Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Dave Holland and Evan Parker - A Rare Conference

I braved the snow and drove to Dalston’s Vortex Club this evening to hear a rare pairing of two of the masters English free improv, double bassist and long-term American resident, Dave Holland, and long-term Vortex’ resident’, saxophone maestro Evan Parker. Then again, having paid forty pounds for a ticket, it would have taken more than a spell of inclement weather to keep me at home away from the action. The hefty entrance fee reflected the fact that this was a fund-raising gig (two sets, of which I attended the second, at 22.00 hrs) for the club, which is, as ever, facing financial strictures. Holland admitted that he had only become aware of the club a couple of years ago, having been living in the States for several decades, but Parker has had a regular residency there for as long as I can remember, and remains the venue’s most high profile supporter.

Vortex habitue Oliver Weindling introduced the set. Usually the garrulous type, Ollie kept it succinct tonight, and I overheard Evan joking to him that he sounded a bit ‘gloomy’. That’s not what I got from his brief speech, but he certainly got across to the capacity audience the fact that the club is facing an awful lot of difficulties. Looking across the wall-mounted set of historic fliers which had advertised the club since August 1992, I was forcefully reminded of it’s vital role across three decades of London improvisation, and how we are in danger of taking this sort of environment for granted. It has probably taken a bit of a hit from the trendier competition from Cafe Oto down the road, who can clearly now afford to pay the more expensive American improvisers like Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Anthony Braxton, but The Vortex’s longitudinal  dedication to UK free musicians remains a cynosure, and I would recommend it above anywhere else for the ineluctable ‘vibe’ that so many ‘jazz’ clubs aim for, but usually fall far short of. I remember the Bass Clef, in a now-unrecognisable Hoxton in the eighties, and the original Jazz Cafe on Newington Green as having similar qualities. For the even older-timers, Dave Holland alluded in his introduction to Ronnie Scott’s Old Place, where he played as a teenager in the sixties, and which was a short-lived incubator of British (and the South African diaspora) free improvisation, providing an alternative, and/or companion gig to The Little Theater Club.

It is surprising to see how few times these two musicians have recorded together in the (almost exactly) fifty year period since Karyobin was produced on the 18th. February 1968 - my counting-on-one-hand calculation came up with only Company’s Fables (with George E.Lewis and Derek Bailey) from 1980, and Ericle of Dolphy (with the Paul Rutherford and Paul Lovens) from 1976/85. In point of fact, these relatively tranquil and reflective records put me in mind of the music that the duo produced tonight - Parker almost sounding to me like Warne Marsh with his legato more in evidence than usual, perhaps in honour of his companion, whose bass playing avoids ‘extended techniques’ and exhibits a profound classicism. The penultimate number, a bass solo, which featured a ‘walking bass’ section, was marked by Holland’s timeless woody sonority, which sounds like no other bass player that I know. He makes it all look absurdly easy, as opposed to bassists like Barry Guy and John Edwards, who do the exact opposite. The final duo was an master class in togetherness, note-perfect as if it had been scored, but with an spontaneous vigour that put me in mind of Holland’s joyous classic Conference of the Birds (the individual track and the album itself). For some reason, the expression ‘West Coast counterpoint’ entered my mind during this piece (in a good way). Given the temperature and weather outside, listening to these two was like taking a warming bath, and the audience seemed quietly invigorated by this very rare opportunity to hear the only members of the Karyobin team who are still with us.

As Evan toasted at the end, “Long Live The Vortex”. And so we all agreed. And long may these two masters live, who tonight celebrated informally a half century of outstanding improvisatory practice.

The Aesthetics of Imperfection

Faux-pretentious, moi?

The above is actually the title of an essay that I have been asked to write for an upcoming Festival on the subject of improvisation, which will be held in Newcastle in the autumn. The commissioner for this piece is Andy Hamilton, the writer best known, to myself at least, as a long-term contributor to Wire magazine, and he has given me a very wide remit with regards to this topic. Thankfully. It’s enabled me to cast my net wide, so I am going to use it as a springboard for a blog.

The notion of ‘perfection’ implies that something is hard to improve on. I have just stopped reading a book that is as far from perfection as I can imagine, but I want to have something to show for my expenditure of seventeen quid or thereabouts. The title of this book should have told me something, but I blithely ignored any reservations that I may have had - it is as follows:

‘‘A Hero for High Times: A Young Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Heads, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New Age Fellow Travellers, Dog-on-a Rope Brew Crew, Crusties of the British Isles’‘.

It’s written by a guy called Ian Marchant, and was given a thumbs-up by Iain Sinclair in The Sunday Times, and is clearly aimed at the younger person, as it says and I dread to think what this notional young person will think of my generation after reading it . It certainly looked promising, as it purports to cover the counter-culture, if I am allowed to call it thus, much of which I have lived through and continue to find fascinating. In point of fact, the subject has been analysed on multiple occasions, and George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty nailed it particularly well as far back as 1996, just a couple of years down the line from Marchant’s work, which is essentially a biography of a chap called Bob Rowberry, who purports to be an emblem of the ‘high times’ promised by the book cover. I gladly gave up before page 50, as what the book actually consists of is Rowberry’s foul-mouthed self-glamourising, spread over 450 pages. I started to lose the will to read at his intricate memories of the hiding in bomb shelters at the age of 2 (born in 1942). Anything to make this guy appear in any way interesting. It reads exactly like a conversation with a pub boor, and the dog-on-a rope Brew Crew allusion is all you really need to know. It isn’t helped by Marchant’s fawning interview style, which potentiates his subject’s broggadocio about how many women he’s shagged, how many guns he’s handled, how many drugs, how many famous people, etc. A counter-culture Zelig, and not in an interesting way.

Honestly, its far, far worse than I can describe in a format like this.

This is a shame, as Marchant clearly knows his stuff,and writes well, but it all becomes insufferably tedious once Rowberry opens his mouth. In all it’s imperfection and bad vibes though, I did find the appendices good fun, as they include a wonderful list of period films and books that really help to rediscover (for us oldies) the world of the 1970s, a period in which I was growing up and reading/viewing very many of the books/movies concerned. It’s a bit like the oft-cited aspect of Islamic art - except that this time the author has put in something of worth in the context of a surrounding piece of dreck, instead of the other way round. One has to get into a war-time spirit when confronted with stuff like this, and make a little go a long way.

Karyobin - 50 Years On

If no-one else is going to do it, then I will.

My last few blogs have been a bit pre-occupied with anniversaries - the 100th year of recorded jazz, the fascination with key years. Tomorrow (Monday the 18th February 20i8) will be the 50th anniversary recording of what is probably seen by historians, such as they are, of English free improvisation, as THE key recording of it’s early history. Rightly or wrongly - this is not really the place to debate whether there are more worthy examples. This is Karyobin (are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise). To give it it’s full title, prompted by Japanese Gagaru court music.

Martin Davidson of Emanem Records managed to get hold of the original masters, which had been eventually purchased from engineer Eddie Kramer by saxophonist Evan Parker, who arranged for their remastering for the CD, Emanem 5046.  (I have reverted to nerd-speak to acknowledge the obsessive nature of the previous ruminations about this recording, the LP version of which has always remained  extremely rare and collectible). The Emanem now replaces the 1993 Chronoscope release, with a sound that is much fairer to the rhythm section, and contains “more detail and a better balance” according to Parker, and I am not about to argue with free improv’s most respected and venerable representative, There are some new session photos taken by Jak Kilby in his early days, with particularly good ones of John Stevens’s kit with its small toms and mini-cymbols and of an intense Derek Bailey (called Dennis on the original sleeve) playing in Stevens’s foreground. It is salutary (given the stupendous size of their eventual output) to consider that this was Evan Parker’s very first (just in front of Brotzmann’s Machine Gun) commercial recording, as it was Bailey’s. The original LP came out on Island Records’ Hexagram subsidiary, apparently with the intention of it becoming a free improv feature, but it ended up as Island’s only dip into the nascent genre, once they saw that Traffic, Free and Fairport Convention were liable to shift many more units. CBS Records briefly took up the torch, with two records each by the Howard Riley Trio and Tony Oxley Groups. After that the music was reliant on the world on independent labels such as Incus and, later on, Emanem Records.

I got my book on the early days of English free improvisation out in 2015, just in time for the nominal 50th anniversary of the music, and I have been slightly disappointed about the lack of other books on the subject, which I thought might also come out in celebration. There were David Toop’s book on improvisation and John Corbett’s small introduction to the subject, but nothing else, as far as I am aware. It would be great to see alternative approached and viewpoints on this most creative of periods in English music.

My Cassette Pets

There is an article in today’s Times, “Why That Trip Down Memory Lane Is Lined With Tapes”, which makes salutary reading for those of us who will never see 60 again. Some researchers (don’t these people have proper jobs?) have come up with a Top 20 list of “things we miss most” in the wake of 21st century technology. It’s certainly an interesting list, although it alarmed me that ‘Buying CDs’ came in at number 9. I still buy the occasional CD and, like many of my age, still like the idea of a non-virtual library, within which one has to shift oneself off one’s backside in order to to pick an item from one’s still- literal shelves. It at least involves some slight movement and thinking, and the use of one’s own algorhythms, rather than one chosen by YouTube or Google.

However, top of the list is ‘Making Mix Tapes’, something which is, again, not strictly moribund, as some underground genres thrive on the cassette format (as featured regularly in Wire magazine’s ‘Unofficial Channels’ section). Now cassettes were always clunky, but seemed a godsend by the mid-70s, when the reel-to-reel format appeared impractical and space-occupying in comparison. ‘Home taping are killing music’ we were all told and all promptly ignored, given how much we were saving. The problems soon became evident when filing - if you were like me, you stuck single tracks (album highlights, for example, and singles) at the end of each 45-minute side of the cassette, which made rapid retrieval a time-consuming pain. Most people ended up with unmanageable mounds of ill-assorted, precariously-labelled, plastic cover-less, difficult-to-store, unattractive tapes which had even less appeal than the soon-to-be-ubiquitous compact disc.

Peak Tape was probably around 1980. I have a few Factory cassettes, which at least made attempts to be different - the ‘art magazine’ compilation made with trendy label of that moment, Les Disques du Cresuscule, called From Brussels With Love, which was achingly up itself but good fun (from late 1980 from what I remember), the transparent green envelope that contained A Certain Ratio’s fantastic live/studio career high, From the Graveyard to the Ballroom, and the 4 x cassette box (the size of a CD boxset) which contained early Durutti Column material. The first of these had the novel idea of having the end of the music on Side One being synchronised, when you turned over the tape, with the beginning of Side Two - thus missing, if you didn’t fancy or inevitably got sick of, the 10-minute interview with Brian Eno at the end and beginning of the respective sides. These, along with the titular BowWowWow single Your Cassette Pet (1981), marked the high water point for cassette culture - they eventually proved too un-sexy, as did compact discs, which led in the end to the return of one item which hasn’t become inoperational, and actually returned from the moribund - vinyl records. Although, from what I can gather, modern vinyl collections tend to be ‘For Viewing Only’, which makes them more like museums than libraries. I’m somewhat reminded of comic collectors who keep their precious product sealed away in airtight bags. At least cassettes were intended to be practical - it’s a shame that the list didn’t include the Walkman.

Check the list out - it’s a real momento mori.

Anni Mirabilii - What’s In A Year?

Having written two books which have clear temporal boundaries - i.e. between 1966 and 1979 - I have been sometimes preoccupied by the significance, real or imagined, of particular years in the history of popular music.  Somehow we seem to have become fixated with the three years of 1965, 1966 and 1967 as the miraculous years, a mid-decade triumvirate that is meant to represent the apogee of achievement in terms of both quantity and quality.

For myself, the years 1978 to 1980 were the three years that I fondly recall for the seemingly never ending amount of outstanding product that unfolded at the time. The so-called ‘Summer of Hate’ (1977) may have been the one of the most interesting year in terms of cultural shift and excitement, with the press as outraged at the behaviour of punks as it had been ten years earlier with that of hippies - both part- and full-time.  However, although I remember it 1977 as being both unsettling and a wake-up call in many ways, in retrospect it didn’t really produce an awful lot of immortal recordings, not surprisingly, as one of the selling points of punk was it’s musical atavism. But the following three years, which were eventually named, rather clumsily,’ post-punk’, bore the full flowering of many of the ideas and ideals of the Blank Generation. Gary Mulholland, author of the very readable This Is Uncool: The Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco, sees 1979 as the greatest single year in pop history, “the last year in the playground before it was forced to grow up”, an opinion which I happen to share, apart from my view that the music dumbed down rather than matured from that point on.

All this was occasioned by Richard Williams’ latest blog, about 1965, which he fills largely by a list of the myriad fantastic recordings produced that year. Williams cites Jon Savage’s CD retrospectives of the three sixties anni mirabilii, 1965-67, as further proof, if any more was really needed, of how chock full of goodies those years were. Savage himself seems to have made a good living out of both mid-sixties and mid-seventies music, and good luck to him, he is a fine writer. His hefty book on 1965: The Year the Decade Exploded (2015) is highly recommended, as, of course, is his book on (mainly) 1977, London’s Burning, which still remains the definitive book on Punk. I’ve got the box set, Punk & New Wave, 1976-1979, with it’s great ‘badges’ design, but, when I compare this to the absolute mountain of mid-sixties compilations of mod, freakbeat and psychedelia clogging up my shelves, it seems that the post punk diaspora still has some way to go in terms of historical monumentalism.

I was only 10 years old in 1965; by 1977, I was 22, so naturally the later years are more ‘alive’ for me, although I do have clear memories of the pop scene of the mid.late sixties, as it was so inescapable (having an older sibling also helped). It seems that the sixties trio will forever be seen, by critics at least, as the Golden Age. But what about other years? The venerable David Hepworth had a go last year, with plugging the importance of 1972 of all years, but I remain wholly unconvinced by his arguments. Simon Reynolds was much more plausible with his wonderful Rip It Up and Start Again (the period from 1978-84), but I still await somebody else, probably someone much younger, trying to convince us that a particular year, say in the nineties and noughties, bears half as much musical and/or cultural heft as any of those of fifty years ago. I suspect that the contexts in which music is consumed has changed so much in these fifty years that such a competition might be next to impossible.

Older Posts

Custom Post Images

Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby