Alan Wilkinson/ Pat Thomas/ Steve Noble/ John Coxon at the Vortex
Recorded in May at John Russell’s Mopomoso Nights, now relocated from the Red Rose to the Vortex Jazz Club, this clip provides a rare opportunity to hear the supremely-gifted but seldom heard Oxford-based pianist Pat Thomas. Wilkinson is one of the most passionate free jazz players on the scene, and with a lot more variety to his playing than that displayed by some other musicians: conviction coupled with ability, virtuosity with ‘feeling’ in the most compelling way. This particular performance has a slow, solemn beginning which builds to a passionate crescendo and erupts into a tribal-flavoured central section in which Wilkinson yodels and hollers (more with joy than pain), before vocalising through his extremely versatile sax. Coxon, looking not a little like a young Derek Bailey in his red jumper and glasses, plucks and scrapes in the background, and Noble ensures everyone stays on their toes, but this music is dominated by Thomas and Wilkinson, who play as if their lives depended on it.
Wilkinson/ Thomas/ Noble/ Coxon at Flim Flam
A few months earlier (in February 2008), the same group performed at Alan Wilkinson’s Flim Flam club. Thomas is on keyboards this time, and the feel is very different – things are much edgier, and as liable to explode into a dense ensemble melange as to skitter and chatter away from a definite centre. On the first clip, things feel a bit hesitant to start off with, Coxon plucking a slightly banal melody as if unsure in which direction to take the music, but once they settle for sheer out assault, things get interesting (and extremely loud!). Wilkinson once more demonstrates his range, making fluttering bird-like noises and more vocalised exhortations (the range of sounds he can get from his instrument is something easily overlooked in favour of the sheer passionate impact of his playing, but the resourcefulness with which he plays impresses me just as much as the gritty integrity he brings to the music).
Phil Minton – The Cutty Wren
Like the Wilkinson/Thomas/Noble/Coxon Vortex clip, this video was recorded by Helen Petts, a visual artist, painter and film-maker who, having worked in the mainstream TV and film industries, has recently begun focusing on her particular interest in contemporary music and free improvisation. Together, these videos provide an excellent overview of the many wonderful things currently happening on the British free improv scene: proof that there is plenty of wonderful music out there that seems destined to remain perpetually ‘underground’. And so to ‘The Cutty Wren.’ Whereas much twentieth-century folk-inspired music seems rather twee and naive (part of its charm for a lot of people), the original material often deals with very grim subject matter, with the realities of life for ordinary people. That’s certainly true of this song, which turns out to be about eating policemen! More specifically, about eating the Cutty Wren, the mercenary police who clashed with the peasants during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. When the peasants managed to kill a ‘wren’, they would then eat them, to destroy the evidence and stave off starvation. Phil Minton, more often heard in a free improvising context, takes vocal duties, with accompaniment from fellow free improviser Veryan Weston at the piano. Minton’s extended techniques are massively impressive, though his use of them can verge on the hystrionic. Or, to put it more favourably, he has a great sense of drama. Listen to the way he treats this song, giving it extra shades through adopting different accents and giving it all a gravelly, gritty fervour, as well as adding a dose of macabre humour to proceedings, to ensure that the lyrics’ repetitive structure builds up an impressive cumulative intensity. His voice ain’t exactly pretty, but then, he’s not singing about pretty subject matter: “Oh how will you cut her up said Milder to Moulder/ With knives and with forks said John the Red Nose/ Oh that will not do said Milder to Moulder/ Great hatchets and cleavers said John the Red Nose.”
Piet Kuiters with John Tchicai and Cadentia Nova Danica
Rare footage from the 1967 Molde Festival, shot in elegant black-and-white. Two years after the recording of Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’, Danish/Congolese saxophonist and composer Tchicai was perhaps at the peak of his powers, and, when, with support from Danish Radio, who were programming weekly programmes of native new music, he formed this fascinating Scandinavian ensemble, featuring pianist Kuiters (who can also be seen in another clip, performing alongside the poet Ted Joans (‘Jazz is my Religion’)). The video is especially valuable because the groups’ recorded albums are out of print (though they occasionaly crop up as downloads on the blog scene). An interesting piece, almost tentative in the subdued way it unfolds, and with great textural subtlety: there’s no drummer, only a percussionist, which gives things a very different rhythmic feel to many free jazz groups of the time. (In fact, it might be a bit of a stretch to call this ‘free jazz’ at all). In the ‘related videos’ link on the right hand-side of the video window, make sure you also check out a much more recent performance by Tchicai: in duo with Tony Marsh at St Giles’ Church in London, during February 2008.
Art Ensemble of Chicago with Cecil Taylor
Only an excerpt from the complete concert, but what an excerpt! Cecil opens with a melancholy piano solo, at one point playing a figure so potent, so beautiful, so right, that Lester Bowie tilts back his head and closes his eyes in ecstatic contemplation. The bulk of the clip features Taylor and Bowie in duet, the pianist dominating the music, the trumpeter feeling his way over the top; towards the end, Bowie begins to duet (or collide) with saxophonist Jospeh Jarman. Very special, although it focusses less than I would have liked on the shared African influences in Taylor’s and the Ensemble’s music. If you dig around the site, there’s also a rather fine (and complete!) solo concert by Taylor from around the same time, the mid-80s.
New York New York Art Quartet
A complete concert from the 2002 Willisau Festival, with an intriguing line-up: John Zorn, Roswell Rudd, Reggie Workman and Milford Graves. Not quite the original New York Art Quartet then, though they did perform with John Tchicai in 1999 (and, in fact, recorded an album: ’35th Reunion’, on DIW). Of course, Zorn is a very different creature to Tchicai, whose cool yet passionate lyricism provided a contrast to the anarchic and jokey tendencies of Grave and Rudd. As indicated by the title, then, this incarnation of the group focusses much on the playful and ritualistic – that’s not to say, of course, that it’s in any way superficial. Rather, it’s an intensely joyful and life-affirming experience: Graves is an expert on the healing properties of music, and very much a visual, as well as aural performer, comeplling whether he’s singing alongside the muted trombone, erupting into a rhythmic volly on the drum set, staggering around the stage in a beguilingly shambolic dance routine, or simply playing his ass off in support of the horns. Zorn, in his baggy yellow T-shirt and combat trousers, unleashes some really scalding, screeching playing, while Rudd whoops alongside him or bursts into the sort of marching-band feel that he employed to such great effect with Archie Shepp in the 60s. As one of the comments puts it: “like being at church…or the track!”