We had an immersive experience last night at Cafe Oto, one that involved two sets led, nominally, by double bassist Dominic Lash (whose fortieth birthday we were all celebrating), one involving a quartet and the other a twenty-odd large band ‘orchestra’. Both were superb, and reflected how experimental ‘free music’ is still strong and vital, at least here in the Brexit Britain’s capital city.
The quartet of Lash, John Butcher, Mark Sanders and John Russell was, for me, a wonderful example of so-called ‘pointillistic’ or ‘atomistic’ free improv, this being the micro-genre that was pioneered by John Stevens’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) from the years 1966 to 1994, the year of the drummer’s far too early death. Of course, Butcher was a member of the final edition of the SME, and both Russell and Sanders were long-term members of Evan Parker’s various ‘English Trios’, so they are no strangers to this philosophy of ‘group music’. Cafe Oto and The Vortex continue to regularly feature small group combinations of highly experienced free improv masters, and last night’s was yet one more addition to this series. Their forty minute set of ‘minute particulars’ would have been more than enough compensation for the eight pound entry fee (how these guys make a living with this sort of amount remains a mystery to me), but we didn’t expect the overwhelming experience of Lash’s big band in the second set, which left us shell-shocked and me searching for superlatives and comparisons.
The set was an ‘ascension’ of sorts (in Coltrane-ian terms), a gradual build up, from ‘pointillistic’ beginnings to a more ‘laminar’ drone halfway in and thereafter. One of my companions suggested Gorecki’s Third Symphony or Terry Riley’s In C as immediate comparisons. For me, I was thinking of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No, 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven (a most appropriate title), AMM’s The Crypt (in particular), Dave Burrell’s Echoes, Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra, and (inevitably) some Sun Ra. Add to these (again, inevitably) some ‘Japanoise’ such as Fuchitsusha and Merzbow. All these allusions aside, Lash’s ensemble (I didn’t catch a name) was in and of itself, but it did inhabit that zone where one began to hear sounds in the overall racket that were entirely subjective, arising as they did from the mulch of a huge orchestra producing multiple overtones and indeterminate sounds. There was no indication that this was a Lash-led ‘conduction’ (a la The London Improvisers Orchestra) or that it had any charts, graphic or otherwise. A ‘Cathedral of Noise’ just about summed it up, and we felt that the whole experience was, ultimately. perhaps best enjoyed without trying to excessively pick apart its architectonics.
In the end, I was left with a less jaundiced view of large-group improv than I might have had earlier. I’ve never been a huge fan of free jazz ‘orchestras’, but this was something different. It was certainly ‘beyond jazz’, entering probably into the world of ‘contemporary composition’ (whatever that may imply). There’s a lot of this out there (William Basinski, for example), but it was still somewhat puzzling to see this genre-crossing music being presented in a space where the band seemed to outnumber the audience, but maybe that’s just a refection of my own love of small venues and big ideas. I still don’t know how they put bread on the table though!! Hardly a new proposition, however, and I wish Dominic Lash well. He, and his contemporaries such as Alexander Hawkins, Jason Yarde and Shabaka Hutchings are the torch carriers for ‘jazz’.