Since the mid-1960s there has been determined and persistent presence in music making that owes nothing to establishment preferences, fashionable nuances or market forces. Experimentalism and improvisation speak of enquiry, curiousity and adventure in music. And, albeit that these practices have had to exist within the corrosive slipstream of the aforementioned tendencies, the search for meaningful and fulfilling musical expression can only become real through and towards self-empowerment.
Last weekend, 6th-7th May, saw the Freedom of the City Festival take place at Finsbury Park, in London. So, on Sunday afternoon I hopped over there on the train to hear the first concert of the four that ocured over Sunday and Monday. There were three sets: first, the free jazz trio of Alan Wilkinson-Joe Williamson-Eddie Prevost; next, Unit (a group featuring three Vietnamese musicians and a couple of white musicians coming from punk and jazz-rock backgrounds); and finally a trio of Matt Davis (trumpet/ electronics), Matt Milton (violin), and Bechir Saadé (bass clarinet).
Freedom of the City is a series of concerts of "radical and improvised music", as it advertises itself, which has taken place annualy since 2001. It's co-curated by saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Eddie Prevost, two of the leading lights of the British free improv scene, as well as Martin Davidson, founder of the Emanem record label, a hugely important company which releases CDs by many of the most important free improv artists, which is, according to their website, "too good and too adventurous to be considered by most other labels". Emanen's also released recordings of most of the Freedom of the City performances, and I think think maybe I should quote Martin Davidson's sleeve notes to the 1st one of these, from 2001, as they put into words much more eloquently than I can the importance of this music and this festival in particular:
The FREEDOM OF THE CITY festival was set up as an annual event (starting in 2001), in order to showcase the phenomenal London improvised music scene. There has been a significant body of London-based free improvisers for over 35 years, and there must now be somewhere between one and two hundred musicians involved. With the current emphasis on the global, it is easy to overlook the local, if not miss it altogether. The festival provides a focal point for London to celebrate one of its finest and most influential artistic legacies - improvisation in music.
The instigator of this festival, Evan Parker, who spends much of his time performing in other countries, describes London as "the richest improvised scene in the world. The community of musicians based here is the largest, longest established - and arguably the most diverse - of any of the like communities which have sprung up since free improvisation evolved into an autonomous musical genre in the mid 1960s. In this world-wide culture, London is widely understood and appreciated as a wellspring of the tradition and as a source of significant new developments. Indeed, musicians come here from all over the world seeking to make contact, plug in to the creative energy and to contribute their own ideas towards the development of the music.
Yet much of the media and establishment simply ignores this most vital scene, or considers it an aberration of jazz, rather than treat it with the importance it deserves. For example, concert organisers all over the world are in touch with the British Council. Yet it seems the overall demand for London based improvised music massively exceeds the Council's currently allotted budget for this most important field.
Perhaps the musical strength of the London improvising scene is due to what Fred Frith has called "virtuoso listening" - the ability to instantly respond to the other members of a group in such a way that the end result is an entity rather than a motley collection of somewhat unrelated individuals. This ability can now be found in other centres, but it seem to have developed first in London, thanks to the pioneering work of John Stevens and others. This is not to say that all London-based improvisers sound the same or use the same strategies, but some modus operandi and understandings have developed over the decades...
Davidson raises a number of extremely pertinet points there about the neglect which this field of music has to endure, since its conception in the 1960s, a situation which has meant that this truly is underground music. Few free improv artists are very well known - an exception would be the late Derek Bailey, probably THE most famous free improv artist, who's perhaps well known because of the variety of collaborations he undertook with musicians from other genres - for instance, he played with both Pat Metheny and Buckethead. Another exception would be Evan Parker, who plays regular gigs at venues such as the Vortex and also at big venues like the Barbican Hall (where I saw his electroacoustic ensembel at the London Jazz Festival last year). However, even these are probably unknown to the vast majority of the public, and, if that's the case, then the legions of other improvisers are languishing even further in obscurity. I spoke to Evan Parker just before the gig, and the brief comment he made revealed a lot about the situation these musicians have had to face for years now. He said that they had held FOTC at a bigger venue for one year, but not been able to get the funding after that and thus had to have it in the backroom of the Red Rose pub (which is a fairly run-down venue to be fair, though maybe this adds to the atmosphere in a positive way). Apparently the person who turned them down for funding said that this style of music was "old-hat", despite being a fan of medieval music! An anecdote which seemed to me somewhat revealing of the struggles and prejudices experimental and innovative music has to face.
THIS YEAR'S PERFORMANCES
Anyway, onto the performances from this year's festival, and the trio of Alan Wilkinson on tenor and alto sax, Joe Williamson on double bass, and Eddie Prevost on percussion. This trio plays together frequently, and a recording of their performance at last years festival has been released on Matchless Recordings as "along came Joe." (http://matchlessrecordings.com/along-came-joe-prevost-wilkinson-williamson) Their set this year was powerful, intense, concentrated free jazz with plenty of verve and bite, but they knew how to vary things and settled down for quieter moments as well. Berlin-based, Canadian-born double bass player Joe Williamson has been described as THE bassist of the European Improv and Free Jazz scene at the moment, playing in several groups, and demonstrating the typical virtues of a good jazz bassist: flexible, powerful and virtuosic. Indeed, I felt that his contribution tied the music down a lot more to a jazz connection; Prevost fits in with this (he was described as "the Art Blakey of Brixton" earlier on his career!), and his playing got very physical and rhythmically powerful at one point, but he is also capable of a more textural, less rhythmically driven apporach, as can be heard in his work with AMM, the contemplative, minimal group who focus on sounds more than lines in their quiet, ruminative and extended improvisations. Meanwhile, saxophonist Wilkinson played from his gut, wrenching out passionate screams as well as blistering runs, his vocalised approach reminiscent perhaps of Dewey Redman, but very much his own man. As Marc Medwin, writing for the avant-garde music website 'One Final Note', writes, "Wilkinson’s post-Ayler exhortations exhibit infinite control, even in the throws of passionate expression." One could say there was a peculiarly British grittiness about his playing - whatever the case, this was riveting music.
Unit, the band who came up next, were a bit of a strange one, and a bit out of place, in that they have only just started playing improvised music. They emerged from a punk band called The Apostles, formed in 1981, which metamorphosed into first Academy 23, then Unit, founded in 1994. Since 2000, Unit has been through numerous line-ups, each one recording an album musically different from the last, and making it impossible to define them as a 'type' of band - they've tackled everything from post-punk, prog rock, and pop, to avant garde, jazz and free improv. This schizophrenic activity could suggest a pleasing willingness to experiment - or it could suggest a band who've found it impossible to find a voice, more than 10 years since they came into being.
As they say on their website, it was only in 2006 with their album 'Rock in Opposition: Phase 1' that they ventured into the realms of avant-garde soundscapes and free improv, after years of playing primarily conventional pop music / rock works. Their adoption of this idiom seems to be as much due to political motivations as musical considerations, which is perhaps why, to me, and to everyone else I've heard who's expressed an opinion about the gig, they were less compelling than the other artists on the bill. There was maybe a sense that they're just dabbling in this idiom because of its 'underground' associations, often associated with radical and/or left-wing political views, which, though I didn't know when I saw them, would help to explain the directionless of their set, which seemed enormously unfocussed compared to the trio we just heard. As they comment, the second volume of their 'Rock in Opposition' series "celebrates a complete project devoid of all rock and pop cliché, where non-commercial (and by implication anti-capitalist) musical idioms are adopted." This political dimension is revealed explicity in the liner notes to the rock in opposition CDs by Andy Martin. Flautist Cheung Yiu Munn wore a T-shirt with the word 'Satan' underneath a picture of Ronald McDonald, and Martin, playing acoustic guitar, wore a cricket outfit, which added some sort of bizarre and surreal element.
Though their set only lasted 10 minutes more than Prevost/Williamson/Wilkinson, it seemed a lot longer. To me, it was as if it was at an uneasy crossroads between more conventional, even clichéd, jazz-related stylings, and nominally freer playing. Basically, what they were playing just wasn't interesting. The keyboardist sat there looking bemused and not playing for long periods, while electric bassist Dave Fanning kept playing rather tired and repetitious riffs/motifs, never giving the music space to breathe, I felt. Towards the end of the improvisation, though, acoustic guitarist Andy Martin initiated a more rhythmic feel to proceedings, which gave them a bit more focus than the loose, semi-lyrical and soporific meandering that had occurred before, by using his guitar as a drum, tapping on the body with his hands and hitting the strings with a spoon! In addition to this, Dave Fanning started slamming his hand onto the bass strings towards the end to produce a sort of monstrous cross between an electric guitar and a drum.
Unit: Cheung Yiu Minn on flute, Thanh Trung Nguyen on alto sax, Andy Martin on acoustic guitar, Dave Fanning on electric bass, and a keyboardist whose name I've completey forgotten!
So on to the third set, a trio of musicians who I must confess were, like Unit, completely unknown to me, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Unlike Unit, however, I was in for a pleasant surprise. This group consisted of Matt Davis on trumpet and electronics, Bechir Saade on bass clarient and Matt Milton on violin. Davis has played at the festival before, and he and Saade have recorded on a small number of albums, while Milton has yet to record an official album. This was a very interesting set based almost exclusively around sound rather than conventional musical tone, line or form. Very quiet and very intense, it seemed to mesmerize the audience - when they stopped playing, there was a long pause as if they were deciding whether to carry on or not, and the audience wasn't sure either - before the clapping broke the spell and the audience released all the tension they'd built up from practically holding their breaths for 30 minutes.
Afterwards, I chatted to the violin player, Matt Milton, who seems to be doing some really unusual stuff with his instrument (way beyond Leroy Jenkins and Stuff Smith! -in fact, with virtually no connection to jazz violin, or violin playing from any other idiom that I can think of). It was interesting to hear from him about this whole scene of players coming up which escapes notice so easily - as I was talking about earlier, only a select free improv artists gain any sort of public attention, while there are a wealth of other artists out there who it's hard to find unless you're looking. The bass clarinetist, Bechir Saadé, comes from Lebanon, and seems to be doing some really interesting things - on this occasion, it was as if he was deliberately trying to avoid playing conventional tones almost altogether, and instead concentrating on the other, unexplored sound possibilities his instrument had to offer. Hearing him spurred me on to some internet research, and, at a glance, the Lebanese improv scene which he's a part of seems small but potentially very rewarding to look into. Both he and Milton have my space pages under their names, and I guess the internet is one of the best ways for this music to be heard about - my space, despite being run by Rupert Murdoch, is a great resource for people to actually hear what you're doing as well as just reading about it. There's also a wealth of improv available for download, appropriately enough, for free, and with the full consent of artists and venues where the recordings take place. It's a great way to potentially widen the audience for the music, though you're unlikely to stumble across it unless you're really looking. I've posted some of the links I found below.
Anyway, I guess I'm digressing a bit. Back to this third set at FOTC, this was a style of playing that I'd really never heard before. From what I've learned in the past few days, Erstwhile Records and Creative Sources seem to be the two main labels releasing it. The Wikipedia article on Erstwhile notes that "subsequent Erstwhile releases have largely focused on a style of improvisation which could be called 'post-AMM': slow-moving, often rather quiet, making non-standard use of computers and electronics...Such unorthodox methods are often paired with acoustic instruments, which are themselves often defamiliarized by use of amplification and extended techniques (trumpeters Matt Davis [who played at the FOTC gig] and Axel Dorner, for instance, sometimes blow their instruments through the valves rather than the mouthpiece...the aesthetic has slowly found its own audience, though as yet there is not even an agreed-upon name for the genre ('laminal music', 'granular music' 'reductionism', 'the new London silence', 'Onkyo', 'Berlin minimalism', are a few of the terms that have cropped up, though 'eai' - 'electroacoustic improvs' seems to be winning out at present, perhaps for reasons of brevity)."
The wikipedia article also gives a good reason why this style could repay further listening and research, though I've hardly heard any of it, so I'm not in a position to judge. It points out that the style is "controversial because much of the music released on Erstwhile has left behind most resemblences to earlier generations of free jazz and free improv" - in other words, somthing refreshingly new.
But the set by Milton, Saade and Davis wasn't just interesting because of this background, of which I knew nothing at the time. The sounds and textures created are both uncategorisable and an absorbing listening experience - all 3 practitioners seemed interested, above all else, in the sound qualities that they could extract from their instruments, and these qualities were often far beyond the normal range and accomplished practices used to conjure sounds from trumpet, violin and bass clarinet. Seeing a room full of people listening with baited breath to meditative noises which some might hesitate to even describe as music was quite an experience...
GENERAL FREE IMPROV PAGES
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_improvisation (Wikipedia page about Free Improv - a good starting point for info)
www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=18638 (Another good introduction to free improv, written by John Eyles)
www.corbical.org/dbfree.html (Guitarist Derek Bailey's thoughts on free improvisation)
www.ubu.com/papers/cardew_ethics.html ('Towards an Ethics of Improvisation' by Cornelius Cardew - a classic text)
http://www.efi.group.sheff.ac.uk (European Free Improvisation Pages - an invaluable resource)
ARTISTS, RECORD LABELS & DOWNLOADS
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erstwhile_Records (information about Erstwhile Records & 'the new London Silence'
http://www.myspace.com/mattmilton (Matt Milton's MySpace page)
http://www.bechirsaade.com (Bechir Saade's official website)
http://incaldo.com/interlace/past.html (Interlace - free downloads)
http://www.l-m-c.org.uk (London Musicians' Collective - includes free downloads)