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At Last Some Live Music! The London Improvisers Orchestra.

I’m looking at the cover of a London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) recording made exactly 20 years ago, Freedom of the City 2001. A ‘true’ big band, it consisted of 39 (!) contributing improvisers. Reflecting our more straightened times, the LIO that I saw at Iklectik on Sunday night consisted of just nine members. (Steve Beresford is the sole member of both iterations.) It was, of course, wonderful to be attending a live music event, and I was hence somewhat disappointed to count only nine audience members in total, i.e. one for each member of the group up front. (It was somehow satisfying to note that there were 3 female members in both the band and the audience.) It should also be noted that the venue had only put out around sixteen chairs in total, so it wasn’t as if the potential numbers would ever have presented a management problem for the staff. At £6.50 a ticket, it was almost a return to a Little Theater Club dynamic of the late 60s, a tiny audience (no audience on some occasions, I have heard) and tiny profit (if any) for venue and musicians. I must admit to finding it mind-boggling that there were so few people willing to shell out a few quid for an evening of challenging and varied music, but hey ho, that’s improv, I guess. Perhaps they were exhausted by the footie and Love Island?

We had two sets, the first starting with a collectively improvised piece, moving on to an interpretation of a graphic score by Caroline Kraebel ('Missing’), a quartet improvisation and finally a 'conduction’ led by Steve Beresford. In the second, we had vibraphonist Jackie Walduck’s slightly chaotic (not her fault!) '2 Noughts Equals 1.4’, another small (5 in all) group improv, and, to conclude, flautist Rowland Sutherland’s 'Attachment’. With only a few minor reservations, inevitable in the world of the freely composed, the time flew by, and I was impressed by the octet of musicians who I had been previously unfamiliar with (I do hope that I have got their names right): Sutherland himself, baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts (unfortunately slightly hesitant at times, I felt), trumpeter Dawid Fredryk (who, at one point, produced a Harmon mute, and began channelling Miles Davis), melodica player and announcer Douglas Benford (admittedly an unusual instrument, and one that generally tends to fail to gain traction in this sort of environment), cellist Khabat Abbas, violin/violist Ivor Kallin, the impressive percussionist Ansuman Biswas (who reminded me of Miles’ 1972 band member Badal Ray, who can be seen in a celebrated photo on the sleeve of Dark Magus), Jackie Walduck (whose instrument uncannily resembled an ironing board, a conceit that would have well suited the old Feminist Improvising Group of days of yore), and Steve Beresford himself, on piano and grey eminence. (I was particularly taken with Steve’s conduction piece; he always seems to conjure up some stardust when using this format, and musicians clearly respond in kind to his many creative prompts and articulations.)

Sorely missing live music, I would have been happy with almost anything, tbh, but I was generally enthralled by the performances on offer here, from a group of young improvisers obviously on differing stages of their own musical 'journeys’. Hopefully, I’m off to see guitarist N. O. Moore, in trio with reeds player Sue Lynch next Friday at the Hundred Years Gallery (HYG) in east London, but can anyone please tell me: how do venues and/or musicians make any money by charging £5 at the door (as HYG seem to be doing)? “Don’t give up your day jobs” was never more apposite when looking at the undervalued (and perhaps even self-undervaluing?) world of UK free improvisation? There will probably be continuing tough times ahead for this still marginalised music, and I, for one, will be offering up £10 at that particular door for the chance to attend the event. This gesture of mine (which is all it is) seems only fair, and I can only hope that others will bear in mind how lucky we are to be hearing this music for such a ludicrously cheap price? There is and will be a paucity of visiting European and American improvisers for the foreseeable future, so let’s make the most of our homegrown talent.

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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.