Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Dominic Lash and his 40th. Birthday Bash

We had an immersive experience last night at Cafe Oto, one that involved two sets led, nominally, by double bassist Dominic Lash (whose fortieth birthday we were all celebrating), one involving a quartet and the other a twenty-odd large band ‘orchestra’. Both were superb, and reflected how experimental ‘free music’ is still strong and vital, at least here in the Brexit Britain’s capital city.

The quartet of Lash, John Butcher, Mark Sanders and John Russell was, for me, a wonderful example of so-called ‘pointillistic’ or ‘atomistic’ free improv, this being the micro-genre that was pioneered by John Stevens’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) from the years 1966 to 1994, the year of the drummer’s far too early death. Of course, Butcher was a member of the final edition of the SME, and both Russell and Sanders were long-term members of Evan Parker’s various ‘English Trios’, so they are no strangers to this philosophy of ‘group music’. Cafe Oto and The Vortex continue to regularly feature small group combinations of highly experienced free improv masters, and last night’s was yet one more addition to this series. Their forty minute set of ‘minute particulars’ would have been more than enough compensation for the eight pound entry fee (how these guys make a living with this sort of amount remains a mystery to me), but we didn’t expect the overwhelming experience of Lash’s big band in the second set, which left us shell-shocked and me searching for superlatives and comparisons.

The set was an ‘ascension’ of sorts (in Coltrane-ian terms), a gradual build up, from ‘pointillistic’ beginnings to a more ‘laminar’ drone halfway in and thereafter.  One of my companions suggested Gorecki’s Third Symphony or Terry Riley’s In C as immediate comparisons. For me, I was thinking of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No, 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (a most appropriate title), AMM’s The Crypt (in particular), Dave Burrell’s Echoes, Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra, and (inevitably) some Sun Ra. Add to these (again, inevitably) some ‘Japanoise’ such as Fuchitsusha and Merzbow. All these allusions aside, Lash’s ensemble (I didn’t catch a name) was in and of itself, but it did inhabit that zone where one began to hear sounds in the overall racket that were entirely subjective, arising as they did from the mulch of a huge orchestra producing multiple overtones and indeterminate sounds. There was no indication that this was a Lash-led ‘conduction’ (a la The London Improvisers Orchestra) or that it had any charts, graphic or otherwise. A ‘Cathedral of Noise’ just about summed it up, and we felt that the whole experience was, ultimately. perhaps best enjoyed without trying to excessively pick apart its architectonics.

In the end, I was left with a less jaundiced view of large-group improv than I might have had earlier. I’ve never been a huge fan of free jazz ‘orchestras’, but this was something different. It was certainly ‘beyond jazz’, entering probably into the world of ‘contemporary composition’ (whatever that may imply). There’s a lot of this out there (William Basinski, for example), but it was still somewhat puzzling to see this genre-crossing music being presented in a space where the band seemed to outnumber the audience, but maybe that’s just a refection of my own love of small venues and big ideas. I still don’t know how they put bread on the table though!! Hardly a new proposition, however, and I wish Dominic Lash well. He, and his contemporaries such as Alexander Hawkins, Jason Yarde and Shabaka Hutchings are the torch carriers for ‘jazz’.

In Memoriam - Jak Kilby

I want to write a short piece on the recently departed photographer Jak Kilby, who, among his many other achievements, was one of the very first lens artists to capture the burgeoning free improvisation scene in London across the late sixties and the seventies. This is why I first got in contact with him, back in 2015,

I was aware of his work as far back as the early seventies, as his pictures featured (along with the cartoons of the late Mal Dean) in the Melody Maker, the only ‘inkie’ that had articles covering the free improv scene at the time. Richard Williams wrote many and various features on the likes of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, AMM, etc, etc., often accompanied by Kilby’s eye-catching photographs. Very few other photographers could be bothered with this obscure micro-scene, so when I decided to write about this ‘other little world’, he was one of the first people that I approached. Even though he was based in Malaysia, having also converted to Islam, he proved very responsive and we worked out a mutually beneficial deal on the use of several of his works in my two books on the subject. He had also lived in Crouch End in the seventies, which proved to be another link between us.

I met Jak on only four occasions. He came to our house in Crouch End twice and stayed for several hours both times. We had a quick photo session, and poured over his incredibly extensive portfolio. He also sold me his copy of the original  Elektra AMMusic 1966 for a very reasonable price, and I will always treasure this autographed copy. We first met at The Welcome Institute Cafe on Euston Road and attended The Wire Xmas Party at Cafe Oto together in 2017, where I could witness first hand the amount of old and more recent friends the guy had. Jak was one of the most voluble people that I have ever met, and seemed to have an endless variety of shaggy dog stories and anecdotes to share with me. I encouraged him to put them in some sort of book form (just as I had encouraged John Jack, another doyen of the jazz scene who has passed recently). Unfortunately, he seemed far too busy in the ‘real world’ to find the time to sit down for the length of time this sort of venture would have needed.

I knew that one of the reasons he came back to England was to attend appointments at the Royal Free Hospital, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when I found out today that he had passed on, but it has still left me appropriately sad and reflective, glad to have had the opportunity to meet him and to discuss his life and projects with him, and especially pleased that my books are a couple of showcases for the latter. R.I.P, big guy.

A Prayer Answered - Thank Mike Barnes for a  Hopefully Decent Book about Early Seventies Rock Music

A few months back, I blogged about a book on the band Henry Cow, a quintessential seventies band. Towards the beginning of this particular communication, I said “I’m always up for a good read about music, and feel that the early seventies is a rather neglected period for leftfield recordings…so I’m always interested in those that explore that time in a positive frame of mind”. By ‘positive’, I meant a move away from characterising these years as entirely dominated by ‘prog rock’ and ‘jazz rock’, two rock music ‘diluents’ that are generally spoken about in disparaging terms, at least in accepted rock and jazz ‘histories’. Just as I was surprised, when researching for my books on the subject, about how little critics had written (in book form at least) about UK Free Improv, so I noticed how little they have approached so-called (at that particular time) ‘progressive music’, between the years of, say, 1968-1975. I also wrote about the Harvest label box set a short while ago, so was delighted to hear that Mike Barnes has taken on this mammoth task of delineation, in a book that is scheduled for a February release, entitled ” A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock in the 1970s”.

‘A New Day Yesterday” is, of course, is the first track on Jethro Tull’s sophomore album Stand Up, which does indeed ‘stand up’ to modern scrutiny (as did the original cover for the vinyl release, if we remember!), despite Tull’s rep as somehow representing the worst of seventies prog rock excesses (guitarist Martin Barre is my first cousin, so I have to declare some partiality here). It’s a great choice for a book title, as the contradictions of the period can have few more apposite signifiers than this band (for the record, I remain in love with both Stand Up and its successor Benefit, but threw in the towel thereafter). Author Mike Barnes is the brain behind what is still the definitive Captain Beefheart biography, so this subject should be in good hands (coincidently, my cousin and Tull hung out on tour with The Magic Band in the mid-seventies, and apparently got on extremely well. So there)

 JT were a progressive (’underground’ was the other trope)  rock band who gradually morphed (according to rock critics at least) into a ‘prog rock’ band. And herein lies the difference. I was there at the time, 15 years old in 1970, and witnessed what a motley crew the major record labels gathered together to present to us as some sort of unified front of hairy non-conformity. ‘Underground’ became ‘overground’ very quickly from what I remember, but the sheer variety of music on display has rarely been equalled (the last couple of years of that decade, 1978-80, perhaps?). This is one of the many themes that I trust Barnes will tease out in his forthcoming book, which will be available in early January through the Wire bookshop, apparently.

Luckily, I have the perfect companion for this read, in the form of Vernon Joynson’s classic 1995 encyclopaedia “The Tapestry of Delights” (there is an American cousin called “Fuzz, Acid and Flowers”). Joynson’s Alexandrian tome is subtitled “The Comprehensive Guide to British Music of the Beat, R & B, Psychedelic and Progressive Eras 1963-1975″. It’s a bit of a push to describe these 12 short years as being able to be parsed into ‘eras’, I feel, but the second half of ‘Tapestry’ should dovetail with Barnes’ material, and what an ‘era’ it was! There have indeed been significant literary milestones discussing jazz-rock (Stuart Nicholson) and prog-rock (Paul Stump), but here is the first book that really promises to take apart and forensically examine this most fascinating of times. Several prominent writers have, of course, touched upon the ‘British’ strain of psychedelia and its offshoots (Simon Reynolds and Rob Young, in particular) but this is the chance for Mike Barnes to contribute a groundbreaking study of rock music’s ‘dark ages’, an era deliberately buried over by punk and a revivified pop/dance scene from the late seventies onward.

Gene Clark’s “No Other” - Deluxe Reissue of a Genuinely Sui Generis 1974 Classic

I was delighted to see perhaps my favourite rock-related album given the full re-release treatment recently. When I first heard No Other, in 1976, I immediately loved it, from the kick-ass opening bars of “Life’s Greatest Fool” through to the ineffably affecting strains of the concluding “Lady of the North”. Punk was about to kick off, but, before I dived into it, I listened intently to this recording and to the eponymous double album by Manassas (whose Joe Lala features on No Other), another country rock classic, which have both remained at the very top of my ‘best of’ lists, and it is so great to see that No Other, at least, has gradually, over the years, become to be fully recognised, and to be spoken of in the same terms as Sergeant Peppers and Pet Sounds. No Other was only released on compact disc in 2002, and now this definitive remastering will become the edition to have, even though it only contains one ‘new’ track, ‘Train Leaves Here This Morning’, which sounds more like a sixties Clark number and demonstrates why it was left off the original vinyl creation, despite its undoubted quality as a composition. It’s lyrics are considerably less ‘cosmic’ than it’s siblings, and it’s down-home qualities make it a much more standard country tune than the philosophical quiddities that make No Other 1.0. so challenging.

The great Brian Morton, in this January’s Wire magazine, describes the brilliant sequencing of the track order on the original 1974 album, which is “still the perfect set list”, and is is odd on first hearing the different ordering of the ‘canonical eight’ of the ‘alternative versions’ on the second CD (the first recreates the vinyl sequence of the 8 near-faultless compositions, with no extra ‘filler’ deemed to be needed). It can, of course, be argued that the original No Other is entire unto itself (like Forever Changes, for example), an argument that I have considerable sympathy for. To make comparisons, the only other albums that I have several copies of (more than two, that is) are Forever Changes itself and Highway 61 Revisited. Some albums are so good that you want everything associated with the sessions that produced them, an approach that tends to leave normal people completely baffled. So, I love No Other so much that I was prepared to fork out twenty quid to purchase music that I already possess, both on vinyl and CD, with the addition of one track of about 4 minutes length, and different versions of the ur-tracks, that I had a loving relationship with for over forty years.

The alternate versions are interesting and essential for we No Other obsessives, of course! There is one for each original track, and, to me, they sound like preparations for the grand feast, less sumptuous, but still bearing the hallmark of wonderful songwriting and ripe for an ambitious producer. What is missing in these prototypes is the massed choirs and the ‘strength of strings’ of the final work, much less monumentalism, much less grandiosity (the latter quality being the factor that either makes or break No Other for most folk). Only ‘Spanish Guitar’ (a firm favourite of Bob Dylan) on Clark’s 1971 White Light (which also demands retrospective attention and acknowledgement) gave notice of what Clark was to achieve in the Village Recorder studio in L.A. three years later. I, for one, am more than pleased that its standing in the history books appears to be ever-increasing. Now for similar recognition for Stephen Stills’  sophomoric triumph Manassas?

“Too Much Junkie Business” - 3

I’m listening to Art Pepper’s jaunty “Smack Up”, which sounds like the alto player has successfully scored, rather than endlessly’waiting for the man’. Pepper’s outlining (or should that be mainlining?) of his first introvenous heroin hit puts Will Self’s attempt on the same thing, in ‘Will’, completely in the shade. Like describing a first acid trip, most attempts to describe drug-related loss of virginity remain boring and, somewhat paradoxically, mundane, but Pepper’a account puts the reader there, both viscerally and emotionally. Self, living up to his nane, appears to have starting to behaved like a junkie before becoming one, taking most of the bag that was meant for him and his rather naive friend, Pete. The tyro lowlife spouts out “Sorry, mate, I think I may have taken a little bit more than my share”, thus demonstrating both his entitlement and his lack of sense of danger. Luckily, the posh nature of his fellow junkies seems to have obviated the possibility of his receiving a well-deserved kicking. ‘Last Exit to the Hampstead Garden Suburb’, anyone?

Self’s nostalgie de la boue memories are predictably self-serving descriptions of student physical and spiritual squalour, Self’s hoped for journey to Celine’s ‘end of the night’. As if. His Oxford Uni band was called ‘The Abusers’, for Christ’s sake. Julie Burchill’s recollections of his no doubt falling-over-himself demonstrations of how to cook up crack cocaine, in her own diaries, seem somehow a symbol of the debasement of working class talent by the up-itself middle classes. Not that Burchill cared a jot, persuing her own vision of self-defilement through booze and food, as well as the rest of the well-rehearsed self-medicating options in the premises of the likes of The Colony Club and The Wag Club.

It’s all so tired, but Will Self can’t seem to leave it alone. Finally (he was pushing out books called ‘Junk Mail’ as far back as the nineties), in 2019, the allure of scag seems to have played itself out. Self’s memoire, in the light of the revelations about his behaviour in the real world of marriage and children, shows that smack and genius are not always co-related. Stick to Burroughs if I were you; there’s nothing to learn here, apart from the continuing incredible self-entitlement of the middle classes, and the down side of their bohemian fantasies.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby