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).