In the gig-free year and a half that ended only a couple of weeks ago, among the things I missed most was free improvisation. There’s nothing like the experience of being there when it happens, watching something being created from scratch, seeing as well as hearing the music take shape through the interaction of the players in a particular environment. Very occasionally an album succeeds in capturing the ephemeral nature of collective improvisation in a way that loses none of the music’s dimensions. Into that category comes Imasche, a new recording on which the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger is joined by the pianist Alexander Hawkins and the drummer and percussionist Mark Sanders.
Recorded in London last December, it consists of three pieces, each with an enigmatic title. The first, “BriXII”, 17 minutes long, is the most extroverted, uncoiling from a furtive opening into an active three-way conversation full of inventive responses. Challenger has a lovely way of playing that reminds me of Sam Rivers: a light, fine-grained tone, a certain way of phrasing that brings phrases back on themselves, swift touches of note-bending and flutter-tongueing, exploiting mobility without agitation and velocity without aggression.
The second piece, “GesS”, at nine minutes, has the exquisite delicacy of a Japanese watercolour: gentle rustles and small bells and gongs from Sanders, damped and lightly strummed piano strings from Hawkins, false-fingered long tones and harmonics undergoing shifts of timbre and register from Challenger.
If you’ve ever thrown up your hands and decided that free improvisation was a dead end, listen to the final piece, “TanN”. Stretching over half an hour, it takes its time as it shifts focus and momentum, becoming a compelling slow burn that provides a perfect example of how successfully this generation of musicians has metabolised and extended the experiments conducted at the Little Theatre Club and elsewhere in the 1960s. Throughout Imasche we hear three musicians refining a language that is now as eloquent as any other — and sometimes, because of the demands it makes and the qualities it brings out of its finest exponents, even more rewarding.
Organising free improvisers might seem like a fool’s task. Why would the special breed of players who spend their lives resolutely creating music from scratch suddenly want to submit to the will of a composer? Nevertheless, history proves that sometimes it works: notable successes were recorded by Michael Mantler with the original Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his Globe Unity Orchestra and Barry Guy with the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. Each project depended to some extent on the leader/composer’s familiarity with the techniques of contemporary European straight music, but the idea was given new impetus with the introduction of the looser and perhaps more organic-to-the-idiom technique of “conduction”, pioneered by the late Butch Morris and pursued by George Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey, among others. Slightly to one side were the adventures of the British duo Ashley Wales and John Coxon, known as Spring Heel Jack, who created stimulating modern environments for many individual improvisers, including Wadada Leo Smith and John Tchicai.
The first sound heard on Togetherness Music: For Sixteen Musicians, Alexander Hawkins’ new album, is that of Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone, unwinding its always surprising coils of sound, the seemingly unbroken skeins of notes punctuated by split-second darts and lurches into other registers. As usual, it’s exhilarating and mesmerising, particularly when the sound of the isolated soprano blooms with reverberation, which may or may not be the natural property of Challow Park Studios in Oxfordshire, where the set was recorded. But then Hawkins introduces his other resources: the five string players of the Riot Ensemble and nine other musicians, including the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the saxophonist and flautist Rachel Musson, the cellist Hannah Marshall, the bassist Neil Charles, the drummer Mark Sanders, and Matthew Wright on electronics, all conducted by Aaron Hollway-Nahum. Gradually they add sombre pedal-points, heightening the atmosphere before Parker drops out and the strings begin to slip and slide until the piece ends, after almost 10 minutes, with several of them holding a tentative D natural.
Sanders and Pursglove are the next to get the concerto grosso for improvisers treatment, a layer of restless percussion under the silvery trumpet continuing into a dialogue with written lines for flute/bass clarinet and viola/cello. On the third piece Parker returns for a pointilliste conversation with Hawkins’ scrambling piano in which the Riot Ensemble make their full presence known, soaring and churning as the music holds itself together through some mysterious centripetal force.
Hawkins, the 16th musician, is featured on the fourth piece, against a walking line played by two basses (Charles and Marianne Schofield) and possibly one of the two cellos, too. Showing the pianist at his most inventive and hyper-alert, it has the loping gait and harmonically ambiguous flavour of the music created by young Cecil Taylor and the bassist with his early groups, Buell Neidlinger, before Parker pipes up with a reminder of another early Taylor collaborator, Steve Lacy, in a passage of ensemble agitation that resolves into an elegant, ruminative diminuendo.
The strings dominate the fifth piece, a collective statement in which the individual instruments glide around each other as if in mismatched orbits, the fine details of tone and timbre revealed within an aural space that feels busy yet uncluttered. The sixth and final composition opens with a trio of Charles, Sanders and Wright, bass and drums working around light electronic taps, thuds and crackles. Pursglove and Hawkins emerge with staccato trumpet figures and a purposefully wandering single-note piano line, continuing as Sanders briefly dominates with thrashing brushwork before the other musicians reappear in a crescendo of exultant sound. A graceful withdrawal gives the last word to Parker and Hawkins, two improvisers who share a near-infallible instinct for an ending.
The six pieces are titled, in order, “Indistinguishable from Magic”, “Sea No Shore”, “Ensemble Equals Together”, “Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher”, “Ecstatic Baobabs” and “Optimism of the Will”. I’ve described them in such details because the more you listen, the more distinctive they become: each one a living organism with its own cellular structure, texture and micro-climate. I’ve said before that Hawkins has a rare understanding of how to combine composition and improvisation, and here, in this very special recording, we have a perfect example of his gift.
Perhaps I’ve found Togetherness Music particularly valuable because I’ve missed attending live performances of free improvisation very much over the past year. Recordings of small groups, however excellent, aren’t the same thing as hearing and seeing this music conjured in front of you. But by framing improvisation so creatively, Hawkins brings it to life in a different way.
* Alexander Hawkins’ Togetherness Music is out now on the Intakt label (www.intaktrec.ch)
It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, that music in praise of football and footballers tends to concentrate on South Americans — I’m thinking of Jorge Ben’s “Filho Maravilha” and “Ponte de Lança Africano” and Manu Chao’s great song in celebration of Diego Maradona, “La Vida Tombola”. Alexander Hawkins’s “Unequal Baobabs (Goal by Garrincha)” is something different on the same subject.
The piece was given its debut in London last night as part of Expect the Unexpected, a two-night affair in which 25 composers were each invited to submit a one-page score to be performed, without rehearsal, by the band of Club Inégales, led by Peter Wiegold. Part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, the second night in this basement bar off Euston Road featured pieces by Alice Zawadzki, Orphy Robinson, Mark Sanders, Matthew Bourne, Pat Thomas and others, interpreted by a 13-piece ensemble of improvising musicians — an expanded version of Wiegold’s regular band, Notes Inégales.
I had a particular interest in Hawkins’s piece since its existence is the indirect result of a conversation we had a couple of years ago, on the subject of football, during which I recommended a book by the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano called Football in Sun and Shadow, published in an English translation 20 years ago. Galeano’s brief chapters include one called “Goal by Garrincha”, in which he described the effect of a particularly dramatic strike by the great Brazilian winger during a World Cup warm-up match against Fiorentina in 1958.
Hawkins’s score consists of eight “cells” of note sequences, with written instructions such as “Proceed at own rate; no need to synchronise” and “Any cell may be transposed into any octave”. Galeano’s words were read by Zawadzki, who was also playing violin and singing in the group, and by Notes Inégales’ regular percussionist, Simon Limbrick. The piece began with a drone on G and ended after about 20 minutes with all the instruments sustaining their highest possible pitch, at minimal volume. “Hold this final drone for as long as we dare,” Hawkins instructed, “and even then a little longer.”
I meant to ask the composer if he’d also read Ruy Castro’s classic biography of Garrincha, where the author describes the other Brazilian players’ reaction to the goal — in which the player dribbled past the entire Fiorentina side before making a fool of the goalkeeper as he scored. Garrincha’s team mates refused to celebrate with him and were bitterly critical afterwards, complaining that any attempt to repeat such an individualistic feat during the World Cup itself would risk damaging their chances of winning the trophy (which they did, of course).
Football and jazz: both are completely dependent on improvisation, individual and collective, on players with a sense of adventure and possibility but also with a sensitivity to the potential of their colleagues. The two hours of music I was able to hear last night, featuring pieces by Robinson, Sanders, Zawadzki and Helen Pappaioannou as well as Hawkins’s contribution, was full of those qualities. I particularly enjoyed the playing of Hyelim Kim on the taegum (a Korean bamboo flute), Jackie Shave on violin, Ben Markland on bass guitar, Torbjörn Hultmark on trumpet and Chris Starkey, whose interventions on an orange plastic-bodied Airline electric guitar were often startling and always stimulating.
The moods ranged from the refined beauty of Zawadzki’s “In an Old Theatre” through a strange almost-irony in Sanders’ variations on “What a Wonderful World” to the broad humour of Robinson’s piece, whose changes of direction were indicated by the composer via commands displayed on his iPad, the last of which instructed the musicians to blame each other. For once, post-match recriminations were not confined to the dressing room.
The title of this blog is taken from my book The Blue Moment, published by Faber & Faber in 2009, in which I tried to look at how Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue had influenced half a century of modern music, from La Monte Young and Terry Riley through James Brown, John Cale and Brian Eno to Arve Henriksen and the Necks.