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.