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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Spring Heel Jack with Pat Thomas, Alex Ward and Paul Lytton – Live in Antwerp (Treader, 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

Spring Heel Jack, whose core members are John Coxon (g) and Ashley Wales (electronics), are responsible for one of my all-time favorite albums combining improv, alternative rock and electronic music – Live (Thirsty Ear, 2003), on which they were augmented by a super group consisting of William Parker (b), Evan Parker (ts), Han Bennink (dr), Matthew Shipp (e-p) and Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman (g). Especially the last 20 minutes of “Part II” belong to the most dramatic, melancholic, psychedelic, cinematographic and beautiful moments this kind of music can offer.

Wales and Coxon launched their career in the pop business as producers, composers and remixers (for example for Everything But The Girl’s hit “Walking Wounded”) before they started to concentrate on free improvisation with Disappeared (Thirsty Ear, 2000), for which they invited the British jazz legend John Surman (b-cl) in order to expand their musical possibilities – a concept they have followed ever since. Apart from the above-mentioned musicians they have worked with John Tchicai, Roy Campbell, Kenny Wheeler and Wadada Leo Smith (among others).

So you might imagine that I was thrilled when I heard that there was a new album – but then it turned out that Live in Antwerp was recorded at the WIM free music festival in 2007, a year before Spring Heel Jack’s last studio album Songs and Themes was released. Nevertheless, it’s always good news when you can get access to previously unreleased material of one of your favorite bands. For their penultimate concert Wales and Coxon teamed up with Pat Thomas (piano and electronics), Alex Ward (clarinet) and Paul Lytton (drums).

In contrast to Live, Live in Antwerp consists of London-based improvisers only, it is looser and more focused on a classic free jazz impetus and despite the electronics it is much more acoustic than the electric jazz/fusion approach of the Live band. In addition, Live in Antwerp presents the quintet as a real unit (Live was often split up in sub-groups) which makes the music more coherent. But in spite of the more organic impression and the differences to previous albums there are still the typical Spring Heel Jack characteristics: abrupt harmonic changes, juxtapositions of drums, clarinet and piano in front of electronic thicket, sudden beautiful moments popping up from total chaos, the changing of silence and energy or electronics holding the whole 50-minute performance together.

Spring Heel Jack are a unique band, maybe there will be really new material one day. The concept as such is still promising and exciting.

Live in Antwerp is available on CD, you can buy it from and from the Downtown Music Gallery.