The news of the death of the photographer Jak Kilby has saddened all those who called him a friend. I met him in 1969, when he was a year or two into his work of chronicling a section of London’s jazz scene bracketed by two bands: the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes. That lasted through ’70s and into the ’80s, resulting in a valuable record of the work of musicians such as John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and many others.
Jak was a warm, kind man, and he was close to the musicians. He shared houses with some of them and drove them to their gigs in, as Trevor Watts told me, a series of vehicles that invariably broke down. He loved the music — and that was how it was always known: the music — because, I think, of its human qualities and a spirituality that was inherent even in the playing of those who did not think of themselves in such terms. (Later he converted to Islam, adopting the name Muhsin, and moved to Malaysia, the base from which he travelled to explore the Muslim world.)
Since the news came through I’ve been listening to a new CD by the saxophonist Evan Parker, the bassist Barry Guy and the drummer Paul Lytton: three musicians regularly captured by Jak’s camera in his early years on the scene. It’s called Concert in Vilnius and was recorded in the Lithuanian capital in October 2017, making it the fruit of almost half a century of collaborations.
Starting out when jazz-based free improvisation was in its infancy, each of them achieved a great deal in terms of expanding the vocabulary of their instruments, which was always part of the project. Now we can listen to them expressing all the wisdom and confidence of their maturity in a language — individual and collective — that they created.
Of the four pieces that make up almost an hour of music, perhaps the most ear-popping is Part III, which opens with a prodigious solo by Guy, using many different resources to make his bass sound like a regiment. It moves into a passage of astonishingly detailed and dynamic percussion/bass dialogue, and then reaches full trio-sized fruition with the arrival of Parker, who unfurls one of his most astonishing tenor improvisations, moving from brusque lyricism to those mind-bending skirls that seem to exist in two or three adjacent dimensions.
The idiom may be half a century old, but it will never be an easy-listening experience; it demands attention and commitment from the listener as well as from the player. What Jak Kilby and other lovers of free improvisation recognised early on is how risk is answered by reward to a degree unavailable in any other kind of music. In those moments it can reach the sublime, touch the infinite.
* Concert in Vilnius is released on a Lithuanian label called NoBusiness Records. The photograph of Guy, Lytton and Parker is from the CD insert and was taken by Vytautas Suslavičius.