Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


The Male Gaze

Having only produced two books, I am still getting used to dealing with formal criticism. This month’s Jazzwise (October) features a review of Convergences, Divergences & Affinities by Garth Cartwright, which, to be fair to him, is a pretty positive one, and I thank him for this.  However, there is one point that I would take up - his comment to the effect that I “overlook how (the music) overwhelmingly appeals to males”. Now, the reason that this slightly riles me is because I have taken considerable effort, in both my books, to acknowledge the factor of male domination, but it is something that is a slippery phenomena, and somewhat difficult to explain (apart from the overwhelmingly obvious sexist narrative).

No less an improviser than Thurston Moore pointed out that I had reflected on the lack of female improvising presence, in my first book. In my second , the section entitled ‘cock-improv’ (pp. 123-130)  further explores this, so I do wonder whether Mr. Cartwright actually read the whole book. I was also at pains to point out the forgotten influence of Derek Bailey’s early partner, Janice Christianson, for example, which a couple of veteran reviewers picked up on, and also the undoubted importance of the Female Improvisers Group.Janice has become a forgotten figure, for reasons that are not difficult to explain, once the circumstances are known. The role of female musicians in punk music is discussed in the book, as well as some theorising as to whether there is such a thing as ‘female’ or ‘male’ music in general, so I do feel that the phallocentric aspect of free improv is given more than slight attention in the pages of my books.

I am, of course, a tad defensive here. The whole issue of critical response to a work is fraught with dangers for the writer’s ego. I intend to blog shortly, for example, on Gary Giddins, an exemplary master of his craft, who has given me pause to think about several jazz-related issues. But ‘women in free improv’? Hmm. This is a tricky subject, but something we can all agree on is that there is a gross gender imbalance of performers in the field. There are certainly more female improvisers out there than there were in the time period of Convergences…, of that I am sure. And also a corresponding amount of female listeners, from what I can observe (and not just partners dragged along reluctantly by their bearded beaus).

But to get to the heart of the matter - is this intrinsically male music, and, if so, why? If one listens to a piece of improvisation cold, can one tell whether it is played by a female group, or even a mixed-gender group? Are there ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ qualities (aside from a Brotzmann versus Leandre level of debate). Furthermore, are there ‘feminine’ instruments: the cello, (which ‘forces the legs apart’, according to one eagle-eyed and rather dodgy commentator); the piano; the violin, all products of the music school - female string players often seem to be products of a polite  ‘private classical education’, horn players much less so. This is a subject that can be endlessly analysed, from a Freudian- and post-Freudian perspective,

I have previously opined often that this is a subject deserving of longitudinal study, but I do feel that Cartwright’s comment, intentional or not,  implied that I was ignorant of its implications. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive  ( no ‘maybe’ about it!). Bring on more studies of these issues.

Prisoners and Improv

I was a mental health nurse for 30-odd (and odd) years, working in a variety of clinical settings across London. As will be obvious from these blogs, I also have an interest in free improvisation, among many other musical genres. It was thus a pleasant surprise this week to be offered a chance to potentially combine these two areas of interest and experience.

A letter of mine appeared in this month’s Wire (October), which expressed interest in a project in Langton Secure Psychiatric Hospital in Dawlish, Devon. Matt Smith is the ‘electronic music technician’ there. NOT a Music Therapist, but a member of staff who offers such interventions as field recordings (much in the tradition of environmental artists such as Chris Watson, ex-Cabaret Voltaire, by the sound of it) made by himself and patients on day leave from the hospital. Smith was keen to point out the considerable difference between his approach and that of the ‘journey to recovery’ model that Music Therapy traditionally offers, and stresses the practical contribution made by the patients to the final ‘product’ (I dislike the expression ‘service users’, particularly in the context of locked environments, so will not use it). He and a patient won a Koestler Award for Sound Art last year, and his work sounds extremely interesting (in fact, I offered to write an article about it for Wire, but eventually submitted an Epiphanies piece instead).

For those who don’t know, the Koestler Trust was set up by THE Arthur Koestler, of Darkness At Noon fame, to help cons,  ex-cons, psychiatric and immigration detainees express themselves creatively, outside of the auspices of traditional patriarchal supervision and approval. Koestler was himself a prisoner on more than one occasion, as his classic novel horrifyingly alludes to, and the Trust set up in his name works from prisons, psychiatric secure units and immigration centers, among other institutions. It was the Koestler Trust that was the link, when I received an e-mail from NM, who is an associate of the Trust, who had read my letter and who was interested in getting into a potential dialogue about my work and his.

NM has been working with outsider art (I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this epithet, which seems to stress the ‘abnormal’ at the expense of the normative, but perhaps that is the point. I’m still sleeping on it). He is undertaking projects with Kate Davey, of the Outsider Art webpage, Raw Vision, an arts magazine and a dedicated gallery space in Brighton. He is interested in the notion of free improv and the prison population (of all types), so we have agreed to meet next week to further discuss possible joint work. One of my good friends has worked with improvisation with the mentally ill, so I hope that his experiences might inform our discussion. My own experiences working with the mentally ill in Art Therapy situations, whilst largely positive, were dominated by memories of largely-percussive ensembles and ever-threatening chaos which, whilst not being essentially a bad thing, were often undertaken in a context-less manner, which could leave participants baffled and frustrated, especially when run by therapists of the non-interventive bent, and who often failed to contain the emotions evoked by the music produced. They often scurried off afterwards to make their notes, and seemed more interested in analysis than praxis.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing where, if anywhere this goes. It certainly offers a refreshing new area for free improv to involve itself in.

Not-so-silent partners

Clive Bell reviewed my new book Convergences, Divergences & Affinities in this month’s (October) Wire magazine.  At one point, he states, “after a while, I was looking forward to hearing another of his wife’s bon mots”. I’m prone to using Jackie’s comments as a sort of background Greek chorus, in order to form a ‘man in the street’ counterpoint to my own ceaseless trumpeting of free improv’s virtues, in a style which Bell asserts “creates a feeling that you’re next to him in a pub” (which I have chosen to take as a compliment). Several readers have commented that they like this device,which could be seen as a demonstration of my uxoriousness  (not a weakness, in my opinion!).

We have lived together for 32 years, and Jackie describes her accomodation of free improv over these years thus: “once you accept that there is never going to be a tune, it’s easier to listen to, or to have as background music…you stop fighting it”. She accompanied this zen-informed approach to the music with a wry statement to the effect that the music had been, for her, an “unchosen background music for the past 30 years, but one which I’d probably miss if I never heard it again”. I admire her open-mindedness in appreciating that it is, in actual fact, music, something that many people still do not accept, even now. Jackie does draw the line, however, at Captain Beefheart (’bloke’s music’, as she describes it) and The Grateful Dead’s monster ‘jams’: as being musics that she finds far more unlistenable than free improvisation. So there are limits. Funnily enough, she has a work colleague who wanted to hear Derek Bailey, as he had heard that it might make good ‘background ambience’ for when he was writing - I recommended some Bailey for him to get hold of, and apparently it has proved to be such a success that I further recommended AMM, as another potential aid to concentration. Heartwarming stuff, definitely.

All this got me thinking, not for the first time, about the role of the ‘long suffering’ partners of those involved in this particular creative musical endeavor.  I use the words ‘long suffering’ advisedly, as I’m pretty confident that ‘free improv widows’ (and it is usually, but not inevitably, female partners that we are talking about here) offer their support willingly and in good humour (my Jackie certainly has over the years). I have noted in previous blogs the increasing presence very gradually, of women at free improv gigs (compared to almost totally male audiences in the 1960s-1990s), and, furthermore, these are women who don’t appear to be only there because their boyfriends/husbands have dragged them along for a boring evening listening to boring bearded bohos. These ladies were listening, and appeared to be enjoying the sounds, rather than merely putting up with them out of partner loyalty.

I’ve often felt that there was a book to be written about the subject of musician’s partners, especially in such a financially and artistically precarious music as free improvisation, where making a living out of playing the music is so difficult. Often, the musicians have to frequently work (or even move) abroad, at European festivals for example, in order to ends meet. Add to the mix the ever-present jazz ‘distractions’ that confront working improvisers. and you have the recipe for’ severe relationship ‘challenges’. If the partner is working 9-5 full-time, and the musician/writer isn’t, this can potentially seriously affect the homeostasis of a relationship, as it is well known that financial imbalances can cause friction in even the most stable of living arrangements. This is tricky territory, and I doubt that most writers would want to take the subject on - too many potential bruised egos, I suspect. But it is often the case (Janice Christianson, for an example, see pages 44-5 of my book) that important and/or influential background figures are marginalised when relationships end, or just because of the usual sexist historical narrative. ‘Behind every great man, there is a great woman’ is a good example of this narrative, but, as is so often the case,  cliches are cliches for a reason, and can contain real truths.

In this era of ‘fake news’, let’s hear some news that could potentially be genuinely informative, and could offer an alternative vision to that of the lone, isolated, creative male genius, a vision that was realised, however kack-handedly, in the recent Hollywood movie, Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky, which portrays the charismatic male poet genius (played, with little charisma, it has to be said, by Javier Bardem), whose monstrous ego is kept afloat by his wife’s life jacket of devotion to his creative genius, with ultimately disastrous results for herself (this isn’t a recommendation for the film, by the way, which is the product of another obviously huge male ego). But it does tackle the theme of this blog, in a crude and over-the-top manner.

Big Youth

At the Vortex last night, to see and hear Evan Parker in his monthly residency at this most august of venues. This time around, Evan chose to feature 80s British ‘jazz revival’ pin-up, Ian Bellamy on tenor sax, and the great modernist pianist Tony Hymas, a true inheritor of Paul Bley’s legacy, and a veteran of sessions with the likes of Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke and Jack Bruce. 

The trio of Parker, Bellamy and Hymas occupied the first set, which, although slightly over long and featuring a rather narrow harmonic sound band (two tenors and a keyboard), gave us an extremely tight interactive environment, with the saxophones wound round each other in a staff of Mercurius -type way. Hymas’s comping was a model of tensile strength and restraint. He really is one of our most underrated improvisers. Bellamy is also a player of undoubted power and subtlety, and I was reminded, very strongly, of the early 60s Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow), given that Evan had previously played very successfully with Bley (and Barre Phillips) on ECM’s Time Will Tell..

The second set featured Tom Barford, another tenor saxophonist, who looked about 12 years old to me, and was in possession of a rather tarnished and venerable axe. But what a great player he proved to be, in a sax trio with Parker and Bellamy, accompanied by Hymas, three generations of reed improvisation, who gelled together  magnificently and flawlessly, and who received a huge round of applause at the end of the their set. Barford is a name to look out for, the possessor of such a great tone for one so young. It was so encouraging to see such a cross-generation of the talents (Barford apparently turned up without notice and offered to play, which is a great example of extemporisation in itself).

It is great to see such young talent mixing it with the older improvisers, and it gives me further proof, if any were needed, that this music has a future.

Japanoise Revisited

Pages 14-15 of this month’s Wire (October) describe the formation of Black Editions, a new label dedicated to Japanese experimental music, curated by Peter Kolovos and Steve Lowenthal. What this seems to mean in practice is a revival of the PSF label, the underground label through which most of us first heard the entropic sounds of Keiji Haino (in particular) and also the likes of High Rise and Mainliner.

The only reason than I am doing a blog on this is that is seems rather serendipitous, as I bought a copy of Tokyo Flashbacks last week, apropos of nothing, which is a 1994 compilation of Japanese psychedelia (although I wouldn’t recommend tripping to most of this material, to be frank).

I remain a huge fan of Haino’s shtick. His percussion-only solo gig at the 1995 4th. Annual LMC Festival of Experimental Music (at the Conway Hall) remains one of my live music epiphanies. Similarly, his power trio, Fushitsucha, have also provided me with several memorable live experiences, including a relatively recent Cafe Oto solo guitar/electronics set, which I blogged about at the time. Although he is not psychedelic (psychotic, more like), my other Japanese fave has always been Merzbow, always providing an incomparably immersive experience.

This is such strange music, massively informed by such western artists as Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but driven by other forces like free jazz, sound art and abstract electronica, as well as more indigenous musics. It’s like having our music flung back at us in a weirdly distorted and mutilated, hall-of-mirrors form. Of course, the Japanese have also been huge fans of free improv since the 1970s as well, so they clearly share our sense of musical challenge, and contributing to ‘world improv’, if I can use such a term. Tokyo Flashbacks proved to have its longueurs, unfortunately - the final track, ten minutes of Haino’s accapella wailing, tested my patience to the limit, I’m afraid, but the whole record puts one in a wakeful state of expectancy generally (which most records certainly don’t). 

If Black Editions can make more readily available the first two Fushitsucha live doubles (PSF ¾ and 15/.16), then I will welcome them with open arms, but apparently they intend to go much further than this, and release items from the PSF catalogue which have previously not been obtainable in the West. It all sounds most promising. I just hope that they keep the original packaging, such as the entirely black Fushitsucha recordings, which can make even CD packaging look like a work of art. They apparently want to focus initially on vinyl releases.

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