Thursday, 13 May 2010

Atmospheres + Red Square In Oxford

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Tuesday 11th May 2010

[Atmospheres: Paul Dunmall (saxophones), Trevor Taylor (percussion), Phil Gibbs (guitar), & Nick Stephens (bass) /// Red Square: Jon Seagroatt (reeds), Ian Staples (guitar) & Roger Telford (drums) ]

'Atmospheres', a four-piece, made some compelling music during their continuous one-hour set; unburdened by the presence of a drummer, what they played had a looseness and flowing quality to it quite different from the stop-start interjections of much free improv. Trevor Taylor's credit as 'percussionist' didn't capture the harmonic spectrum of his contribution: using drumsticks on the pads of a MalletKat, a “MIDI percussion mallet controller” which sounds like a cross between a vibraphone, a marimba, and a xylophone, he added a metallic and bright edge to proceedings, giving the music something of a rhythmic punch, as well as suddenly leaping out with electronic whooshes which merged with the phaser effects and repeated note sequences of Phil Gibb's guitar. Nick Stephens got a twangy, percussive sound of his own by using brushes and mallets to strike or stick under the strings of his bass; would switch to bowed drones or harmonics when he sensed a change in the mood of the music; and even fell into standard jazz accompaniment patterns – but in ways that rendered them more than clichés, playing them arco or slightly out of time to create a lop-sided effect. Paul Dunmall, on soprano for this performance, sat on top of things, taking short pauses between phrases and entries, rather than 'soloing' continuously, even if the sound quality of his instrument tended to carry over the rest of the group in the manner of a 'lead voice'. As befitted the band-name, things were often a little pensive, but Dunmall's playing had some bite to it too, his streams of notes never quite reaching free jazz ferocity, but with an edginess to them that prevented the music from wandering into ECM territory.

Red Square have been going since the 1970s, and though their reputation suggested a much noisier, more 'in-yer-face' approach than Atmospheres, there were more similarities than might have been imagined. In particular, both bands featured soprano players with strong jazz capabilities, neither of whom went for the 'exotic', Oriental sound popularized by Coltrane; nor for the kind of hyper-active squawking that resulted when the instrument became popular with fusion players; nor for the syrup of Jan Garbarek and smooth jazz. Both Dunmall and Jon Seagroatt played with a well-defined tone, a real clarity of ideas, and consistently strong melodic invention. Similarly, the rock elements in Red Square don't involve the tendency to straight-forward time-keeping that characterized even Last Exit, at least in part. Roger Telford's approach to his kit is resolutely free, while Ian Staples takes his cue from the volume and timbral qualities of the electric guitar, rather than from any set of punk chords or grandstanding 'guitar hero' clichés; his playing is grungily distorted, sometimes sliding into metal-style riffs (which he was playing even before metal had become part of the musical landscape), and very rarely simply settling into mere slabs of noise. Seagroatt's sax spins through riff-like and looping figures, but he doesn't repeat himself to the extent that one could identify recurring licks, and his style never feels like artificial excitement building, as its affinities with prog-rock and jazz fusion might have suggested. On occasion, the instrument is treated with electronic effects, so that it becomes oddly mechanical in sound, adding a whole new, eerie texture to the music; as does the Kaoss pad, which combines with Telford's bowing of each cymbal in his kit, in turn, and with pedal-treated guitar, for relatively brief sections that are less about the articulation of individual notes, more about the general texture and quality of sound. Seagroatt's bass clarinet really cuts deep, smoothly swooping from low-end droning vibrations to upper register figures with none of the shrill squawks emitted by free jazzers – the instrument sounds particularly ominous, turning the tone of the music to a kind of volatile melancholy. What's nice about Red Square is their resolute freshness: they don't sacrifice rock grunginess for tricksy fusion- or jazz-isms, and they don't sacrifice jazz clarity and skill for simple, obvious beats or noise aggression (though they are certainly loud!). The music feels very open, setting out a particular kind of sound, but with plenty of scope within that sound – of course, jazz and rock make an appearance, but there are also hints of folk (Seagroatt is a member of the re-formed Comus, and is married to Bobbie Watson, one of the band's vocalists). I'm reminded, if anything, of those vital '60s and '70s English cross-overs between ancient traditions and modern innovations, folk materials and new musical technologies, involving Soft Machine, Comus, John Stevens, and The Third Ear Band, to name a few. It's certainly encouraging to know that that spirit lives on: not overly indebted to jazz or rock, but free to use both genres' freshest and most interesting elements within a freely improvised context, in a manner that is both organic and engaging.

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