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Visions of the abstract

Evan P in Vilnius

The news of the death of the photographer Jak Kilby has saddened all those who called him a friend. I met him in 1969, when he was a year or two into his work of chronicling a section of London’s jazz scene bracketed by two bands: the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes. That lasted through ’70s and into the ’80s, resulting in a valuable record of the work of musicians such as John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and many others.

Jak was a warm, kind man, and he was close to the musicians. He shared houses with some of them and drove them to their gigs in, as Trevor Watts told me, a series of vehicles that invariably broke down. He loved the music — and that was how it was always known: the music — because, I think, of its human qualities and a spirituality that was inherent even in the playing of those who did not think of themselves in such terms. (Later he converted to Islam, adopting the name Muhsin, and moved to Malaysia, the base from which he travelled to explore the Muslim world.)

Since the news came through I’ve been listening to a new CD by the saxophonist Evan Parker, the bassist Barry Guy and the drummer Paul Lytton: three musicians regularly captured by Jak’s camera in his early years on the scene. It’s called Concert in Vilnius and was recorded in the Lithuanian capital in October 2017, making it the fruit of almost half a century of collaborations.

Starting out when jazz-based free improvisation was in its infancy, each of them achieved a great deal in terms of expanding the vocabulary of their instruments, which was always part of the project. Now we can listen to them expressing all the wisdom and confidence of their maturity in a language — individual and collective — that they created.

Of the four pieces that make up almost an hour of music, perhaps the most ear-popping is Part III, which opens with a prodigious solo by Guy, using many different resources to make his bass sound like a regiment. It moves into a passage of astonishingly detailed and dynamic percussion/bass dialogue, and then reaches full trio-sized fruition with the arrival of Parker, who unfurls one of his most astonishing tenor improvisations, moving from brusque lyricism to those mind-bending skirls that seem to exist in two or three adjacent dimensions.

The idiom may be half a century old, but it will never be an easy-listening experience; it demands attention and commitment from the listener as well as from the player. What Jak Kilby and other lovers of free improvisation recognised early on is how risk is answered by reward to a degree unavailable in any other kind of music. In those moments it can reach the sublime, touch the infinite.

* Concert in Vilnius is released on a Lithuanian label called NoBusiness Records. The photograph of Guy, Lytton and Parker is from the CD insert and was taken by Vytautas Suslavičius.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lucy Durán #

    I’m very sad to hear of Jak’s passing. Jak was one of the stalwarts of the “world music” scene throughout its hey-day in the 1980s and 1980s. At all the best world music gigs at festivals and other venues around London, there would be Jak up front, risking his hearing by standing so close to mega loudspeakers, with a smile on his face for everyone, artists and audience alike. RIP.

    January 9, 2020
  2. Mick Steels #

    Just listened to Bobby Bradford’s “Love’s Dream” which has a beautiful sleeve design by Jak, if his name was on an album it was a recommendation in itself.
    I’ve never heard a finer trio than Parker/Guy/Lytton long may they continue

    January 9, 2020
  3. Another beauty, Richard. Getting the EP3, Jak Kilby and No Business into one short article… Brilliant! I’m a big fan of No Business because they make the effort to put out Howard Riley’s recent work, great evidence of an under-reported lifelong development. Thanks!

    January 10, 2020
  4. Evan Parker #

    Without Jak Kilby it is easy to imagine I would never have got to Vilnius fifty years on.
    He drove John Stevens to the first of the annual Workshops run by J-E Berendt at SWF in Baden Baden.
    There was room in his Riley version of the mini for me to go with them. There was a half chance I would get the gig if Tchicai decided not to do it. That workshop opened many doors for me.
    John Stevens gave Jak the nickname “The Glorious Prince” in honour of his boundless kindness and generosity. That is how I will remember him.

    January 10, 2020
  5. saverio pechini #

    Sad news . I’ve always loved his photos included in Ian Carr’s Music Outside .

    January 11, 2020
  6. Sad news indeed. I got to know Jak briefly in the years 2015-17, when we worked on choosing which of his photos to include in my two books on early English free improvisation, which feature, among others, portraits of Parker, Guy and Lytton.
    He was a gent and artist and I am grateful to have known him, if only for a short time.

    January 11, 2020
  7. Colin Harper #

    I too licensed some photos from Jak for books and we made a point of meeting for an evening of bonhomie and chat in London when I was over two or three years back. His joie de vivre, even in the face of ongoing illness, was remarkable. He was happy with his lot, despite never making much money. He told me a funny story about a meeting with a HMRC inspector once who got increasingly incensed and baffled during the conversation because he simply couldn’t understand how or why Jak was living on so little apparent income for so long – saying that any normal person would have started doing something else decades ago. Jak told him he just loved the music and the inspector just couldn’t grasp it. His commitment was amazing – but his generosity of spirit and warmth were what made him special.

    January 16, 2020

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