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Posts tagged ‘Café OTO’

Ten cheers for Cafe Oto

Cafe OtoIf I were given the freedom to design a place at which people could gather for the purpose of playing and hearing music, it would probably end up very much like Cafe Oto. Some of the Dalston venue’s features include an entrance straight off an interesting side street, chairs and tables on the pavement for use during the intervals between sets, large picture windows to give passers-by a glimpse of the goings-on inside, an informal and intimate performance space with no stage, with discreet lighting and perfect sound, a good piano, the option to sit or stand, unselfconscious interaction between musicians and listeners, excellent refreshments, bike parking. And, most important, an audience equipped with open ears and minds, not drawn from a single demographic.

Some of the best musicians in the world can be heard at Cafe Oto, usually for not much more than a tenner, and the atmosphere is such that I’ve never seen any of these distinguished figures — including Roscoe Mitchell, Marc Ribot, Annette Peacock, John Tchicai, the Necks and Louis Moholo-Moholo — give less than their absolute best. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in that respect, but I doubt it. In such ideal surroundings for improvised or otherwise adventurous music, what kind of musician would fail to produce a wholehearted response?

Cafe Oto is currently celebrating its 10th birthday, and two recent events fully illustrated its position in London’s creative musical life. The first was the latest of the club’s three-day residencies, this one granted to the pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins, whose breadth of knowledge and interests guaranteed that he would make the most of the opportunity to stretch out and create a diverse programme.

Alex Hawkins + 4

I went on the second night, opened by Hawkins in duets with the tenor saxophone of Evan Parker. Over the course of almost an hour the music came from many tangents and explored several different modes of collaboration: matched invention, accompaniment, dovetailing, even collision. For the second set (see photograph above) they were joined by Orphy Robinson (Xylosynth), Pat Thomas (Theremin-synthesiser), and Matthew Wright (laptop and turntable). Parker switched to soprano, and there were times when it seemed as though the others were providing a setting for him. Nothing to do with ego: that’s just how the music settled. The textures were fascinating and often beguiling, particularly when Robinson was using a bass-marimba effect to provide a slowly tolling background pulse. I was sorry to miss the third night, when Hawkins’s guests included the marvellous drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Ingrid Laubrock 4 2

This week it was the turn of Ingrid Laubrock, the German-born saxophonist who came to London in 1989 to study at the Guildhall and stayed for almost 20 years before moving to Brooklyn in 2008. The first band she formed there, Anti-House 4, with Kris Davis on piano, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums, played at Cafe Oto on Monday and Tuesday; they stunned everyone present with the impact of music which is carefully wrought but retains the best qualities of free improvisation. I was so struck by the first night’s music that I booked myself straight back in for a second helping.

Each of the individuals is a virtuoso. Laubrock now belongs in the very highest class of improvising saxophonists, blending outright ferocity with hints of the elegance absorbed from her study of Warne Marsh. Davis has a lot of Cecil Taylor in the bones of her playing, but she also makes me think instinctively of George Russell’s piano playing: those beautiful stretched arpeggios, sometimes broken, sometimes in contrary motion, enunciated with a touch poised between firm and hard, like a 2H pencil. Rainey is a master drummer who can make playing with a stick in his right hand and a beer bottle in his left seem the most logical of propositions. And Halvorson is in such command of the promptings of her remarkable imagination that, as her lines and chords slip and warp and overlap, she can convince you that there must be a second guitarist hidden away somewhere (at different times I imagined that phantom alter ego to be Derek Bailey, Link Wray or Kenny Burrell).

But it was as a collective that they left their deepest impression, thanks to Laubrock’s developing gift as an organiser of music. Her compositions are complex but seldom sound that way: there is no twiddling. The occasional hurtling unison passage grows naturally out of the improvisations, while the endings are often deliciously unexpected. One piece ended a couple of brief, cryptic phrases, guitar following piano, dissolving into silence, as if the music’s final traces had been blown away by a last puff of wind. That was every bit as dramatic as the piece with which they opened the first night: a sequence of violent stabs of sound that would have put any death-metal band to shame.

The second night began with unaccompanied improvisations from all four players, and it is a sign of the strength of the quartet’s character that this sequence never sounded like a series of solos. Even when only one person was playing, the music was that of a band — part of an overall scheme that has taken 10 years to emerge as something genuinely extraordinary, and whose fruition was enthusiastically appreciated by the audience. Perfect, of course, for Cafe Oto, one of those rare spaces that go beyond the simple function of presentation to achieve something more valuable, by providing encouragement and inspiration to creative musicians. In other words, a home.

A little afternoon music

Necks matinee 1This is the line of ticket-holders waiting to enter Cafe Oto for the Necks’ sold-out lunchtime concert today. It might have seemed an unusual time of day to experience the intensity of free collective improvisation, but the Australian trio’s music tends to work its unique magic at any time of day or night, in any location.

In between a festival in Madeira and a concert in Helsinki, they were stopping in Dalston for this single show. As usual, they played two sets of approximately 45 minutes each, separated by a short break. And, again as usual, the two sets were contrasting in nature and effect. I wasn’t at all surprised when one confirmed admirer went into raptures about the first set, while another said the second set was the best he’d ever seen them play.

The three musicians themselves don’t talk about individual performances in terms of differing type or quality levels. Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck were there, doing what they do, exposing the process of creating music from scratch on the basis of three decades of shared experience. To them, in a sense, the existence of the Necks is one unbroken performance, divided for convenience into chunks that happen to be the length of an old-fashioned LP.

Necks matinee 3Abrahams began the first set with tentative piano figures, joined by Buck’s bass drum and, eventually, Swanton’s arco bass. The pianist tended to hold the initiative throughout, creating arpeggiated variations that slowly surged and receded, gradually building, with the aid of Buck’s thump and rattle and the keening of Swanton’s bow, to a roaring climax — including, from unspecified source among the three, a set of overtones that gave the illusion of the presence of a fourth musician — before tapering down to a perfectly poised landing.

After the interval it was Swanton’s turn to open up, his plucked octave leaps offered as an invitation to the others. This time Buck began with a stick on his open hi-hat and a mallet on his floor tom-tom, while Abrahams seemed to devote more time than usual to open single-note lines. At one point, about 10 minutes in, the pianist spent a few seconds picking out what sounded like a Moorish melody, but he declined to pursue its possibilities and after a brief pause moved on to something more like his familiar strumming and roiling techniques. About 20 minutes later, however, he returned to that melody, or something very like it, using it as the material from which to fashion his contribution to another supremely graceful conclusion.

What began in 1987 as a private experiment between three young Sydney-based musicians has evolved into an institution with a large and devoted worldwide audience. Somehow they manage to make it new every night, even when that night happens to be a Sunday lunchtime. They’ll be back at Cafe Oto next March.

Art Ensemble at Cafe Oto

AEC Cafe OtoAmid the strangest weather in 30 years, with sand from the Sahara and dust from Iberian wildfires turning the air in London dark red at lunchtime on the hottest October 16th since records were first kept, there was another surprise awaiting the audience for the second of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto this week.

We had bought tickets expecting the regular four-piece line-up of the current AEC: co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and long-time member Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and double bassist Junius Paul. What we encountered was the band extended to a septet by the presence of Mazz Swift (violin and vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass, the only one not visible in the photograph above). It was a special treat.

As you would expect, the unbroken 80-minute performance was a mixture of the prepared and the spontaneous, moving easily through contrasting ensemble passages which gave way to solos from each of the participants. The extra string players never felt like a bolt-on extra: they were fully integrated into the ensemble, playing equal roles in the composed passages, in the textured backgrounds and in the long, boilingly intense collective improvisation which prefaced the sign-off with the familiar descending cadences of “Odwalla”.

Mitchell played an astonishing sopranino solo during which he manipulated rapid sequences of harsh cries against a sustained whistling sound. Ragin alternated between regular and pocket trumpets, four-valve cornet and flugelhorn with unfailing relevance. Paul’s wonderfully emotional solo and his fast walking 4/4 with Moye in one passage evoked the spirit of the late Malachi Favors. On the opposite side of the stage, Bolognesi responded with an improvisation making energetic use of the bow. Swift sang with restrained warmth and she and Reid both left, in their solos and in the ensemble, the impression of instrumentalists of great character and inventiveness, virtuosos of unorthodox techniques and startling effects that contributed to the overall scheme. Throughout the set Moye reminded us of what wonderfully subtle and propulsive drummer he is.

The two sustained standing ovations that greeted the end of the set and the brief hymn-like encore were the equal of anything I’ve heard at Cafe Oto. It was an unforgettable end to a day marked by natural wonders.

A night of two halves

Christian Wallumrod 2Two great pianist-composers were at work within 400 yards of each other in Dalston last night. It was a tough call, so I compromised. The first half of the evening was spent at the Vortex in the company of the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble. The rest was devoted to a set by the Keith Tippett Octet at the Cafe Oto. Wallumrod was playing compositions from Outstairs, his latest ECM album, while Tippett was performing a recently commissioned suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. I was worried that by trying to catch both, I’d miss the best of either. But these were two such exalted experiences that by the end of the night I could only think what a extraordinary feeling it must be to create such music in your head and on paper and then have it brought to life by gifted and dedicated musicians.

Wallumrod’s six-piece band — with Eivind Lonning on trumpet, Espen Reinertsen on tenor, Gjermund Larsen on violin, viola and Hardanger fiddle, Tove Torngren on cello and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums — made a much greater impression on me in person than on record. Or perhaps it would be more sensible to say that they sent me back to Outstairs with a better understanding of what it is they’re doing. But I do think that in this case the live performance provides a vital extra dimension.

This is understated, reflective music, making great use of its Norwegian heritage (many of the themes sound as though they are inspired by folk songs), but the quiet power of the music’s physicality came as a surprise: when you actually witness Wallumrod gently pumping his portable harmonium, or Larsen playing soft-grained double-stops on the Hardanger fiddle, or Reinertsen discreetly using a  slap-tongue technique to turn his saxophone into an extra percussion instrument, or Lonning brushing the mouthpiece across his lips as he exhales to produce shushing sounds and bringing out a four-rotary-valve piccolo trumpet to add a new texture, it helps to bring it to life. A long track from the album, called “Bunadsbangla”, featured Johansen using his hands and a slack-tuned bass drum to produce a kind of Scandinavian Bo Diddley rhythm behind a beautifully structured and voiced horns-and-strings line; I think I speak for everyone in the room when I say that we’d have been happy for that one to have gone on all night.

A quick dash down from Gillett Square to Ashwin Street meant that I missed only the first couple of minutes of Tippett’s octet set; the band was already in full roiling Mingusian mode. This was the third performance of the work, written for Keith’s terrific new London-based band, mostly consisting of recent graduates: trombonists Kieran McLeod and Rob Harvey, saxophonists Sam Mayne and James Gardiner-Bateman, bassist Tom McCredie and the veteran drummer Peter Fairclough, with Ruben Fowler depping for Fulvio Sigurta on trumpet and flugelhorn. For me, the format of an octet often seems to locate the perfect middle ground between the flexibility of a smaller horns-and-rhythm combo and the mass and strength of a conventional big band. Tippett, who is writing and playing with a greater range and eloquence than at any time in his 45-year career, knows how best to exploit its potential to the full.

The nine movements were full of contrast, varying in mood from raucous shout-ups to a tiny, exquisite piano coda, enfolding a hymn-like horn chorale framing short unaccompanied piano improvisations, a kind of jig, and something that roared along at 80 bars per minute (that’s 320 of your “beats”, children), a tempo at which it is hard enough to think, never mind improvise coherently. I particularly loved Sam Mayne’s show-stopping alto, a flugel solo on which Fowler reminded me of the late, great Shake Keane, McLeod’s agile, thoughtful trombone, and the impressive maturity of McCredie, who coped nimbly with the demanding score but was always playing with his heart open. A sense of passion characterised the whole band as they negotiated a composition in which Tippett’s defining streak of lyricism never flagged, even when the music’s operating temperature was at its height.

They’ll be back in Dalston to play the piece again on April 11, this time at the Vortex. Keith is still waiting to hear whether the producers of the BBC’s Jazz on 3 are interested in broadcasting the piece. When he asked them, the response was that they wanted him to send a tape. After four decades in which his consistently distinguished work has brought him acclaim around the world, from Italy and France to Russia and India and South Africa, the gatekeepers of Britain’s jazz principal broadcasting outlet seem to be expecting him to audition. If he felt insulted by such a response, it would be hardly surprising or unjustified.

Last night, anyway, Wallumrod and Tippett — who share a gift for bringing the lessons learnt from jazz to bear on their respective native cultures — received the sort of response they deserve: sustained ovations from attentive listeners who know great music when they hear it, and are properly grateful for the experience.

* The photograph of the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble was taken by Christopher Tribble at Kings Place on their visit to London last year.

 

Ten Freedom Summers / 2

Leo Smith 1His Ten Freedom Summers may have been shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, but that doesn’t mean Wadada Leo Smith has stopped work on the epic composition which he began writing more than three decades ago (and about which I wrote here back in August). During last night’s performance at Cafe Oto in London, the first of three across which he will deliver the entire sequence, he inserted an entirely new movement, and it turned out to be the most memorable of the lot.

Smith arrived in East London with a slightly reduced version of the double ensemble that appeared on the 4CD version released by Cuneiform Records last year. Alongside his trumpet, the piano of Anthony Davis, the bass of John Lindberg and the drums of Anthony Brown were the Ligeti Quartet — Mandhira de Saram (first violin), Patrick Dawkins (second violin), Richard Jones (viola) and Ben Davis (cello) — with the video artist Jesse Gilbert operating from a desk next to the sound mixer.

A clue to the inspiration behind the new movement, called “That Sunday Morning”, arrived when an image of a church appeared on the screens behind the players, followed by the faces of four young African American girls. They were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, the four members of the congergation who died on September 15, 1963 when a group of Ku Klux Klan members set a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was one of the most terrible incidents of the long struggle commemorated by Smith through the titles of the other movements, which mention Dred Scott, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, and others.

As you might have expected, the new piece adopted the mood of a threnody, a quiet and reflective lament that contained moments of striking beauty, particularly in Smith’s brief outbursts and in the rolling gospel phrases that Anthony Davis used sparingly but to very powerful effect. It was heartbreaking and spellbinding, and I hope the composer finds a way to record it in this form one day soon.

Two hours of music, with hardly a break, passed quickly, as I imagine they will tonight and tomorrow. I found myself thinking that the rearrangement of the pieces for the string quartet, rather than the nine-piece ensemble used on the album, worked extremely well, and perhaps even better, thanks not least to the talent and commitment of the young British quartet, rising to the challenge of a masterpiece.

Ribot, Grimes & Taylor

Ribot Grimes Taylor 1On a small table in front of the chair on which he sat to play guitar at the Cafe Oto last night, Marc Ribot had a large egg-timer. I’ve often wonderered how musicians — improvising musicians in particular — know when they’re reached the end of their alloted time. Most of them seem to have an internal clock, its calibration refined over the years. But I’ll never forget the morning after a particularly mesmerising performance by Art Pepper at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith at the end of the ’70s, when a photographer came into the Melody Maker‘s office with a set of pictures from the concert, including one that showed the great saxophonist taking a surreptitious look at his wristwatch.

I’d be surprised if anyone was clock-watching last night. The trio of Ribot, the bassist Henry Grimes and the drummer Chad Taylor started with a medley of Albert Ayler tunes, providing the guitarist (who is probably best known for his work with Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull) with a canvas for the scrabbling, string-scrubbing, sound-splintering techniques that place him somewhere on the spectrum between Jimi Hendrix and Derek Bailey. As he eased away from adding country inflections to Ayler’s march-hymn structures and wound himself up into a state of near-catharsis, I was reminded of Robert Fripp’s startling solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” (from the album Islands), one of my favourite guitar improvisations.

There can’t have been more than a handful among the capacity crowd who were born when Grimes disappeared off the jazz map in 1970, having spent a dozen years establishing himself — via such important recordings as Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village — as one of the foremost members of an unusually gifted generation of double bassists. The story of his rediscovery more than 30 years later, living in Los Angeles, surviving on non-musical jobs, writing poetry and unaware of any developments in the music during the intervening period, has passed into legend. Now, at 77, he overflows with energy, ideas and purpose, the strength and fluidity of his playing absolutely unscarred by that extended lay-off.

The second tune of a long set began with a less than convincing rock beat but soon doubled up into fast bebop time and felt all the better for it. The third and last item opened with a slow, abstract passage in which Grimes played the violin, reminding us of his Juilliard training in the ’50s, before the adroit use of a volume pedal enabled Ribot to produce jolting note-cluster explosions. Taylor concluded the piece with a marvellous solo reminiscent of the immortal Elvin Jones, suggesting rhythm without specific metre or pulse and building excitement without the use of licks or repetition.

If Grimes’s tale reminds us how many years have passed since this music first turned the jazz world on its ear, a gig such as last night’s demonstrates how much scope it still offers to the creative mind.

* Before the first set, the audience was asked not to use recording or photographic equipment. The picture above was taken 20 minutes earlier, while the musicians were setting up their instruments. No protocols were breached.

Discovering Alexander Hawkins

For the past couple of years the pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins has been fêted as one of the most interesting young musicians on the London improvsed music scene. I first heard him playing very unorthodox Hammond organ in a free-jazz trio called Decoy, with the bass player John Edwards and the drummer Steve Noble, who occasionally appear with guest soloists. One particularly good night at the Café OTO with the veteran saxophonist Joe McPhee was released by the Bo’Weavil label, and I can recommend it despite the fact that I wrote the sleeve note.
A couple of weeks ago I went back to the same East London venue to hear Hawkins in a trio context, this time playing piano with the bassist Neil Charles and the drummer Tom Skinner. It was only their second gig together, and the rough edges were evident as they worked through a series of angular, unpredictable tunes, but it was also clear that, given time, they could develop something linking them to the special strand of piano-trio jazz associated with Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope and Andrew Hill (a couple of whose tunes they included).
Hawkins works with all kinds of units and he is back at the Café OTO twice in February: on the 24th in a trio with the bassist Guillaume Viltard and the former People Band percussionist Terry Day, and on the 26th with his own octet, featuring compositions for a line-up of brass, strings and woodwind. This is a good time to catch him.