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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Deep Listening Weekend: Just Not Cricket!

Just not Cricket! Three Days of British Improvised Music in Berlin (Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu, 2013) ****½
By Colin Green

In Britain, there’s a history (“tradition” is possibly too strong) of improvisers gathering together for performances over a number of days, during which they play both solo and in a variety of ad hoc ensembles. The roots go back to Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks, which he began in 1977. He invited musicians from mainland Europe and the US to join local improvisers, usually with a few wildcards thrown in – those from the traditional end of the jazz spectrum, as well as classical performers – who were keen to experiment in what he called “non-idiomatic” improvisation. Bailey wound-up Company when he felt the format was getting too familiar.

For many however, it has continued to provide a fertile environment, as reflected in these performances from Berlin. Back in London, there’s “Mopomoso”, organised by guitarist John Russell, that holds monthly concerts at the Vortex, and which each August hosts a three-day festival: “Fete Quaqua”, featuring home-grown and international players in varying combinations. Eddie Prévost, one of the drummers on this set, has held a weekly improvising workshop for some fourteen years (now adopted in many other countries) from which players have been drawn to play together in sessions just down the road from the Vortex, at London’s other major improvising spot: Café OTO. 

This outing to Berlin comprised musicians primarily from the London and Oxford areas (a full list appeared at the end of Martin’s review, yesterday). Frankly, the range and quality of improvisers in Britain is such that two or three other groups of sixteen could have made the journey, with similarly outstanding, and diverse, results.

As mentioned in Martin’s review, in organising this project, Antoine Prum wanted to ask the question whether there was a specifically British element in free improvisation. In a sense, the question was answered before a note was played, in the perceptive conceit that appeared in the festival programme. Each musician was allotted a construction-related object, which appears in an image adjoining the listing for each set, so that, for example: the quartet of Rhodri Davies, Orphy Robinson, Mark Sanders and Trevor Watts has a photograph of a hacksaw (Davies) balanced on a plastic bucket (Sanders), on which rests a hammer (Robinson) protruding from a PVC elbow pipe (Watts).  (I smiled when I saw that the two double bass players – John Edwards and Dominic Lash – both got bags of cement: quick-drying and general purpose, respectively). Assembling all the objects produced the splendid image used for the festival, which appears on the cover.

This is improvisation in which things are taken apart and reassembled in new and fascinating ways: “Does this fit with that; what would happen if these two things were put together, or if we took that away?” It is music in which the process of discovery – the inquiring mind – is the subject. One might perhaps, say that British improvisation embraces the pragmatic and empirical – artisan values – and a healthy disregard for anything redolent of “Theory”. As a number of the musicians comment – in the interviews with Stewart Lee (stand-up comedian, and Derek Bailey expert) that appear in the booklet – to play this kind of music requires a suppression of ego to facilitate co-operation. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that this is now something of a global approach to improvisation; and ultimately, as noted by Brian Morton in his festival essay: “It is probably impossible to define or even demarcate British improvised music in exclusively musical terms.”

All these performances repay repeated listening, and the construction site analogy shouldn’t be stretched too far. There are times when no voice predominates: everything is group texture (the rough-hewn opening to the quintet of Arthurs, Edwards, Hutchings, Sanders and Ward (on guitar)); sometimes combinations break off to pursue their own agenda (the duet between trumpet and tenor later in the same piece). Not all the conversations are polite: Bevan’s soprano and bass saxes and Hutchings’ tenor engage in a particularly robust debate in their quartet with Edwards (bass) and Sanders (drums); and in the quartet of Arthurs (trumpet), Brand (trombone) Lash (bass) and Ward (clarinet), there’s a juxtaposition between order and unruliness: a chorale followed by fireworks. At other times – as in the spare duo between Brand and Sanders – musical lines overlap with the delicacy of a Kurt Schwitters collage.

In some quarters, this kind of playing has been criticised as having become too codified (this was one of Bailey’s worries). During the interviews, some of the older musicians speak nostalgically of the more iconoclastic days of early British improv. Undoubtedly, those experiments carried out some necessary ground clearance and rebuilding, but it would be unrealistic to expect the music to have remained at that stage, and in the best of these performances there remains a restlessness and spontaneity, irrespective of how often the musicians have played together.  Improvisation is a rich musical resource, and with sympathetic playing (and listening) one doesn’t feel the ground has been plotted in its entirety, or that the music has resolved into a standardised set of musical gestures. These musicians still have plenty to say to each other, and us.

In fact, the vocabulary has broadened, and the music has become more inclusive, less conscious of what to avoid. As Alex Ward puts it: “…the nice thing about free improvisation is that is that it allows people who don’t have a shared language to collaborate”. In the short duo that opens the first disc, Ward (clarinet) is in celebratory mood, with what could be described as an improviser’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, to which Coxhill (soprano saxophone) responds in like kind, with a sort of “‘Round Midnight”.  

This is followed by Coxhill again, with Prévost, whose funky, melodic drumming is restricted to brushes for long periods. Coxhill is alternately upbeat – full of be-bop phrases – and sombre, and keeps returning to particular motifs and intervals, worrying away at them, with his inimitable, sweet and sour intonation. Sadly, this was one his last performances. He died in July 2012, aged 79: an inspiration to generations of musicians, and audiences; throughout this recording, his playing is full of wit and invention.   

Flipping the LP over to hear the above-mentioned quartet of Davies, Robinson, Sanders and Watts (one of the highlights) there is a wonderful passage in which, over ever-sensitive percussion from Sanders, and soft chords on Robinson’s vibraphone, Watts, on alto saxophone, plays a stunning, and perfectly judged solo, both beautiful and tragic. If British improvisation has lost some of its occasional perversity, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

And the title? It’s an expression meaning “not the done thing”, or “unacceptable”. This might be typically British irony, or simply a reference to a sport whose appeal is baffling to anyone outside Britain and her former colonies.

The box set (limited to 1,000 copies) consists of four beautifully pressed, whisper-quiet 180g LPs, and a booklet with interviews, an essay by Wolfgang Seidel and the original festival programme with text by Brian Morton, together with the code for a digital download (including FLAC) so you can listen on, or via a computer, or burn your own CDs.

Regular visitors to this blog understandably complain how our reviews are hitting their wallets hard. If you can’t afford this set, or don’t have a turntable, try visiting the collection of Mopomoso videos on YouTube. You’ll find over 400 videos of some first-rate improvised music – including many of the musicians heard here – in generally decent sound, and all absolutely free. 


Trevor Barre said...

Interesting review Colin. Thank you.

Of course, I'm biased, as my recent book on early English free imp seeks to answer some of the questions you allude to. The fear of codification is a particularly tricky one. One attempt to address this may have been the 'New London Silence' (10 years or so ago, so no longer new!!) perhaps, trying to move away from the noisier extremes of some of the 'First Generation'? An attempt that unfortunately managed to bore me out of any institutionalised complacency. And then, we have the whole subject of electronics and free improv.

Just one pedantic point - at the cusp of the 60/70s, well before Company,the Musicians Cooperative organised several festivals that spanned several days, and featured a multiplicity of musicians/bands, mainly associated with Incus. Several of these occurred in The Little Theatre Club, and, would you believe, Ronnie Scott's Club? Germany was way ahead of us in terms of organising 'Total Music Meetings'. Indeed my first major exposure to this form of music, at the tender age of 18, was the 1974 Festival of Improvised Music in London, an English/German collaboration. The line-up for these events make your mouth water!!

Colin Green said...

I’m sure you’re right about the events that preceded the Company weeks, though the latter are much better known and this was only a review in which I tried to set a context, not an attempt to map out an entire history.

Trevor Barre said...

Another pedantic point. Sorry.

The first Company gig was at the Purcell Room in 1976, not 1977. The first Company recording was made on the day after this. The first Company Week, however, was in May, 1977.

Colin Green said...

Which is what I said.

Trevor Barre said...

Fair point.