Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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AMM, Parker/Lytton, ‘Treatise’ - the spirit of 1969?

I’ve had a grand old time over the past two weeks, attending four gigs that crossed the free jazz/improv/composition divide(s), and which served to remind me of similar boundaries that were being explored and transgressed fifty years ago. It’s wonderful to think that many of the masters of that time are still active today, and that their explorations continue to challenge and fascinate those of us who are predisposed to listen to this stuff.

It all started with a performance at the rather stuffy Purcell Room (at London’s South Bank) by Barry Guy’s Blue Shroud Band, on the sixteenth of November, playing their eponymous composition that ‘celebrates’ the shrouding of Picasso’s famous painting, ‘Guernica’, by Colin Powell, when he announced the invasion of Iraq at a United Nations summit. A monumentally hypocritical and cynical act, according to Guy. As with so much of the bassist’s large-group output, ‘The Blue Shroud’ is a mixture of composed music and improvisations by the various members of his twelve-piece band. Opinions will always vary regarding the advisability of combining jazz improvisation and large-group written material (apart from The Duke, obviously), and my companions were less sold than I was about the performance, but it sparked a vigorous discussion, which is never a bad thing. I’m not a great fan of the sprechstimme of Savina Yattanou, but there was much else to enjoy from this pan-European collection of spirited improvisers, across a one-hour set. Guy’s music is complex, and I did benefit undoubtedly from previous exposure to the composition.

Three days later, on the nineteenth, we experienced a vital ‘free jazz/improv’ date at Cafe Oto, featuring the French bassist Joelle Leandre, with her trio accompanists of Alexander Hawkins (now surely established as one of our greatest jazz-based pianists?) and veteran drummer Roger Turner. This was a predictably intense and rewarding trio, but Leande remains a fairly obscure name in this country, even though she has been playing in the free improv world for decades. Turner and Hawkins gave her magnificent support, and, as ever in these sorts of gigs, it was very difficult for we listeners to guess how much was pre-composed and how much was ‘instant composition’. As if it really mattered?

A few days later, I was back at Oto, on the twenty-sixth, for an encounter with the ‘classic’ AMM trio of Eddie Prevost and Keith Rowe (it has actually been suggested, by Rowe himself, that any AMM formation MUST feature both musicians for it to be AMM) and pianist John Tilbury - a rare event nowadays, given the ongoing fractious relationship of Rowe and Prevost.  This ‘true’ AMM played a separate set, and then performed a version of Cornelius Cardew’s graphic composition ‘Treatise’(which AMM have previously essayed) with the French (again!) duo Formanex. This gig really deserves a review by itself, but it’s safe to say that this form of ‘improvised music’ (the only proper way to describe it?) remains sui generis, and almost beyond criticism or description. And they are still going after nearly fifty five unlikely years!  Only The Queen has offered more dedication to the cause over so many years!

And to finish this run, we had the monthly Evan Parker residency at The Vortex. It’s still amazing to think that this ‘national treasure’ is still performing for a few quid on the last Thursday of every month at this most modest of venues (which is another ‘national treasure’, without doubt). On the twenty eighth of November, Parker presented us with a dream quartet of Alexander Hawkins (once again), hardy perennial bassist John Edwards (incredibly flexible and always inspirational), and, mirabile dictu, the great Paul Lytton, who first began sparring with Parker fifty years ago, in the long-lasting ‘Parker/Lytton’ duo (1969-1976). What with having seen the ‘laminar’ AMM, in tandem with the ‘atomistic’ music of former Spontaneous Music Ensemble member Parker, it did feel that we were (somewhat fancifully, it must be admitted) thrust back into the late-sixties ‘golden age’ of the ‘improv wars’ of that time, back when the music was entirely new and entirely controversial. The same challenges that faced the 1969 crew still continue to face modern practitioners, however - our obsession with categories and labels continue to distance ourselves from properly experiencing the music itself (free improvisation/free jazz/ post-improv/ free bop/ post bop, etc, etc). 

Me? I’ve decided that ‘improvised music’ just about nails it. And am so glad that this dialogue between great improvisers continues across various London gigs (and beyond, I am reliably informed).

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 17th. studio album - ‘Ghosteen’

This isn’t an album review; there are plenty of those already out there. I actually waited to get a hard copy of Ghosteen, even though it’s been. available on-line for over a month. As usual, I love product ‘packaging’, in this case the much discussed ‘kitschy’ cover and the enclosed lyric sheet. Cave and his Seeds seventeenth studio outing, taken along with their live and soundtrack material, on top of The Birthday Party and Grinderman, is one more contribution to one of the most significant bodies of work in the rock canon. So, I’d just like to make a short set of observations about Cave and his not-so-merry men.

The key discussion point, for me. is whether it is appropriate to  who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of Tsplit The Bad Seeds into two periods of productivity; the Blixa Bargeld/Mick Harvey era, and that of the ‘Warren Ellis period’? Harvey, a multi-instrumentalist, and Bargeld, a guitarist who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of The Birthday Party’s late Rowland S. Howard, formed an obvious linkage to Cave’s first band. Ellis was a veteran of the Aussie trio The Dirty Three, another multi-instrumentalist, specialising in violin and keyboards’ joined as a junior member of the Seeds in time for 1997′s The Boatman’s Call (which still gets my vote for their greatest work, 12 short songs of immense emotional concision and depth). By the time of Ghosteen, Ellis has become the band’s musical director-in-chief, all keyboard washes and choral backgrounds, church-like in their accompaniment to Cave’s songs of innocence and experience, loss and redemption.

These two proposed incarnations of The Bad Seeds are very different beasts indeed (only Thomas Wydler and Martin Casey remain from the pre-1997 period). It is interesting to follow on-line discussion between Cave obsessives as to the changes that the band has gone through since 1984 and From Her to Eternity. These changes have been gradual and organic. Bargeld left at the cusp of the millenium (the albums of this period, 2001′s No More Shall We Part and Noctorama from 2003 are, coincidentally, the band’s two weakest, imho). Harvey lasted till 2008 and Dig Lazurus Dig!!!, another rather ho-hum affair, which produced few memorable tracks. 2004′s double, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (comparable to Tom Waits’s contemporary pairing of Alice and Blood Money?), and 2013′s Push the Sky Away are The Bad Seeds 2.0 most outstanding records for me. None, however, approach The Boatman’s Call, 1996′s Let Love In (which seems to be the dedicated Cave fan’s overall fave, from what I can ascertain) or Tender Prey (1988), my own particular introductory portal into the band’s universe.

Without labouring the point, the death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015 was a caesura of incalculable importance for the music of his band, without even considering its effects on his lyrics. He doesn’t seem to have recorded an up-tempo composition since the tragedy, andante seeming to be the fastest pace that he can consider. As a consequence, both 2016′s Skeleton Tree and now Ghosteen might be emotionally consonant with Cave’s state of being and are albums of remarkably moving maturity, but as works of art they can both be recondite and rather  monolithic. Understandably, Cave’s previously healthy sense of irony and humour have been largely sublimated. The portrait of the naked woman on the cover of Push the Sky Away now appears to be both flippant and prelapsarian from today’s perspective. One can only attempt to empathise with Cave’s loss and Ghosteen is a devastating listen, but inevitably things can never be as they were in musical terms. We can only be grateful that Cave is still as creative as ever, especially as Tom Waits seems to have retired (Bad As Me came out as far back as 2011), the only other rock writer from their generation that can hold a candle up to the quantity and quality of the Australian’s output.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 17th. studio album - ‘Ghosteen’

Getting hold of a new release the hard way in 2019: ‘Topographie Parisienne’

I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of the (relatively) new release of the Bailey/Parker/Bennink Topographie Pariesienne 4xCD release on Fou Records, but have encountered problems, which I think are indicative of how retail factors have changed so much over the past few years. This particular item is an exciting discovery, for those of us fascinated by early European free improv, offering the chance to experience the 1970 Topography of the Lungs line-up, in a later live situation, something which is hard to appreciate for the non-fan of this music. Think of a newly-discovered recording of Tony Williams’s original Lifetime trio from 1969, for example. Of course I want to hear it, and it’s only available in the compact disc format, which is currently about as available as a  VHS cassette, such are the dictates of fashion.

I tried to buy Topographie Parisienne from out current ‘record shops’, a thankless task (oh, for the days of Sound 323 on Archway Road, Mark Wastell’s all-too brief foray into the record retail business). I trekked to Cafe Oto’s small, rather up-itself , selection of arcane, yet improv-friendly stock (which inevitably promotes expensive vinyl re-releases), then moved ever eastwards towards Rough Trade East (a great shop). Nothing doing, however.

Now, I live in London, still  (maybe?) the head honcho of vibrant cities, so was surprised that it was so hard to get hold of this product, but there you go - where does you now go to get hold of a compact disc-only release nowadays, if you wishes to avoid using Discogs or Amazon? Here in self-consciously hip Crouch End, we have a record shop which heavily promotes vinyl records, both new and second-hand, and one is made to feel that compact discs are, essentially, the ghetto-side of the tracks, with regard to potential purchases. I’ve literally seen CDs become sidelined over the years in this particular shop, and shoved into a rather unloved side of the shop (the regular public still seems to like it, however). One gets the sense that asking to order a compact disc would be tantamount to asking for a Betamax tape (not that the young-ish staff would know what that was). Where, oh where, does one go to order a newly-released compact disc nowadays? Especially one that features ‘obscure’ music?

I‘ll tell you where. I ordered Topograhie Pariesinne from Discogs, whats more from a European retailer, thus incurring a £10 P + P surcharge. Poor me.

Moving on, it was interesting to see an article in Saturday’s Guardian about the supposed re-emergence of cassette culture. Where will the few remaining ‘record shops’ situate themselves with regards to this new ‘phenomenon’, I wonder? They won’t be able to flog ancient product for £20 or more, I’d predict.  Wire’s column, ‘Unofficial Channels’ has trumpeted cassette culture for many years, as have several other significant commentators and ‘scenes’, so it will be interesting to see how far this apparently retrogressive movement can progress in our current fixation with one particular old fashioned format (vinyl), in the face of some demand for the restitution of these others. There may well be more fans of compact discs than one might think.

However, I wish to state here my utter dislike of the completely flawed ‘jewel case’ - I’m utterly amazed that major record labels have failed to endorse an alternative to this utterly crap model, with it’s obvious design fault, the dual-hinged connectors that shatter once the product is dropped, or otherwise subjected to stress. I really cannot believe that this fault has not been supplanted, even after nearly 40 years of exposure to continuing consumer dissatisfaction. 

Or maybe I can, sadly.

Fifty Years and Counting...

Reading about the release of Topographie Parisienne, a 4 x CD recording of the Derek Bailey/Evan Parker/Han Bennink trio, live in Paris in 1981, made me think that their 1970 Incus Records (the very first that the label produced) landmark LP, Topography of the Lungs, is now nearly fifty years old. How did that happen?

There seems to be an increasing spate of 50th Anniversary events nowadays, an indication of how far we’ve all come in the world of experimental ‘popular’ music, and an indication of how many groups have persevered over time to continually produce exciting and innovative music.  The opposite to this longitudinal creativity is, of course, The  Rolling Stones, a configuration that has remained in vivo for over fifty years, mainly it seems, to make money and provide its members with something to do.

I’ve been thinking about three forthcoming gigs that I will be attending across November 2019, and the ages of their leaders - Barry Guy (born 1947), Evan Parker, (1944) and Joelle Leandre (1951). Two are in their seventies and one is soon to join them, but these are musicians who are still at the peak of their game, and are always still great to behold and to experience.

It’s interesting to compare them to the American presidential candidates in terms of seniority (Bernie Sanders is nearly eighty), and arguments that suggest that those over seventy years old (like Donald Trump, for example) are surely too old for such an august and challenging position. Probably this is an inappropriate comparison, “a false equivalence”, but it’s one that bears some thought, given the age of both rock music and free improvisation?

I’ve seen several concerts that celebrate the fiftieth (or ‘golden’) anniversaries of the following artists over the past few years: AMM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and, this year, the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and Anthony Braxton (his first recordings). This currently short list will surely grow bigger and bigger as the sixties and early seventies begin to recede in memory, and we should give thanks that there are still so many of that generation who still produce vital and incisive playing for us all to enjoy (”Trevor Watts at 80″, for example). There are very few of the fifties modernists left (Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz are the only ones that spring to mind), so it remains to us to continue to attend and support the occasions when these elders continue to grace us with their continually unfurling work. This is contrasted to putting up with yet one more rendition of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Satisfaction’, at a time in which both are surely rather creepy positions for any normal septuagenarian to adopt?

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