A Film and a Gig - the first since March

So, on Friday (4th. September), I went to the cinema with my son in the afternoon, for the first time since mid-March - to see ‘Tenet’, Christopher Nolan’s completely chaotic and incoherent new blockbuster. There were only about 8 people in the place (Crouch End Picture House), so it bore some comparisons to a free improvisation gig! At least the audience at I’Klectik on Sunday managed to reach into double figure (the maximum allowed in had been set at twenty), but that admittedly included a few people who were working there. Like the cinema, physical distancing was thus easy peasy to accomplish, but the compulsory wearing of face masks was a constant reminder of the ‘new reality’(as opposed to the ‘new normal’). Still and all, it felt so good to be back in a live music scenario that all other factors and considerations could be put aside, even if only temporarily.

The evening consisted of members of the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) performing two separate paying performances; mine was from 19.30 to around 20.30, and the following from 21.00 onward. The earlier consisted of a sextet of Charlotte Keefe on trumpet, Adrian Northover on alto sax and introductions, Douglas Benford performing with a ‘harmonium’ (in fact, it was a digital sqeezebox, which was unfortunately only able to make an impression in the quieter passages), Jackie Walduck on vibes, bassist Geru Kempf and percussionist David Fowler and a modest, but effective, drum kit. I was unfamiliar with any of these LIO members, but they produced an interesting tapestry of ‘pointilliste’ free improv, putting me mostly in mind of the Withdrawal -era Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) of 1967, probably down to the imaginative use of the vibraphone (played, uniquely, by saxophone colossi Evan Parker. and Trevor Watts in the SME). It seems instructive to remember that this music is now over fifty years old, and what was once radical now seems almost quaintly institutionalised, forming  a definable and recognisable ‘style’. Some (not me, I hasten to add) might even suggest that it has even become an ossified form.

The LIO’s ‘eminence grise’, Steve Beresford, had sent in a five-minute prepared piano improvisation, and it was great to see a Founding Father starting off this performance by younger improvisers, if only from a social distance. There were good performances from all involved, and I was particularly impressed by Charlotte Keefe, who demonstrated a Lester Bowie-like command of various trumpet stylings. What did come to mind, however, without wanting to sound too critical of what was a very enjoyable event, was the problem of ‘endings’ in this music. There was an encore (or at least it felt like one), and after about ten minutes, there occurred what sounded to me like a perfect full stop in the sound (it proved to be a caesura), and I thought to myself, “lovely,  a perfect end to a very coherent set” (unlike Nolan’s film). What then occurred was what seemed to be some kind of interpersonal dissonance, and the bass player (I think) seemed to want to carry on, when the others, as far as I could ascertain, seemed to sense an appropriate ending - I could be totally imagining this, but the group seemed from this point on to flag somewhat, as if flailing about for lost connections,and the music seemed to be ‘going through the motions’, rather than creating a dynamic and genuinely interactive soundscape. I got to thinking once more, what a delicate process free improvisation always is, a tightrope walk, and it only takes a moment’s indecision or misunderstanding, to topple a carefully constructed edifice.

Of course, this was my very personal reaction, and the group’s experience may clearly be totally at odds with this. But this is a music that does have a ‘heart and soul’, whatever its detractors may think, and small, even imperceptible events, do affect the listener, thus validating many improvisers assertions that there is such a thing as ‘creative listening’ from an audience. I would further assert that free improvisation demands creative listening from its audience, in order for the latter to gain anything of use from it.

Staff informed me that, while things certainly remain uncertain, they hope to have more in situ gigs in October. Let’s hope so.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.