Gig Reviews – Issue 7



Cheltenham Jazz Festival (April 2011)


Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford (April 2011)


Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford (May 2011)


Art Jericho, Oxford (June 2010)


London Review Bookshop, London (June 2011)


Churchill College, Cambridge (November 2011)


Jacqueline Du Pre Building, Oxford (November 2011)


Portland Arms, Cambridge (December 2011)


St Anne’s and St Agnes Church, London (December 2011)


Cheltenham Town Hall, Cheltenham, Saturday 30th April 2011

Pharoah Sanders had been placed pretty near the top of the bill for the festival weekend, and, tellingly, his name was printed alone in the brochures, with no information as to sidemen – perhaps an acknowledgment that, however competent the groups he’s worked with in recent years (generally in standard quartet format), it’s his name, his reputation, his past that’s going to draw audiences, rather than the cutting-edge nature of his collaborations or any real promise of newness, of the real frisson that his work was so capable of generating back in its day. As it turned out, Sanders (on tenor only) was accompanied by Jonathan Gee on piano, Mark Dresser on bass and Gene Caldarazzo on drums, all of whom got lengthy solo spots on every tune, resulting in the rather by-rote feel a standardized succession of such spots can often generate (oh, it must be time for the bass player to run through some basic blues changes; and now the drummer to play some familiar patterns; oh right, and here’s the melody again, to play us out). Gee did turn in a couple of bright moments in which his crossed-over hands allowed for some more timbrally interesting left-hand voicings, but in general seemed to shy short of where his own ideas might take him, seemingly about to develop an interesting line of enquiry but abandoning it for an easy chord change or a familiar lick; there was never much sense of the momentum or drive that would have perhaps lent Sanders’ own playing a little more bite. Dresser got one fairly nice solo, picking up on the repeated thrums behind ‘My Favourite Things’ to go for some slightly less obvious ‘jazz bass’ moments. This even brought the hall to a temporary hush – not a cough to be heard – before Caldarazzo’s solo broke the mood and re-established the template of weary familiarity. (Boom-crash-boom, cymbal, boom-crash-boom, cymbal, etc.) Polyrhythmic dexterity? Furious pell-mell momentum? Floating free pulse? No, we’ll have none of that, thank you: this is a jazz festival, man. The result was music that was quite competent but also rather dull, and would surely have been less easily excused if Sanders (a ‘living legend’, no less) had not been at the helm. The 90-minute set felt at times, like something to go on in the background of ice-cream tubs, marquees and beer tents (which you could never in a million years say of ‘Ascension’, for example); neither was there much of the sense of joy and exuberance that Sanders brings to his small club dates, however corny that might be (foot shuffles, tambourines, audience sing-and-clap-alongs, hollers into the microphone). In large part, this may have been due to sound problems: I’m not entirely sure whether this was the fault of the Town Hall’s natural acoustic (all high ceilings, chandeliers, marble pillars and balconies) or the PA system, which added a harsh and muddy edge to a not exactly complex group sound (surely the standard jazz quartet line-up of sax, piano, bass and drums shouldn’t present too much of an amplification challenge?); perhaps it was a combination of the two. In any case, Sanders was clearly somewhat uncomfortable with the sound balance during the opening numbers: ‘Giant Steps’, which should have provided a punchy and invigorating opening, instead came across as somewhat awkward, the trajectory of Sanders’ solo lost in a fog of generalized jazz noise. ‘Naima’ allowed things to settle somewhat – the hall could cope with ballads at least, and the best moment of the evening was probably the later rendition of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, which was played straight. Trouble was, this made the whole thing feel incredibly restricted; I know Sanders’ repertoire and sound has confined itself to early-60s Coltrane laced with a few shrieks and rough edges for the past few years, but even these token nods to a freer past were edged out as he left most of the work to his sidemen while he sat in the shadows at the side of the stage, his gold lamé kaftan as muted as his playing. Youtube allows us to witness a much less desultory showing in Paris the previous night; one can suppose, then, that the audience here merely got unlucky. Regardless of that, one does wish that Sanders would stretch himself once again; no matter that he’s ‘earned the right’ to rest on his laurels, there are any number of fine improvising players who could, perhaps, jog him out of established patterns and endless re-iterations of 1960s templates. Just look at what happened when John Tchicai toured the UK with John Edwards and Steve Noble last year (as reviewed in the previous issue of this magazine). Probably not much chance of Sanders playing in that company (the turn towards easy melodicism and old-fashioned acoustic jazz came a long time ago), but one can always dream…



Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Wednesday 27th April 2011

Superimpose, the duo of Mathias Muller (trombone) and Christian Marien (percussion), had travelled over from Germany for a week-long tour of the United Kingdom, which, fortuitously, happened to take place during the finest weather of the year so far. The sun had set by the time they began to play, and Real Madrid were slugging it out in a bad-tempered encounter with Barcelona on the TV screens downstairs; by contrast to that rather ugly affair, Muller and Marien were in fine sync, concentrating with patience and skill on specific textural areas during a thoughtful twenty-minute opening set. Neither played their instruments in particularly conventional ways: Muller would disassemble and reassemble his trombone, vocalizing and blowing through it in non-standard fashion, as well as inserting various mutes (including an old soup tin) into the bell to constantly modify the timbre, while Marien, sticking mainly to a large modified bass-drum, which he had shorn for travel purposes and placed upright on a set of legs, scraped and rubbed surfaces as often as striking them. From the droning, groaning start, they seemed to have a total sense of what the other was doing at any one time: at several points, both stopped simultaneously, shared a pause for a few seconds, and then began again, resisting the easy temptation to relax and allow the applause to follow, instead forging ahead with new sets of ideas and developments.

Following Superimpose were the trio of Jon Seagroatt, Pat Thomas and Roger Telford; saxophonist/flautist Pete McPhail had been scheduled to play with the three as part of a new quartet, but his absence due to illness meant the debut instead of this smaller configuration. Given that two of the musicians play in the originally Southend-on-Sea-, now Oxfordshire-based improv band Red Square, one could call the trio ‘Red Triangle’ or something of the sort (Red Triangle turning out to be, on further research, the first registered trademark in the UK, for Bass breweries) – but, in truth, they sounded very different to Square’s electric power-drive, due in large part to the fact that both Seagroatt and Thomas elected to leave at home the electronic elements (keyboards and kaoss pad respectively) that usually form part of their arsenal. As a result, Seagroatt’s jazz-influenced soprano really came to the fore, Thomas’s acoustic piano adding scintillating but chunky chordal depth and weight, while Telford’s free-floating pulses allowed plenty of room for melodic dart and dive. This wasn’t your common-or-garden, balls-to-the wall, no-let-up free jazz: there was barely any hard over-blowing or ten-finger cluster-bashing, and textures were generally sharp and clear rather than dense and over-powering, though the performance was fairly loud throughout. The best comparison I can think to make is with ‘Wili the Pig’, a little-known, but superb live recording by a quartet featuring John Tchicai and Irene Schweizer: a fine template indeed to aspire to, and Seagroatt, Thomas and Telford seemed to be channeling a similar stream of relentless, flowing energies. A fifteen-minute first piece fairly flew by, ideas pouring out and on with little space for a pause; there followed a second, shorter improvisaton which saw Seagroatt switch to bass clarinet, his warm and woody tone far more meliflous than the yawping post-Dolphy sound of such players as Frank Wright – one particularly smooth transition between notes even reminded me of Marcus Miller’s rather beautiful velvet tone on the instrument (though thankfully without the drum machines and slap bass). Despite having to contend with a piano which had clearly not been tuned for quite a while, this was a really exciting performance by a group which it can be hoped will continue to perform together; and it was impossible not to admire the poise with which Seagroatt’s half-quotation of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme was inserted into the midst of a committed improvisation with no hint of smugness or showmanship.

After an interval, a new set of musicians from Oxford Improvisers joined the returning Superimpose for a group collaboration. This new combination of cello and bandoneon (Bruno Guastalla), analog synth (Martin Hackett) and electric guitar (David Stent) might have seemed an incongruous fit, but it was precisely that slight sense of rough edges, of what might, by conventional standards, seem timbral incompatabilities, that made their first improvisation so intriguing. Guastalla took matters firmly in hand with an opening bandoneon chord, initially appearing rather too smooth for the context, but resolved (or made more ambiguous) by a final note that added a beautiful sense of uncertainty in place of firm resolution. From there the field was open, Guastalla returning to bandoneon later on (including a fine passage in which he squeezed some noisily rhythmic air from the bellows), as well as adding his spiky cello to Hackett’s unpredictable synth, Muller’s by now more garrulous trombone, Marien’s alternately quiet and dramatic percussion, and Stent’s mixture of e-bowed wails, ringing chords, and choppy rhythmics reminiscent of the rawest early blues players. A longer second piece was perhaps slightly less focussed, the regular whoosh of passing cars outside obscuring some of the detail in the more hushed moments, but there were always plenty of things going on: this was music of events and incidents, though with space to build and develop if something particularly interesting was collectively chanced upon. Thus, the five players did not all play at once, all the time; as had been agreed before-hand, room was left for smaller ad-hoc combinations to emerge, though these tended to be fairly brief and to overlap. Players were, however, willing to sit out when necessary, to consider the circumstances in which they might usefully re-insert themselves into the mix, perhaps changing the dynamic, pushing the music in another direction; notable examples were Marien’s adoption of a slowly repetitive, almost ritualistic three-note figure on tuned percussion and Hackett’s own repetitions, drawn out around charged silences and scrabbly fills from the other players, which drew the performance to a compelling close. No worries about ‘scenes’ of classifications here; just an evening of fine music, untainted by all the critical negativity and disillusion which pits ‘European Free Improvisation’ (seen as monolithic and out-dated) against ‘Eai’ (seen as the new way forward). Instead, this was just good improvised music, period.



Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Monday 16th May 2011

First, the new trio of Stuart Chalmers, on tapes, circuit-bent keyboard, and mouth instrument, Stuart Wilding on percussion, and Bruno Guastalla on cello and bandoneon. A surprising and satisfying set – short pieces, fragilities, consonances, transparencies of texture, clusters of concentration, vapours trailing off. A wispy concision; some might say also the hesitancy of a first-time grouping – but in terms of pure pleasure of sound and texture (particularly Wilding’s bowed bells and bowls) and the contextual dimension added by Chalmers’ tapes (fragments of voice, of orchestra, reduced to half-registration, working on and in the subconscious memory, like when the radio seeps in to your half-asleep ear and infiltrates your dreams), very worthwhile. The following duo, by contrast, play one, intensely focussed piece (and a one-minute encore). Lytton, like Roger Turner, has a quickness of hands and a mastery of a style that is, at least partially, about a kind of anti-mastery, the inclusion of accident – things falling off and onto the floor, clashes and bangs of bags and hands that are not part of the ‘drummed’ rhythmic flow – emptying from these bags the numerous accoutrements / junk which are actually not accoutrements at all, and are at times just as central as the actual drumkit to overall sound-making, all in the midst of the superfast, wired rhythmics of the thing, its heated moments; blurring this ‘unpacking’  with the motion of hands/sticks on drum so that it all becomes one motion, like a juggler, like intuition (definition: arriving at a thought so quickly that one is not conscious of the process leading up to, so that the thought seems to be appear instantaneously in the mind, as if by magic). At moments, utter ferocity, bashing the drums with enough force, it seems, to break their skins (the floor shakes (vibrates)); at others, space round Wooley’s burred trumpet, with its sidemouth vocals, with its low, held muted note harmonising with traffic’s low rumble outside; ritual image quality as the bearded Wooley stands with trumpet held vertically in the air over his head, projecting upwards so that saliva can fall back down in such a way as to be sonically manipulated, holding the instrument there for an age, gradually lowering it to rest horizontal again, into quietness and the final rest.



Art Jericho, Oxford, Friday 27th May 2011

As I walked through the door of Art Jericho (a neat little gallery space down a back-street of half-built and shadowed buildings), Patrick Farmer (on turntable and various objects), Sarah Hughes (on chorded zither (i.e. autoharp), played with various modifications and electronic treatments) and Stephen Cornford (on mixing board and objects) were creating an immediately absorbing kind of pindrop-music; indeed, the sound of a pin dropping could very well have formed part of their arsenal, perhaps connected up to some sort of feedback device or scratchily amplified on the turntable. The first ten minutes or so trod a pleasing line of simultaneous tension and stasis; there was a lot going on, in terms of events and changes (particularly from Farmer, who seemed to be playing the role of agitator, suddenly creating loud, harsh jolts of feedback and noise in unexpected places), but, at the same time, much of this took place over a fairly stable drone, provided by Hughes’ bowed zither. Then something happened, and the music moved away from this course (which it could easily have held for half an hour or more); things became more broken up, even theatrical, from delicate quiet sonorities which the half-sitting, half-standing crowd seemed to be craning forward to hear, to Farmer’s aforementioned jolts and outbursts. When Hughes bounced a small red balloon off the strings of the table-top zither, so gently that it seemed to make no perceptible sound, the performative aspect kicked home; though the three musicians were sitting fairly still at their three tables, or work stations, this didn’t feel like a solemn or reverential set-up – instead, they became garden shed scientists, fiddling around with arcane and quasi-magical devices fused from the cutting edge of electricity and the homely detritus of eccentrically-kept junk. Hughes’ strongly diatonic instrument also militated against the harshness of some of the other sounds; her employment of a simple melody (played with such delicacy that her thumb barely seemed to brush the strings) adding a folkish, even ambient touch that was all the more effective for being sparingly employed. Towards the end of the set, Farmer picked up a box and emptied its contents (compost? Chinese take-away? dried leaves?) onto the turntable, all in one motion, the gesture radically changing the sounds coming from his set-up, and providing a nicely serendipitous correlation between physical movement and sonic event. It was typical of the trio’s unforced and easy improvisational method; improvisation as the discovery of the genuinely new, the creation of surprising and pleasing relations and juxtapositions, a sound laboratory.

If Farmer could have been said, broadly speaking, to play the ‘agitator’ during the trio set, then Nakamura filled that role during the start of Koboku Senju’s performance at least, his sharp, fizzing high tones and sudden bursts of scrunching feedback giving the impression that the machine was controlling what sounds were about to come out as much as he himself – though his pose of calm concentration (which might perhaps be mistaken for sleepiness), barely moving anything more than his hands, suggested that such a situation would not have perturbed him in the slightest. It was if he was reading a book or scrutinising a sculpture, looking down at the no-input board and waiting for it to reveal its secrets to him, rather than manipulating it with obvious physical dexterity or virtuosity. Akiyama’s guitar playing was similarly untroubled and relaxed, though more conventional in terms of technique: he began with three capos clamped on the instrument’s neck, gradually removing these as the set went on, playing relatively brief melodic phrases at untroubled, though fairly regular intervals; neither settling into finger-picking nor Bailey-esque improv; later on, rubbing a metal slide over the strings to produce an arco effect. This combination of melody and the textural improv of Nakamura and the three Norwegians (Espen Reinertsen on saxophone, Eivind Lønning on trumpet and Martin Taxt on tuba respectively) was something that perhaps shouldn’t have worked in context. Indeed, what makes Senju stand out as a group is their seemingly rather clunky line-up of three brass/wind instruments, electronics, and acoustic guitar. In the end, though, it was the mesh rather than the abrasiveness of the instrumentation that compelled. Having listened to electro-acoustic improvisation for a number of years now, I thought that the days of not being able to tell which instrument was doing what might be over (that initial shock when one first hears the employment of extended techniques –, that disorienting, blurring effect), but, even seeing the music live (which should make who’s doing what clearer), it was sometimes hard to believe the evidence of one’s own eyes. How is it possible that a trumpet can produce sounds like that merely by tilting the mouthpiece to the side of the mouth? Is it possible that a saxophone can sound so un-jazz-like? Are those high sonorities really coming from the tuba? All this was compelling enough – meshing, merging, and those collective swells (not so much climaxes) out of which emerge a moment of piercing clarity, often provided by Akiyama’s melodies – but what really tipped things was the moment, about half-way through the set, when the three horns suddenly moved from extended techniques to a succession of three-voice jazz melodies. Presumably improvised and unplanned, it was, like Hughes’ zither melody in the first half, a moment of lovely and unforced surprise – and what was more admirable was that Senju didn’t just stop there, as they well could have, but moved back to textural playing (Taxt, at one point, removing part of the tuba’s tubing and clinking it against the body of his instrument; at another, turning the whole thing sideways so that the enormous, gramophone-like bell pointed directly at the audience; Lønning circular-breathing, smoothly but with an edge of roughness, a popping breath sound that came around every few seconds – simultaneously the result of physical necessity and a part of the music). Really, the hush at the end (I say hush, despite the sound of Friday-night parties passing down Walton Street) and the following applause, were more than well-deserved.


London Review Bookshop, London, Wednesday 22nd June 2011

During a brief introduction, Rowe explained that he would be playing two sets: interpretations of, first, a page from Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’, and second, Christian Wolff’s ‘Edges’. In certain anniversary years of Cardew’s birth, he plays Treatise throughout the year; this year (the 75th anniversary), he was up to page 68 (which is slow progress, apparently). However, as he made clear, the piece was being used as a point of departure, rather than being ‘played’ as such: thus, while he began the performance by keeping a fairly close eye on the score (looking at it continuously as he made one particular manoeuvre), things soon started to lead away from that in the flow, or succession, of improvised ideas. In any case, Treatise is a particularly open piece, designed to encourage thought, care and attention in interpretation, but also to allow the individual to make the music they might make anyway, in a more coherent, or at least, structured, manner: to group ideas that might, otherwise, flow somewhat diffusely or digressively, around a central series of specific points. One might also note that there’s a rather different set of parameters involved in solo, as opposed to ensemble interpretations: whereas (according to one way of playing the score) the ensemble may feed back on itself, certain people’s interpretations of certain symbols informing other individuals’ interpretations in dialogic fashion, the solo performer is interacting solely with the score itself. Rowe remarked, in deadpan fashion, that we wouldn’t notice much difference between the Cardew and the Wolff pieces – he was placed very much in the foreground, with the two composers somewhere in the background of his musical thinking, perhaps serving to focus the occasion (rather than taking an entirely free ‘let’s see what happens’ approach, an exploration of playing as a wholly sufficient and interesting category in itself, à la Derek Bailey), but by no means providing a ‘key’ to understanding the performance, which one could appreciate in and for itself with no knowledge of the scores that were being played (or departed from).

Before describing the music, it might be useful to mention the reduced size of Rowe’s set-up – a small mixing board, two radios (one tuned to BBC Radio 3 (perhaps pre-recorded, as three distinct, and quite different pieces of classical music were used), the other to BBC Radio 5 Live (mainly John McEnroe offering his pundit’s opinion on the second day of the Wimbledon tennis championships, which was happening at the same time across the city)), a fan, an electric toothbrush, brillo pads, stones, pedals, metal objects, and, of course, the ‘guitar’ itself – a modified fretboard, laid flat on the table. I’ll come back to the point later, but it struck me that this set-up offered, on the one hand, an element of risk – what if none of the sounds on offer really seemed to be working, and another option was desired that simply wasn’t there? – and conversely, of stability – the opportunity to really focus in on a specific set of materials and concerns, generating an immediate sense of focus, a certain usefully freeing limitation (if that makes sense).

Anyhow, Treatise began abruptly, one might even say violently: abrasive, sharp, metallic sounds of fairly short durations, chosen deliberately for their jarring effect: at several points, as Rowe scraped a string or rubbed it with a brillo pad, a grimace of concentration, even anger, seemed to cross his face – albeit mixed with a certain glee in pushing things ‘out there’, in taking a particular action to its noisiest extreme. As the set progressed, a more familiar approach asserted itself, with drones coming in and out (often generated by holding an electric toothbrush over a particular string, e-bow style) – this leading at times to the sort of beating frequencies and timbres that have become common in the more drone-oriented areas of ‘eai’. Things were, however, still broken-up – one sensed that, despite having (presumably) decided to take this approach before he started, Rowe was still feeling his way in, which gave the music a palpable sense of discovery, invention. Things weren’t ramshackle, but they were unconcerned with propriety (despite the parallels he likes to draw between his own work and classical music, and his use of fairly substantial classical excerpts in the second set). It was above all about improvisation (in contrast to the more conceptual work on the recent duo with Radu Malfatti, during which, at certain times, one senses that Rowe was rather less than comfortable (for instance, the fact that the recording of Jurg Frey’s ‘Exact Dimension Without Insistence’ had to be pieced together from three separate takes, because Rowe found it too hard to limit himself to the score’s narrow confines). (I don’t mean to disparage the collaboration, or the Frey score, but to suggest that Rowe may be heard at his best in a situation more akin to the LRB gig.)) Actions here are directed, intended, precise – particularly given the use of the aforementioned small set-up, much reduced in size from those we have seen used in the past– but relations between sounds do not follow a straight narrative pattern. One might say that the second set did follow some sort of linear trajectory, beginning from sparseness – slow, scrubbing and scooping of metal on metal, as objects were moved up and down the strings, with ‘peripheral’ white hiss faded in and out – and moving into the loudest section of the evening, a particularly violent scraping action that made the blue lights on the PA flash and crackle. Nonetheless, this very loose movement towards crescendo (and I’m inevitably simplifying the actual process, the attempt to recall what happened flattening out the actual details of its unfolding) was hardly smooth progress, and certainly not indicative of the general feel the music took. Let’s consider, as more representative, the endings of the two sets: Treatise stopping when Rowe dropped a metal object onto the floor by mistake (he’d just about finished anyway, but the sudden accidental clang made a nice abrupt snap out of ‘the zone’.) A wry smile; “That’s it.” And that was it. Edges, meanwhile, finished with Rowe reaching over and switching off the small desk-lamp which had been lighting the score, as the sounds he’d been making simultaneously ceased. A brief silence (traffic whooshes and whispers leaking in from upstairs), but not luxuriating in it – and from the darkness, “that’s it,” again. There was something very unaffected about this, possessing more in common than one might think (contrary to my earlier suggestion) with Derek Bailey’s no-nonsense approach: the desire to use one’s materials (developed as they are through detailed and constant thought and philosophical investigation) in the situation that exists as one finds it, rather than imposing ‘high art’ into a world it won’t fit. One thinks of the story about Zen archers that Rowe likes to repeat,1 illustrating as it does the importance of knowing the room, judging the room, being a part of ‘a perfectly ordinary dimension of reality’. Or again, his insistence on not practicing, on not rehearsing, of being actually terrified of his instrument2: this is not, as solo improvising can so easily become, the slotting together of a selected assortment of tricks, effects, techniques, patterns in a slightly different order to your last performance, but what he calls “searching for the sound in the performance.” Some might argue that this shows a sort of contempt for that audience – as if, because Rowe doesn’t woodshed at home, his stage performances become that wood-shedding, rather than a considered, crafted musical piece – and the process is somewhat (ok, very much) antithetical to the notion that dominates some forms of popular music, of putting on a choreographed stage show in which each element fits. (Then again, perhaps that extreme choreography is more a characteristic of an increasingly commodified and ‘whitened’ strain of pop – Madonna, Lady Gaga – where spectacle, costume changes, and dance routines take the place of shifts and discoveries in the music itself. James Brown, by contrast, might have put on a tight –a very tight – show, but there was still space for the music to breathe, for discoveries to be made within those tight parameters that were the music’s raison d’etre.) What Rowe is doing, then, is not showing contempt for his audience (which, in any case, consists on this occasion of no more than thirty or forty people (the venue, in the LRB basement, wouldn’t allow for any more)), but respect for them: taking for granted their willingness to participate in the thought processes he manifests through the sound he creates, to follow the music where it goes, to embrace the possibility of abruptness or jarring transitions or seeming ‘failures’ (where a new technique is tried out and falls flat or seems out of place). It’s an attitude that, perhaps, emerges only from years of playing this music, of developing something of a thick skin, but also of knowing that one is performing in an intimate setting, for an audience who are sympathetic and willing listeners, willing to go (again) where the music demands: an attitude exemplified by the way he played through the sound of a mobile phone going off, that sound then becoming, briefly, a not-unwelcome part of the texture, rather like the found material heard on the radios – not to suggest that “anything goes”, or that any interruption is valid (as in Cage’s 0’00”) (and, indeed, the use of radios seemed rather more pre-ordained, in the manner of sampling, than random or aleatoric) – but that there is a high degree of flexibility to the aesthetic, a flexibility that doesn’t compromise serious dedication to a particular set of goals and methods. Accident and discipline here go hand-in-hand: as in the occasional sounding of the ‘guitar’s’ open strings as ‘accidental’ by-product of other actions, rather the main intention. Another example: at one point during ‘Edges’, a low wadge of feedback conjured up, for me at least, the ‘hard’ sound of the rock guitar – but it happened so quickly that it barely registered as such. While I’ve suggested that Rowe could be considered more and more as a player of ‘electronics’ in recent years, his use of a modified, table-top version of the guitar (like a small chunk sawn off from a ‘real’ instrument), and that aforementioned occasional striking of open strings, reminds one that he does still have some interest in the instrument as such, even if aspects of its heritage rankle with him. Perhaps it’s simply the uncontrollable resonance of history and tradition, asserting itself against or despite departures from it (in contrast to the parodic play with cliché and genre in Amalgam days, and in contrast to the very conscious use, in this performance, of radio’d classical music as something to dialogue with, a technique somewhat reminiscent of the way that Keston Sutherland’s ‘high modernist’ poetry consciously dialogues with poets of the past, even as it studs and stutters itself with mangled fragments of the hyper-modern, the global-technological-late capitalist sphere3). In fact, though, it may be that very emergence of historical fragments from outside immediate intention which allows individual artistic development to take place: the shock of something unexpected – either unexpectedly new, or unexpectedly, and disturbingly, familiar – leading to that existential moment where one is forced into a decision – ‘where do I go from here? what do I do now?’ – and where one then makes that decision, where one then acts. From the Paris Transatlantic interview, once more: “You can’t escape history, you can’t escape memory – but I can honestly say, even now I will discover things I’ve never done in my life, and I constantly search for that. To a casual observer it might sound like something I’ve done before, and I know it isn’t. I’m the judge of that, and I’m pretty severe with myself. I do not like the idea of reproducing something I’ve done before. I will happen on it, I’ll suddenly find myself doing something I’ve done before…..and then do you say “Whoa, I’ve done that before..” and stop, or do you accept it? I’ll accept it, and then quickly counterpose it with something…Stop it abruptly, so something unethical to it…” Un-ethical? The fact that Rowe even talks in terms of ethics brings us back to Cardew – ‘Towards an Ethic of Free Improvisation’ – and brings home the fact that this is, in fact, profoundly ethical music-making; well-suited to the visual coincidence (or was it intention?) that found Rowe setting up his table between LRB bookshelves marked ‘Music’, ‘Religion,’ and ‘Cultural Studies.’ Not that the music inspires religious devotion (though Richard Pinnell’s review of the gig under consideration is indeed a fervent response4), but that it argues, and earns for itself a certain weight, a certain importance that one might be hard-pressed to think music could now have (except as all-encompassing distraction, as identikit-background-noise to music-video theatricals.) And, really, thank fuck for that.


Churchill College Recital Room, Cambridge, Wednesday 9th November 2011

The Convergence Quartet has been making regular visits to Cambridge over the past few years, and, even if the names of its individual members may not have been immediately familiar to the audiences to which it plays here, their pedigree should, really, speak for itself. I mean, Taylor Ho Bynum has been a regular collaborator with both Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, two of the most important composers, period, of the past, I don’t know, forty years – Dominic Lash and Alexander Hawkins will be familiar to readers of this magazine – and Harris Eisenstadt is that rare beast, a drummer who also doubles as a fine composer, (and has already made numerous recordings with his own groups).

Such a by-the-numbers summary may provide an overly prosaic and even dull intro to what was a sparkling and enlivening gig: nonetheless, perhaps it helps to suggest some of the varied cross-connections and influences that make the music of this British-Canadian-American group such a rich and multi-faceted thing. While each player is clearly technically adept, unleashing passages of almost casual virtuosity that no doubt had the jazz-heads in the audiences nodding their heads or tapping their feet in rapture, what’s particularly striking is the way that the group functions as a group, a unit, in which, for instance, more than one player will appear to be taking a solo at the same time. This is not the ecstatic discord of pure free jazz, however: the group tread a fine line between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, their music based on near-constant shifts and turns, dips and dives – between ‘head’ and improvisation; between the multiple sections of complex compositions; and between varied, sometimes simultaneous emotional connotations. So this might be characterised as a twenty-first- century music, drawing, in a contemporary manner, on the whole scope of jazz history in a manner of which the post-bop throw-backs who dominate today’s jazz mainstream could only dream.

The music the quartet play is almost entirely original – all are fine composers, with no need to rely on the same old standards that have been de-constructed and re-configured endlessly for the past half-century and more – ranging from Lash’s tricky ‘Oat Row’, which emerged as a series of stately muted statements in duo with Bynum, to the latter’s new piece based on a text from David Mitchell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’, a straight-forward concluding blues, and – perhaps the highlight of the entire concert – an absorbing fifteen-minute medley of tunes by various members of the group. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that jazz bands are playing new tunes because they feel they have to stake their claim as leaders or originals – even if these tunes are singularly un-original or thread-bare. In this case, however, the compositions provide a framework for and around improvisation, rather than merely existing as a necessary evil, sketchy ‘heads’ to be quickly negotiated before the proper business of a ‘blowing session’ can begin. They are strategies which facilitate coming together, not in a manner that yields homogeneous pap, but rather, achieving unity through diversity, difference and change.

One might consider the band’s name here: the word ‘converge’, denoting ‘the coming together of at least two things’, derives from the Latin root, ‘convergere’, ‘to incline together’ (‘con’ meaning ‘together’, ‘vergere’, ‘to bend, turn, or incline’). All these phrases suggest fine parallels for the way the quartet works: multiple influences, interests, geographical backgrounds, coming together to form a music whose cohesiveness and sheer skill doesn’t detract in the slightest from its raw excitement and carefully managed, bundled-up energy – or energies, plural, harnessed and released, drawn back and then let fly again in intricate and beautifully involving kind of choreography. The group’s convergence is not an imposed, impersonal system, but a result of the accommodation of each player’s inclination, their leaning towards or away from some harmonic, melodic, stylistic suggestion, from where their next improvised phrase might take them – leaning, like a ‘lean-to’, a provisional structure which can house several people under one roof, but which could be re-configured, taken down and put back up in some other, entirely different location. In concrete terms, then, each player’s vocabulary is deep and wide, drawing from as far back as the 1920s – Bynum’s delightful plunger-muted growls and vocalised wails: bluesy, gritty and heart-breaking in turn – through Hawkins’ occasional nods to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor (incorporated into a piano style which prevents such disparate references from coming off as mere pastiche, as post-modern patchwork), through Lash’s walking or droning arco bass, through Eistenstadt’s Tony Williams-esque insistence on providing dramatic and melodic accompaniment to the front-line, fully participant in the music’s ongoing argument, rather than merely keeping time or chug-a-lugging in the background so that the star soloists can have their say in the spotlight. Formally complex, and yet fully capable of either straight-down gut-punch or a more guarded, wryly morphing emotionalism –let’s say, Bynum’s plunger-muted parody of a crooner, or his whispered wistfulness on ‘Third Convergence; Hawkins’ exhilarating switches between finger-flying single-note lines, or his sudden, elbow-jabbed cluster chords (just barely held in check) – The Convergence Quartet is no doubt one of the finest ‘jazz’ bands around, certainly in the UK, at this moment. Cambridge was lucky to have them pay a visit.


Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith / Oxford Improvisers Orchestra

Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford

Saturday 26th November 2011

Leo Smith has been appearing sporadically in the UK for the past couple of years now – a particular recent highlight being his triumphant performance with Steve Noble and Louis Moholo-Moholo at the 2010 Freedom of the City festival – but this year’s version of Cohesion, the Oxford Improvisers’ annual event dedicated to concerts, talks, workshops, and community collaboration, gave a more in-depth chance for local musicians to engage with his work, for differing and varied approaches to bounce and rub off each other in extended dialogue.

Smith’s pre-concert talk highlighted as errors just the kinds of phrases and categorisations that those writing on this kind of music always fall back on, so what follows will no doubt risk generalizing and eliding some of the qualities which characterised the evening, but here’s an attempt, anyway. The evening’s proceedings proper got under way with a major new project, in some ways the culmination of Smith’s week-long residency. This new orchestral piece, written, and rehearsed over that past week, featured the two-dozen or so members of the Oxford Improvisers Orchestra – filled, needless to say, with a real wealth of (underappreciated) talent, musicians fully capable of acting as soloists in their own right, though their reputation, as it is, would restrict them to the status of the merely ‘local’. I say ‘merely’ – the Cohesion festival, as it has existed over the past few years, has always been about establishing connections between different systems of global music, about inviting guest musicians to collaborate, about fostering that kind of cultural exchange. Smith, in that sense, was the perfect guest, unassuming, modest, yet with a strong and clear vision, setting up a directional framework around which a group of improvisers could coalesce, and with whose help they could develop in ways beyond the usual totally open approach which tends to be favoured (broadly speaking, of course) in European free improvisation.

The piece itself constantly returned, for refreshment and reinvigoration, to massed, non-transposable chords – enormous, resonant clusters of sound, filling and swelling out the resonant space of the JDP. In his talk, Smith had explained his interest in the open-ended, overlapping nature of such ensemble sound-clouds, in which subtle timbral shifts and pulsing motions occur with a kind of visceral, vibratory, physical effect – for instance, certain instrumentalists will run out of breath, while others are capable of sustaining notes almost indefinitely, so the sound never remains entirely static; is always in some ways pulsing, alive. (One of the nicest moments of the whole evening came when I noticed a couple of pre-teen children, watching from the upstairs balcony, drumming along on the railing, sensing the implied, sustained rhythmic underlay to those chords, their imperative, clarion call, seemingly indefinitely stretched and yet always threatening to break, like a tidal wave suspended, gloriously, in mid-air.) In between these chords, then, which functioned something like the repeated stock phrases in oral epic poetry – that is, as rest points in which new ideas can be generated – there were passages of solo improvisation (most notably, an extended, cadenza-like solo for violinist Malcolm Atkins), and moments in which simple, three- or four-note melodies or motifs would be passed around the ensemble, each instrumentalist sounding the motif in their own fashion, at different speeds, thus creating a kind of blurring effect in which the melodies swam into and out of focus, with the same kind of ecstatic, shimmering impact as the chords – a compelling simultaneity of the static and the fluid, the forward-driving and the endlessly-hovering, like the extended ‘plateaus’ of energy which Gregory Bateson identified in Balinese music and ritual. As Smith noted after the performance, it was a real surprise to find so many musicians willing to play this music – musicians, one might add, that are ignored, for the most part, by the ‘hip’ jazz or experimental press, always more keen to go for the trendy cross-over or the established name, and thus doing themselves out of much that is vital and ongoing in communities around the country. Make no mistake, while Smith’s piece was deeply compelling in its own right, it sets up a framework which depends for its success on the improvising skills of the musicians who perform it, and the Oxford Improvisers passed that test (if one call it that, rather than, say, participatory work, creative collaboration and celebration) with flying colours.

After the interval, Smith took a seat in the audience as the orchestra played an improvised conduction, led by Pat Thomas. Beginning with sparse, textural playing in which Belinda Bell’s sellotape manipulations were gradually subsumed into key-clicking and string-knocking from bass clarinets and violins, the piece modulated between louder explosions (generally held in check), and quieter, or solo passages, one of the nicest of these contrasts occurring during an unexpected tabla solo; dig, too, Roger Telford’s scraped, singing cymbals, meshing eerily and strangely and beautifully with guitars and strings and winds and who knows what else.

If the timbral range of Smith’s first-half orchestral piece was fulsome and wide – from the lovely, resonant low end provided by tuba, by double-bass, by mallet-struck drums and by twin bass clarinets, to the air-cutting high register of melodicas, violins, and a squelching triple-electric-guitar barrage – Alexander Hawkins’ concluding composition, appropriately enough for the final item of the evening, had a more intimate, chamber feel to it, the melody again passed round particular instrumental groupings (the violins in particular), before the entire ensemble raised the volume level, then died away again, all the while playing under Smith’s improvised solo (often in interaction with pianist Pat Thomas), his line ranging from low, vocalised blarts and growls to the most piercingly beautiful and direct of open tones, sent out soaring into the space (note Smith’s calisthenics, bending low and then standing straight, horn pointing alternately to the floor and to the ceiling; it’s part of his whole process of playing, that the physical means of producing sound should not be eradicated or politely hidden, but that making music should be a matter for the whole body, and that the instrument should function as that body’s extension). As the orchestra faded out, Smith was left with just the held drone of Bruno Guastalla’s cello, over which he played muted phrases of an almost nursery-rhyme-like simplicity, plaintive and wistful and delicate in that peculiarly affecting manner that would sometimes creep into Miles Davis’ playing in the 1980s (I’m thinking of moments, in particular, from the 1985 album ‘Aura’). And then it was over –a sigh, deep breathing, and applause – or, not quite over, just time for an encore, all of thirty seconds long; a contrast, just for the hell of it, I guess, in which Smith played above the entire-orchestra’s eruption of sound (the control he has, to still be heard as a distinct voice above twenty instruments, is quite remarkable). And then it was really over –boom, Smith brought down his hand, signalled everyone out, performed a mock stumble, a pratfall on the edge of the stage, jumped up and off that stage.

(The music, of course, is never really over. It carries on. It is carrying on, right now, in this room, as I write, as I recall it to my mind. You can hear it singing all around.)


Portland Arms, Cambridge, Wednesday 7th December 2011

The banjo/acoustic guitar duo Padang Food Tigers, hesitantly plucking and picking into generously echoey amplification, made a virtue of meanderingly pretty and deliberately uncertain melodics: their music had none of the forceful grit and rhythmic thrust of C Joynes’ set, but nonetheless retained a certain jam-sessiony structural logic of its own. After tentative opening nick-nacks, pieces would coalesce into repeated chordal or melodic patterns (generally played on guitar) which, rather than developing into a full-blown ‘song’, would then simply stop, signalling the end of that particular segment. That unfussy quality was what I liked most about it – though some sections might have been extended (the rather lovely low-pitched scrape of bowed banjo strings was deployed as momentary effect rather than sectional development), and though it was the sort of music seemingly designed to let attention wander and skim over its filmy surface, it was very pleasant, and I’d like to hear more of it.

Alan Wilkinson, the lone free jazz act sandwiched between neo-folk and fingerpicking, deployed his, what they call ‘lung-busting’ capacities to full extent in a solo set characterised by the kind of wounded, yowling balladry exemplified by Peter Brötzmann on ’14 Love Poems’. That album contains a superlative version of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’, and Wilkinson (who’s previously played with Brötzmann) duly ended the set with his own take, sticking fairly close to the melody, making much of brief pauses which cut up the various phrases and phases of the tune into starkly delineated, dramatically separated blocks. His first piece, played, like ‘Lonely Woman’, on alto, started out with the kind of subdued rhythmic jitters that solo saxophone players tend to employ to mitigate the absence of a rhythm section, but things became less jazz-like as he progressed, deploying voice and overblowing to create the effect of sometimes as many as three separate layers to a single sound, circular breathing ferocious loops when needed, and letting rip with ear-splitting shrieks, sometimes to cap a particular intense section, sometimes as perverse contrast. In between the two alto performances, a work-out on baritone deployed the growling, floor-shaking capacities of the instrument, rather than the gruff velvety quality we’d associate with its most famous practitioner, Gerry Mulligan: aside from a particularly nasty riff, this was a piece characterised more by blaring, foghorn blasts than by phrasal development – and yet it ended with a tender-violent run-through of the melody to ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, Coltrane’s bittersweet early ’60s version (the one stuck in my head right now) – or Dolphy’s just melting one, on flute, on ‘Last Date,’ bent notes and all, heaven – transformed into a desperate, keening, bellowing waul. Always interesting to hear a hard-blowing player of Wilkinson’s type (others on the British scene who I might place in this category would be, say, Tony Bevan and John Grieve) lay out his conception without the cushioning or prodding of bass and drums: the result, not too dissimilar from the Brötzmann solo model, the jazz side coming out much more strongly than in group improvising contexts, but with certain kinds of sound and texture that seemed more reminiscent of something John Butcher might have played a few years ago than anything coming out of European free jazz.

So, after the ear-rinse, as they say, Cambridge regular C Joynes, who happens to share a record label with Wilkinson, came out with his electric guitar (and, on one number, banjo) and strummed through a reliable set of old and new tunes, the first couple with an English folk-song tinge, the rest more broadly in Fahey/Takoma mould. A microphone was placed pretty close to his strumming hand, so bits of metal on string and those kind of gnarly, rusty effects made their presence felt: a deliberate embrace of a vaguely rough-round-the-edges, battered aesthetic, in timbre if not in technical execution (which was skilful as expected). The piece which most caught my attention was a dedication to Ali Fake Touré which towards the end threatened to get quite fierce, to build (or so I was hoping) towards some improvised Sharrockian squall or a section of really heavy riffing. It wasn’t to be, but again, pleasant listening – a nice gig – that kind of evening. (Incidentally, best between-sets music ever: a chunk of Leroy Jenkins and Rashied Ali’s ‘Swift are the Winds of Life.’ Try following that one!)


St Anne’s and St Agnes Church, London, Tuesday 13th December 2011

As I entered the church, the cold silence hung heavy before Carol Watts spoke her next word, looking across at the door as she did so. I spent the next minute or so trying to close it as quietly as possible and make my way quietly over to a creaking pew without attracting adverse attention. Wandelweiser meets the poetry reading? To be sure, Watts’ performance had a quality not too far off from the sparser final stages of Cage’s ‘Empty Words’: language as music, in placement and delivery. Despite this, the point was not, as with Cage, to evacuate any tyranny of grammar or logical meaning – though the lengthy silences and consequent disconnections did ensure a sense more of words loosely connected to a thread, as beads on a wire, than of compacted meaning-clusters or progressions. From what I could gather, the piece was a reflection on blueness (with some jazz connotations, perhaps? The focus, though, seemed to be more on landscape, bare trees, liminal spaces, borders between body and land). I’m not sure how struck I’d have been without the delivery, and as it was, the second reading – faster, but still elongated and oddly-emphasized – felt rather affected. That’s not the right word – what I mean, I think, is that, whereas the first piece felt new, or, I don’t know, apposite, in place – in musicality, if not in content (the two didn’t feel inextricably interlinked) – the second, where content was foregrounded to a greater extent, pointed up more, to me, how the poetry wasn’t really where I was at. Unfair, yeah, to make that kind of snap judgement without a close, previous reading relation to Watt’s written work, coming at it in from the cold – and nothing to do with, say, skill, but there it is. It was freezing both outside and in, I’d just picked up a cold, walked forty minutes to the venue, and had a deadline in a couple of days, so perhaps my mind wasn’t at its sharpest or most receptive…

But John Butcher was next, someone I’ve not seen live as much as I’d have liked in the past few years (last time was Freedom of the City in 2010); so, drawing the scarf tighter round my neck, I settled down…He began on soprano, delivering a church-reverb’d acoustic solo of space and polish, at one point letting out a wail that reminded me, of all of things, of those siren imitations Gershwin writes in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, as well as a bit of Evan Parker-esque circular breathing, in which two simultaneous lines overlap & run alongside one another. There were also smacking puckered lip-reed sounds, like popping hailstones dropping; and, most notably, perhaps, simple recurring quasi-melodies ending on that harmonic burr familiar from most of Butcher’s work (I guess you could call it a ‘lick’). He’d opened with manipulated breath sent down the instrument’s body, notes barely floating out their ethereal, high, un-squeezed timbres overhead, whispered above, with no attack, in gradual melody (indeed, when the first proper glimpse of that soprano timbre familiar from the most awful instances of jazz feyness came through, I have to say that I was worried for a moment. But no need for that, of course, even if the church acoustic did make it all sound a bit ECM-y at times.)

The second solo, on tenor: Butcher beginning by tapping the mouthpiece with the ghost of a grin on his face. Then bird-high whistle. Now a wail(moan.hum.) as wind swooshing down a tunnel, a funnel – not quite that. The low hum beneath sound inhabits the place’s coldness as not quite trembling, as vibration felt through wood of the cold pew. Quasi-melodies again (we proposed that he’d played the same contours – essentially, the same piece – on the two instruments. Two looks at the same thing, variations on a theme.) Flutter-tongued grumbling through that pew. As the light goes off in the office window next door but for faint night-glow. (The after-hours cleaner was finishing up. That parallel world.) Solo logic. Butcher does his thing, has to be linear – that’s why, I guess, he goes for those melodies. Or now foghorn coming through mist to honk, repeat, hold, drop and higher timbre circular breathe. All these layered (multiphonic) sounds / contain each other. And sometimes he resonates just one, or does that ethereal un-attacked breathing. Or, as now, smudged machine dirt. phttt. flarrrt. squirt. sqrueee. Lights back on in the office. Leaves blown about by the window. Ending as not ending, just a breath to be taken up again, space filled. Liking this in performance now, that shrugging quiet. You turn the sound on. you turn it off. It’s over / not over. No performance grandstanding. That in itself as a valuable aesthetic statement.

Post-interval, the trio playing, a longer set, inside-piano and zither, Davies sliding her bow over and off the strings and edges of her violin in a move I’ve seen her deploy before, somehow at once both calculated & precise and off-hand and totally loose. Not having seen, heard, or heard of Mukarji and Chatzigoga before, perhaps I’m not best qualified to write on them: what emerged at the start was gorgeous though, little plucked zither notes (was it just two of them?) pipping out, not establishing too easy-chiming a bed (though they could have), the others coming in, hesitancies about startings and endings (Mukarji joked that we could get the applause over with before they started, to warm us up), aesthetics of indirection, not wanting to put yourself forward, wanting the music to be true collective submerging, floating on slowly modulating tones, rough metallic shards round the edges as Chatzigoga carefully placed and replaced various objects on the e-bow’d zither strings, Mukarji obviously aware that her instrument had the most potential to be declarative or to take centre stage, and thus careful, with her nuts & bolts preparation, to ensure that her jangling notes had delicacy as well as sharpness, sometimes getting out tones of the ‘where in fuck that come from?’ variety (rose up in my seat to have a look. couldn’t see exactly). On the second piece, it was at least those recognisable muffled booms you get with mallet thump on low-end strings (something Cecil Taylor’s been seen to deploy, a little more haphazardly, perhaps). Every move has to count here. Every little gesture in danger of becoming too foregrounded or obvious. Abhorrence of the blatant. Always everything hovering on the verge of not-quite consonance, not-quite melody. The Balinese word ‘sat’ refers to that moment of suspension when, having to decided to make your move, to act, you have not yet moved or acted – and there’s something of that aesthetic here, I think. Even when you do act, it’s with a kind of tentative grace, always mindful of what’s going on around you. Acting with care and attention. That sounds like some appallingly bland press release from your local GP, or your local MP. But you know what I mean. Shit, this stuff’s beautiful, you know?

(All gig reviews by DG)


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