Brooklyn’s 577 Records has been issuing some extraordinarily good examples of current English free improvisation, including The Secret Handshake with Danger by the quintet of Olie Brice, Binker Golding, Henry Kaiser, N. O. Moore and Eddie Prévost and Dark Before Dark, an improvised orchestral setting by the London Experimental Ensemble with writer Iain Sinclair’s narrative performance. EMPoWered, a two-segment, 51-minute improvisation, is just as powerful, and its title would be no less apt even if it weren’t emphasizing the initials of bassist John Edwards, guitarist N.O. Moore, drummer Eddie Prévost and alto and baritone saxophonist Alan Wilkinson. This is forceful music, but it’s also music imbued with mysterious powers, suggesting at times trance and shamanic possession. Wilkinson, an active member of the English improvisation scene for about forty years, is a player of tremendous force, particularly on baritone, an instrument that he wields with singular ferocity. Wilkinson toured in 1996 in a quartet with Peter Brötzmann, an early influence; he’s among the very few musicians who can match Brötzmann’s raw force and combines it with an expansive sonic invention.
Part one, thirty minutes long covers much of the terrain of free improvisation and close listening. The music opens subtly, Edwards bowing glissandi with a cello\s lightness, a few bright flurries from Moore and Prévost randomly tapping his drums into a state of alertness. When Wilkinson comes in on alto, it’s with deliberate purpose, an intense repeat of several notes, pause, the same but lower, then a compact, repeated, multiphonic blast. The group both rises to this and presses forward, Moore finding his own squall as Edwards and Prévost build an energized polyrhythmic ground. When Wilkinson re-enters, he brings an intense alto free bop, which eventually breaks up into a field of almost random group noises. It’s highly collective music that lives happily in a state of flux, always moving, always changing. Prévost, strongly associated with AMM’s spacious style of free improvisation, here reveals the other side of his art, drumming in a driving, free jazz tradition with aplomb. N.O. Moore, strongly associated with electronics, even plays a gentle tonal line of classic modern jazz guitar in one of the quieter moments. Amidst these developing gestures, Edwards comes very much to the fore, his articulate, resonant lines providing a singular focus, moving readily from formative lines to forceful insistence. The dialogue assumes a much harder edge as Wilkinson begins to reveal the power of his baritone, at times generating blasts that announce a forcefield to which every member of the group will contribute. The force, though, is no more impressive than the pastoral, the ruminant warmth of the baritone, the melodic precision of the shifting exotic draperies of Moore’s guitar. There are even moments here that might suggest far-fetched instances of West Coast jazz, something Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall might have fabricated, before it suddenly rises to yet another dimension of free jazz intensity, ultimately falling off into birdsong, light baritone bleats and cymbal scrapes.
As achieved as the first part is, the 21-minute Part Two is the more powerful, a transformative music filled with foreboding and the possibility of revelation. What’s most memorable here, apart from the force, is the extreme kinship revealed in the music. At some levels, free improvisation is an invitation to spirits, and here it seems especially strong, a séance in a battleground. Without a visual presence, the music becomes even more mysterious. Towards the conclusion, there’s an intense sustained high pitch sound, almost a squeal, that’s evidently passing between Wilkinson’s alto and Moore’s guitar. There are sudden shifts in density and volume, but at times the music becomes a variegated, moving wall into which individual instrumental identities have blurred. This is no mere studied effect, but a significant feature of the heightened mental state of great free improvisation, a suspension of identity in sound, a psychic group formation in which a kind of literal hive mind forms, parts resembling one another in ways that might seem impossible among unalike instruments, but which nonetheless occur.
This is very powerful music, but it’s also imbued with the kind of subtlety that will reveal new life with repeated hearings. Collective improvisation may be small audience music, but its significance can resonate far beyond its performance spaces.
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