Dominic Lash: A ‘Distinct’ and 'Discerning’ Artist

Having just put N.O.Moore’s two introductory recordings for his new label, DX/DY, to bed (see recent blog), I’ve been assimilating three more, this time from bassist/composer Dominic Lash’s slightly older venture, the neatly named Spoonhunt label. They are released on the first of this month (June 2021) and although the label has actually been in existence since 2015, these represent its first compact discs. Mr. Lash thought I might be interested in listening to them, the reason for this largesse being, I assume, that I blogged enthusiastically about his 40th birthday bash at Cafe Oto, (way) back in January 2020, one of the last gigs that I attended before the big shutdown came into full effect in March last year.

Imagine my pleasure in finding out that two of these CDs contained the first and second sets of the 13th January concert: the first by an untitled (and co-credited) quartet-to-die-for, consisting of Lash himself, the late John Russell (one of his last live performances?), John Butcher and Mark Sanders. Lash was in august company here, the others having been stalwarts of the free improvisation scene over the last few decades, being very much the 'new boy’, despite writing and playing since the mid-2000s. The disc is called Discernment, and is, as one would expect, top-notch 'group music’, in the sense that one of the scene’s founding fathers, drummer John Stevens, meant, in describing the (relatively) ego-free interactive music that involves active listening (from both players and audience), and the eschewing of gestural grandstanding and set-piece 'routines’ (such as extended solos, or other prominent forms of individualism and self-promotion). The set lasted for 40 minutes, an appropriate length for a birthday conceit, and an ideal time for this most demanding, for group and audience, type of live performance?

Distinctions is the real meat of this three-courser, however, a big band (20 members) named 'Consort’ by Lash (as in English court music of the 16th and 17th century), formed in 2013 to combine “sustained tone music, improvisation (both guided and free) and the relationship between acoustic and amplified sound”, according to its leader. Lash is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful composer, but basically this can be described more simply as “ 'Noise’ with an initially friendly face”. Think of the first disc of AMM’s immortal The Crypt - 12th June 1968 (if you can do this without shuddering), and you’ll have some idea of the delights and terrors in store. Starting off, and continuing for a considerable period, with pointillistic free improv, as classically practiced by the late- sixties Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the piece moves inexorably onto the 'laminar’ extremes of LaMonte Young, Glenn Branca and even My Bloody Valentine and The Bomb Squad, i,e, “…indicating both the density of simultaneous material…and the layering of contributions one upon another”, as jazz critic Kenneth Ansell described the 'laminar’ methodology as far back as 1985. The resulting album is excoriating, exhilarating, exhausting and ultimately gloriously cleansing. Unfortunately, some of the multiple overtones, frequencies and other fortuitous sonic byproducts of such a large ensemble in such a small space are lost on a domestic sound system. Having 'been there’, I can attest to a diminution of effect in the home setting, but this will in no way detract from the enjoyment for those that 'weren’t there’, just as not having been in Notting Hill’s Crypt chapel hasn’t in the least prevented me from complete immersion in that singular performance of so many moons ago.

The final album is called Limulus (apparently a species of sea crab), by another quartet, with Lash joined on this occasion by Alex Ward (playing solely electric guitar here), and two Spanish improvisers, knotty alto saxophonist Ricardo Tejero and melodic drummer Javier Carmona, both previously unknown to me, and acquitting themselves very well here, in this most testing of environments. Made more 'rock-y’ by Ward’s guitar, this group is named The Dominic Lash Quartet, and feels more part-composed than the entirely 'free’ Discernment (all writing credits go to Lash). It forms some kind of a mid-point between Discernment and Distinctions perhaps, and is , in very relative terms, more of a 'straight ahead jazz’ record. That is if you consider the Anthony Braxton quartets of the 70s and 80s to be 'straight’: 'Electric bebop’, as Paul Motion once described it.

That’s all that space really allows me, in a limited format such as this, but there is much more that could be said, and I consider these three recordings to be an ideal 'primer’ for anyone interested in exploring the shores and shoals of free improv. Or providing confirmation, for more seasoned sea salts, that the ship remains in the safe hands of younger crew members.

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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.