Warp and Weft

Gathering the Threads of Improvised Music.

Having attempted, in a previous issue of JMI (Vol. 2 No. 5), to make a case for the importance of improvised music, it might be worthwhile now to look at some of the more significant developments within this area of music – as well as in the more forward-looking areas of jazz – by examining some of the best CDs released in the last year. It is wise not to get isolated in a siding where definitions begin to matter too much, but it is important to make a distinction here between jazz and non-idiomatic improvised music, because while the former always mantains a connection to the continuum of jazz, from Armstrong to Ayler and beyond, many of those who work in wholly improvised settings owe no stylistic allegiance to any tradition (except, perhaps, to the meta-narrative of the music’s own discursive dialogue). Happily though there is an increasing tendency towards promiscuity, with the most creative musicians from both areas curious to hear what will result from an alliance.

One of the first and most influential of the groups to delink from the expectations suggested by the term jazz was AMM (which has had numerous formations but now features Eddie Prevost, percussion; Keith Rowe, tabletop guitar; and John Tilbury, piano). One of the more remarkable performances of recent years was their concert at the Project, in Dublin, last year (brought to Ireland by Whispering Gallery), an astonishing realisation of a very particular musical vision, one that questioned every convention of standard musical practice – no score, no thematic material, no solos, no leader – and with all sound on a horizontal plane (no ‘development’, no ‘climax’). Their most recent CD, Fine (Matchless MRCD46), begins in near silence (a readily available resource increasingly incorperated into improvisations with often surprisingly effective and even dramatic results) before crackling into life. This recording, like all their others, seems to be imbued with a fresh discovery of the possibilities of music creation; the summer’s day hum of electricity; the untraceable voice trapped in short wave static; the latent melanchony of single piano notes. It is an approach used to quite different effect by the superbly resourceful French trio of Sophie Agnel, piano; Lionel Marchetti, electronics; and Jerome Noetinger, electronics, on their CD rouge gris bruit (Potlatch P401) where Agnel’s random-seeming notes are intercut and overlayed by electronic eruptions that are variously either sympathetic or shocking: a total immersion in silence or a sawmill; the flickering of a faulty florescent light; tree shadows on a wall. It is an especially fine example of the layered, linear construction available by mixing acoustic and electronic elements.

Another example is Floating Phantoms (FMP/a/l/l/ 001) by the Tony Oxley B.I.M.P. Quartet (Oxley, percussion; Phil Wachsmann, violin, electronics; Pat Thomas, piano, keyboards, electronics; and Matt Wand, sampling). Here, along with the clanging ferment of Oxley’s drumming and Wachsmann’s post-serial violin playing, there is a great deal of textural smudging provided by the two younger players. Samples rush by like subliminal messages or urgent signals from a distressed witness. Thankfully they lack recognisable sources (no po-mo cleverness). They are used because they help to make fascinating music, the endless curiosity of uncertainty. They make music with positive momentum, a glorious din and, even here, occasional silence.

Some of the sound language used on Floating Phantoms derives from the compositions of Berio, Lachenmann, Cage and others, but just as important (or more so?) are the extended techniques developed by improvising musicians over the last three or four decades that have helped to create the shared aesthetic which allows musicians to meet – often for the first time – and play without preparation. One of the greatest and most important musicians to rethink and recreate the entire language of an instrument, and its purpose in both solo and group situations, is Evan Parker, whose soprano and tenor saxophone sound is utterly distinctive and always convincing. This is as true as ever on his new solo recording Lines Burnt In Light (Psi 01.01) where his use of circular breathing creates a multi-layered tangle of sound that seems infinite in its possibilities. The notes cross-hatch and overlay one another so rapidly that the creation of such music seems beyond human capacity. For the listener it offers the pleasure of total immersion, the loss of one’s self in its warp and weft, the sheer exhilarating joy of its endless spinning.

Parker is also one of those musicians around whom definitions collapse. One of the world’s finest improvisers, he is too a saxophonist immersed in – and informed both by and about – the jazz heritage, particularly that guiding light, brightest of all, John Coltrane. Like Coltrane he has a very precise understanding of group dynamics, so that he can readapt the limitless resources deployed in his solo playing for a collaboration with, for example, the twelve string players of the London Improvisers Orchestra. Their most recent meeting was recorded in London during last year’s Freedom of The City Festival (Emanem 4206). A previous encounter is spread over three mesmerising CDs – Strings with Evan Parker (Emanem 4302). On ‘Daylight Receptacle’, recorded during their live performance, sounds call and twitter, gathering like a dawn chorus, renewing and reasserting their right to be there before Parker integrates himself into the exultant cacophony. The dizzying tumult that results represents an astonishing example of what thirteen unfettered musicians can achieve. Along with the triple CD set, it marks one of the high points of recent improvised music recordings.

The remainder of the double CD Freedom of The City: Large Groups evinces the great possibilities of this philosophy of music, with excellent tracks from the string players without Parker, and the thirty-nine strong London Improvisers Orchestra. A ridiculous amount of people you might think, imagining a mixing of all the colours to give muddy brown. But it’s a rainbow, a highly disciplined listen-as-intensely-as-you-improvise session that is both enthralling and spirited. The saxophonist John Butcher is clearly a musician who has learnt much from Evan Parker’s innovations, but he has increasingly developed a voice which is allied to Parker’s but is uniquely Butcher’s own, particularly his as-if-it-were-an-electronic-instrument approach to saxophone playing. The resultant buzzing, whirring, hissing, scratching sounds are used especially well on a magnificent CD called The Contest of Pleasures (Potlatch P201), on which he plays tenor and soprano in a trio with Xavier Charles, clarinet, and the consistently outstanding trumpeter Axel Dorner. Three distinctive, individual and original musicians move in concord, exploring the space around notes, the foggy half-light of half-notes, the simple elemental beauty of air sounding through tubes. It is a superbly sustained agreement on the control of sonorities.

Another excellent trio is the more traditionally formulated piano/bass/drums grouping of Sylvie Courvoisier, Joelle Leandre and Susie Ibarra, who have recorded a CD called Passaggio (Intakt CD075). Only the dullest of piano trios are still constituted as a piano lead with rhythm support, but this is an especially notable example of a fully democratic trio in which each musician is both autonomous and a fully supportive member of a group. Sometimes you notice one player more than another, but listen again and another element is striking (the coherent sound of all three, perhaps). This is truely beautiful music: spectral, spontaneous, full of vivid colours, the richest and most precise detailing (like the background in a Renaissance painting). Unlike more noticed and well advertised piano trios these three are not concerned with mere mood creation – Lifestyle Jazz as accessory for the aspirational – their concern is with music making. It is just music, but essential.

Joelle Leandre is also part of a fascinating trio with Carlos Zingaro, violin, and Sebi Tramontana, trombone, that recorded a CD called The Chicken Check In Complex (Leo CD LR 340). This is carefully modulated playing born of a range of extended techniques that are deployed for their value in creating coherent, collective music rather than as demonstrations of individual, ego-driven excess. There is a woody character to this music, something deliberately grainy and unplaned; knotty certainly and full of splinters. As with all the best improvised music, there is an impression of each musician adopting a role that is simultaneously cohesive and provocative; always aware of the group dynamic, but equally aware of the necessity to dispel any drift towards complacency. Their constantly varying responses make this an especially compelling recording.

Another striking trio, and yet another configuration, is that of Aki Takase, piano and electronics; Alexsaander Kolkowski, violin and electronics; and Tony Buck, drums and electronics, collectively known as Dempa on a CD called Nine Fragments (Leo CD LR 346). Theirs is often a dense, swarming, mulitfaceted music; the electronic element creating a delayed after-image of sounds passed or infiltrating the music with conspiratorial, cabalistic mutterings. But at centre this is music laid open, melded and moulded as it happens, the incidental and accidental welcome too. This is exhilarating, expressionistic music-making of a sort that would be enjoyed by many, if only they could hear it.

While group playing is central to improvised music, solo playing has always afforded a particularly fascinating focus on the musical thinking of one individual. Not every player can function comfortably in that intense gaze but one who never fails to provide music of great worth is double bass player Barry Guy. His new CD Symmetries (Maya MCD0201) was recorded, with complete clarity of sound, at the New Hall at Ballytobin, near Callan in County KIlkenny. It is the most complete example of bass playing you could hope to hear. There has always been a strong lyrical element to Guy’s playing, threaded through his multi-dimensional, energy-concentrated, cleaved and reconnected soundscape (on Harmos, composed for London Jazz Composers Orchestra, and After The Rain, composed for London Sinfonia, for example) and it is an element often to the fore on this recording. This lyricism is not however the sort that pours forth, with ease, in rhetorical flourishes (as featured on many ECM releases), but is always the result of struggle and effort; a constant questioning, a refusal of the easy path. It is a decisive transcendence; a lick of red paint on black impasto. It is the balance between forces and its unforced balance that makes this such a profound and impressive recording.

I have tried here to give some idea of the range of activity in the most interesting and most neglected area of musical practice – improvised music. It is not possible with words alone and I have neglected to mention many of the great musicians active in this great music of spirit, particularly those in America. But I hope to come back to them another time. I do hope that if you haven’t already you may begin to explore some of this music. You won’t find it easily in any record shop in Ireland, but you will find lots of information about all of the musicians and labels mentioned at Peter Stubley’s invaluable website www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi. All the CDs can be bought directly from the labels concerned (they are small and human), but an excellent source for these and all other important, independent and non-commercial labels is Sound 323, 323 Archway Road, Highgate, London N6 5AA, or check the listings at www.sound323.com.

Published on 1 November 2002

comments powered by Disqus