Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Iain Sinclair Live, with a jazz diluent

Trying to put into practice my New Year Resolution of going to see more varied live action, I was presented with a choice last night - to go and see the Alan Tomlinson Trio (with Veryon Weston supporting) at The Vortex, or Iain Sinclair with The Lost London Band further down the road at Cafe Oto. I plumped for the latter, reckoning that I already go to enough free improvisation gigs, and need to branch out more. 

Guess what?  I think I picked the short straw.

I have been to several Sinclair events before, including his London Orbital thing-y at The Barbican around fifteen years ago (mostly memorable for the non-attendance of J.G.Ballard) and remember feeling somewhat short-changed after most of ‘em. So I should have known better. The Lost London Band (tying in with Sinclair’s latest work of London psychogeography, The Lost London) is a three-piece of alto sax, double bass and drums. They both backed Sinclair reading/intoning his prosody and played unaccompanied, a brand of rather generic modal jazz which no doubt presents as ‘smoky lounge music’ to some, but is of an unexceptional bent (the audience seemed to love it however), and, for me, presented absolutely no need for any creative listening. It made me realise,(as if it were needed) how wonderful free improv is live and how jazz qua jazz can quickly become a rote series of gestures and tropes. It all was doubly annoying, as the band acknowledged that we were there, nominally at least, to see/hear Sinclair, but then proceeded to play around 45 minutes (at least) of just the band sans the poet.

The first set consisted of a lengthy instrumental, followed by the great man reading poems and prose from the book, including the ‘burrowing underground’ shtick from the Digging for Victory chapter (with the ‘mad signposts’ bit, probably the best section of the evening, for me). At times I was thinking of Stan Tracy’s version of Under Milk Wood, a recording where speaking voice and jazz group bonded together wonderfully, although a Bobby Wellins/Art Themen was sorely needed last night. The second set started with yet another interminable vox-free number, followed by Sinclair reading Too Late for the Ossuary, a rather underwhelming account of a bone orchard in Hyth church, a stopping-off point of one of his monumental walks, which is discussed at the end of his book. I couldn’t help comparing this (unfavourably) to Peter Riley’s Dead She Dances, another poem about bones surviving from the dim and distant past, recited by Derek Bailey on his solo album Takes Fakes and Dead She Dances (1998). It is coincidental that I attended the promotional gig for this particular album at the former Vortex site in Stoke Newington Church Street.

By the time Ossuary had wound to a halt, I’d pretty much had enough, and once the band kicked off yet another instrumental, and Sinclair sat down again, this prompted my beating a defeated retreat back to Kingsland Road and home. Ironically, my car was parked outside The Vortex and, from what I could make out, Tomlinson was playing up a storm (I could even catch a glimpse of his hyperactive trombone plunger from the street). Oh well, sometimes you make the wrong call. Can’t really complain though, as the price of entry for the Oto gig was merely £6. In an era when it is becoming the norm to charge nearly £50 to see some artists at Oto, this really was a more than generous entry fee, and certainly most of the audience last night clearly enjoyed themselves, and my reaction seemed to be very much in the minority. I think I will continue to try expanding my live listening this coming month,however, and have Jacques Demierre and Gavin Bryers down to shortly check out at Oto.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby