Sunday, 9 May 2010

Freedom of the City Festival 2010

Conway Hall, London, 2nd-3rd May 2010

My previous visits to the annual Freedom of the City festival have been limited to just the one, back in 2007. Back then, it was a smaller affair, held in the back room of the Red Rose pub, with a relatively modest number of artists performing. After a year’s absence, due to the termination of the Red Rose as an improv venue, it came back all the stronger in 2009, relocating to the more centrally-placed Conway Hall – a far roomier space – and attracting a number of improvisers from abroad to join the mainly British-based line-up. Organizers Evan Parker, Eddie Prévost and Trevor Brent had achieved even more of a coup this year, persuading trumpeter Leo Smith to headline both days of the festival. This was not, of course, the first time that Smith had joined with European improvisers, or, indeed, with those specifically based in England – he played in Bristol back in the 70s, and has recently teamed up with the small ‘stable’ of musicians associated with Treader, the improv label run by John Coxon and Ashley Wales (a.k.a. dance music duo Spring Heel Jack). It was in something approaching this latter configuration that he closed the festival, holding his own in a noisy quintet featuring Coxon on guitar and the priceless Pat Thomas on piano and electronics; but perhaps the finest moments of the whole weekend occurred during his performances on the first day, playing an electrifying improvised concerto with the London Improvisers Orchestra, then engaging with the double-drum duo of Steve Noble and Louis Moholo-Moholo in an ecstatically-received set that, at its best, was perhaps as fine as improvised music gets.

But this was by no means all that the festival had to offer. I’ve opted, on the whole, for a blow-by-blow account of the various different set-ups, though it would probably be unfair to set down detailed analysis of performances which I did not find wholly satisfying, for one reason or another. Consequently, I’m not going to review every act. During such a packed schedule (well over ten hours in total), attention can wander, and dissatisfactions which may have very little or nothing to do with the music as such can intrude on critical facilities. I might perhaps make the criticism that the presentation was uniform: one group set up and play, people clap, there’s an announcement and a short break, then another group set up and play, people clap, etc. This may be due to my ongoing dissatisfactions with the concert presentation of free improvisation, which I feel could be (needs to be) shaken up in some way – otherwise we approach the deadened sterility of the classical concert hall, against which the vitality of both jazz and free improvisation can set themselves in their finest moments. Perhaps there’s no way round the sense of déjà-vu, the almost by-rote effect of so many performers coming up on stage in succession; festival fatigue is the inevitable drawback of bringing so many musicians into the same space, on the same occasion. And of course I’d rather hear eight groups in a respectful atmosphere and a conducive setting, than two groups in a dingy pub. In any case, FOTC remains pretty much a unique event in the British improv scene, and needs all the support it can get, given well-documented difficulties in securing funding and cultural acceptance in the UK (surely, as Evan Parker opined in one of his microphone ‘rants’ between acts, something like this deserves a mention in Time Out).


Before getting onto the music, it might be worthwhile offering some preliminary notes on the venue. The Conway Hall is a fairly large space, and attendance must have reached 100 or so on the Sunday, the better-attended of the two days; it never dwindled down to less than 50. The décor is a little quaint (my eyes kept flicking to the motto inscribed over the stage: “to thine own self be true”), exhibiting a kind of early twentieth-century liberal ethos (one of the rooms in the building is named after Bertrand Russell, and, on further research, it turns out that the Hall was built as headquarters for the South Place Ethical Society, the oldest free-thought association in the world). The acoustic isn’t that resonant, but this probably suited players like Peter Evans and, in particular, Leo Smith, whose sound is so massive that it might become deafening elsewhere! Upper galleries and plenty of space for seats meant that there was capacity for the audience to move around, rather than having to stick to the same seat for hours at a time, while corridors outside the main stage space gave plenty of space for mingling in between acts. All a far cry from the Red Rose…

The Sunday afternoon session (lasting from 2pm until around 6) opened with a solo set from Peter Evans, who is a very fine jazz left-field jazz musician (‘The Peter Evans Quartet’, from 2007, contains a happy blend of old-fashioned melodies and chord sequences with noise-rock guitar eruptions); he is also, as this performance indicated, an exceptional free improviser. Though based in New York, he has released a solo record on Martin Davidson’s Emanem and worked with that label’s stalwart, Evan Parker. Nonetheless, it seemed that not everyone in attendance was familiar with his work, and they were pleasantly surprised by what transpired. The performance split into roughly two halves, though it was a continuous forty-minute set: the first half found the trumpeter concentrating on circular breathing, amplifying breath noises through a volume pedal, extending the possibilities of the instrument with the use of subtle electronics as John Butcher has done with the saxophone. The second half, in which Evans switched to cornet, was mostly acoustic, with more ‘notes’ in play: jazzy inflections combined with repeated, almost brash minimalist phrases (like tougher versions of John Adams’ fanfares). The latter were perhaps rather over-done (there could have been more of the textural investigations with which Evans began), but they were certainly impressive in a technical sense.

Peter Evans: Photo by C. Neil Scott

Cellist Okkyung Lee, like Evans, had travelled over from New York to play here; on this evidence, she struck me as a somewhat limited player, especially having seen Hannah Marshall’s superb duo with Mick Beck at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival the preceding Friday. I don’t doubt her technical skill, and it’s clearly unfair to definitively label any musician on the result of one performance; however, the duo with Lytton didn’t really come off. Lee tended to bow with one hand while sliding the other up and down the strings, without pressing down onto the fingerboard. The cello can do more than this: use of the instrument’s body, plucking, and even melodic phrases. Lee’s approach worked as generalized atmosphere in the later trio with Evans and Evan Parker, but she seemed crowded out by Lytton, unable to fully respond to his energetic twitching round Dalek drums, and an encore, which might have provided the chance to find another angle on things, never really took off either.

By contrast, Lol Coxhill, Tania Chen and Dominic Lash demonstrated a clear mutual understanding from the git-go. Coxhill, as ever, was tartly melodic, spinning out flowing lines or thinning out his sound to almost nothing in breathy textural complement to Lash’s multi-hued bass and Chen’s rumbling on the lower reaches of the Bosendorfer. The music had a kind of jazz aura to it, but never through overt referentiality, and Chen’s sound could be said to owe as much to contemporary classical as to jazz. She left plenty of gaps so that her phrases acquired a certain weight around them, but the music wasn’t heavy or sluggish – rather, it had a substantial delicacy to it that, in a way, harkened back to Jimmy Giuffre’s groups of the early 60s.

The afternoon seemed to have been constructed, whether by design or accident, in a kind of ascending approach: from solo to duo to trio, and then to a full-blown big band, as the London Improvisers Orchestra took to the stage and beyond, sprawling out onto the floor below. Two hours might have seemed like overkill, given the usual chaotic nature of such large groupings, and the tendency to resort to conduction clichés in order to tame the unruly beast. In fact, though, the performance remained at a high standard throughout, the various conductors picking out particular players and groups of instruments and letting them do their thing for extended periods, rather than cutting them short before they’d had a chance to develop something. Choice combinations included the two-piano interplay of Steve Beresford and Veryan Weston, placed on either side of the stage, and the raucous trombones of Alan Tomlinson and Robin Jarvis. It all built up to the big climax, a short concerto for the festival’s ‘star performer’ Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Tucker stepping out of the orchestra ranks, where he’d been grinding out fierce swirls of sound from his guitar, to conduct. Any doubts as to whether Smith would be audible over the orchestra were soon dispelled; the question was more, would one be able hear the orchestra over his trumpet! His sound bounced off the space with a clarion force, but this wasn’t a tasteless, Maynard Ferguson display, for he played with an abundance of considered space between phrases, ending with a gorgeous muted passage over sombre, full ensemble chords. Great too to hear him sing and soar out over orchestral sections – strings, winds, horns – in passages reminiscent of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra’s fantastic 2LP-set ‘Communications’. Louis Moholo-Moholo, in a corner with Javier Carmona (third drummer Tony Marsh was on the other side of the room) could be heard thumping with huge vigour, even when he hadn’t been cued in, as if anticipating his small-group set with Smith later on that day.

By now it was early evening, and there was, it seemed, hardly time to catch breath before proceedings resumed again. One of John Russell’s QuaQua groups – on this occasion, a septet – played mostly textural music, Chris Burn controlling his inside-piano rustlings with a volume pedal, saxophonist Stefan Keune concentrating on held, altissimo notes, and Satoko Fukada scratching away on violin (in contrast to her more classically-inflected work with Veryan Weston and Steve Beresford), though Henry Lowther plotted a more exclusively melodic course through things. The following trio was an enticing prospect: Leo Smith in an unusual pairing with two drummers, Louis Moholo and Steve Noble. There was potential here for a more overtly rhythmic approach than that we’d been hearing so far. Noble, is, of course, adaptable to pretty much any style, his undoubted improv pedigree mixed with the ability to play highly attractive rhythmic music that may or may not reference particular genres, while Moholo always brings an exuberance and enthusiasm to his playing, in whatever context. It may have taken a while for things to settle – this was, after all, a first-time musical meeting for the three men – but, by the time they’d all locked-in to each-other’s playing, they were able to create something very special indeed. Noble likes gongs and crashes and colour with bursts of on-the-beat playing; Moholo is content to stick to one aspect of his kit, or to click claves and whisper out loud to Smith, “no baby, no.” Smith puts his hand in his mouth and makes clicking, clucking noises, else crouches like the electric Miles, silhouetted black against the red back-light, surely deafening the front row with that sound...The first piece finishes on a note of perfect satisfaction, there has to be more: Smith announces music “to make the stars go to sleep,” then unfurls the most beautiful muted melodies. And it’s a melodicism that’s totally free of clichés, jazz or otherwise – a rare gift.

After such a superb set, what followed was bound to seem something of a let-down, but things went downhill quicker than expected. It has said that, in science, only the experiment that proves the hypothesis is ‘valid’, whereas in music, all experiments are valid. There are, though, occasions when things clearly just do not work, and the performance by SUM was one of these. Eddie Prévost on freebop drums, Ross Lambert on bull-headed guitar, and Seymour Wright actually producing recognisable notes from his saxophone, attempted a sort of skewed, improv look at jazz (they describe the group as a ‘total jazz trio’), but, this time at least, their playing ended up lacking the best qualities of both jazz and improv. Wright stubbornly stuck to a very small selection of notes, obsessively honking the simplest of motifs or shrieking in the extreme upper register of his instrument – free jazz with no sense of momentum, energy or intensity – while Lambert seemed unable to commit to any particular approach, sometimes throwing in jazz chords, sometimes throwing in a few Bailey-like harmonics, but, most crucially, leaving very little space in the music. Prévost came off best, manfully negotiating round the edges of bebop rhythms, but the music as a whole came across as ugly, static, stagnant – a real disappointment, given Wright’s superb, and very different, solo work, and the undoubted philosophical effort that all three players put into what they are doing. Perhaps that was the problem here: a kind of thought experiment with regards to the jazz tradition that didn’t translate into compelling music.

The final trio of Okkyung Lee, Peter Evans and Evan Parker was as expected: one felt that Evans was rather constricted by the kind of phrases Parker played, never really able to propel himself into the bold timbral investigations that had made his solo set so fascinating, while Lee was undermiked and, as in her duo with Lytton, rather pushed into the background of the music. Perhaps a circular-breathing duo, with Parker on soprano and Evans on trumpet, might have offered wider textural possibilities; on the other hand, it would have risked being even more predictable than the trio that did play. Perhaps I’m judging things by the wrong criteria, and as a technical exercise the set was impressive – but it never felt edge-of-the-seat enough for my liking. The musicians were listening to each other, but not pushing each other, not leaving the safe middle-ground which had been established from the outset.


I made my way back to the Conway Hall for the second day, having marked out as potential highlights sets by John Butcher, fURT with Adam Bohman and Ute Wassermann, and the return of Wadada Leo Smith. There were noticeably less audience members than on Sunday (though one might bear in mind that the massed ranks of the London Improvisers Orchestra probably bumped up the numbers significantly when they weren’t playing); nonetheless, the turnout was respectable.

Butcher was up first, paired with Mark Sanders. Anytime he plays, something absorbing is bound to happen, such is his control of his instrument and sense of the minute detail of the unfolding soundscape, and this performance did not disappoint. Given the history of saxophone/drum duos, it was refreshing that the music here never felt like free jazz, achieving its gripping pull on the listener through clarity of ideas rather than speed of execution or the laying down of virtuosic mountains of notes. Butcher opened on tenor, multiphonics imbuing the saxophone with an almost glowing sound, the upper reaches tempered by the lower notes’ burnished undertones. At first he played what was not quite a full melody, but a definite motif nonetheless, carefully structuring things by twice alternating this motif with another figure, before proceeding: a kind of opening invocation, a preliminary statement, a preparation. The performance then unfolded at a pace which one could almost describe as unhurried; but that turn of phrase suggests a kind of lazy relaxation very far from the close-listening, focussed intensity displayed by both musicians. Sanders used bells, bowls, mallets, displaying an often non-linear sense of rhythm that, given the context, was entirely appropriate, working in tandem with Butcher’s smearing, hovering, overlapping frequencies and textures.

After a ten-minute tenor section containing a sustained, crescendoing trill which played with space in a similar manner to Peter Evans the day before, Butcher switched to soprano, an instrument on which he adopted a number of sonic approaches: tongued, finger-slapped, almost percussive sounds that turned the notes away from their harmonic implications, while leaving tonal possibilities within reach; supple strings of notes, which might even have had some connection to conventional soprano sax jazz-isms, but which were peppered with harmonics; and, most strikingly, whistle-frequency sounds that called out with the force of wind, full of shrill urgency and near-physical presence.

The changeable weather outside came peeping through the partially-covered glass roof, the sun’s appearances and disappearances behind clouds seeming at times to mirror Butchers’ and Sanders’ alternations, entrances, and exits – as if in some subliminal or more overtly conscious way environmental conditions outside the building had influenced the performance (or maybe, thinking mystically, the improvisations influenced the weather!). That doesn’t mean that the performance was reduced to the merely imitative or illustrative modes of Romantic classical music, for improvisation’s concentration is on sound as sound, and on human interaction with instruments and with other humans playing them (rather than the translation into music of a lone composers’ inner feelings on seeing a landscape). Yet Butcher and Sanders did create a kind of tone poem, if we take that phrase up on its poetic implications, rather than as musical terminology: obliquely echoing, returning, departing, unfolding within a structure that seemed almost to create itself, participating in its own making rather than forcing more mobile elements into a restrictive, pre-existent mould. Their dialogue was respectful but not ‘polite’ : ‘solos’ , individual statements, were not look-at-me virtuoso displays arising from a false structural obligation, but appropriate opportunities for particular sonorities to be explored, new directions to emerge. One of the best performances of the festival.

A group who’d assembled at Eddie Prévost’s workshop were next to take the stage. These were not, in fact, some of its better-known participants – Prévost was the only musician on stage that I’d seen or heard of previously – but they appeared to share a dogged determination to avoid the timbral clichés associated with their respective instruments. Whereas Prévost was in ‘out jazz’ mode the previous day, here he was functioning as percussionist rather than drummer. Indeed, he could barely be called a percussionist as such, spending almost the entire set bowing a gong to produce ringing, sonorously eerie tones; his snare, the sole survivor of his drum kit, remained unused except when he unfastened it, turned it upside down and used the faint wash of its sympathetic vibrations to feather another bowed metal surface he’d placed atop it. The group’s performance refused the sort of structure that was clearly in play even in Butcher’s radical re-examination of the possibilities of his instrument (though baritone saxophonist Dave O’Connor was surely influenced by Butcher at least in part; in fact, his playing was even more stripped down to the essentials of breath and tongue and flesh on metal, in and through air). Instead, there was very little linear movement through and towards narrative or signposted ‘event’, even if there was an almost continuous succession of sounds, with little actual silence. Though overt ‘interaction’ was avoided (in the sort of call and response, mimicking-of-each-other’s lines approach that comes more out of jazz), the music was still about exchange: Jennifer Allum seemed to play her violin more as tapped, scratched percussion than as a stringed instrument, while Prévost played his ‘percussion’ like a droning string. Grundik Kasyansky’s electronics were the loudest element in the mix, but sudden bursts of noise, indicative of the approach he could have taken, were held back for the most part, emerging as sporadic spasms and muffled radio string music. A pebble dropped off the edge of the stage after an age during which he held it poised in the air imparted a rather desultory moment of ‘drama’; the players’ stillness and tight-lipped expressions have become de rigueur for such music-making, it seems, and there is at times a slight feeling of stasis, the lack of a certain momentum. By this I don’t mean momentum in the overt free jazz sense, which is irrelevant here, but I do feel that the music can become poised rather uneasily between quietude and something more wrenchingly physical. Perhaps such music is not best suited to the concert environment, more to a small, private (workshop) space, where there’s less pressure for something to ‘happen’. And the aim of such art is not to create a ‘work’ but to be part of a continuing dialogue, the continuing exploration of sound for which Prévost’s workshop has become such an essential part.

The following set was billed as fURT with Ute Wassermann and Adam Bohman – an enticing prospect, given fURT’s wrenching, sped-up electronics, Bohman’s maverick table-top assemblage of crunchy junk and resonant bowed glass, and Wassermann’s ‘birdtalking’ (neither quite like speech nor quite like traditional ‘singing’, the latter is a truly expressive use of the voice, retaining its ‘otherness’ from man-made instruments, but with a versatility more generally associated with instruments than with the pure power of the lungs). In the event, Richard Barrett wasn’t able to make the gig, and was replaced by Paul Obemayer’s band-mate from Bark!, the drummer Phil Marks. Ironically, the drum-set didn’t have quite the same percussiveness the extra electronics would have provided – the sounds are more conventional, less abrasive – though Marks did have an infectious kid-on-a-candy-rush energy which fitted well with the music’s jagged sound-worlds and scampering, flittering, manic intensity.

On this second day, much of the afternoon session (and indeed the evening as well) was dominated by inside-piano players: we had three or four pianists all ‘working to extend the parameters of the instrument’ (Sebastian Lexer is always billed as ‘piano+’), in a manner documented by a recent series on the Another Timbre record label. Yet what resulted seemed to be that they all used the same bag of tricks, seduced by the growling, very lowest notes of the Bosendorfer (so low they have a kind of electronic, clanging sound to them, which must surely have been attractive to players interested in the interplay between acoustic and electric sounds), and by the harmonious, high-pitched hum of e-bows held over piano strings (which tend to create a rather deadening ambient cloud that sets the direction for several minutes at least, rendering interaction and change less easy to facilitate, and the texture as a whole more predictable, if superficially quite attractive). To play notes or even phrases on the keyboard itself would have seemed moreunconventional in such a context. Lexer probably had the best of it, his bell-like tones and occasional, vaguely Feldmanesque chords, modulated with a faint touch of lingering electronic echo, slotting quite nicely with Jamie Coleman’s inward trumpet, which, though always on the verge of melancholy, never wallowed in it or meandered through a generalised ‘blueness’. Meanwhile, electronics man Pascal Battus both functioned as percussionist (banging his hands on a mic’d-up table to create a propulsive crescendo, and amplifying his own neck pulse via contact mic, for example) and filled the more expected role of noise-maker/scrabbling texturalist. I do have some reservations about the (over)use of contact mics by electronic practitioners – it gives an edge to its amplified sounds which can become rather wearing – but Battus mostly steered clear of cliché.

The Stellari String Quartet (Philipp Waschmann/ Charlotte Hug/ Marcio Mattios/ John Edwards) were very fine, as expected. Interesting to note this group alongside another all-string ensemble featuring Waschmann, the Oxford-based quintet Squint, who I also heard at a recent gig; both set-ups obviously have a strong textural similarity with contemporary classical music, with the Stellaris perhaps less inclined to linger over melodic sections, more inclined to spark simultaneous firing-on-all-cylinders from each musician. Edwards forsook his more usual snapping, roaring hardman free jazz role (at which he excels) for sympathetic bowing alongside Mattos (whose approach I found much more nuanced and varied than that of Okkyung Lee); Hug, the group’s founder, seemed to favour sustained playing of all the viola’s strings at once, using a specially-developed bow that curves over and round the instrument’s body. Waschmann, meanwhile, came out with half-melodic suggestions, reminiscent of 12-tone contours, that did not preclude insistent scrapes and glissandi; at one point, he moved the violin away from his neck and held it slightly forward from his body, furiously bowing with greater and greater ferocity as he leaned towards the other members of the group, as if attempting to force – indeed, insisting on - a collective change of direction. Textural meshes and overall cohesion did not preclude individuals suddenly launching off into new directions, even bullish ones, such as this, and the Quartet held one’s interest throughout their performance.

It was Leo Smith’s return that rounded out the evening, and once more he proceeded to play some of the best music of the night. The quintet in which he was involved mixed players from several different generations and traditions, and it wasn’t at all clear beforehand what strategies they might try and find to negotiate these: the programme notes, in their attempt to predict what might happen, tried to place Alex Ward and John Coxon as ‘post-modern’ improvisers, liable to reference any number of genres in their playing, with Smith and Pat Thomas as more connected to a tonal, American jazz tradition. (I’m not sure that description doesn’t fall victim to some kind of unconscious racial-musical stereotyping, dividing up the younger, white players from the older, black ones. In any case, attempts to draw lines between the musicians in this way will inevitably be inaccurate, race or not: for example, Thomas’ electronics are more in line with Coxon’s noisy guitar than with jazz, and his piano playing has a good deal of ‘contemporary classical’ to it.) None of these players (the fifth member of the group was Paul Lytton) are known as anything other than confident, individualistic musicians, and the results were consequently loud and raucous, as every one went for it at once, forcing each-other to a potentially dangerous level of noise from the off and barely letting up. Particularly by the rousing climax of the second piece, Ward had joined up with Smith’s trumpet to form a kind of crazy New Orleans combo, though more as part of the overall texture than as any kind of frontline (Ward’s playing also had a touch of klezmer to it, while Smith seemed intent on bringing down the walls of Jericho). Coxon’s guitar was used in all manner of different ways: turned on its back and tapped as an impromptu drum, scratched and scraped, noise-rock style, wrapped in carefully-controlled feedback, treated to ringing harmonic chords from the Bailey school, and unexpectedly, sounding out strongly melodic propositions that were quickly joined by Thomas’ piano: a fine use of neo-idiomatic texture in a way that felt genuine, arising from the music and the moment rather than from any kind of superficial ‘post-modernity’. And Lytton, of course, was right there with them all. On being informed that everyone had to be out of the building by 11, Smith fulfilled the audience’s requests for an encore by playing what may be the shortest piece ever heard at a free improv concert: “1/2 a second” in his words. One brief stab from the full ensemble and – BOOM – Freedom of the City was over for 2010. And worthwhile it was too. Bring on 2011!

Note on Youtube Footage of performances from Freedom of the City Festival 2010

Several individuals were filming and taking photographs of the event; it was also recorded for the BBC (presumably to be broadcast on the show’s more left-field jazz show, Jazz on 3, probably in excerpt form), and, we may hope that some of the performances might also make their way onto CD releases by Emanem, Matchless or Treader. The footage that’s made its way onto youtube generally has fairly decent sound quality, though the picture quality does leave something to be desired. With several different people uploading the videos they’ve taken, there’s inevitably going to be some overlap: for example, at least ten different videos of the Leo Smith sets are available. Probably the easiest way to go about things is to click on the user accounts of those who’ve uploaded the videos (for which see links below), and to work one’s way through what’s available.

* ‘shuffleboil’ –
* Helen Petts –
* ‘dzgast’ –


Rod Warner said...

Very complete account of the fest... well done! Mine was somewhat impressionistic - having done a few more (relatively) meticulous attempts with notebook on lap for two days etc in the past I came to enjoy myself a bit more this year - consequently an exercise in memory in the bar back at the hotel afterwards with a few scribbles - left the laptop at home as well so much delay! We probably differ on a few points - that's the fun of it - but I agree with the presentation aspect. I've found that I really like the Brighton Colour into Space festival because they had a venue with very good sound (much better than Freedom of the City down the years) and by having two separate stages plus exhibitions and stalls got a lot out of little. Unfortunately I gather that they have problems and may have to move to another venue this year if it happens. Conway Hall is central and comfortable but could be used more imaginatively I think. Problem may lie with the mindset of the older musicians/organisers - or the venue's guardians? But I'm glad the festival survives...

david_grundy said...

Given the resources and funding available, perhaps we shouldn't snipe about presentation too much...Perhaps it's part of the free improv mindset in some ways. Wonder what they could do to liven things up? (Not that the music wasn't good)