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Riot in Dalston

Riot in Dalston

There are many worthwhile things going on in jazz at the moment, and one of them is the collaboration with open-minded young musicians from the straight world. Last night at Cafe Oto there were two such efforts, both featuring an eight-piece contingent from the Riot Ensemble, a London-based group who might be compared, I suppose, to Berlin’s Stargaze Orchestra.

The first half of the evening began with two members of the ensemble, Ausiàs Garrigós on bass clarinet and Amy Green on baritone saxophone, playing a fully composed piece called ‘We Speak Etruscan’, written 20 years ago by Lee Hyla, a New York composer who died in 2014. Beautifully conceived as two voices twirling around each other, it was performed with an irresistible momentum and a virtuosity that left plenty of room for the human sound of the instruments.

Then came the other members of the group — Mandira de Saram and Marie Schreer (violins), Jenny Ames (viola), Louise McMonagle (cello), Marianne Schofield (double bass) and Sam Wilson (percussion) — to play a sequence of pieces by Alexander Hawkins, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, with Hawkins on piano and Evan Parker on soprano saxophone. Parker led off with unaccompanied solo, quietly joined by the strings and a bowed vibraphone, holding a cloud-like chord. Already the textures were new and gorgeous.

The four pieces making the continuous sequence could be played in any order, discreetly cued by the conductor. The music shifted tone and weight constantly, using extended instrumental techniques (including one fantastic passage of drifting harmonics from the strings), and occasionally making space for solos, including one from Hawkins in which he used devices on the piano’s strings to get a kalimba effect. The music was intense and rarified, but never overbearing.

The Riot Ensemble musicians returned for the second half, this time to work with the trio known as ENEMY — Kit Downes on piano, Petter Eldh on bass and James Maddren on drums — on pieces written and arranged by Downes and Eldh. This was a very different formula: much more predetermined, much more vertical and horizontal structure, but enormously dynamic and involving, and greatly appreciated by the audience.

Everything played at Cafe Oto is professionally recorded. This was one of those nights when you leave with the hope that what you’ve just heard will eventually be released, so that you can enjoy it again and think about it some more.

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.

Freedom now… and then

Trevor Watts 1

L to R: Veryan Weston, Alison Blunt, Hannah Marshall and Trevor Watts

No musicians get more of my admiration than those working in the field of jazz-derived free improvisation. An idiom under development for more than 50 years, it has never offered public acclaim or material reward to its practitioners, despite requiring levels of creative imagination and technical ability far beyond the norm in other genres. For the attentive and sympathetic listener, nothing offers quite the same degree of reward as the experience of hearing a group of musicians — or even a solo improviser — imagining the music from scratch, relying on their inner resources from start to finish and (in the case of ensembles) on an extreme sensitivity to the other individuals and to the group dynamic.

It’s a music best heard live, when the listener is able to witness that dynamic at work and watch the musicians exploring the extended instrumental vocabularies developed during the music’s long period of evolution. Given the sounds and skills involved, too, visual evidence sometimes helps in sorting out who is playing what. And so, no less than a Bob Dylan studio album, a recording of free improvisation is a snapshot of a moment.

Sometimes, however, the snapshot can carry a lasting meaning that makes it more than just a souvenir. In the second section of this piece I’ll deal with an album that has carried such significance for half a century. But this part is about a new recording from a group of experienced improvisers who have been playing together for a while, and which seems to me to convey a value beyond the hour it took to play it.

The saxophonist Trevor Watts was one of the originators of British (and European) free music, as a founder member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 with his former RAF colleague John Stevens. Trevor’s passionate alto playing was heard on the SME’s first album, Challenge, recorded soon after their formation, and later in his own groups, including Amalgam and Moiré Music. Now approaching his 79th birthday, Trevor retains the combination of finely tuned energy and emotional generous energy that has always distinguished his work.

His latest venture is a co-operative quartet with the violinist Alison Blunt, the cellist Hannah Marshall and his long-time musical partner, the pianist Veryan Weston. Last year Watts and Weston released a fine duo album called Dialogues for Ornette (a reminder that 50 years earlier Challenge contained a track titled “2B Ornette”)The new quartet’s debut is titled Dialogues with Strings, but it would be a mistake to assume the existence of any kind of hierarchy, or even the feeling of a pair of duos.

This is densely woven music, sometimes hectic, sometimes legato, but motivated, whatever the velocity or trajectory, by a sense of urgency from four musicians playing together as unit for the first time. It isn’t the heavy-metal variety of free jazz; there are passages of wonderful delicacy, but the overall impression throughout the album’s three pieces, recorded last spring at Cafe Oto, is one of a powerful momentum that continues to surge even through the occasional silences. It’s full of the kind of magic that the best free improvisers can conjure when they work together in the right environment.

SME 1Free improvisation is a complex business. Is the idea to create something from nothing that nevertheless sounds as though it was pre-composed? Surely not, although that can be an occasional effect. The reissue of Karyōbin, the SME’s second album, taped in February 1968, shows the music in an embryonic state, when individuals were still mixing and matching their discoveries and feeling their way towards a true group music.

Recorded at the behest of Island Records’ Chris Blackwell for a short-lived label called Hexagram, produced by the engineer Eddie Kramer in a single evening using free after-hours time at Olympic Studios in Barnes, this Watts-less version of the band features — from left in the photo above — Dave Holland (bass), John Stevens (drums), Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Kenny Wheeler (trumpet and flugelhorn), and Derek Bailey (guitar). The album captures the sound of the musicians as they were heard in many different combinations at the Little Theatre Club in Covent Garden, a crucible of the new jazz.

The individual musicians are at various angles in their relationship to this music, but their personal voices are unmistakeable: Wheeler’s liquid squiggles, Bailey’s surreptitious scrabbling, Parker’s terse flutter and stutter, Stevens (on his skeletal Launcher kit, adopted to bring his playing down to the prevailing volume level of this unamplified music) alternating dry tapping with the pings of cymbals and small gongs. Each of these adventurous approaches would eventually be widely imitated as other musicians joined the cause.

Remastered from the original master tapes, now in Parker’s possession, and cleaned up and rebalanced by Adam Skeaping, this new reissue of the only LP to appear on the Hexagram label is a vastly better proposition than earlier efforts (a Japanese reissue, for instance, was dubbed from a vinyl album), and is matched by packaging which retains the original artwork but adds new essays and a selection of previously unseen black and white photographs taken with Parker’s camera during the session.

It’s a cornerstone of this music and has repaid repeated listening throughout its long life. If you don’t know what happened after Karyōbin, and want to find out, get hold of the 2014 reissue of the SME’s third album, Oliv, recorded in 1969 for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label, coupled with an unissued session from the previous year featuring an extended piece called Familie. Both feature Watts back in the fold alongside various other additions, including the bassists Johnny Dyani and Jeff Clyne and the singers Maggie Nichols, Pepi Lemer and Norma Winstone.

It’s all the stuff of history. And, thanks to Watts and others, history is still being made.

* Dialogues with Strings is on the FSR label. The photograph of the quartet is from the album’s jacket, and was taken by Mark French. The reissues of Karyōbin and Oliv & Familie are on Emanem. The photograph of the SME is from the sleeve of the former and was taken by Jak Kilby. Evan Parker and Dave Holland, the only survivors of the Karyōbin quintet, will be playing at the Vortex in Dalston on Friday March 2, in a benefit for the club (www.vortexjazz.co.uk).

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

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.

Musica franca

Evan & Alex 1 Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker were two of the winners at the recent Parliamentary jazz awards: the former for being the instrumentalist of the year, the latter for, well, being Evan Parker. Last week they appeared together at the Vortex. Alex is 35; Evan is 72. What they gave us was a demonstration of the special ability of jazz-based free improvisation to span the generations without forcing the younger man to play the older man’s music, or vice versa. Musica franca = lingua franca, you might say.

I heard one and a half sets. The first reminded me of what those famous Cecil Taylor quintet tracks on Into the Hot, “Pots” and “Bulbs”, might have sounded like if you’d taken out Jimmy Lyons, Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray, leaving only Taylor and Archie Shepp. Evan was a little gruffer than usual, while Alex produced octave-doubled figures that leapt and darted with precise aim. The whole 40-odd minutes sounded like two painters working their brushes in rapid up-strokes. It was urgent and practically unstoppable — until they contrived the most elegant of endings.

The first half of the second set was more mellow and discursive, with a stronger sense of an underlying blues tonality, putting me in mind of how Charlie Rouse and Thelonious Monk might have sounded without a rhythm section. I don’t usually like this shorthand way of writing about music, by describing one musician in terms of another. But those comparisons were what went through my head when I was listening, and they’re only intended in the most impressionistic sense.

Anyway, you can hear for yourselves what they sound like, in all the many dimensions that they bring to their dialogue through a quite magical degree of empathy, in a very fine CD called Leaps in Leicester, recorded last year at Embrace Arts in that city. A long track called “The Shimmy”, dedicated to the late Tony Marsh, contains powerful elements of the approach I heard in the first set.

During the interval they joked that, given the recent success of Leicester’s football team, they should plan a European tour to take in all the places where City are drawn to play in next season’s Champions’ League. Which, who knows, might mean a gig in Cardiff next May, to coincide with the final. (Anyone who finds analogies between jazz and football frivolous or distasteful is directed to an observation by Jean-Luc Godard, who said that listening to free jazz reminded him of the great Hungarian side of the 1950s. So maybe the best comparison is between Evan Parker and Ferenc Puskás. I can’t imagine Evan objecting to that.)

* Leaps in Leicester is out now on the Clean Feed label.

Jazz in the Round

Jazz in the Round 1Jez Nelson’s monthly Jazz in the Round nights at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone are as good a way to hear improvised music in London as anyone has yet devised. A couple of hundred listeners settle themselves down in mini-bleachers on all four sides of the floor, where the musicians set up to face each other, creating an unusual degree of intimacy radiating through 360 degrees. As a member of Empirical — I think it was Nathaniel Facey, the alto saxophonist — told last night’s audience, it makes you play differently. In a good way.

Facey and his colleagues kicked off what turned out to be a special night even by the standards of this excellent series. The evening was being recorded for transmission (on March 28) as the last-ever Jazz on 3, which Nelson presents, and after 18 years he was understandably emotional as he introduced a bill handpicked to represent the programme’s philosophy over the years. After Empirical came Django Bates, who gave the solo performance that traditionally separates the evening’s two bands, followed by a set of free improvisation from a multi-generational quartet assembled specially for this event: Laura Jurd (trumpet), Alexander Hawkins (piano), Orphy Robinson (marimba) and Evan Parker (tenor saxophone).

Empirical were coming off a week of thrice-daily gigs in a pop-up revue at Old Street tube station: a wheeze that apparently worked as well as it deserved to, attracting crowds of passers-by intrigued by what they heard. They’re an exceptional band and they played a fine set of striking new compositions by each of the four members, ending with “Lethe”, a quietly beautiful slow tune by the vibraphonist Lewis Wright. I’ve heard them play it before, and it stuck in my head. I was delighted to hear it again, and to discover that it’s on their new album, Connection.

Bates had just arrived from Switzerland, where he is a professor of jazz at Bern’s University of the Arts. He began by singing, to his own deft kalimba accompaniment, a little song about the anxiety of a man introducing himself to a piano (which turns out to be female). Then he sat down at the keyboard to play a piece in which he doubled his improvised single-note lines in the treble register with whistling of virtuoso standard. A tenor horn solo preceded a final stint at the keyboard, which included some gorgeous gospel figurations and a song about a London pub transformed by a developer into empty luxury apartments. “Empty luxury,” he repeated, sotto voce but with emphasis.

The members of the final improvising group were chosen to show how Jazz on 3 has always reflected the way this music spans the generations, with the accent on new developments. They had never played together as a unit, but the shared qualities of musicianship and sensitivity ensured that they created a genuine conversation that not only gripped their listeners but enfolded them in the act of creation. It was, as Nelson pointed out, the best possible way to demonstrate that, in the hands of such people, the music’s future is safe.

* The photograph of Empirical at the Cockpit Theatre was taken by Steven Cropper, and is used by kind permission. His blog, with more of his fine images, is at http://www.transientlife.uk. Jazz on 3 will be replaced on BBC Radio 3 by Jazz Now, presented by Soweto Kinch. Jez Nelson’s Somethin’ Else will be on Jazz FM on Saturday nights from April 2. Jazz in the Round takes place on the last Monday of each month: http://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/jazz_in_the_round_0.

Evan Parker w/strings

Evan Parker + 17In Munich for a football match a few years ago, I had a couple of hours to spare in the afternoon and paid a visit to Ludwig Beck, a department store on Marienplatz, the city’s central square. To me it’s a shop remarkable for its vast jazz department, where on the day in question I was able to count no fewer than 72 CDs by the improvising saxophonist Evan Parker: an indication of the esteem in which he is held in some parts of the world.

Tonight at Kings Place in London there was a concert in celebration of Parker’s 70th birthday. (Ten years ago, I interviewed him for the Guardian on the occasion of his 60th: here it is.) Talking to Sebastian Scotney in the current Kings Place magazine, he said this: “I like to have a space with an inspiring and supportive acoustic, a church or a church-like space. What I do in that context is more about intuition than analysis. There are things you try to control, with new combinations of reed behaviour and embouchure and cross-fingering. But that’s the starting point. The complexity of the partials and the overtones and the resonance will always be unique in the moment, and in the particular acoustic of the performance space. The saxophone is such a rich and flexible acoustic source, I will certainly run out of time before I discover all its possibilities.”

The concert featured 18 musicians: Phil Wachsmann, Alison Blunt, Sylvia Hallett and Dylan Bates (violins), Benedict Taylor and Aleksander Kolkowski (violas), Hannah Marshall, Alice Eldridge and Marcio Mattos (cellos), John Edwards, Adam Linson and David Leahy (basses), Django Bates (piano and peck horn), John Russell (guitar), Percy Purseglove (trumpet), John Rangecroft (clarinet), Neil Metcalfe (flute) and Parker himself. The first half consisted of collective improvisations by three quartets and two trios, the most effective of them consisting of Parker on tenor with Edwards and Russell, although Purseglove’s playing with the final quartet (rounded out by Bates, Hallett and Eldridge) sounded like the outstanding individual contribution. But nothing really caught fire: each group featured bowed strings in some form, and there was too little textural variety.

For the second half all 18 musicians were assembled, and it became obvious that what the earlier music had lacked was a bit of mass and density. Parker led off on soprano, chewing up staccato phrases as the rest joined in. There was clearly some form of organisation, although evidently nothing in the way of themes or other notation, and the music gradually assumed tonal and dynamic shapes, sometimes creating an unstated but felt pulse (* see note below).

Again the strings dominated the sound, but the increased heft of the ensemble worked wonders. Occasionally the half-hour piece sounded like a concerto for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra, but other instruments — notably Metcalfe’s pretty flute, Russell’s scrabbling guitar, Bates’s busy piano and Kolkowski’s weird skeletal viola, with its horn from a wire-recording device attached — periodically worked their way to the fore against the swirls, squalls and slow drift.

Parker dedicated the concert to the memory of John Stevens, the great drummer whom he met in 1966 and with whom he played in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. As he said in his dedication, Stevens was largely responsible for establishing and nurturing London’s free improvisation scene, which remains a vital field of musical research. The evening ended with a short unaccompanied soprano solo, demonstrating the new instrumental language Parker has been developing since those early days at the Little Theatre Club, one that continues to grow in complexity and richness of meaning.

* Alison Blunt read this and got in touch immediately to say that there had been no form of premeditated organisation.

Three’s company

Schlippenbach trioThe Schlippenbach Trio ended their 18-date European tour at the Vortex on Friday night with two sets of free improvisation that drew some of the most enthusiastic and sustained applause I’ve heard this year. Three musicians of immense experience — the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, the saxophonist Evan Parker and the drummer Paul Lovens — were operating, after more than 40 years of playing together, at a peak of inventiveness and maturity.

I was enjoying it too greatly to take much in the way even of mental notes, but the evening left a residue of powerful memories: Schlippenbach spending a great deal of time working in the octave below middle C, his playing austere but never forbidding; Parker producing wonderfully mellow improvisations, constantly searching for and finding the most perfect entry and exit points; Lovens leaning forward, staying close to the surfaces of his drums and cymbals, making time and no-time slip in and out of each other with a marvellous control of energy-flow.

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.