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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Alex Ward Item 4 (20/9/2018 at Set space, London)

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

The Set is a non-profit artist run venue located just five minutes’ walk from the mighty Café Oto. In weekdays there’s an open door (and cheap drinks I must say) with various gigs worth checking out. Residing in a heavily gentrified area of London, the Set needs your support my fellow free jazz and good music lovers…

Newly formed Alex Ward’s Item 4 is a quartet consisting of Alex Ward on clarinet and guitar, Charlotte Keeffe on trumpet and flugelhorn, Otto Willberg on double bass, and Andrew Lisle on drums. In contrast with Item 10, a ten piece ensemble which concentrates mostly on composition, item 4 aims to give room to all the musicians firstly to improvise (both collectively and individually) while Ward’s interference as a, let’s call him, a composer, is minimal.

The thought seemed puzzling and fascinating as well. Having not heard Charlotte Keeffe before, I arrived at the Set with a lot of the sounds the Otto Willberg and Andrew Lisle have produced the past 2-3 years in my mind. Working together (with others as well like the magnificent Raw Tonk label’s recordings) and in various combinations, they have become two very important voices in the current British free and improvisational scene. Alex Ward’s recordings with electric guitar and clarinet (also through great collaborations) for the past two decades and a half work their way to my listening schedule very often.

The group performed two sets clocking around forty minutes with a small pause. The atmosphere was quite relaxed and friendly, something really nice for someone like me who just flew to London from the other side of Europe. In my wet dreams of improvisation this was like the maverick days of the early 70’s. Having a bass-drums tight knit duo is always a blessing and Willberg and Lisle are multidimensional players on their own and at the same time seem to know each other very well. Even though Ward was in theory the man in charge (ok, kind of) at certain points the duo came at the forefront. Their fruitful improvisations had the energy and pathos of someone who loves doing this.

Ward was switching all the time between clarinet and electric guitar. He was also the first to drop his instrument and let his fellow players take this small ensemble wherever suitable. Keeffe was a more fragile presence with her egoless contributions. I really would have enjoyed to listen to her more. The quartet (Item 4 more formally) seemed like it had a general idea but the route was not predetermined. I liked that, it made me stay on the heels and not relax too much. They concentrated more on the interaction and listened to each other a lot. As I already mentioned, there was energy but not the one of a high volume.

The first set consisted more melody and a will to respond collectively to the individual provocations attempted from one to the other musician. When it comes to melody, I think the clarinet’s melodic language (most audible during the first set) was the most important factor. Coming to the second set, Ward’s choice of guitar distinguished him from the other three. Both from his way of delivering and also from his use of electricity (in contrast to the acoustic nature of the rest of the quartet’s playing), the second set was more aggressive and fragmented. I enjoyed that too. Two different sides of the same story. Nice.

@ koultouranafigo