let alone in front of an audience, but the collaboration seems likely to yield future rewards, if continued. Chapman’s loops of thudding guitar runs found their equivalent in scrabbling and vicious cello, while at other times he treated his guitar strings with various metallic implements (including a saw) and e-bow, to produce more sweeping (occasionally shrieking) high resonances, again matched by scrape-bowed cello harmonics. The use of electronic attachments by both artists undoubtedly expanded the sonic palette (though their use on the cello was very subtle, perhaps hard to hear at all if one did not realise that various pedals were being used), and the intensity of scuttling scattering, forceful notes briefly summoned up a whirlpool effect, sucking into its unstoppable rush and momentum – particularly as Chapman’s guitar and electric bass loops built up and on in the final piece. The performance did feel as if it could have benefited from a longer time-frame – although, given the amount that was fitted into one hour, such constraint is understandable, the sudden endings were nonetheless still a little unsatisfactory. But in the spirit of experimentation and discovery, this was a first-rate set of improvised music.
(All Gig Reviews by David Grundy)