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Posts tagged ‘Tom Challenger’

Tom Challenger’s ‘Imasche’

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.

* Tom Challenger’s Imasche is available as a limited-edition CD and a download from his Bandcamp page: https://tomchallenger.bandcamp.com/album/imasche. The photograph of Challenger was taken by Alex Bonney.

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.