Gig Reviews – Issue 1

Below are the gig reviews published in Issue 1 of ‘eartrip’.

  • ANTHONY BRAXTON/CECIL TAYLOR     Royal Festival Hall, London (July 2007)
  • ORNETTE COLEMAN     Royal Festival Hall, London (July 2007)
  • EVAN PARKER/TOM JENKINSON (a.k.a. Squarepusher)     Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (July 2007)
  • PAUL RUTHERFORD MEMORIAL CONCERT     Red Rose, Finsbury Park, London (October 2007)
  • CHARLES GAYLE     UK Tour, September 2007 (Red Rose; Liverpool)
  • JOSHUA REDMAN TRIO     The Anvil, Basingstoke (November 2007)
  • SONNY SIMMONS WITH TIGHT MEAT     The Portland Arms, Cambridge (November 2007)

CECIL TAYLOR AND ANTHONY BRAXTON AT THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, 8/07/2007. Review by David Grundy.

 

Given Taylor’s holy role as the eternal outer curve of the avant-garde, it isn’t his function to make things easy. When we can listen to him with half an ear, he’s lost.” Gary Giddins 

 

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Sunday 8th July, 2007. On a day that Roger Federer was taken to five sets by Rafael Nadal in the final of the Wimbledon tennis championship, eventually winning through to equal Bjorn Borg’s record of five successive Wimbledon titles, musical history was also being made. For the first time ever, two giants of improvised music, pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, were playing together for the first time, in a quartet with bassist William Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley, at the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall. Like Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, two doyens of the crime film genre who appeared in similar films and appealed to a similar audience, their meeting, when it came, took on the air of a momentous occasion even before it happened. And, like Pacino and De Niro’s shared screen time in Michael Mann’s epic drama ‘Heat’, it turned out to be well worth the wait.

         The Royal Festival Hall might seem like an odd location, and, indeed, I’ve read comments along the lines that it would have been better to give the group a week-long residency in a small club, rather than a one-off gig in a prestigious concert hall. Yet Taylor’s leading collaborator Jimmy Lyons commented thirty years ago, “I think the music is to a point now where the nightclub can’t handle it…It has to be pushed culturally as it is an advanced music; I don’t think it can be appreciated right in” (quoted in Valerie Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’). Perhaps the concert hall is actually Taylor’s natural home, a sign that he has gained the prestige his music deserves – certainly, just as with Ornette Coleman, who performed at the RFH the next evening, it was a long way from his beginnings, where his music was constantly misunderstood, where other musicians would refuse to play with him, and where critical reaction was frequently hostile in the extreme. After all, wherever Taylor plays, he remains resolutely himself, making no concessions to popular taste or critical demand: he plays what he feels, and now he has the status to offer him some security, he has even more freedom to pursue his own unique path.

            Aside from the choice of venue, questions remained about the music itself. How would Taylor’s extrovert, flamboyant, no-holds-barred virtuosity sit with Braxton’s more acerbic voicings? Would they attempt to find some sort of meeting ground, or would each man go his own way, leaving an unresolved tension that, while superficially exciting, would also be extremely frustrating for both musicians and audience.

          As it happened, these questions would not be answered until the second set. I sat down in my £35 seat (the combination of high tickets prices and travel costs meant that this was an expensive evening), and I have to admit that my heart sank when Polar Bear were announced as the opening act – I was expecting a marathon Cecil session! A quintet led by big-haired drummer Seb Rochford, with bassist Tom Herbert, tenor saxophonists Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, and electronics man Leafcutter John, their CD (‘Held on the tips of fingers’) is tolerable, but a bit too smart and vacuous for its own good. I did enjoy some of the stuff they were doing (Leafcutter John’s ‘solo’ with squeaky balloons and some of the double-sax soloing ‘freakouts’), but there are two fundamental problems with their music: (1) too often it veers towards empty, slick, groove-based material (tight, arranged, soulless) – though admittedly there is a strain of melancholy introspection which is quite attractive, if left somewhat underdeveloped (it was most present in the first two pieces they played). The line-up is interesting (two saxes, bass, drums, electronics – no chordal instrument), and the use of electronics could have made a difference, but in the end not that much was done with them, as regards texture – they tended to be used as either ‘weird’ noises or for repeating loops/grooves behind some of the more ‘far out’ stuff.

        Which leads me to point (2) – though I found myself caught up in some of the ‘skronk’ solos by Pete Wareham in particular (echoes, however brief, of techniques used by Evan Parker and John Butcher, flitted through his playing), in the end (this was something brought into sharper focus by seeing Cecil afterwards), these avant-garde elements were being used in a fairly empty way – not as a logical, coherent, complete means of expression, a vocabulary with validity in its own right as emotionally fulfilling music, but as a device to seem ‘far out’ and a bit edgy. As if worrying that an audience might not approve of ‘random loud noises’ – that they might leave the building or something – there was always some sort of steady, repetitious pulse behind the ‘out’ sections (either bass, drums, or electronics). Strange considering that most had come to see two of the most challenging avant-garde musicians of the past fifty years…

          And so on to Cecil…I’d been scribbling down notes (impressions, criticisms, etc) in the first half, and continued to in the second, albeit more haphazardly and frenziedly, as Cecil’s music is so flexible, metamorphoses from one thing to another with such quicksilver speed, that you have to work fast to capture something you particularly liked! From those, and from what I remember, as well as some views from hindsight, here is what you might call a ‘review’…

        The performance can be divided into three main sections. Firstly, a duet between Tony Oxley and Taylor, consisting of two pieces (possibly with a composed piano part and improvised accompaniment on drums). Secondly, a bass solo from William Parker. Thirdly, the entire group took the stage. This dividing up of resources ensures both a variety of texture and a chance for all the musicians to showcase their abilities (if being a trifle pernickety I could say that Parker needed his solo feature, as you could barely hear him in the quartet music!).  

          There was an element of ritual from the start (though it wasn’t that apparent late on): a poem reading by Taylor over loudspeakers (whether spoken offstage or pre-recorded was unclear) accompanied Tony Oxley as he wandered over to the drum set, his white hair glowing in the dim lighting, and sat down. It was like some sort of avant-garde play – this performative aspect is very important in a lot of the free music of the 60s and 70s (think Archie Shepp with his late 60s ‘marching band’ phase and pieces like ‘Mama Rose’, or Coltrane’s callisthenics, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, most notably), and also in Taylor’s music. This connects to the African roots he emphasised, as well as to an almost surreal imagination, even mischievousness. Though humour is not the first thing people tend to mention when he plays, I think there is a kind of child-like joy in the sheer uninhibited nature of his work at times – particularly the record he did with the Italian Instabile Orchestra (‘The Owner of the Riverbank’), of which there is a wonderful video clip on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r21206DbBaE)). Anyway, Taylor duly capered onstage, shaking some handbells, like a shaman, or an elf…and sat down at the piano, and began to play.

What with the restrained nature of the Taylor/Oxley duo and the inevitable echoes of classical music you seem to get in a bass solo, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a concert of modern classical music (though of course generic boundaries should not be too much of an issue when assessing Taylor – they are far more likely to end up as a stumbling block than an aid). With the final section, though, jazz elements came far more to the fore, in the main because of Braxton’s presence. A shudder of excitement as Braxton finally comes onstage (having briefly appeared earlier to position his five or so saxophones), the eccentric professor with his scraggy necktie. Electronics seem to be used (Oxley?), though these are thankfully kept to a minimum. The atmosphere is hushed, expectant. Cecil creeps, elf-like, to the piano, and, hearing the sinister, primal sound of Braxton’s contrabass clarinet, elects to pluck the piano strings rather than striking the keys. A cautious start – the musicians feeling their way, the music emerging gradually, the tension building as Braxton punctuates his subterranean rumblings with high pitched squeals, a chiaroscuro technique of extreme contrasts, while Parker bows away and Oxley flitters round the drum set. The contrabass clarinet is, one senses, somewhat unwieldy as a solo voice, yet for sound colour, for texture, it serves a valuable function.  
 

 

 

            As they feel their way, it strikes me what a disparate bunch of people these are, yet how they manage to interact so naturally, to create a unified sound pattern – Taylor, small, nimble, twitching, forever active, inquisitive; Parker hulking over the bass, his face obscured by his baseball cap, tearing up and down the bass with his fingers or gently gliding his bow over the strings; Oxley white-haired, inscrutable, barely moving, apart from his hands, which are engaged in a kind of circular dance round his drum kit; Braxton, only half his face visible behind the enormous instrument he’s playing, eyes closed in an agony of concentration. That’s the real glory of free improvisation, I suppose – the fact that individuals can create something that’s both convincing as a whole, as a unit (hence the name Taylor used for his bands, the ‘Cecil Taylor Unit’), and as a statement of their individual personalities and styles. A truly democratic music that doesn’t sacrifice emotional content for such ideals, but puts them into practice with often extraordinary results.

            The opening section of rumblings, enquiries, hesitancies, evolves into something more energised – Braxton switches to sopranino sax, inclining his head over to one side as Taylor moves from inside the piano to begin striking the keys, clearly inspired by the pianist’s inventions as his runs begin to mimic Taylor’s unstoppable note-flows. His playing becomes panic-stricken – a deranged, dying bird’s screams as it flutters to death…or something more capricious than that, something even joyfully anarchic, impossible to pigeonhole – Oxley grins, his face finally betraying expression; Taylor looks over at him – a shared moment that betrays the high level of interaction these two have (which was somehow near-absent in their opening duo).

            Braxton’s moved on to alto – he never spends that long with one instrument, realising the nature of this music, which is of constant change, the possibility to go in any direction (or several at once…) without sacrificing flow or structure. It also shows how aware he is of texture, of the sound canvas the group is producing, and of how he can vary and alter this. He waits there, holding the instrument, eyes closed, nodding and shaking his head from side to side, immersed in what Taylor and the others are creating, waiting for the right moment to enter the fray. When he does, he produces a throaty, hard, almost baritone-like tone. A high-pitched whistling sound from an unknown source – electronics manipulated by Oxley, perhaps (these are often a feature of his solo performances). Braxton is now on soprano and the mood changes to one of introspection, Parker bowing instead of plucking his bass, Braxton’s keening, melodic playing bringing out Taylor’s innate melancholy lyricism.

braxton

He moves back to alto and the interaction between him and Taylor becomes clear, as he picks up on a melodic fragment tossed into the melting pot by the pianist one of his busy runs, expands on it and transforms it into something lyrical. Cecil insists on dialoguing with him, or beneath him – yet, as always, it’s as much a dialogue with himself as with the other man, right and left hand existing as independent units, the left hand liberated from the supporting, chordal role it traditionally played in jazz, all part of Cecil’s new conception of the soloist. Joe Zawinul’s comment about Weather Report – “we always solo and we never solo” – could apply here, albeit in a slightly different way: in a sense, everyone is soloing at once, yet they are connecting to produce a convincing whole, and there is never a feel of egotism or showing-off flashy virtuosity. Taylor and Braxton are trilling; Braxton seems on the verge of playing a line from one of the standards he interprets in solo recitals – say, ‘Round Midnight’. How this could be considered ‘intellectual’, ‘forbidding’ playing should be a mystery to anyone hearing this man play.

         Slight reservations remain in my mind, impressive though this is – a feeling that Taylor and Braxton are interacting on an almost superficial level, focussing on call and response and exchanging motifs, rather than the more organic interaction of Taylor and Jimmy Lyons. It’s hard to tell, and it’s essentially subjective anyway – what’s for sure is that even an inferior Taylor performance (by his standards), one that lacks that certain something his greatest work has, blows Polar Bear’s first half set out of the water. This is truly on the edge – unpredictable, full of possibilities, of which only a few can be realised in one evening. A comment Elvin Jones once made about John Coltrane is relevant to this gig – it’s like these men are sitting on a mountain of ideas and several flake off every few seconds.

          After a more boisterous passage, the music quietens again – preparation, as it turns out, for the final assault. Oxley taps his drum, diminuendo…shhh, shhh, shhh…Patterns have started to emerge, fitting into the ritualistic element introduced by Taylor’s and Oxley’s initial entrances on stage: Braxton and Taylor throw lines and melodies at each other, the rhythm section going full pelt, before subsiding into calmer lyricism, Oxley dropping out, then surging up again as Braxton pauses, wipes his face with a large blue handkerchief, picks up a different instrument, stands there listening, then re-enters, his choice of notes both being shaped by and shaping the flow of the music…Maybe this is a system they worked out beforehand, backstage, in discussion, maybe it’s more intuitive than that – whatever the case, it’s utterly convincing, the music progressing like the rising and falling of the ocean tide.

           Taylor suddenly solo – yes, yes, yes, he’s found something – Braxton’s nodding, bobbing, he knows it too – Parker plucks for his life. Oxley knows it – he’s grinning, his hands moving more than ever, as if they have a life of their own. Taylor’s runs won’t stop, Braxton jumps into the stream of inspiration, his fingers fast, fierce, flinging off notes and sounds and colours…Whatever my reservations about what’s come before, now I know, and they know that they’ve finally hit something, a sustained period of brilliance rather than the mere flashes seen previously – Braxton’s circular breathing assault, the rhythm section boiling into a frenzy, Taylor inspired, his hands flying up and down the piano at near-superhuman speed….

        Taylor ends it all with a short, sharp, dissonant chord. Inside me, a feeling both of elation at having witnessed such great music-making, and of regret at the fact that it was over. On the evidence of these last few minutes, if not the performance as a whole, the standing ovation the group received was well deserved – and where else in the world today could you find such music of such unadulterated sublimity, apart from under the fingers of Mr Cecil Taylor and Mr Anthony Braxton?

        “At times, I felt that they had truly gone beyond the beyond – to echo Albert Ayler’s famous phrase about his music, that it was about feelings, not notes.”  (Rod Warner on the gig at the ‘Words and Music’ blog (http://soundsandtexts.blogspot.com))

 

 

 

 

 ORNETTE COLEMAN AT THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, 9/7/2007   For this concert, I decided to print two pieces from people who were at the gig. These originally appeared online: centrifuge’s at the now-defunct ‘Church Number Nine’ blog, Rod Warner’s at ‘Words and Music’.ornette1 

  Review by ‘centrifuge’

[The first act were Byron Wallen’s trio]. i have nothing against them personally at all, and they could have been any one of numerous well-turned-out british jazz groupings of the moment…[but] nothing they played made the slightest impression on me, and this had me meditating (again) on the whole business of commitment to art, to music in this case; these players have obviously worked very hard at their craft, have studied, at least two of them have written… they chose this music. somehow it seems hard to imagine that it could have chosen them. commitment, or just a choice of career?

the contrast with ornette coleman could scarcely be more stark, because this man was chosen seemingly from birth, and unlike many of his predecessors he has the happy distinction of being recognised and feted in his own lifetime. ornette is famous, and although he is now getting on a bit, his visits are not so rare that all jazz fans felt obliged to attend this gig (same is true of taylor and braxton). some couldn’t justify the considerable expense of seeing him again… and for some there was even the worry “what if it’s shit?” would that tarnish the memories of previous glories?

i didn’t have the problem of worrying about that, because i had never seen him before and was determined that this was one guy i wasn’t going to miss and regret not seeing.

it was billed as a quartet gig: so just the two basses, not three – i read somewhere tony falanga arco contrabass and greg cohen bass guitar (which seemed odd), then at the rfh it was listed as falanga and al mcdowell; in any case, the first name announced by the mc was that of charnett moffett, which brought audible surpise from most and delighted applause…then falanga, then mcdowell, so out of the blue we had the three-bass combo after all…

ornette walks on pretty slowly these days, leaving plenty of time for the audience to get excited, and his quiet words into the mic were in danger of being swamped – in any case i can’t remember them precisely! but the gist was: he hoped this concert would bring us all the focus to do what we wished for most. that brought  more grateful and polite applause (and probably a fair few raised eyebrows), and then – at least this is how i remember it – they were playing, and i was swaying in the aftershock of being thrown into the back of my seat by ornette’s very first note. the power of it – of course he was playing straight into a mic, but still, everyone does. that the sheer directness of it was so unexpected: and it was all underway.

moffett was the secret ingredient here: how long beforehand it had been established that he’d play, i don’t know,  but he really enjoyed himself from first note to last. playing contrabass with pedals and effects, initially pizzicato but arco when the mood took him, and he was unstoppable, he just flung himself into every note. his interaction with falanga in particular was fascinating to watch – i know nothing about falanga at all, but he gave me the impression of having come through the classical route, plays mostly arco (though again was quite happy to switch and get stuck in there with both hands, usually when moffett was bowing and using effects), and i would guess could make quite a cerebral pairing with greg cohen, not exactly the down-and-dirtiest rhythm section this music has ever known… mcdowell, too, plays his electric bass sitting down and with a watchmaker’s precision, so i’m guessing it made a bit of a change for them to have someone like moffett come into the mix and tear it apart! falanga responded to everything moffett did, as well as initiating a few exchanges of his own – the two of them could have cooked all night.

because he revisted that pitch again at intervals during the set, i had the opportunity to reflect more on the nature of ornette’s directness, which pierces the heart every time it is employed. he really means it, he really lives it and he keeps at it because he still really means it: he genuinely hopes to inspire others to speak their honest truth in the way he has always spoken his. that directness is intended to cut through layers of defence and deception, and it does. in truth not everything he played on the night was memorable – certainly nothing he played affected me so much as that first entry (but man, WHAT an entry), though to be fair there were enough distractions in which to lose oneself: he was perpetually in danger of being upstaged by the rampaging moffett, by falanga’s continuing “string romance” with the latter and by his thrasher of a son, threatening with the kit to drown out anyone who didn’t play up a bit… but distractions aside, ornette is an elderly man now and has to husband his strength. he still wields his triple axe, switching to trumpet and violin not just on certain numbers but whenever he felt like it, and his brass flutterings and scraped strings both weave themselves well into the fabric of the band, and he has no trouble cutting through it all with his alto… but for most of the concert i have to admit he was not the focus of my attention and i doubt this would have been the case in years (perhaps long) past.

if he keeps at it now, commits himself to touring and travelling when he could be (i presume) comfortably retired, it seems to be his honesty of purpose and the urgency of his message which keeps him going: people always need to be reached, the players can still benefit from the lessons, from the experience of playing with him, the message must be put across. and yet he never shouts, never even raises his voice… well, of course he does raise his voice, but he has a horn for that. and the message carries him in turn – his strength must be spent wisely but it is still considerable, allowing him to recover at once from heatstroke at the age of 77 and continue with a planned european tour almost immediately afterwards. this is a remarkable man, and i am, indeed, very glad i saw and heard him in the flesh.

“In contrast to the intensity of the Cecil Taylor gig from the previous night, it was like getting slapped in the face by a slab of pure melody, and I just felt fully on air…” (Scott MacMillan at the ‘Off Minor’ blog –  http://offminor.purplebadger.com/))

 

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Review by Rod Warner

 

The sky was darkening and it had rained a bit in the afternoon and I wasn’t feeling too good but I made it back to the Festival Hall… Tonight, first up, the Byron Wallen Trio – an improvement on the previous evening’s support act. More ‘jazzy’ – not that I am especially bothered about idiom – Wolf Eyes would have been a great start act in my book – but context is all… Yet…oddly enough, if Polar Bear had played tonight, maybe they would have fitted in better… does that seem overly perverse? It’s a point I will elaborate on later…

Wallen opened on piano – a slow, ruminative and rolling broad-chorded piece to get his feet under the table, as it were – eventually joined by his drummer and bass player. He switched to trumpet for the second piece and most of the set – showing wide range throughout from bat-squeak to low growl – an interestingly large sonic palette edged with a supple yet vulnerable lyricism. His themes used simple fragments of melody but were effective and memorable, often pivoting on the bass to supply ostinatos drawn from the melodies which provided a level of continuity that he and the drummer weaved skilfully around. They played confidently, seemingly unawed by the occasion and went down well. A point: they come off the jazz tradition but have developed their own strong conception – Wallen has a penchant for themes that reflect his African heritage and allied socially conscious isssues without beating you over the head – all the more effective perhaps. He utilised a shell ( a conch?) at one point, for example, and produced a hauntingly beautiful sound that integrated with the piece rather than being some worthy World Music add-on. They used freedom and space and didn’t sound like a bebop revival band or a group overconsciously trying to be accessible to a wider audience… this was mature stuff played with great ease and spirit… A band to check out further…

So: the house was well warmed up for the main event – Ornette and his ensemble, underpinned as ever by his son, the burly Denardo on powerhouse drums. Two bass players were advertised but he sported three – Tony Falanga and Al McDowell with Charnette Moffett added – one acoustic bass, one bass guitar, one electric standup. The sort of lineup that needs to be able to stay out of each others’ way – which they pretty much did throughout. Falanga was mainly arco – one nice touch I noticed that showed the strength of his technique – and his hands – on ‘Sleep Talking’ (I think) when he held his thumb on a note for achingly long periods to create a bowed drone while using his fingers to trigger flurries of notes. Moffett arco and pizzicato, used his footpedals to good effect – I especially liked the wah wah combined with bow to create a swooning swooshing wave of sound. The bass guitar was played high up for most of the set, giving electric guitar figures – with some bluesy chording that reminded me of Jim Hall behind Jimmy Giuffre way back. McDowell drifted close to noodling a couple of times but in the main laid out some interesting and pointed lines. Denardo the grounding force – cymbals like razors, a strong flowing rhythm throughout – he’s a heavy hitter, which is necessary, I figure, to keep this band on the track.

Ornette was the arrow – saeta/cante hondo indeed, a searing, wrenching all too human tone on alto, plus see-sawing freejazz hoedown on violin – hip yiha – and spare, smearing forays on trumpet, an instrument upon which he has always been at the very least interesting, in my opinion, and which he plays better than some would have you believe. Ok, he used some stock phrases on the sax – but they were his inventions to deploy and he powered the ensemble onwards throughout, leading them accurately through those typically convoluted themes that stop and start and end so suddenly. Although the congregation is very much a democracy – as befits harmolodic metaphysics/theory, there is a lot of trust involved, shown by the way he lets his musicians run with the balls that are bounced out – backed by Denardo’s rock solid rhythms. Operating on several levels, which is one of the fascinations of his music – his alto often riding in a slow drift as the beat doubles behind on drums and the others trade of fragments that slide off his themes. Never far from the blues, as evidenced by the loping dance through ‘Turnaround,’ a theme which locks him firmly in the back tradition to demonstrate where he came from -and the distance travelled. His present band represents something of a fascinating recapitulation of his career – from early freejazz breakthrough to Prime Time’s electric weirdfreefunk – the electronic instruments are still there but not as dominant, the rhythms strong but suppler perhaps than the Prime Time experience – to his diagonal take on the european classical canon – a Bach cantata from Falanga that eventually mutated into – something else… His music has always been all-embracing and wide-open – so much to get in under the skies of America and beyond – and this performance amply demonstrates the point. Many of the freedoms he sought and discovered are created by the spaces that open between the different layers as much as by the overall direction(s) taken.

He came back to rapturous applause and gave his usual encore – ‘Lonely Woman’ – and no problem with that to hear again the hauntingly beautiful refrain – where Falanga’s arco bass comes into its own, especially… The crowd wanted more, of course – but a seventy-seven year old can only give so much…

Last thoughts… interesting to consider Ornette with more of the emphasis now on being a composer and bandleader – the invention is still there with sudden flashes of the old left-field trajectories on saxophone, more so perhaps in the briefer but fascinating outings on violin and trumpet – but he didn’t take any long solos tonight. His power on alto is still intact, however, marred slightly by a shrillness/distortion that crept in on some of the high notes and was more of a sound system problem – a reverse echo, oddly enough, of Anthony Braxton the previous evening who had been almost inaudible at first when he switched to alto. (Maybe they are still coming to terms with the acoustics of the new building?). This band serve as the perfect vehicle for him to ride out on with the overall fire of his imagination to drive it home. We came to praise Ornette and celebrate the fact that he is still with us and leading challenging lineups – this wasn’t the heritage circuit. He deserved the warmth of the acclaim for what he has given – and what he gave this night – with such generosity.

A mind-blowing two days …Ornette’s music comes out of the blues, embraced electricity early on – and rock – and combined them better than most by keeping a cutting improvisational expansive edge that fusion in the main could not or would not attempt, so there was that sense of not being so very far from ‘social’ music, of engaging with popular forms in the same way that Miles Davis did. Taylor’s muse took him down different routes. Can we say that Ornette was more linear, taking the older implicit – and explicit – freedoms of the blues into choppier waters, Cecil Taylor, with a pianist’s conception, exploring – and shattering – harmonic forms with a denser formulation? Rhythm too – Ornette’s was a freed-up bop rolling, Taylor’s becoming a more abstracted pulse. But these visions are not mutually exclusive – Taylor uses melody more than you might think, the call and response structures of his culture coupled to a sharp bluesy edge, and Ornette’s ensembles achieve a thrilling complexity where the lines criss-cross through in often joltingly exhilarating counterpoints and spatial movements…

… the final point is that these giants are still with us and still indicating from different – yet surely compatible – positions the dynamic possibilities of freedom in music – and beyond. There are no narrow roads here…

EVAN PARKER/  TOM JENKINSON (squarepusher) –  SOLO & TOGETHER, QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL, 16/07/2007. Review by David Grundy.evanticket

 

The weekend after the historic meeting between Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor at the Royal Festival Hall, another intriguing pair was scheduled to perform at the South Bank, this time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And, while one of them, Evan Parker, was, like Braxton and Taylor, a veteran of the avant-garde jazz/improv scene, his playing partner, Tom Jenkinson (a.k.a. Squarepusher), was a far more ‘mainstream’ musician, though one with a highly subversive aesthetic. Along with Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), he’s sometimes lumped into the ‘drill n’ bass’ or I.D.M. (‘Intelligent Dance Music’) bracket – for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it basically means that he produces electronic music with enough beats and bleeps to keep any raver happy (and “dancing around like a chicken on fire”, in Jenkinson’s own words), but with plenty of dissonance, noise, and a dash of experimentation. Most importantly in relation to this particular collaboration, there’s also a pronounced jazz influence, especially in his virtuosic bass playing, which he shows off from time to time – though he’s got more in common with fusion-meister Jaco Pastorius than with free music bassists like William Parker or Sirone.

All in all, an unlikely pairing – whose idea was it? Maybe Jenkinson saw what Spring Heel Jack have been getting up to in recent years and thought he’d like to dip his toe into the waters too – maybe Parker, who’s worked with SHJ, was interested in finding common ground with another musician coming from the electronic/dance music scene.  But this was probably more than just a random collaboration (both men would seem to have enough integrity not to be thrown into something out of media hype – and in any case, this didn’t get too much attention in the press, though the hall was packed on the night). There is, though you might be hard-pressed to find it on first listen, a certain affinity between their musics, in intention if not execution: Tim O’ Neil draws a parallel between Jenkinson’s ‘Ultravisitor’, which he sees as an unsuccessful, “schizophrenic” attempt to fuse electronic and acoustic sounds, and Parker’s ‘Memory/Vision’, which “bridge(s) the gap in a more intuitive manner…encourag(ing) the spontaneity of real-time interaction on the parts of both the electronic and acoustic portions of the composition.”

Anyway, encouraged to go out of curiosity as much as a hope that anything genuinely interesting could be achieved (though of course I was hoping for that too), I made my way to the QEH. I can’t say I got full value for money (when you include transport to and from London) – this was a pretty short concert, clocking in at around 70 minutes – and nothing revelatory happened to suggest that this is a collaboration with that much mileage in it, but it was intriguing enough nonetheless. Part of the problem was that Jenkinson restricted himself to the electric bass, discarding the electronics he normally deploys, which could have found common ground with Parker’s own experiments in this direction, such as with his electro-acoustic ensemble. And, despite the fact that this was billed on the strength of being an unusual collaboration, they only actually played together for about 20 minutes: the first half was Jenkinson solo (playing four pieces in a 36 minute set), the second half Parker solo (a 20 minute circular-breathing showcase on soprano), then the two playing together (with Parker switching to tenor). Even though they received rapturous applause (coming from the Squarepusher fanatics, I somehow suspect, considering the fact that there were loud screams whenever he finished playing), they only came out for an extra bow at the end – no encore. I read a rumour somewhere on the internet that Warp Records was recording and videotaping the concert, so maybe you’ll be able to hear some portion of this music in a couple of months – and maybe they’ll work together a bit more in the studio (hopefully with electronics), but, on the night, I felt a bit short-changed, though it was certainly no disaster. Here are some more detailed thoughts on the music.

 

 

Though often linked with Aphex Twin, Jenkinson seems somewhat milder, less perversely weird, though he is liable to antagonize the audience (“I’m very into abusing the audience, whatever,” as he told one interview), and is a pretty reclusive figure. On this occasion, he was businesslike – no showmanship, just a man with a bass guitar walking out onto a near-empty stage, acknowledging the raucous cheers of the audience with a gentle wave. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and suit trousers (virtually the same attire as Evan Parker – smart-casual, professional but not stuffy), he proceeded to play, standing still for the most part, occasionally taking a few paces to the side before returning to his original position. 

            His opening improvisation was lyrical and guitar-like, as was much of his playing in the first set – in a similar vein to ‘Everyday I Love’, the beautiful short piece that closes ‘Ultravisitor.’ Of course, there were elements of Pastorius – how could there not be? – but it was less flashy and less ‘jazzy’ in its idiom, more introspective than Pastorius, an effect complemented by the subdued blue on-stage lighting. Jenkinson exploited the deep, resonant tone of the bass, but played his (fretted) instrument with more emphasis on chords than horn-like lines and runs. The mood was mostly one of gentle lyricism (in contrast to the harsh hyperactivity of something like ‘My Red Hot Car’, his best-known track), but there were louder sections, where, amplified by the sound engineers, he produced some loud and aggressive hard plucking sounds.

            In the second piece, he alternated between bursts of loud, rock-inflected playing and lyrical meanderings. By this stage, I was beginning to have a problem – there was a lack of any real sense of development; instead, all we were getting was little snippets which didn’t coalesce very coherently (James Lincoln Collier makes a similar criticism of Miles Davis’ playing in his book ‘The Making of Jazz’). At one point, a song-like invention lead on to a more evocative, flowing passage that would have been at home on a film soundtrack. On the third piece, a muted opening saw more pronounced elements of jazz creep in, along with passages that reminded me of classical acoustic guitar music, before he went for a more prolonged virtuoso section, slapping the body and strings of the bass with relish to draw out some deep, throbbing, and sometimes very aggressive sounds.

Overall, however, it felt like that sort of music that might appeal to musicians for its technical prowess (and you have to hand it to him, he is a very good bass player technically) but lacks heart, or a clear sense of direction – to put it in it simply, noodling. Little bursts of his Pastorius stylings on records may be nice, but hearing him unadorned in this context made me realize how they need the innovative soundscapes he conjures up with electronics and beats to make them really work.

So, after a disappointing first set, I was expecting a lot more from the second half. Evan Parker duly obliged, delivering the sort of performance that has become almost routine for him now (I don’t mean to suggest that it was a routine performance –far from it, it was extraordinary and compelling, and he does it as well now as he ever has). Using circular breathing techniques, whereby the performer inhales through the noise, while air stored in the cheeks is exhaled, through the mouth, into the reed of the instrument, he is able to avoid the usual pause-driven nature of the solo, and instead create mesmeric instant compositions which paint a compelling musical landscape. Constant coils of motion are interspersed seamlessly with high-pitched squeaks, reminiscent of seabirds circling over the rolling, endless beauty of the sea (a somewhat pedestrian and clichéd comparison, maybe, but one that really stood out in my mind at the time). He’s developed a way of playing like two men, creating two parallel lines which are played in such close temporal relation that they seem to occur simultaneously. His left hand maintains a circular run, while his right hypnotically punches out a counterpoint, and the shrill bird-cries (harmonics?) pepper the mixture to add what is essentially a third line, which becomes more and more unearthly as he continues, now evoking flutes, violins, bird calls of course, but above all, he is playing SOUNDS – and sound is what Parker and many other free improvisers are interested in above all. About fifteen minutes in, I realize that he’s been playing the same motifs for several minutes – producing a similar effect, now I come to think of it, to Terry Riley’s classic minimalist works like ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ or ‘Morning Corona’(from Robert Ashley’s film series ‘Music with Roots in the Aether’). I suddenly notice the feeling of a dance – is Parker playing Eastern European dance themes in the middle of the swirling vortex of sound? Even if that was just an auditory illusion, his improvisation did echo that moment when spinning dancers become whirls of colour only, moving so fast that their form becomes indecipherable and they appear as abstractions.

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It was hard to see any similarity between this and the Squarepusher solo set, apart from the fact that they had been performed by two men standing on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, improvising solo and sharing the same bill. How would they interact? They seemed to be coming from completely different places – Jenkinson technically superb, showing off his chops in fast-fingered runs up and down the bass as well as playing lyrically, yet never really developing his fragments into a seamless whole, while Parker created music of great fixity, change occurring incrementally, imperceptibly, in a piece that felt static (in a good way) despite the constant motion. There were no pauses or discontinuities – just one wave of sound rolling round and round on itself and revising itself before going round again.

But here it was, the event round which the whole concert essentially revolved – the meeting of Squarepusher and Evan Parker. Jenkinson came back on stage (as usual, to tumultuous audience reaction), and Parker switched from soprano to tenor sax. As they began, the bassist concentrated on busy rumblings beneath Parker’s tenor chatterings, both creating a hyperactive, spidery, twitching dialogue. They seemed to be interacting well; Jenkinson initiated a crescendo motif, to which Parker responded, before taking that into a more hyperactive feel, which the bassist picked up on. He didn’t seem overawed by Parker, which could easily have happened, considering his newness to the field of free improv, where Parker’s attained near-venerated status – instead, the older man spurred him on to be much more adventurous and coherent than in his solo set, adapting to the rigorous demands of this style of music-making with aplomb. You could see him watching his partner, listening for the right moment to drop out and come back in again, what to play to complement the saxophone line, to create a separate line that was still in dialogue with the other yet had an independence of its own, that didn’t solely on being complementary, on playing a supporting role (though if anyone could be said to have taken the lead, it was Parker). Certain stylistic tics showed Jenkinson’s background – he would tend to play very fast repeated motifs beneath Parker’s more abstract avant-gardisms, for example – but the music nevertheless had a natural ebb and flow to it, moving from hyperactivity to sparse moments where Parker’s breathy sax floated over Jenkinson’s clanging, bell-like bass. It all fitted Jenkisnon’s left-field image – near the end, he went crazy, hands going up and down the bass in a mad circular motion – but he didn’t subordinate artistic integrity to wanky, hollow ‘freakiness’, and, as a result, this was compelling listening. Consequently, the applause when they finished, as so often happens in improv, quietly, after going through some gorgeous high, rippling, watery sounds, was well deserved.

 

PAUL RUTHERFORD MEMORIAL CONCERT

RED ROSE, FINSBURY PARK, LONDON, 24th October 2007.

Review by David Grundy.

 

Journeying to this gig, I had that pre-concert feeling of anticipation, excitement, deriving from the fact that I didn’t know what I was going to hear, even though I’d seen the programme, and I knew who was performing, so I had a general idea, given familiarity with the personal styles and work of the players. Still, in classical music, no matter how revelatory the performance, however much a conductor or an orchestra or a soloist opens up new ways of viewing the work they’re performing, it’s always a pre-existing piece which doesn’t change its essential character (except in very exceptional circumstances). By contrast, improv’s essential character is that it is changing, unfixed.

Of course, any excitement I felt was tempered by the fact that this was a tribute to Rutherford: his loss weighs all the more heavily because of the neglect he suffered, both critical and commercial. It was at the Red Rose that he gave his last public performance, in a trio with Veryan Weston and Marcio Matios (both on the bill for this concert, although Matios was unable to make it in the end), and it was appropriate that the tribute took place here. Clearly, a big concert hall wasn’t going to honour him – aside from Cecil and Ornette at the Royal Festival Hall, that sort of thing rarely happens. And perhaps it’s a good thing: the working men’s club atmosphere of the Red Rose provides a down-to-earth, non-elitist context. Intellectually rigorous (as well as visceral) music this may be, but high-flown tra-la-la it is not: it’s made to the smell of stale beer, not to sparkling champagne glasses.

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            The concert started at 7PM and finished around 11:15. A huge variety of artists had been squeezed onto the bill – all for only a fiver (concs), and, as you’d expect, the RR was pretty full. It’s a tribute to the esteem in which musicians, at least, held Rutherford that so many of the great and good from the world of British jazz and improve were all performing on the same evening – it really was what they call a ‘star-studded line-up.’ Because of this, there was a real sense of occasion, which at times threatened to become over-the-top, over-polemical, somewhat at the expense of musical considerations (as in Veryan Weston and Maggie Nichol’s fiercely Old Left ‘Political Duo’). Overall, though, the tone generally managed to avoid being too morbid or too hagiographical.

There were eleven different groups, climaxing with the London Improvisers’ Orchestra, which incorporated many of the musicians who’d previously been on stage in smaller groups. The first performance harked back to Paul’s jazz roots, playing in Mike Westbrook’s big band (which was a stamping ground for many of the finest British improvising musicians, of many persuasions – Alan Skidmore, Keith Rowe, Mike Osborne, Phil Minton, and John Surman, to name just a few). Westbrook sat at the battered old upright piano that had been dragged on stage for the evening (it made vibrating noises whenever he pressed a key). “Paul was a great player of the blues,” as he commented afterwards, and he played a piece which Rutherford had particularly enjoyed when with the big band, ‘Creole Blues.’ It was nice to be reminded how diverse his career had been (as has that of many of the people I saw that night) – an all-round musician, a man of enormous, multi-faceted talent. Joining Westbrook were Chris Biscoe, who took a relaxed bass clarinet solo with touches of Dolphy-esque fire, and Alan Wakeman, whose soprano sax solo Biscoe accompanied with drowsy bass clarinet shades, before Westbrook dropped out and the two horn players engaged in a duet which grew in intensity and volume, becoming progressively more ‘out,’ until the performance ended with a return to the blues theme. Was it just me, or did that old melody have a bittersweet, elegiac feel to it which perfectly suited the occasion? Whatever the case, it was a nicely-judged jazz performance which, I suppose, eased us in gently before the more abstract and experimental music to come.

Next up, another trio, led by another stalwart of the British jazz scene, Harry Beckett, veteran of Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and many other musical concerns. He led a punchy, no-nonesense fifteen-minute set with Nick Stevens on bass (a late replacement for cellist Marcio Mattios, who I’m sure would have given the performance an entirely different dimension) and Tony Marsh on drums. Physically, there was quite a contrast between the short, leather-jacketed, pugilistic-looking trumpeter and the polar-necked bassist (who reminded me somewhat of an ageing beatnik), but musically, they were completely compatible. Although more modernistic than Mike Westbrook’s trio, the rhythm section in particular gave proceedings a jazzy edge – sort of one step beyond advance bop, on the verge of settling into a groove but resisting it, scattering impulses. They provided an ever-changing backdrop to which Beckett responded, although I wouldn’t say that they were guiding him, as this was a grouping of equals in which each listened to the other. There was more space in the trumpet playing than in bass and drums – Beckett would maintain a silence, weighing up the situation before emerging in bursts of hard-edged brassiness, his tone with a low-edged vibration to it rather than the high, squawk more commonly associated with the instrument’s use in jazz. Stevens added virtuoso display: there was much bowing and hyperactive plucking, and, at one point, he played his instrument with drumstick brushes.

The third set saw yet more musicians who’d been active in the flourishing 60s and 70s scene (and are, of course, still active today): the husband-and-wife team of Keith Tippett and Julie Tippetts, joined by South-African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and trombonist Dave Amis. With his sideburns and waistcoat, Tippett is unmistakable – there’s more than a touch of the Victorian eccentric about him, at least in appearance. Performing in a huge thick, heavy overcoat, and a scarf (which had to be fetched from an audience member before he would start playing), his touch on piano, by way of contrast, was frequently light and flowing. Just as the previous set had finished mid-phrase, so this one started without warning: Evan Parker was still on-stage to announce the band, when he realised that they had started playing behind him (the sound-check metamorphosing into the performance) and quickly moved out of the way. It began quietly, with Tippett’s repeated arpeggios, and his wife’s low-voiced vocal lament, moving on to skittish advanced techniques, complementary swells and growls from the trombone; some piano motorisms sparked a tempo change – but, as with all improvised music, such blow-by-blow description is only a very broad-brush account of the work. Taking account of every nuance and change and transition misses out the way that the piece had a real sense of structure, resulting from the musicians’ decades-old, in-built discipline. Even an average performance will thus be nothing less than compelling – and that’s just as well, as none of the music on the night hit any particular heights (which is not a surprise considering the packed schedule and the time-constraints this placed on the players).

            From what was pretty much straight-ahead (if adventurous) jazz, each act was going further into the more esoteric realms of free improv, and the duet between trombonist Robert Jarvis and electronics man Lawrence Casserley had a very different feel to what preceded it. Both men had been members of Iskra Cubed, one of Rutherford’s last projects (and, in fact, Jarvis had been employed on electronics in that role). Casserley’s mastery of what was announced as ‘signal processing’ is apparent not just in the speed with which he can react to what a live instrumentalist is playing, but in the way that he can incorporate this into a musical performance, where he doesn’t feel disadvantaged in any way: the interaction is real, the music organic, the textures and sounds often strange. Electronics added extra dimensions to the trombone’s farty, windy physicality, and drowsy, mysterious slurs: metal, percussive clanging, sounds that are still striking and fresh even though electronics has become almost de rigeur in the underground music scene.

            This was probably the shortest set of the night: a couple more (acoustic) duos followed. Trombonist Gail Brand and tenor saxophonist Simon Picard’s piece was rather muted and downbeat, homophonic melancholy being the prevailing texture and mood, although this did lead to some slightly more energised abstract speculation. Of course, they were both wearing all-black (which seems to be a kind of uniform for a lot of free improvisers), which tied in with the gloomy feel. Not the most compelling music of the night, it has to be said, although one little incident made it stand out. At one point, a mobile phone went off, but, for a split second, I thought what I heard had been generated by the trombone – a tropical bird, a little glitch, fitting in with the sounds Brand was producing at the time, it was a well-nigh perfect illustration of the way that freely improvised music can interact with those ‘distractions’ which would be completely disruptive in most other musical contexts – a radical conclusiveness, or, in a parallel which would no doubt have pleased Paul Rutherford, communism in sound.

The second duo was a two-sax affair with an appearance by Lol Coxhill, which is always a welcome thing. (His most recent disc is, in fact, a series of duos with various artists, released on Emanem Reccords). On this occasion, he was paired with Pete McPhail on baritone. A bit tougher and grittier than Brand and Picard, the lines dipped and dived and flowed in a more untethered way. Coxhill’s soprano was both brazen and swooning in a piece that was full of incident, but never really settled on any one feel or motif for a long period of time. Though McPhail was in black, Coxhill broke the mode with his bright orange shirt, and you might say that his playing reflected something of the exuberance that suggested.

In the final set before the interval, the three trombonists who’d already appeared (Gail Brand, Dave Amis, and Robert Jarvis) came back on stage, joined by another trombonist, Alan Tomlinson, for what was billed as ‘Trombone Fiesta.’

            An experiment with acoustics, it saw each member of the quartet place themselves in a different corner of the room, bouncing sounds of the walls and off each other. It felt as if the audience was caught in the middle somewhat, and, considering the loudness with which trombones could play, it was sometimes rather painful for the ears, although it wasn’t all bombast: in one supremely unsettling section, dark, dribbling, muted, splattering notes pinged round the room, as if the sound waves were crawling insidiously round the walls. A bit of a performance gimmick, perhaps (they moved into the audience as well), but an interesting number nonetheless.

 

The first item following the interval was not musical, although very much concerned with music: a presentation of Rutherford’s instruments to the Cuba Solidarity Committee. You could question the validity of supporting Castro’s regime (just because he’s been a thorn in the side of the US for decades shouldn’t blind us to his dodgy human rights record) – and I’m sure many people there did – but it was a nice gesture, and a damn sight more useful thing to do than some rock musician festooning his wall with un-played guitar trophies, which will end up in some museum after his death, the purpose they were made for virtually forgotten. A statement from Paul’s family was read out, which included the sentence: “there are more music in Cuba than there are instruments.” Who knows what the trombones will be used for, but at least they’ll be used.

Following on from this event with vaguely political resonances came some overt agitprop from vocalist Maggie Nicols and pianist Veryan Weston, the ‘duo politico’, both wearing appropriately red tops (Nicols’ ordering us to “make capitalism history”). The only time that night, apart from Mike Westbrook’s opening blues, that any written material was involved, they delivered a programme of old revolutionary songs. ‘I saw Joe Hin last night’ was taken very straight, evolving into free improvisation with the usual panapholy of shrieks and moans, before seguing into the more jazz/Latin flavoured groove of ‘Dynamite Dream’ (“revolution is natural, it’s not an aberration”), and, finally, that old warhorse ‘L’Internationale’, to provide a rousing conclusion. For an audience dedicated to free improvisation, strange that it was this composed material that got the biggest cheer of the night so far…

If that was overly polemical for some (including me), what followed was a mouth-watering, and purely musically-minded, first-time-ever supergroup of sorts: a quartet of Evan Parker on tenor sax, Kenny Wheeler (almost 80 now) on trumpet, Philip Waschmann on violin, and Steve Beresford on piano (pictured above). Despite Wheeler’s slightly frail appearance, the ensemble was dominated by his voice – Beresford kept his inclination towards anarchism in check, and the complementary sounds of tenor and violin gave the whole thing an almost classical edge, in terms of texture at least. Nobody ever settled into anything too comfortable – there were moments when Parker could have easily gone into his circular breathing routine, or Wheeler into ECM-melodicism, but neither did, keeping their contributions pithy and to-the-point, letting themselves be lead by sound rather than trying to lead it themselves.

One more duo to follow, which saw the appearance of Henry Lowther, another trumpeter and another versatile musician who’s played with Graham Collier and Gil Evans, as well as much studio session work (including with rock band Hawkwind, at one point). He was paired with John Russell, probably the leading guitarist in free music after Derek Bailey, and the somewhat strange combination of instruments was made to work convincingly. Russell is obviously influenced by Bailey – hard not to be, in this field – but his playing is perhaps less icy, while, in Lowther’s hands, the muted trumpet had a piercing clarity: a hard, bright, slightly pinched sound miles away from the usual melancholy eeriness that mutes tend to produce. Although it did feel rather like soloist and accompanist – Lowther sending out melodic signals over thorny guitar – it was a nice palette-cleanser before the extravagant orchestral textures of the London Improvisers’ Orchestra.

 

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There were so many musicians involved in this collective that they couldn’t all fit on the stage, some clustered on the floor around its edges, cramming up every single inch of space available. Obviously, this involved considerable organisation difficulties, so there was a short second interval. When the music came, it was similarly packed and dense – there was no conduction, no score, and, seemingly, no plan, and it was easy to become lost in (whether you view this in a good or a bad sense). Consequently, it’s hard to describe: much of it was a constant wash of sound, different things happening all at once, and individual voices end up getting rather lost. A joyful noise, or angry anarchism? It was hard to tell: the performance approached cacophony, and I think there were times when it crossed the line into that (some of the musicians seemed to sense it too, Steve Beresford sitting for long periods of time at his piano, not touching the keys, aware that nobody could hear anything he was playing). There were also moments, though, when everything ebbed, and Maggie Nicols’ voice entwined with flute, clarinet and violin to create mournful, ambivalent, atmospheric soundscapes. It eventually ended, past the planned finishing time, with Nicols singing “we love you so much” and everything – eventually – fading away.

Ultimately, this was an occasion whose sombre moments didn’t become oppressive, and at all times there was maintained an appropriate degree of respect and sense of sadness at Rutherford’s passing. I’ll leave the last word to Emanem label boss Martin Davidson, who introduced the final set by the LIO.

“Last of all, I’d like to say thank you to Paul Rutherford, for being such an inspiration, but also such a wonderful human being. We miss you, but we remember you, and the memory will stay.”

 

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CHARLES GAYLE UK TOUR, SEPTEMBER 2007

 

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          Charles Gayle’s story is a remarkable one. After playing ‘free music’ as early as the 1950s (according to him, he was playing free before players like Ornette Coleman caused such a big splash in the late 50s/early 60s). However, he was considered too far out even by free jazz record companies, and fell into decline – though he apparently recorded a trio sessions for ESP in the early 70s, this was at the time when the company was collapsing, due to heavy bootlegging, according to Bernard Stollman, and it was never released. He became homeless and busked for a living – the archetypal image of the artist misunderstood by the public playing on through adversity – a somewhat romanticised image perhaps. Anyway, in the late 80s he was discovered by a Danish record producer and played popular shows at the Knitting Factory. Since then he has recorded over 30 albums.

In recent years his music has started to incorporate more traditional elements:  he’s covered bop tunes and standards, and, as well as his trademark white plastic alto, begun to play a gruffly lyrical piano (his first instrument) with touches of Monk, especially on ballads, in which he employs sprinkly right hand runs and a punchy left hand. His piano playing is beautiful and completely different in character, and a real revelation – it’s akin to the sober, studied style of Andrew Hill, still drenched with emotion, just not the white hot stuff he does on his saxophone. A truly multi-faceted artist. He’s antagonised audiences who love his music, but are left-wing and hate his views – because of his rants about abortion and homosexuality, and his adoption of the persona of the Street Clown.

He recently came for a week-long tour of the UK with bassist William Parker and drummer Mark Sanders, and will be appearing with a different trio at the LJF next month. Here are a couple of gig reviews of that UK tour: appearances in Liverpool (Rod Warner’s review, originally at ‘Words and Music’ (http://soundsandtexts. blogspot.com)) and London’s Red Rose (Scott McMillan’s review, which originally appeared at ‘Mapsadaisical’ (http://mapsadaisical.wordpress.com/)).

 

(1) Charles Gayle/William Parker/Mark Sanders at the Everyman Bistro, Liverpool, September 17th 2007.

 

The gig venue is beneath the Everyman theatre in Liverpool, part of the Bistro complex of three rooms. Passing through the other two, you come to the performance space – oblong, with table seating. People fill the place up, with quite a few latecomers (what’s new there?) but a creditable crowd. Organizers Frakture obviously know how to get the vote out, as it were… They got their money’s worth…

The musicians take their places at the end of the room – no stage. No P.A. – which wouldn’t be needed in this space anyway, a small amp for the bass the only added electricity. These three will generate plenty of their own over the next two sets… Mark Sanders, almost boyish in comparison to his two cohorts tonight on this tour – Charles Gayle and William Parker, stalwarts of the vibrant New York ‘free jazz’ scene -and beyond. Both striking figures yet contrasted – Parker, a large bear of a man as befits a bass player, maybe, of his power, smiling, almost avuncular. Gayle, a ramrod thin tall man, with a serious face that has a clouded, mysteriously inward look to it (although I saw him in the interval in conversation and he smiled frequently, displaying a completely different facet to his character).

They start up, Gayle floating lines across a quickly busy backdrop from bass and drums – although this is no sax plus rhythm show – each part of the trio is integral to the sound. Gayle is playing a white plastic alto rather than his usual tenor – an iconic instrument. And you can trace the lineage from Bird – blindingly fast playing – to Ornette – a strong melodic freedom and a way of floating across a busy rhythm before locking back in with a vengeance – via Eric Dolphy (to my ears) in some of the skittering intervallic jumps. Yet Gayle is manifestly his own man, a veteran whose mysterious roots go back to the free jazz days of the sixties – he is older than Parker and the younger Sanders – a superior technique fine-honed down the years that may pay homage where applicable but flows free with his own strong voice. Gayle is renowned for his squalling, screaming intensity yet held back some of this tonight to concentrate on spirals of fast-moving melody – laced with a fair share of vocal inflection and high-register playing yet these all seemed integrated into his overall style – moving effortlessly and at a dizzying speed between what effect he feels necessary to enhance the proceeding line. Parker takes a bass solo which is muddied a little by the room’s acoustic but still displays his warm virtuosity. Sanders takes his moment, a hard-hitting solo, rhythmic density and movement effortlessly slapped out – he more than holds his own in this company throughout. Towards the end of the set Parker hits a walk a couple of times to balance and colour the intensity – because this is high-octane stuff – answered by the others as they move into more conventional swinging patterns. At the end, the place is rapturous – you are aware that you have witnessed something special – yoo hoo! Wild music that hits the head, heart and feet…

Second set. After all that preceding fire, one wonders, can they hold that level throughout? To which the answer is: YES! A similar easy-going start before Gayle hits his declamatory phrases – Parker using arco bass a couple of times to saw out jagged lines at a higher volume, at one point chasing a motif he dropped in and out of throughout across the registers, coming off with an amazing slithering glissando up and down the neck executed with virtuosic control, essaying swooning vocalised figures that seemed to be telling a joke of some kind. Gayle blows wild and free, then drops back to play a frail melody that opens up the space and lets the drums through, emphasizing the equality of this band. The music becomes more pointillistic to contrast with the overall multi-noted density, Gayle fragmenting his line. Deep into the set Parker is swaying at his bass with a joy that comes across vividly. Towards the end they just lift off to stunning levels of wild intoxication – Sanders takes another solo, smacking high harmonics off his cymbals, stick between teeth as he used a hand to hammer his drums – truly music of the body as well as the mind. Coming in to the end you realise that these guys just do not FALTER. Gayle lets rip, fast and hard in a ferocious interlocking dance with bass and drums to produce music that reaches deep down into my soul and rips it AWAKE.

AWESOME…

“…it is the role of the artist to incite political, social, and spiritual revolution, to awaken us from our sleep and never let us forget our obligations as human beings, to light the fire of human compassion. Sounds that enlighten are infinite. We can put no limit to joy, or on our capacity for love.”
(William Parker and Patricia Nicholson Parker, ‘Blueprint for a Cultural Revolution’)

Finally: thanks to Frakture (http://frakture.org) for providing such a great gig – I know only too well what a hassle and sometimes thankless task organising these occasions can be. Applause all round… And I had a great time in Liverpool – looking forward to the next visit…

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(2) Charles Gayle, William Parker and Mark Sanders, The Red Rose, 21/09/07. Review by Scott McMillan

 

Ashley Wales’ Back In Your Town night continues to provide us with some of the most exciting improvisation to be found anywhere in clubland.  And I mean clubland; the Red Rose, situated on a most unappealing stretch of the Seven Sisters Road to the South West of Finsbury Park has the charm of a decades-old working men’s club.  But look between the multiple TVs tuned to Sky Sports and the chalkboards showing such endearingly precise prices as “Bitter £2.12″, and you will see the walls are festooned with pictures of performers – the room through the back is what you are looking for if you need a bit of free jazz or live comedy to lift your spirits in this part of North London.

[Note – more’s the pity that it’s now being converted into a pool hall, thus leaving regular improv events without a venue and potentially proving a major blow to the availability of improvised music in the capital].

As a prelude to the main act, Steve Beresford and Neil Metcalfe performed an excellent piano/flute duet.  The level of listening and the speed of the reactions to each other was extraordinary – whether Beresford would stumble upon a phrase, or Metcalfe chanced upon a melody, the other would take it, bash it around for a bit, and hand it back for further work.  It was probably inevitable given their respective choice of instruments that Beresford would excite most, leaping as he did from the thunderous rumble on the left to the flashes of lightning on the right, nearly falling off his stool as he did so.

Mark Sanders had barely managed to finish his thanks to those involved with the organisation of this tour when the impatient and cross-looking Gayle burst in with his white alto, leaving Sanders and William Parker tearing after him in chase.  Immediately, intensity levels were extremely high; at times all three musicians had their eyes closed in concentration, as they tried to align their respective cog with the revolutions of this great engine.

            Parker was the first to be given a solo, a long (picture the impatient Gayle glowering stage right), fast (I had to check that he in fact has only five fingers on each hand) thing which seemed to be constantly fighting against an urge to develop some funk.  He took a glorious – and much shorter – arco solo later, deft as they come, and bursting with melody.  These were moments to savour – during the ensemble pieces the muscular Parker’s work became at times surprisingly buried amidst the hullabaloo being created around him.

Sanders’s moments in the spotlight were disappointingly brief: as I write, I’m listening to his solo record Swallow Chase on Wales’ Treader label, and he is clearly capable of creating sublime extended percussion pieces.  By some distance the youngest man on stage, he played a mostly subservient role, but played it with the utmost quality and consistency – marvellously responsive, switching between the sticks, brushes, and mallets, and using every square centimetre of every surface available to him to produce the fullest array of sounds, but in the most unshowy fashion.   Towards the end of a piece which had kicked off as an Ayler-esque march, Gayle and Parker lured him into a drums versus sax and bass showdown; Sanders fought his corner with aplomb, matching their knotty phrases with is own intricate shapes. 

Gayle’s sax playing was, as you would have expected, incendiary throughout the evening, featuring coruscating Coltrane-like runs into upper registers, all played with a huge, chewy vibrato.  However the quality of his piano playing was an unexpected surprise to me – he would feel his way in before playing with Bley-ish style, humming and singing as he went.  When, at the start of the second piano trio piece, Parker and Sanders led off at brisk pace, a grin broke out for the first time on Gayle’s face, appreciating the challenge he was being set, and responding with relish.  This image was in contrast to the stern, forceful leader we had seen throughout the evening, calling players in, before shutting them out with a blast from his horn.  After the evening faded out with Gayle playing a snatch of Tyner on piano (”Naima”, if I remember correctly, which would be a first), this stony facade was finally shattered by his humble and heartfelt thankyou speech.  As he signed off with “There may be three of us, but we’re a quartet – you are the fourth person”, suddenly he was once more just a thin, gaunt looking old man, and the fourth person showed their appreciation with a huge and massively deserved ovation.

 

 

JOSHUA REDMAN TRIO AT THE ANVIL, BASINGSTOKE

(November 2007) Review by Ian Thumwood

joshuaredman

          Back in November, I made the trip up the M3 to catch Joshua Redman’s trio, as part of their UK tour. If you have the chance to catch them live, I would thoroughly recommend this group, albeit the substitution of Gregory Hutcherson on drums for Antonio Sanchez from the group that played Vienne in July gave this band a totally different feel.

            Back in the summer, the repertoire and approach seemed to tip the hat towards Sonny Rollins even if the sax trio has now undergone something of a radical rethink since those halcyon days of the late 1950’s. Time to move on, I think.

            Last night I was fortunate to sit a few rows back from the stage and became totally wrapped up in this group’s music. Whilst I must admit not to have been a fan of Redman Jr’s playing on the two previous occasions that I had heard him live with an early trio and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s band (gave the Elastic Trio a miss), this concert has really made me re-think his music. As a friend said after the encore, the interplay resembled that of Lucky Thomspon’s trio with Petttiford and Betts. Indeed, Redman’s tone has something of the furry quality of Thompson’s and the concentration on spinning convoluted and jivey improvised lines between the tenor and bass added to this sense. The interplay between the three players was amazing, the bass work of Rueben Rogers nothing less than staggering whether providing a pulse for the drummer and Redman to exchange lines around or under-pinning the saxophonist’s solos with intelligently considered intervals.

            In one composition, they imaginatively used silence between the dialogue between the bass / horn and the drums so that the couple of beats with pauses actually swung. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the communication between the three players.

                Most of the material was original although there was a frisky version of “Surrey with the fringe on top” to open up the session and a work out on “East of the sun” that ended up with Redman playing so far beyond the structure of the tune that the reprise of the melody came almost as a shock. You had to ask yourself just how did he managed to get there.

            Incidentally, although Redman is less convincing on soprano, the one piece that featured this horn included a chorus of multi-phonics and circular-breathing that was demonstrative to these ears of how the American has clearly checked out the likes of Evan Parker. Odd to think that jazz has now moved on so far that a “Mainstream” player can now comfortably incorporate devices into his playing such as this.

               By and large, this concert eschewed gallery-pleasing crescendos and the tone of the music was generally relaxed and considered – not unlike the approach of Wayne Shorter’s current group. When the music did build up to a climax, it came across as entirely spontaneous.

            As I said previously, the jury was definitely out with regard to Joshua Redman up until I heard the two versions of his trio this year but this current group is right on the money. Bassist Rueben Rogers has also proved himself to be a wonderfully responsive and “listening” bassist.

            This is a great band and anyone who likes their jazz to be thoughtfully considered as opposed to representing the rush of blood to the head will find much to admire live.

SONNY SIMMONS WITH TIGHT MEAT (+ JOOKLO DUO) AT THE PORTLAND ARMS, CAMBRIDGE, 21st November 2007. Review by David Grundy

 

 genta

This was a rare occasion indeed: a visit to the UK by the great Sonny Simmons, someone who’s played with all the greats (Rollins, Mingus, Dolphy, even Jimi Hendrix) and who, like Charles Gayle, had to survive a period of homelessness before making his comeback in the 1990s. Adept on the English horn as well as the alto sax, the context in which he was appearing this time was definitely not the sort that would let him demonstrate his prowess on that instrument. He was paired with ‘Tight Meat,’ who usually perform as a duo, consisting of two Scots: saxophonist David Keenan (also a journalist and author who writes for ‘The Wire’ magazine) and drummer Alex Neilson. For these dates, bassist George Lyle was added.

A somewhat unusual tour, given that Simmons has several times expressed his dislike of free players who don’t vary their playing. He never mentions anyone specific, but, given his performance on the night and on record, I would have thought that David Keenan would be the sort of person he had in mind. He seemed to have one mode: very loud and very dissonant.  You know the sort of thing: if you’re into free jazz, you’ve probably heard it many times before. Meanwhile, Simmons can certainly go ‘out there’, but he always prefers to come back to a melody – a jazz standard, a song from a show, a Thelonious Monk tune. Keenan was having none of it, as I’ll go on to explain…

I caught them in the back room of a pub in Cambridge, with an audience of, at a maximum, 40 people, which says some sorry things about how this country values creative improvised music. What with the London Musicians’ Collective losing its arts council funding and the Red Rose shutting down, it’s not a wonder that someone like Paul Rutherford became very bitter and depressed at times.

But I digress – returning to the matter at hand, here are my impressions of this particular concert. The first group were the Jooklo Duo (who I’d never heard of); (female) tenor saxophonist Virginia Genta and drummer David Vanzan, playing fairly typical post-Coltrane free jazz. Genta’s tenor tone was gruff, occasionally displaying some more rough-hewn lyrical touches, but there was never really any sense of development to what she played: she would introduce one idea, then, rather than taking that idea on and developing into something further (as Coltrane did), rais the horn in the air and give a generic screech. A bit frustrating – like going round in circles, or banging your head against a wall – not making a breakthrough into complete freedom, and thus feeling a bit restricted. The drummer was good though, really locking in with some rhythmically propulsive playing that at one point coalesced with the saxophonist for an impressive minute or so, before they seemed to drift apart. Perhaps not really on the same wavelength? The group’s been going since 2004, but apparently Genta’s only been playing tenor sax for two years (she started out on alto). Hard to judge, though, as they only played a short set. Perhaps they will develop further and their playing will start to coalesce more.

The second group, and the one everyone had been waiting for: Tight Meat with Sonny Simmons. As was to be expected, it was not subtle at all: high-volume, high energy, collective improvisation, of the ‘Ascension’ kind. There was almost no let-up, although there was some wonderful moments where the band collectively paused for a micro-second, then launched in again, giving the re-entry a volcanic force, giving the briefest of breathing spaces: an effect that’s quite hard to describe, but very effective in the moment.

As a live experience it had an exhilarating quality, forcing you to participate in its pulsations, to pulsate along with the vibrations in the floor, created by all the noise coming from the stage. At its best (and this is what I like about free jazz), it seemed as though all the players had merged into one huge instrument, producing a wall of sound –  sorry to have to use the cliché, but it’s the best way I can think of describing it! You can listen to individual players if you choose (inevitably, I focussed on Simmons the most), but what you really concentrate on is the collective whole. This type of collective improvisation works on two levels in that way, and is, I suppose, somewhat similar to what many people value in free improve: the meshing and merging of personalities and sonorities into one, though the meshing here is obviously of a very different kind.

simmons_keenan

The old criticisms about ‘angry’ music would certainly apply here, if you were disposed make them. In fact, judging by their demeanour while performing, I think that Keenan and Neilson probably believe them themselves – except they see it as a virtue rather than a vice, as a punk-like tool of rebellion and social protest. Still, while these are obviously important parts of the free jazz aesthetic, it’s ultimately more complex than that, as Simmons demonstrates time and time again.  The music offers a mixture of extreme emotions – it’s sound stretched out on the edge, existing on the edge, daring to look out over the precipice and perhaps deciding to jump, or maybe to fall back and subside.

            That’s the positive: in the above paragraph, I also hinted at some of the drawbacks I felt while listening. Though Simmons was playing more melodically, lyrically at times, his fellow saxophonist, David Keenan, didn’t seem to notice: he simply squealed and wailed away all night. I thought that the (more experienced) bassist was responding to Simmons fairly subtly, trying to collaborate with him in introducing a drop in tempo, in energy, a change of mood – but Keenan wouldn’t let this happen, and neither would drummer Neilson, who played at the same loud, fast level all night. While the sound of the two saxophones going at it full pelt was admittedly a fine sound, variety is the spice of life, and there were times when you wished the other musicians would just sense what Simmons was doing and go with him. I’m on dangerous ground here, and I realise that I probably shouldn’t impute motive in the following manner, but I feel that it could almost be interpreted as lack of respect – when you get the chance to play with someone who has the accumulated experience and wisdom of Sonny Simmons, you don’t force him to go in your direction, you go with him in is. Still, the man seemed to be enjoying himself, joking with the audience at the end of the set, and, while Keenan and Neilson (who’d ripped his shirt off midway through) looked exhausted, utterly spent, he still seemed sprightly, as if he could go on like that for another few hours at least. I’m not sure he’d even broken a sweat.

So, all in all: I’m not sure that this is a collaboration with that much mileage in it – not sure it would even generate an album, though I suppose it could. It did raise doubts in my minds about a younger generation of musicians taking aspects of the 60s free jazz and simplifying them, which I don’t think is doing very much for the music. But still, even simplified free jazz does things which no other genre can: it’s not the only way, and more subtle musics are also needed, but it can give you a real rush that much jazz struggles to provide. I’d rather hear this than some bland, innocuous mainstream act any day.

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