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Posts from the ‘Improvised music’ Category

The uncommon tenor

Lou GareLou Gare held his tenor saxophone aslant, like Lester Young, whose light-fingered articulation and disdain for the obvious he shared. Gare was born in Rugby but it was in Plymouth in the early 1960s that he first played with the band of the young Mike Westbrook, alongside the even younger John Surman. In London in 1965 he became a founder member, with Eddie Prévost, Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, of AMM, one of the seminal groups of the first generation of British free improvisers. Lou was on their debut album, AMMMusic, recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and released by Elektra Records in 1966. Six years later, with the group reduced to a Gare-Prévost duo, they performed at Harvey Matusow’s International Carnival of Experimental Sound event in London, their set released initially in part on an Incus EP as AMM at the Roundhouse and then in full on a Matchless CD under the same title.

In the 1970s Gare moved to Devon, where he worked as a teacher of Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art. There he played with the pianist Sam Richards in the band Synchronicity; he was also reunited with Westbrook, joining the latter’s locally based Uncommon Orchestra. This piece of film is from their performance at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter in December 2014. Gare is featured throughout a 12-minute piece called “D.T.T.M.”, adapted from a section of Westbrook’s suite On Duke’s Birthday and dedicated to the trombonist Danilo Terenzi and the drummer Tony Marsh. It’s a quietly phenomenal performance, devoid of rhetoric but bursting with invention, the soloist’s thoughts unfurling at his own pace and expressed with a lovely laconic warmth. I don’t think I’ve heard a more subtly dramatic example of a tenorist working with a big band since Wayne Shorter emerged from the swirling mists of Gil Evans’ “The Barbara Song” in 1964.

Perhaps inspired by the example of Sonny Rollins, Gare was also a wonderful unaccompanied improviser, as he demonstrated on a Matchless album titled No Strings Attached in 2005 and in this clip from 2013. When he died on October 6, aged 78, British jazz lost a voice of quiet but resolute originality.

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Doubling Downes

Vyamanikal 2

Vyamanikal + 2: Tom Challenger, Alex Bonney, Lucy Railton, Kit Downes

The profound sense of peace that descended over Hall 2 of Kings Place last night as the set by an expanded version of Vyamanikal glided towards its close was unlike anything I’ve encountered all year. The pianist Kit Downes and the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, normally a duo in this guise, were joined on the stage by the cellist Lucy Railton and by Alex Bonney, who sat at a laptop. Bonney was processing the music and sounds recorded by Downes and Challenger in 2015 in the small churches of five Suffolk villages, collecting the sounds of organs in various states of repair for an album released last year, and feeding it into the live performance.

In the absence of a church organ, Downes alternated between a piano and a small hand-pumped harmonium. For the better part of an hour the musicians wove tapestries of sound in which individual elements blended seamlessly. There were certainly gorgeous details, but they fade in the memory next to the overall impression of a glowing organic whole.

If there was a kind of English pastoral vibe in the air, it was implicit rather than declarative, and never suffocating. I suppose the most obvious precedent might be some of John Surman’s recordings, from Westering Home onwards, but really this music seemed to stand alone, without need for comparison. As they neared the end, the three instrumentalists stopped playing but the music continued, thanks to Bonney, in a many-layered drone which seemed to distill everything that had been played in the previous 50 minutes. And then came a few moments of silence in which we could find our own way out of the trance.

The first half of the evening had featured Tricko, the duo in which Railton and Downes perform a kind of sui generis cello-and-piano chamber music that manages to be intricate without inducing strain and immediately attractive without becoming winsome. “I’m aware that this music is cripplingly quiet,” Downes said at one point. “If I were listening, I’d probably be asleep by now.” That might indeed be the initial impression. But the longer you listen to them, the more awake you feel.

* Vyamanikal’s album is on the Slip Imprint label. Downes’s solo organ album, Obsidian, will be released by ECM early next year.

Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

Han Bennink at Cafe Oto

Han Bennink

Cafe Oto, 12 August 2017: John Coxon, Han Bennink and Ashley Wales

The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink is famous for his anarchic humour and his resistance to orthodoxy: he’s known for using the heel of his boot to alter the tone of his drums on the fly, and for finding the music in the scenery of a club — if there are pillars or heating pipes in the vicinity, he is likely to start playing them. He has an unparalleled gift for terminating a collective improvisation with a slap of two pieces of metal or the sort of rimshot that brooks no negotiation. What’s sometimes overlooked is his ability to swing in the traditional meaning of the term. Of all the European drummers to emerge in the modern era, maybe only Phil Seaman commanded the same deep sense of swing.

But he’s always been a hard man to pin down. I first heard him with the German tenorist Peter Brötzmann in Berlin in 1969, playing the most uncompromisingly loud and violent free jazz you could imagine. Maybe 20 years later I heard him in Paris with a band led by the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, playing the music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and you could tell that here was a man with a profound understanding of what Baby Dodds had been up to.

On Saturday, Han ended a three-night Cafe Oto residency in celebration of his 75th birthday with a series of collaborations in which his partners were the two men, the guitarist John Coxon and the electronics exponent Ashley Wales, together known as Spring Heel Jack; two guests from Amsterdam, the American violinist Mary Oliver and the Dutch guitarist Terrie Hessels, also known as Terrie Ex; and the pianist Steve Beresford. Amid the swirling anarchy, there were many moments when you could detect traces of the drummer who served a conventional rhythm-section apprenticeship with such visiting American giants as Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery.

Since then Han’s career has taken him through countless collaborations. He first appeared with Coxon and Wales on Amassed, an early Spring Heel Jack studio album, in 2002. The following year they took him on a short Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain, along with the saxophonist Evan Parker, the pianist Matthew Shipp, the bassist William Parker and the guitarist J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce, with whom Coxon played in the band Spritualized). I saw that fascinating line-up give an epic performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall — particularly in the second half, which began with a hyperactive duet between drums and bass and reached its climax in a long passage of richly textured improvisation over a mesmerising sequence of slowly descending piano chords that seemed, like an Escher staircase, to have no end. An album titled Live was assembled from the tour’s concerts in Bath and Brighton, and contains a version of that second half.

On Saturday, Han began with a trio set but soon left Beresford and Oliver to their own devices, listening from a chair at the side of the stage as they created a graceful two-part invention. Then the drummer was joined by Spring Heel Jack, creating a very different type of trio, the music constantly changing colours and momentum, restless but intensely satisfying (I loved a passage in which Coxon suddenly started running close-voiced jazz chords on his cherry-red Guild Starfire). Eventually Hessels, a member of the Dutch band the Ex, joined in, energetically lunging and retreating as he added jagged bursts of post-Hendrix noise.

After a third set in which the musicians joined in one by one until all six were together on stage, Han closed the evening with a short unaccompanied piece: brusque, urgent, very physical, unmistakably him but also unmistakably in the lineage of solo pieces by Dodds, Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. This is a musician who stretched the vocabulary of his instrument, even changed it, while honouring and preserving the music’s essence.

Jazz in Britain, Part 1

Jazz in Britain 1The title of this two-part series is a homage to John Muir, a friend of 40-odd years ago. As a BBC radio producer, Muir saved John Peel’s career at the corporation in 1968 by giving him a Radio 1 show called Night Ride. He also booked Roxy Music for their first broadcast on Sounds of the Seventies, and supervised a series titled Jazz in Britain, devoted to the emerging generation of John Stevens, John Surman, Tony Oxley, Trevor Watts, Howard Riley and so on. John died recently, aged 80. I thought of him as being the best kind of BBC person: calm, civilised, culturally literate and unobtrusively fearless. Here are eight new albums by artists he would certainly have booked for a series of Jazz in Britain in 2017. Together they demonstrate that we are experiencing a new golden age of British jazz.

Binker & Moses: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox). Dem Ones, a first album of duets for tenor saxophone and drums by Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, deservedly won praise and awards last year. This follow-up starts in a similar vein, with a further disc of two-part inventions, even more confident and assured. But the second disc is where things get really interesting as they add guests in various permutations. Byron Wallen (trumpet), Evan Parker (saxophones), Tori Handsley (harp), Sarathy Korwar (tabla) and Yussef Dayes (drums) join Golding and Boyd on a trip through tones and textures, creating a beautifully spacious set of improvisations, uncluttered but full of interest. The exotic titles suggest some kind of fantastical narrative is going on, but the music tells its own story.

Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH). Another two-disc set, its first half consisting of seven pieces recorded last October by Hawkins’s excellent and now disbanded sextet, featuring Shabaka Hutchings (reeds), Otto Fischer (guitar), Dylan Bates (violin), Neil Charles (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums). “[K]now”, featuring a recitation by Fischer, is a highlight. The second disc consists of pieces recorded this January by a 13-piece ensemble in which Hawkins, Bates, Fischer and Charles are joined by others including Laura Jurd, Percy Pursglove and Nick Malcolm (trumpets), Julie Kjaer (flutes and reeds), Alex Ward (clarinet), Hannah Marshall (cello) and Matthew Wright (electronics). This is dense but open-weave music, containing a composed element but sounding almost wholly improvised and writhing with invention. It’s on Hawkins’s own label (information at http://www.alexanderhawkinsmusic.com) and it’s outstanding.

Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Naim). A friend of mine describes this as “Silent Way-era Miles w/Arabic textures”, which is a fair summary. Yazz, her quarter-tone trumpet and her fine octet are investigating ways of blending jazz with the music of Bahrain, her parents’ country. At a late-night concert in Berlin last November the audience didn’t know them and they didn’t know the audience, but after an hour the musicians were able to walk away in triumph. Dudley Phillips’s bass guitar and Martin France’s drums keep the grooves light and crisp, Lewis Wright’s vibes solos are always a pleasure, and the combination of Yazz’s trumpet or flugelhorn with Shabaka Hutchings’s bass clarinet gives the ensemble a pungent and distinctive character.

Olie Brice Quintet: Day After Day (Babel). I love this band, led by a brilliant bassist and completed by Alex Bonney (cornet), Mike Fletcher (alto), George Crowley (tenor) and Jeff Williams (drums). What it has is the loose-limbed fluidity I associate with the New York Contemporary Five, the band that included Don Cherry, John Tchicai and Archie Sheep, with just a hint of Albert Ayler’s Bells ensemble. But it’s not derivative. It’s a continuation, and a worthwhile one. Brice’s own playing is exceptionally strong (he can make me think of Wilbur Ware, Henry Grimes and Jimmy Garrison), his compositions provide the perfect platform for the horns, and Williams swings at medium tempo with such easy grace that you could think you were listening to Billy Higgins.

Denys Baptiste: The Late Trane (Edition). Almost 50 years after John Coltrane’s death, there is no real consensus about the music of his last two years, when the turbulent spirituality took over and blurred the outlines that had been so clear on A Love Supreme and Crescent. Baptiste takes a conservative approach to the late material, enlisting a fine band — Nikki Yeoh (keyboards), Neil Charles or Gary Crosby (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums), with the great Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone) on a couple of tracks — to support his own tenor and soprano on Trane’s tunes (including “Living Space” and “Dear Lord”) and a couple of originals. Rather than taking them further out, he draws them nearer in through the subtle application of more recent styles, including funk, reggae and a touch of electronics. The sincerity of the homage is never in doubt.

Chris Biscoe / Allison Neale: Then and Now (Trio). One of the unsung heroes of British jazz since his arrival as a promising saxophonist with NYJO in the early ’70s, Biscoe sticks to the baritone instrument on this release, joined by Neale’s alto saxophone as they explore the mood of the albums Gerry Mulligan made with Paul Desmond in the late ’50s and early ’60s. With Colin Oxley’s guitar, Jeremy Brown’s bass and Stu Butterfield’s drums in support, the approach is deceptively relaxed: this music may not bear the burden of innovation but it demands high standards of execution and integrity. The intricate improvised counterpoint on “The Way You Look Tonight” refracts Mulligan/Desmond through the Tristano prism.

Freddie Gavita: Transient (Froggy). Fans of the Hubbard/Hancock/Shorter era of the Blue Note label would enjoy investigating the debut by this young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and NYJO, the possessor of a beautifully rounded tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn. His shapely compositions hit a series of fine and varied grooves, lubricated by Tom Cawley’s piano, Calum Gourlay’s bass and James Maddren’s drums. The obvious comparison, for Blue Note adherents, is Empyrean Isles: not such a terrible thing with which to be compared, is it?

The Runcible Quintet: Five (FMR). Recorded live in April at the Iklectik club in Lambeth, this is music in the tradition of the Karyobin-era Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which means that Neil Metcalfe (flute), Adrian Northover (soprano saxophone), Daniel Thompson (acoustic guitar), John Edwards (bass) and Marcello Magliocchi (drums) require sharp ears, focused empathy, fast reflexes and a command of extended instrumental techniques. It’s funny to think that this tradition is only two or three years younger those heavily referenced in some of the preceding records, but in such capable hands as these it retains its ability to startle and provoke. Edwards, as always, is staggering.

* Part 2 of this Jazz in Britain series will deal with reissues.

Intakt in London

Intakt monoA packed house celebrating the 70th birthday of the bassist and composer Barry Guy provided the best possible start to the Swiss record label Intakt’s 11-day festival at the Vortex on Sunday night. The opening evening showcased Guy in dialogues with three of his closest collaborators across a 50-year career: the violinist Maya Homburger, the saxophonist Evan Parker and the pianist Howard Riley.

He and Homburger began their set as they did the 2011 concert which formed the lovely album Tales of Enchantment, with the plain-spoken elegance of the ninth-century hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”. Sunday’s performance also included their interpretation of H. I. F. Biber’s intensely beautiful Mystery Sonata No 9: “The Agony in the Garden”, two of its sections linked by Guy’s improvised conversation with the percussionist Lucas Niggli. Original compositions were carefully elided into the externally sourced material, and the overall impression was one of a confident unity of purpose and conception.

I haven’t always found Guy’s music the easiest to warm to, but here was irrefutable evidence of a genuinely original method of blending written composition with the free-improvisation techniques of which the bassist, during his time on the London scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was a noted pioneer and master. In Homburger, who shares his sensibility and matches his virtuosity, he clearly found a soul-mate.

Later in the evening Guy and Parker, who first met in 1966 during a Spontaneous Music Ensemble gig at the legendary Little Theatre Club, evoked memories of various stages of their long collaboration with an improvisation which proceeded conventionally enough for much of its duration of 20 minutes or so before coming to the sort of conclusion — unexpected, unpredictable, seemingly plucked out of the air but emphatically and satisfyingly logical — that is the special property of free improvisers of such quality and experience.

Guy and Howard Riley have played together in the pianist’s trio for five decades: first with Jon Hiseman on drums, then Alan Jackson, then Tony Oxley, in a series of albums that placed Riley’s group firmly among the most creative piano trios of their era. At the Vortex it was Niggli’s turn to complete the group. I hadn’t seen Howard perform for many years. His health has not been good, and on Sunday he looked frail. His playing, however, was nothing short of miraculous: its content pared right down, every note essential, still with hints of austerity in its outlines and astringency in its emotions but with the spirit of Ellington, Monk and Taylor warming its bones. All the technique he needs for this is happily still available, and the spontaneous reactions of Guy and Niggli could not have been more perfect. The audience held its breath — at first through concern, then swiftly enthralled by the distilled brilliance and profundity of what they were privileged to hear.

Intakt, based in Zurich, may not have the public profile of one or two of the other European independent labels specialising in contemporary jazz and related forms of improvised music, but the quality and consistency of its output is as high as any. Between now and April 27 the festival’s programme includes the percussionists Pierre Favre, Louis Moholo Moholo and Julian Sartorius, the violinist Mark Feldman, the saxophonists Rudi Mahall, Florian Egli, Ingrid Laubrock, Omri Ziegele and Christoph Irniger, and the pianists Sylvie Courvoisier, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Stefan Aeby, Aki Takase and Irène Schweizer (whose album Live at Taktlos was Intakt’s first release back in 1986). All 11 nights at the Vortex are being recorded by the label’s founder, Patrik Landolt. If there was enough of Riley’s unforgettable set to make a CD, I’ll be the first in line.

A night at Silent Green

CCH Silent Green 1Last summer I was blown away by the latest album from Catherine Christer Hennix, the 68-year-old Swedish-American composer, singer and keyboardist who studied with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath before striking out on her own exploration of sound, light, drones, spirituality and just intonation. Last night I got the chance to see her perform during Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival, at a converted crematorium church in the Wedding district.

Now named Silent Green, it’s an octagonal space with two circular balconies. The floor was covered with oriental rugs, on which the majority of the audience reclined or assumed yoga-style positions. Hennix was positioned alongside one wall, seated at a two-manual electronic keyboard, flanked by the mixing equipment and other devices operated by Stefan Tiedje, her sound engineer and computer programmer. The rest of the audience had chairs on the first balcony. Above us in the upper balcony  were five brass players: Amir ElSaffar (trumpet), Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpet and flügelhorn), Hillary Jeffery (trombone), Elena Kakaliagou (French horn), and Robin Hayward (microtonal tuba).

Together they performed a piece called “Raag Sura Shruti”, which began with quiet drones from Henna’s voice and keyboard, gradually increasing in intensity until the brass players joined in, coming and going as the music flowed and ebbed and flowed again. If you wanted a shorthand description, you could say that it was as though Terry Riley’s “Persian Surgery Dervishes” had been reorchestrated by Giovanni Gabrieli for the brass choir he had at his disposal in St Mark’s, Venice in the 16th century.

That part of the concert lasted three hours. Not every member of the audience stayed with it. I was fascinated by the slowly changing colours and the stately arc of the music’s evolving narrative. Sometimes it was very beautiful: lustrous, resonant, ambiguous in its tonal movement (thanks to the use of the non-tempered scale), at one point reaching the sort of lung-crushing decibel count normally encountered in another part of the city at Berghain, the techno club with the world-famous sound system. There were other times, understandably enough, when the underlying drones seemed to be hanging around, waiting for something to happen.

Maybe it was my interest in the arrangement of the moving parts that prevented me from achieving the sort of transcendence that this music is ostensibly about. Perhaps I should have been lying down, eyes closed, on one of the Persian rugs, giving myself up to the waves of sound in a non-analytical way. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the experience thoroughly and admiring the music greatly, even if it didn’t quite reach the peaks scaled during the New York concert preserved on last year’s album.

Just when the last drone had diminished to a whisper and almost faded away completely, and the musicians had got up from their balcony seats and left the arena, Hennix took over with a closing 15-minute solo improvisation on the keyboard. As she crunched her fingers and fists on the keys, setting up brief, spidery phrases and then splintering them, I thought of how a Chinese boogie-woogie pianist might sound if invited to play a Philip Glass piano étude on one of Sun Ra’s early electronic instruments — the Rocksichord, wasn’t it? — in the style of Cecil Taylor, with an intermittently malfunctioning power supply. An excellent evening all round.

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.