Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Improvised music’ Category

Jazz Abstraction

evan-parker-at-raAs I was on the way to see the blockbuster Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy the other day, it was pointed out that jazz and AbEx seem to share a special relationship. I suppose that has something to do with synchronicity. Franz Kline and Mark Rothko were creating their revolutionary canvases at the same time as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were making the music that changed everything, and the two developments seemed to share a sensibility. It’s easy to imagine Kline or Rothko playing “Ornithology” or “Well, You Needn’t” while working on a canvas in a Greenwich Village studio.

Easy, but probably misleading. I seem to remember reading that Jackson Pollock listened to Brahms while working on his drip paintings. Yet when Nesuhi Ertegun, the producer of Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, asked the collector and gallerist Sidney Janis for permission to reproduce Pollock’s “White Light” on the cover of Free Jazz in 1961, he was establishing a link that seemed to contain an emotional truth, if not a literal one. And Coleman’s double-quartet recording was by no means the only modern jazz album to make use of abstract expressionism on its cover: see the art of Martin Craig on the pianist Herbie Nichols’ two 10-inch LPs for Blue Note in 1955, The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vols 1 & 2, for example.

At the RA, the breathtaking Pollock rooms are the strongest part of an exhibition that also gave me a greater appreciation of Robert Motherwell and Sam Francis. The much-vaunted assembly of giant Clifford Still canvases left me curiously unmoved, and the round space devoted to Rothko resembles an oligarch’s car-boot sale. The final couple of rooms are curiously incoherent. But of course it has to be seen.

The link with jazz was reaffirmed last night when, as one of the opening events in this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, Evan Parker gave a short solo concert and a conversation with David Ryan under the heading “Jazz Abstraction”– a title adapted from that of a 1961 Atlantic album by Coleman, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and others (and which, come to think of it, also has an abstract expressionist painting by John Jagel on the cover).

Parker’s improvisations were as astounding as ever in their combination of fine detail and hurtling momentum. Later he remarked, non-judgmentally, that one difference between the AbEx painter and the free improviser is that in the case of the music, the process is the work.

The conversation also produced a couple of self-deprecatory gems. If La Monte Young, while still playing sopranino saxophone, had discovered circular breathing as a means of tying together the repeated motifs with which he was working, the world might never have heard of Evan Parker (who then gave us a demonstration of practising the breathing technique). And had the artist Alfreda Benge not introduced Evan to John Stevens one night in 1966, he might, as he put it, “still have had my nose pressed against the window”. Or so he claimed.

What the painters and the jazz musicians of Parker’s generation and slightly earlier had in common was not just the reassurance of an environment in which they could afford to live cheaply but a powerful belief in the value of their work, whatever valuation the world initially placed upon it. It’s just a pity that today’s commercial market doesn’t view them in the same light.

* Abstract Expressionism is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1 until January 2. Evan Parker’s latest album is As the Wind, with Mark Nauseef (percussion) and Toma Gouband (lithophones), released on the Psi label. The photograph is of Parker (right) and David Ryan at the RA.

Trondheim Voices in Bremen

Trondheim VoicesThey were only invited at the last minute after their compatriot Mette Henriette had been forced to withdraw from the Jazzahead! festival in Bremen, but the women of Trondheim Voices provided me with what is likely to be the most lasting musical memory from this year’s event. Based in a city famous for the open-minded young musicians produced by the jazz courses taught at its adventurous and well resourced music conservatory, they have been going, with various changes in size and personnel, since 2001. Over the past year they’ve begun to explore the possibilities of individual sound-tailoring devices created by the mixing engineer and sound designer Asle Karstad: the singers wear discreet wireless boxes on their belts, with controls enabling them to modify their own output in real time.

Currently the group consists of nine members, five of whom were in Bremen. Tone Åse, Torunn Sævik, Heidi Skjerve, Anita Kaasbøll and Siri Gjære (their current artistic director) undertook a 30-minute performance collectively improvised from start to finish, using the possibilities provided by Karstad’s Maccatrol system to create a panoply of sounds, from multiple clucking effects to gorgeous echo-laden chorales. While they did so, an element of restrained theatricality was introduced as they moved around the auditorium, making use of a widened central aisle and the steps up to the stage.

All sorts of music were briefly referenced, from the highly melodic Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter mode through to the sort of fragmented expressionism that might be associated with Diamanda Galas and Yoko Ono, but nothing seemed tricksy or contrived. Their long experience of working together was evident in the way the whole thing was spontaneously shaped into a striking dramatic unity.

A deeply affecting finale featured shimmering layers of voices. After its echoes had died away, Siri Gjære told me that normally they like to give site-specific performances requiring a degree of immersion in their surroundings (in June they’ll be spending several days at Munich’s Whitebox art space). On Saturday the wonderful blend of sound and movement made it hard to believe they’d been given only a few days’ notice and a brief sound-check in a relatively bland environment. I can’t wait for further encounters.

* The photograph shows members of Trondheim Voices after their performance in one of the Jazzahead! halls on Saturday. Their Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/trondheimvoices/ — contains some examples of their work, including a clip of them using the Maccatrol system.

Pieces of Robert Wyatt

The Amazing BandWhen I read, in the new issue of Uncut magazine, that Robert Wyatt has decided to stop making music, I felt an immediate pang of dismay. So I rang him up to see if he really meant it. His reply was to tell me a little story about the novelist Jean Rhys, who, after a long period of inactivity, responded to her publisher’s gentle suggestion that she might like to write another book by asking him if he’d enjoyed her last one. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “Well, read it again,” Rhys said.

We could all do a lot worse than work our way through Robert’s albums, starting with 1970’s End of an Ear, which includes his fabulous deconstruction of Gil Evans’s “Las Vegas Tango”, and concluding with 2010’s magnificent ‘…for the ghosts within’, on which he shares the credit with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the violinist/arranger Ros Stephen. And we could cherish memories of live performances stretching, in my case, from the Soft Machine at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1970 to Robert’s guest appearance — singing and whistling on “Rado de Nube” and playing cornet on “Song for Che” — with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra as part of Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown season at the Festival Hall in 2009.

We can also read Marcus O’Dair’s Different Every Time, an “authorised biography” of Robert, published today. Diligently researched and sympathetically told, it gives us the best all-round view we’re likely to get of the man who came to attention baring his torso behind a drum kit with Soft Machine everywhere from UFO to the Proms before the accident in 1973, at the age of 28, that cost him the use of his legs and propelled him into a different sort of existence, the one that produced Rock Bottom, “I’m a Believer”, Ruth is Stranger than Richard, “Shipbuilding”, “At Last I Am Free”, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan, Shleep and Comicopera, as well as collaborations with the likes of Carla Bley, Brian Eno, the Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Hot Chip and many others, most of them listed in O’Dair’s discography.

I say “most of them” because I’ve noticed an omission: a 1970 session with the Amazing Band, featuring the great cartoonist/illustrator Mal Dean on trumpet, Rab Spall on violin and accordion, Maia Spall on voice, Mick Brennan and Chris Francis on alto saxophones, Jim Mullen on bass and harmonica and Wyatt on drums and voice. Soon after they recorded it, Robert gave me an acetate of the proposed album, with a sleeve he’d made up himself, featuring the collage you see above. It wasn’t until 1997 that the music — just under 40 minutes of free improvisation — finally saw the light of day, released under the title Roar on the FMR label.

I listened to the acetate again last night and it remains a lovely example of the kind of open-minded, non-idiomatic, anti-materialistic music that was in the air back then. And still is, if you look hard enough. I’m sorry, of course, that seemingly there won’t be any more of it from Robert himself. But what he’s given us is quite enough to be going on with.

* Different Every Time is published by Serpent’s Tail (£20). Robert Wyatt will be talking to Marcus O’Dair at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 23, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

The Necks in London

Necks Evan 11.

Originally built as a roller-skating rink, the BBC’s Maida Vale building was taken over by the corporation in 1934 as the principal location for the recording of its musical output. It contains six studios, some of which retain certain period features. The medium-sized Studio Three, for instance, still has what looks like its original art deco parquet floor, although the space occupied by the Necks and Evan Parker yesterday was covered by a large dark red rug.

Midway through their European tour, the Necks were in Maida Vale on the morning of the last of their three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto because Philip Tagney, a producer of Radio 3’s Late Junction, is in the habit of putting together combinations of musicians who have not played together before. When he asked the Australian trio to nominate someone with whom they would like to record a session, they nominated Parker. Only their pianist, Chris Abrahams, had previously collaborated with the great saxophonist, on a short duo improvisation at the end of a concert at the Bath Festival about four years ago, after both had played solo sets.

So the four of them met in the studio at 11 o’clock yesterday morning and, after a short warm-up, began the first of two collective improvisations. They started playing more or less simultaneously, and not surprisingly the first half of what turned out to be an hour-long piece contained passages in which it sounded as though they were waiting for something to happen, for someone to seize the initiative. Each member of the Necks has plenty of experience in free improvisation; however, having played together for more than a quarter of a century, it’s hardly surprising that they should fall naturally into certain patterns of response, and you could see and hear Parker looking for a way in.

The last 20 minutes, however, contained moments of outstanding and surprisingly gentle beauty, Abrahams coaxing filigree from the studio’s Steinway, Lloyd Swanton plucking notes with the fingers of his left hand at the top of double bass’s fingerboard, Tony Buck adding cymbal washes with one hand and rapid strokes on his floor tom-tom with the mallet in the other, and Parker exhaling feathery tenor saxophone phrases (this was the Parker of his solo on Tony Oxley’s celebrated “Stone Garden”, a track from the drummer’s 1969 album, The Baptised Traveller).

For the second piece, Swanton suggested using the Necks’ standard operating procedure, by which one of the players — it could be any of them — begins the piece with a repeated phrase of his choice, the others joining in when they feel ready. The bassist himself started this one off with double-stopped harmonics, Buck joining in with mallets on his snare drum (with the snare off), Parker — having switched to soprano — producing sustained notes with a hollow, reedy tone, and finally Abrahams entering to initiate a dialogue with the saxophonist, to which the others provided the backdrop of a thrumming, variable-speed bass ostinato and the soft clanking of a small Oriental cymbal struck with a mallet as it lay on the head of the floor tom-tom.

The difference between this piece and its predecessor was apparent throughout, in the suggestion of a constant tonal centre and an underlying pulse (characteristics that set the Necks’ live performances apart from those of the majority of free improvisers). The music surged and ebbed as it often does when the Necks play in concert (and as it had done in both halves of the previous night’s performance at Cafe Oto), inviting Parker to move with it, using circular breathing to weave his skeins and flurries of sound in and out of the group tapestry. After 30 minutes the piece ended with a sudden and unexpected moment of grace: subdued clicks and squeals from the saxophone, growls from the lower end of the piano keyboard, the bassist letting his bow bounce off the strings, more cymbal splashes, and suddenly a silence that, while abrupt and unpremeditated, seemed completely logical.

2.

I made it to the second and third nights at the Cafe Oto, on Tuesday and Wednesday, each of which consisted of two long sets. The first of those nights was very enjoyable, particularly for a pair of very graceful endings, although the music contained nothing wildly unexpected. Wednesday’s music, however, seemed to come from a different place.

Abrahams began the first set and dominated it throughout, maintaining a sense of unresolved harmony that kept the tension high. It was a powerful and beautifully shaped and proportioned performance, and during the intermission Buck said he thought that the experience of playing with Parker earlier in the day might have had something to do with it.

The set that followed it was something else altogether. The previous night, as the music began in a mood of quiet, serene rumination, I’d been wondering what would happen if the group ever started one of their collective improvisations with a really loud opening statement. Now I know the answer. Buck set this one off this one with a triple-forte snare-drum rattle, announcing three-quarters of an hour of music that became brutal — almost harrowing — in its volume and emotional intensity. To follow the process by which they found their way out of the maelstrom and wound down to closure was an education in itself, followed by perhaps 10 seconds of transfixed silence in which every member of the audience was thinking, “Did I really just hear what I think I heard?” Then the applause came, and it didn’t want to stop.

* The photograph above was taken before the start of the second improvisation at Maida Vale. Left to right: Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams and Evan Parker. An edited version of the session will be broadcast on Late Junction on Thursday, November 21. Part of Tuesday night’s performance at the Cafe Oto can be heard on Jazz on 3 next Monday, November 11. 

Huntsville in Dalston

HuntsvilleThe Cafe Oto wasn’t exactly thronged for the return of Huntsville to Dalston last night, but the audience was highly attentive and rewarded the Norwegian trio with warm and sustained applause at the end of their unbroken 75-minute set. Those of us who had missed their previous visit to London in their present incarnation, when they played the nearby Vortex in 2009, and knew their music only from records, couldn’t help but be impressed by the sense of interplay developed by these three improvisers over the course of their years together, and by their command of the music’s overall shape and its intimate textures.

Ivar Grydeland plays guitar and laptop, Tonny Kluften plays bass guitar and Ingar Zach plays percussion — including, as the publicity puts it, “sruti box, tabla machine and drone commander”, as well as several of the basic elements of a conventional drum kit. Stig Ringen, their sound engineer, acts as a fourth member of the group.

If the process of Huntsville’s music is a little bit like that of the Necks, in that both groups tend to use the slow modification of regular pulses and repeated figurations as the basis of extended collective improvisations, the sound they make is very different. Grydeland’s Jazzmaster is not just plucked and strummed but struck with a small mallet, modified with various devices and otherwise manipulated to produce a dramatic variety of metallic clanging and whining sounds (when he lets single notes hang in the air or bends an arpeggio out of shape, the effect is like that a Japanese koto). Kluften makes considerable use foot pedals to adjust the tone and volume of his nimble lines. Zach spends a lot of time occupying himself with arcane devices — one of them attached to an iPad — whose effects are often difficult to disentangle from the overall mass of the sound to which he is contributing, but there were two lengthy passages last night in which he used wire brushes on his snare drum to produce an up-tempo shuffle rhythm of phenomenal momentum.

Their first two albums, For the Middle Class (2006) and Echo, Arches & Eras (2008, featuring the singer Sidsel Endresen on one tune and Wilco’s Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche on a long improvisation recorded at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival), were released by Rune Grammofon. A couple of years ago they moved to the Hubro label, which shares an office in Oslo with Rune Grammofon, and for whom they made their debut with For Flowers, Cars and Merry Wars (2011), which also featured the voice of Hanne Hukkelberg. Their fourth album, released a couple of weeks ago, is just the three of them. Called Past Increasing Future Receding, it was recorded in Oslo in a dimly lit barrel-vaulted studio (formerly an artist’s mausoleum) with a 20-second reverberation. There are three tracks: the opener, “Presence in Absence”, contains one or two violent shocks for the unwary listener who might be lulled by its apparent quietness into turning up the volume control; “The Flow of Sand” explores their fondness for playing over tamboura-like drones; and “In an Hourglass” is glowingly contemplative, featuring that koto effect from Grydeland.

Here’s a two-minute clip that gives some idea of the making of the album and a tiny glimpse into what they’re about (there are more extended examples to be found on their website: http://www.huntsville.no). I left Cafe Oto feeling my time had been well spent; it’s always a pleasure to be with musicians whose imagination, spirit of inquiry and disdain for generic boundaries ensure that the future will be as exciting as the past.