Thursday 21 January 2021

John Russell (1954-2021)

John Russell, who has died at the age of 66, made an enormous contribution to improvised music in the UK and beyond: an enormity that lies precisely in the supremely modest way he went about it. John believed selflessly in the collective nature of freely improvised music--its emphasis on group playing, on working things out in the moment with care and respect--a care mirrored in the organisation that surrounds a perennially neglected form. He spent nearly 50 years organising concerts (his first in 1973) and the emphasis on group interaction, on a joint search, and the rejection of a star system that characterise the music also characterise the way he went about facilitating gigs, festivals and events. Like most involved, he knew that this music was never going to make much money or a career for those in it--particularly in the UK, with its ever-eroding support for the arts--and this commitment led to a kind of optimistic advocacy--manifested from his announcements onstage--and a steadfast belief that was neither benighted nor bitter, but rather enthusiastic and practical. Over the years, he continued to organise Mopomoso (short for "Modernism-Postmodernism-So What?"), first at the Red Rose club in Finsbury Park (about whose closure I wrote something in the early days of this blog), and during the previous decade at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston; even the pandemic, and John's own serious illness, didn't get in the way, and the series has continued online since last March. (It can be watched on the Mopomoso youtube channel, which also includes footage of most of the performances at the in-person incarnation of the series, diligently recorded by a small but dedicated team; notably, director Helen Petts, who was responsible for much of the series' web presence and filmed every concert for the first five Vortex years). Late in 2019, I took part in the annual Christmas jamboree--dozens of performers, John compering in Christmas regalia, the combination of the whimsical, the devoted, the serious, that characterises the musical diversity of the current UK improvised scene. Amidst the multiple groups, John played a few times, I think, but, as ever, it was really his role as organiser and facilitator that stood out. He was selflessly dedicated to this music and its continuance, to the extent that his own musical contribution can get overlooked. 

That contribution was, however, a singular one. He discussed some of this in an interview I did with him back in 2009, available here-- well as in some more recent interviews (many of them linked on his website), and in a lecture from 2019, likewise available online. John came to the scene in the early 1970s at a time when free improvisation in the UK was moving away from the associations with free jazz that had characterised the early manifestations of European improvised music; and while his approach suggests at times suggests the very faint ghosts of rock music ("John Russell and the riff" would make for an interesting paper some day), his concern was rarely with identifiably generic material. Studying privately with Derek Bailey, Bailey is the obvious point of comparison: but the obvious differences include the fact that, until 2014, John concentrated exclusively on acoustic guitar, drawn to the physicalised sounds, the fact that one can't conceal inventiveness and detail with technological or timbral effect. The instrument would offer a seemingly boundless series of possibilities over the next five decades. Early on, he'd experiment with an electronic set-up, during a period in which other musicians such as Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, Paul Lytton and most of all Hugh Davies, were likewise expanding their set-ups at a time when electronics were cumbersome and time-consuming to transport and operate. As he put it in our interview:
For us earlier on, the search for new sounds was part of it, but the nub was to find material that could prove useful to improvising. If you like; to find an essence or core to a way of playing music. I did try various things with the electric guitar (preparations, feedback etc. and always trying to avoid the ‘I’ve got a new device mentality) but I quite consciously moved to the acoustic instrument to get closer to what being a guitarist meant.
Of note here is that this was not any old acoustic guitar, but an Archtop model designed in the 1930s to compete with the louder brass instruments in swing bands ("the modern dance orchestra")--that's to say, an acoustic instrument with some of the qualities of the electric. John provided a scan of the original manufacturer's advert on his website.

In part, John's style emerged from this very concern with the physical nature of this instrument: the instrument serves as the source both for problems and for their solution, a working that forces the mind to keep alert and that draws attention to the materiality of music-making. In that sense, the improvisation is not just between one musician and others in the group, but between the musician and the instrument itself.
Another point is that the instrument has very little sustain and the timbral range is also fairly limited so whereas someone on a different instrument might employ sustain and a shifting texture I have to work that much harder. The, if you like, ‘melodic’ or ‘lead’ part is in there, but I often disguise this by changing reference points, so it can seem like it’s just a bunch of notes to some people.
Changing reference points is a useful way of thinking--while the oft-debated 'non-idiomatic' characterisation which served as Derek Bailey's way of describing the music has, as is again often noted, certainly become an identifiable style in itself more than a half-a-century on, it's a style based on shifts and on the unexpected. Where the confusion arises is perhaps in the idea that such shifts would constitute major and obvious stylistic changes rather than the careful and patient working-through of material on a micro-level: the kinds of response, surprise and pleasure that, indeed, happens within any social, interactive frame. This requires a level of humility that John possessed in bucketloads. As he put it:
It just came about from letting the music come first. I think that if people want to turn things into movements, directions etc. that comes later and is for them. I personally don’t find that productive.
John was always a devotee of group playing, and generally associated with the school of improvised music focused in general more on interaction and on individual events (the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's 'pointillist' as opposed to AMM's 'laminar' approach, and its legacies in 'eai' (electroacoustic improvisation)). The spontaneous combinations and re-combinations of the 'Fete Qua Qua' events held since 1981--descendants or cousins of Bailey's famous Company Weeks--of which there is manifold evidence is available on the Mopomoso youtube channel--are perhaps the best recent example; there were also longer-running small groups with the likes of Evan Parker and collaborations with many, many others, a large number released on the Weektertoft label which he ran with pianist Paul G. Smyth. 

Whether on record or not--this is, after all, a music that has a complex relation to the freezing of the moment implied in recordings--I suspect that many people's memories of John's music will reside, not so much in single performances, but in the entire spread of his work: multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic. I  took this snippet of a duo with the late trumpeter Henry Lowther back at the Old Red Rose; their occasional duo embodies many of the virtues of this music. Of other collaborations that stood out, there was, of course, that with Evan Parker across many configurations, including the trio House Full of Floors with bassist John Edwards; duo work with percussionist Roger Turner, whose focus matched John's in a very different, more clattery and intense manner;  solo--the lovely recording 'Hyste', on Parker's psi label (and Helen Pett's short film 'Guitarist', focusing in minute detail on the interaction of finger and string); and a series of duos with string players: the recording with cellist Martine Altenburger on Simon Reynell's label Another Timbre (which provoked some of the best critical writing on Russell's music, including Jesse Goin's lovely and thorough review); with violinist Satoko Fukada; and with another violinist, Phil Waschmann. Those just for starters.

In the early 90s, the group News from the Shed expanded from its initial trio format (John Butcher on saxophone, Phil Durrant on violin, Russell on guitar) to a quartet with trombonist Radu Malfatti, and arguably played an important role in developing what was being known at one point as 'eai', 'reductionism', 'New London silence' and so on for which Malfatti would be a controversial lead figure. Malfatti, whose work in the UK improvisation scene in the 1970s saw noisy and ebullient playing with groups like Brotherhood of Breath, had increasingly reduced down his approach, emphasizing silence, space and placement surrounding notes almost as much--perhaps more--than virtuosity or phrasal content; an approach that led to some vigorous controversy debate (much of it conducted in online forums like Bagatellen or I Hate Music a decade or longer ago). But, as the quote above suggests, John was hardly one for prescriptive or dogmatic insistence. For him, this mode of music was a permission to, rather than a prohibition of, and the avoidance of certain harmonic, melodic and generic patterns, the insistence on an almost completely improvised approach, were ways to facilitate rather than claims to always being in the advance guard. Thus, the approach taken to be News from the Shed came about for practical reasons--as John noted, it was hard to get the acoustic guitar heard--free improvisation can often be noisy, all the more so once groups expand to more than about three participants--and the group, even before Malfatti joined, had been concerned with developing approaches that wouldn't simply drown out quieter instruments. As this suggests, John's playing was never about grandstanding or drawing attention to himself. Instead, his approach was resolutely unfussy--a careful, quiet and intense concentration that might be called 'workmanlike' were that not--unfairly--a term of abuse: if we rephrased that word to suggest the work that this music does, this mode of playing that is also, crucially, a mode of listening--listening to and with the others in the group, or the others in the room--that is one of labour and love.

In a review from 2010, Stuart Broomer praises such playing--in terms that we might equally well read as practical, musical and philosophical--for its "sense of balance"--both internally, in and between individual guitar lines, and when playing with others. Broomer notes the use of the guitar's fingerboard as a seemingly endless resource: "He finds new tones in the same place, new relationships in the same gesture. A second trip across the fingerboard is always a different excursion". These trips frequently deployed harmonics. In Broomer's words: "the harmonic is a transparent sound: silence and ambient sound pass through it. It accounts for Russell's unhurried pace and his sense of order, even when he's playing fast" there's simply so much going on". This balance--between the known and unknown, the given and the newly discovered, the other-worldly and the resolutely material--is, for me, one of the great virtues of freely improvised music, and John's playing embodied it to a T.

The performance below is John's last ever performance in public, given at Cafe Oto--just down the road from the musical home-from-home of the Vortex--in March, just before national lockdown—a solo of little more than five minutes that encapsulates the virtues of his music: methodical, calm in method, intriguing in many ways. Emotion is not always the point of this music, but Daniel Spicer is I think right to note a certain tendency in Russell's playing that he calls "meditative -- even tender". This aspect of the music is easy to emphasize given the circumstances of this gig--right on the eve of pandemic lockdown, a situation that has often seemed to worsen everyday since then--and the fact of John's illness--which combine to give an extra-musical pressure to this piece, but the playing itself rises to the occasion precisely by continuing as it always had: focused, crystalline, with the authority of a summative statement and the openness of an ongoing, life-long negotiation with the material and devotion to the demands of the moment. John Russell will be much missed.

Sunday 17 January 2021

"Real life is a reign of terror": Le Pont du Nord (1980, dir. Jacques Rivette)

In his best-known film, Celine and Julie Vont a Bateau/Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Jacques Rivette had suggested that one can transform the ways in which life is narrated. Jumping in at the deep end of a mystery involving déjà vu, magic spells and secret houses, Celine and Julie gradually discover that they can change the content of what’s initially experienced as unalterable hallucination or dream, and thus in turn redeem time, history and a narrative that orients towards female victimhood (the murder of a young girl). The film ends with a gentle trip down the river, the protagonists, accompanied by the girl they’ve rescued from the clutches of time and death, forming a kind of substitute family of women. Celine was made the year of President Valéry Giscard D’Estaing’s first election, the year after the 1973 energy crisis, the end of the ‘Trentes Glorieuses’, the beginning of a regime of austerity and unemployment. Wearied by the succeeding half-decade, Le Pont presents no child to rescue, no boating trip or shaggy-dog story, but a bridge which, as in the children’s song from which the film drew its inspiration, selfish children will fall, in a kind of divine punishment dished out by a moralistic universe. (“The bridge collapsed and they drowned / See the fate of obstinate children”).

Protagonists Marie (Bulle Ogier) and Baptiste (her daughter, Pascale) first meet when Marie, absent-mindedly absorbed in her little red notebook—a joking nod to the radicalism of the ’68 generation (“see you at Mao”), rendered now pure introspection—steps out into the road in front of Baptiste, causing the latter to crash her moped and furiously slash a wire to quieten the out-of-control vehicle, still spinning wildly on the road. Running into each other twice more, Baptiste insists that she and Marie team up—for while meeting once or even twice might be chance or accident, three times is fate. Seeking to reuinite with her lover Julien (Pierre Clémenti) after spending a year in prison, Marie reluctantly and then more willingly teams up with Baptiste after Julien mysteriously disappears to undertake a task that will take him three days—after which, he promises, they can continue their love relationship. Ground down by prison, Marie tells Baptiste that she’s now committed to love as the guarantor of future happiness and security, but, as the film unfolds, this love affair is revealed to be caught up in more sinister machinations. Before their meeting, Baptiste has repeatedly revved up the moped as if threatening to confront a man who, apparently quite innocently prepares to set off on a motorbike being fixed at the side of the road. This man will reveal himself to be—perhaps—the principal antagonist in a vaguely-defined conspiracy operating through figures Baptise calls ‘Maxes’: spies or ‘guards’ who follow their victims, always in disguise, so many of them overrunning the city that “sometimes they kill each other”. After Baptiste exchanges Julien’s valise with a substitute, ruining an exchange involving large amounts of money: guns begin to be drawn, bodies to be found, threats to be made. The conspiracy centres principally on information—the valise contains maps, newspaper cuttings, obscure symbols—in the manner of the MacGuffin. We never really decipher what this information might mean, though we do discover that its consequences can be deadly. The protagonists’ quest to follow the mysterious diagrams they find drawn over maps of Paris, and approximating to the centuries-old children’s ‘Game of the Goose’, ends with Julien shooting Marie on the titular bridge, and Baptiste preparing to do battle with the chief ‘Max’ (Jean-François Stévenin)—a battle that then breaks through the fourth wall into a moment of levity that at once belies the drama of what we’ve just seen and heightens its lack of real resolution.

The information that Marie and Baptiste find in the valise reads as a kind of anatomy of the preceding decade: newspaper clippings, underlined in mysterious red and with arcane annotations covering everything from murder cases to bank robberies, political assassinations to corruption scandals, with Jacques Mesrine, whose name appears several times, as index of this ambiguity—a would-be Robin Hood who had been a member of the far-right OAS, in the ’70s declared Public Enemy no.1, whose death—denounced by some as extra-judicial execution on the part of the police force—had been celebrated by President D’Estaing. Marie hints that, Patty-Hearst like, she was manipulated into taking part in a series of bank robberies by those who argued that the real thieves were the banks themselves, but ideology, as with Mesrine, seems fluid here—whether the various deadly games in the film are taken on the part of the State, criminal organisations, or in the mercenary shadow world between the two. (Indeed, at one point, Stévenin suddenly speaks to Marie in German, raising the possibility of a clandestine network of former Nazis, material for a 1970s paranoiac-thriller of the ‘Marathon Man’ variety).
Gangsters, property developers, politicians: against this murky political world—involvement in which seems to have led to her time in prison—Marie clings to the promises of heterosexual romance, reuniting with Julien and telling Baptiste that she’s now resolved to devote herself to love—despite the fact that, as she admits, they’d been together only a week before she was arrested, and despite the hint that it was a romantic relationship which led to her crimes in the first place. Ultimately, it’s through Julien that Marie meets her fate, slain on the titular bridge. The lovers here take the titles of Rivette’s at the time-abandoned Marie and Julien project. A story of love and death inspired by the story of a woman who’d committee suicide, the film had led Rivette to a nervous breakdown (it would later be revived in the 1990s as a kind of ghost story). Yet this is hardly genuine amour fou (and all the gendered violence that the associated legal definition of the crime passionnel has historically covered), even if, early in the film, Rivette deploys the iconic romantic fatalism of Piazzola’s ‘Libertango’, which he described as “somewhere between a brothel and the church”.

Rather, it’s the relationship between Marie and Baptiste that takes centre stage: two women who traverse the city without the ‘guidance’ of a man, their relationship serving challenge to existing orders—whether it’s in the patriarchal expectations of a city of (male) gazes, or the double-bind between the routinised enclosure of the workplace or the prison (the workhouse itself, that fusion of the two characteristic of an earlier era, having given way to a more ‘civilised’ separation) and the ‘rootless’ wandering of the unemployed taken as such a threat by the State. Baptiste, in her leather jacket, anticipates a kind of wider-eyed, more lively version of Agnes Varda’s ‘vagabond’ a few years later, and she and Marie stand in for those who, ‘sans toit ni loi’ (without roof or law, the French title to Varda’s film) occupy space as transitory and transient inhabitants—not as romanticised images of movement, nor as pitiable images of suffering, nor as moralistic images of condemnation, nor as peripheral concern, but as central social fact. (After all, as Foucault suggested, it’s in the control of surplus populations, and in the increased surveillance function of the disciplinary apparatus, that the modern European state began to develop its characteristic forms.)
Interviewing Rivette about the film, Marguerite Duras was wholly admiring of the gendered mobility of the film’s protagonists, of its refiguring of the city through perpetual movement, at once liberation and prison: “We have never seen women like this out in the open air, without any attachment, without identity, a film that runs along like a river...”) In some ways, the opening sequences recall the endless motion of Marguerite Duras’ late ’70s short films (Aurelia Steiner, Les Mains Negatives, Le Navire Night, Cesaree), shot in and around Paris at its edges, at dusk or dawn, with their overlaid narrations of desire, of missed connections, and of concealed historical trauma. This movement is also a kind of literal going round in circles. Riding endlessly round the square, shaking her fist at the stone lions, Baptiste invokes the Rastafarian/Hebrew condemnation of ‘Babylon’ in a kind of Quixotic windmill-tilting, right before her first encounter with Marie knocks her off her moped and renders her warrior’s horse useless.
Thereafter, Baptiste is on foot. For her part, Marie, rendered claustrophobic by her time in prison, refuses to go indoors; we first see her taking a lift in the back of an open-topped truck, then ordering a croissant from the door of a cafe and asking it to be brought outside; she runs across the crowded roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe, risking death from waves of cars, rather than take the pedestrian subway. As a result, she and Baptiste wander on the peripheries, tracing a route round the city that’s not so much circuitous as an unpredictable zig-zag, crossing, re-crossing, doubling back along railroad tracks, reservoirs, building sites, footbridges, endless steps in Escher-like matching shot patterns (see the extremely detailed shot analysis here). But rather than a liberated movement in the mode of the flânuer or the dérive, such movement feels expressive of a relation to space characterised by loneliness and a lack of security. “You’re the first person I’ve met [in this city]”, Baptiste tells Marie. Much of the latter portion of the film takes place in the largely deserted wastelands that develop as a consequence of the deals between property developers, city officials; half-ruined buildings, a graveyard so overgrown that the graves only become visible after a protagonist literally stumbles across them (along with a dead body), a church apparently in the middle of nowhere, missing buildings knocked down to make way for the new that’s permanently promised and never quite arrives.
Against this—the city as wasteland or trap—Rivette (and DP William Lubtchansky) juxtaposes Marie and Baptiste’s game-playing with the imaginative transformations rendered by cinema itself. After Marie rescues Baptiste from the giant spider’s web in which she’s been trapped by a ‘Max’, the camera moves across a set of new, multi-coloured but already-dilapidated apartment blocks rising like distorted fairytale castles from the surrounding ruins of one of the city’s many new ‘(re)development’ sites: two forms of the sublime, the ridiculous, and the pragmatic indexing the realities of urban property rights and the exclusions their surfaces and edifices both exacerbate and deny. This shot encapsulates the film’s methodology—to relentlessly draw attention to its own limited technical means (at various points we see the actors buy or steal props used in subsequent scenes) whilst also combining them with a kind of whimsical enchantment. Based on improvisation and delivered with a technical minimum of means, film is refigured as play, or play-acting: a child-like assembly and re-assembly of stock figures, poses and props, harking back to the simplified repetition of generic conventions in early film (as when an actor puts their head on a railroad line to listen for approaching trains), or to the replaying of film clichés in children’s games. And while Baptise and Marie make little direct reference to cinema, film posters appear throughout—whether as illusion of space and freedom (our protagonists spend the night in the cinema watching 1956 western The Big Country (Les Grandes Espaces)—or as indication of gendered oppression—when Marie suffers an anxiety attack aboard a train, Baptiste sits her down beneath a poster for the slasher movie ‘The Silent Scream’ (rendered in French as ‘The Silence that Kills’), and at another point we glimpse the poster for Clouzot’s strange piece of misplaced psychedelia about voyeurism, domination and attraction to imprisonment, La Prisonniere. Baptiste associates the visual forms of mass media—whether cinema or advertisements—as menacing forces. Obsessed with surveillance, slashing at the eyes on billboards (whether a Kurosawa film or an advert for glasses)— she tells Marie that “eyes are everywhere”. Indeed, what’s striking about the film in contrast to Celine and Julie is that, for all the games and play-acting seen here, the mood of the film is suffused by a fatalism and low-level paranoia with no real outlet or end in sight. Whereas Celine and Julie negotiate their way into an apparent magical transformation of reality, the protagonists’ role-playing remains trapped within the terms of shadowy male domination it attempts to resist. As Serge Daney put it: “Facing a scenario whose terms are set, more or less hypocritically, by men (stories of secret societies, scavenger hunts, traps), the women respond by inventing an even more aleatory way of acting! A game unto themselves, then a game between themselves – beyond all hope, parodic, and excessive.”

Breaking the fourth wall in the final scene opens the film up to a playfulness it’s hitherto—despite being largely about game-playing—managed to largely avoid. But it also suggests a further falling into the abyss of indecipherable meaning, doubling, switching and artifice that is as much index of powerlessness as tool of protection. Baptiste has rehearsed for this fight every morning—removing her jacket (“my armour”, as she tells Marie) in an activity between self-defense, aesthetic form and obsessive-compulsive ritual, in which respect for opponents (the closing bow which Marie returns with a sardonic affection) suggests a formalised naivety out of place in the present moment. The inadequacy of the form is suggested in the final ‘battle’, in which the ‘Max’ instructs her: “Don’t forget your enemy is imaginary”. Baptiste’s karate fight is, in fact, a game played for the cameras operated by men.
Asked about the film’s perspective, Rivette told Daney and Jean Narboni in 1981: “It’s never the point of view of power, that’s for sure!” Rivette continues that he can’t show those in power because he can’t take them seriously. Yet this refusal to dignify those in power with representation also means that power’s operations themselves become numinous, in true Foucauldian fashion—the ‘Maxes’ are only the (possible) agents of power, its representatives or conduits, never those in charge. When Marie questions some of her stranger speculations on fate as modes of fantasy, Baptiste responds: “Real life is a reign of terror”. Referencing the formative campaign of state violence that both lies behind and is denied within the French republic, Baptiste extends such histories to the present, whilst alluding to the shadowy campaigns of extra-legal killings involving Mesrine, the Far Right, and the State itself. Ultimately, Marie and Baptiste are up against capitalism itself: the combination of chance and intent that drives a system based on a combination of apparent pragmatic naturalisation (capitalist realism) and the most fantastic of justifications for rationalised irrationalism, legally- and extra-legally enshrined inequality. Their game-playing serves as their defiance of the system, set up within the system’s own terms: a folie-a-deux which self-perpetuates through the very ties it establishes and cements—forms of solidarity and friendship. What enables Marie and Baptiste—at first—to survive within this environment—their paranoiac game-playing—is also what renders them vulnerable and ignorable: a corpse on the periphery, yet another missing person or unexplained death, yet another disappeared and wayward life.

Saturday 9 January 2021

Bobby Few (1935-2021)

Bobby Few's piano sounded like the ocean; it sounded like the wind; on the 1979 recording of 'Continental Jazz Express', complete with well-integrated sound effects--whistles, clanks, full steam ahead--it sounded like that most classic of all jazz and blues figurations, the train, Few's thickly chordal, sustain-pedal-borne blurs of sound riding that railroad, under- and over-ground. Few's style was ecstatic, gospel-tinged--a perfect fit on Ayler's last two studio albums (Few had known Ayler since high school), where Few takes the stately church stylings of Cal Cobbs one notch further--and as liable to dreamy or jubilant melody as to the vast waves of sound that filled up the heavenly outer reaches of Frank Wright and Noah Howard's Church Number Nine and Space Dimension. Few was one of the small but robust group of exiles from the free generation who relocated to Paris in the late 1960s, having emerged in the Cleveland-New York energy music axis--Wright, Howard, Muhammad Ali, Sunny Murray, Alan Silva--in all of whose music there existed an equal impulse to create the most 'out', noisy, ecstatic free jazz on earth (Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra, with whom Few sometimes played--he's one of the three(!) pianists on the immense Seasons; the various configurations of the Wright-Howard-Silva-Ali nexus) and a fondness for lithe and unusual melody in beautifully apposite arrangement (Murray's Aigu-Grave; Few's numerous records with Steve Lacy--for which, as Lacy put it, he provided "the liquid component in our music"; his later recordings as his leader (Let It Rain can be heard here). Notable too are Few's burningly romantic later collaborations with saxophonists Avram Fefer (Mingus' 'Orange is the Color' here) and Ernest Dawkins, and Sonny Simmons, among others, in which elements of his approach form throughout his career relate more closely to the repertoire and organisation of 'the tradition'. Throughout, Few's was a popular or populist free jazz, marked by the vernacular sounds of blues, gospel, R&B and a joyful tendency to song--like late period Ayler, Wright and Few both recorded as vocalists, the imperfect pitch and wavering cracks of their voices only adding to the music's directness and sincerity.

Stylistically, Few's characteristic figure--a series of descending chords, like someone tumbling down the stairs, at once a signature move and a surprise each time--rendered a sound which was always full of movement--not for nothing does Xavier Prévost name his arpeggios 'torrential'; as one of his track titles has it, Few makes it sound like he's gloriously, exhilaratingly, 'Chasing the Piano'. At the same time, his approach was dominated more by chord than line (and in that sense distinct from the linear adventures of the Bud Powell tradition); you see him deploying both hands for full chordal (or cluster) effect in the photo above. (And the photo in question, taken by Phillipe Gras at the Amougies Festival in 1969, says it all in terms of the energy that drove, informed and was inseparable from that technique.) As an accompanist, Few at once accentuated a harmonic underpinning to even the most 'out' squalls of Frank Wright at full blast and a thick, pedal-reinforced sound that extended into a kind of all-encompassing pan-tonality in which any direction might be taken. It's glorious, and hopeful, and often moving: it's a music of real fervour and hope and bright energy, and this live date by the Center of the World Quartet (Wright, Few, Silva and Ali) exemplifies it as well as anything. Wright's 'Two Birds with One Stone'--a 1978 performance released as a bonus track on the CD re-issue--extends to over twice the length of the version Wright had recorded with George Arvanitas the previous year--here it's at once blissed-out and yearning, the struggle at the heart of happiness, the happiness at the heart of struggle: birds of paradise.


It needed a pianist with force to play with Wright, regarding whom I often think of the story Murray told Dan Warburton about the time in the studio he cranked up a siren to full volume over the band, leading everyone to drop out except "Frank Wright!"--still playing, reaching beyond. When the Center of the World group arrived in Paris, still in the post-May '68 period, as Few tells it, they ran away from a horde of riot police chasing down students burning cars and into what turned out to be a jazz club that offered them an engagement. While teasing out a metaphorical placement for the band vis-a-vis politics based on this evidence alone would be pushing it, the sounds of both tumult and joy sear through the music. This is not a tumult of torment, though--if late period Ayler in particular can sound ghostly, a precarious and terrible fervour, Wright, Few, et al--partly as a result of personality, partly as a result of the idiomatic vocabulary that courses through Few's playing in particular, from stride to R&B, the blues to free--truly produce a joyful noise. The Center of the World Quartet would play for hours--as Pierre Crépon notes, even a 15-minute excerpt hardly does justice to the emotional and formal momentum of the music, its overarching, spontaneous structures, which thrived above all in the expanded temporal setting and charged atmosphere of live performance--and the other musicians in the group--Silva, Wright and Ali, with Noah Howard often supplanting them--forced a kind of single unit. Few's sound, indeed, is so bound up with the vocalic tenor and saxophone-like vocals of Howard and Wright--the cries of "it is time...for the be at peace" on Church Number Nine, the unison melodies of Uhuru Na Umoja or Space Dimension--the vocal interjections and thunderous crashes that rise and fall, ebb and swell of Last Polka in Nancy?, the righteous group improvisations of Unity--that you can't hear one without conjuring up the other.

Steve Lacy rated Few so highly that, the story goes, having heard Few, Wright and others playing at the Amougies festival, he relocated from Rome to Paris in order to play with them--though he would have to wait ten years before Few would join the band. For Lacy, Few was "the first pianist I heard after Cecil Taylor that had his own thing really well developed". Yet Few was also an ideal accompanist (though the word hardly does justice to what he would accomplish in such contexts)--as he would be on dozens of records for Lacy. Whether operating on the 'inside' or the 'outside' of the tradition--or, as the title to one of his earliest recordings, a sideman date with Booker Ervin, has it, 'The In-Between'--Few was intensively responsive, adaptive--an on-the-spot orchestrator of mood, whether following the general tendency or initiating a new direction, whether in a larger group or by himself. Honed by years as a gigging musician, whether in free or straight-ahead contexts, his adaptive responsive appeared able to withstand any interference, any new information, any challenge: legend has it that his first gig at the Duc du Lombard bar in Paris saw someone throw a bottle of whiskey through the window, to which Few responded with some honky-tonk stylings to accentuate the wild-west atmosphere. He could change direction too: listen to the way he takes these down 6 minutes into this outdoor performance with saxophonist Ernest Dawkins after five minutes of bandstand-lifting energetics that draw appreciative cheers from the audience (here). That magic shift--the after-echoes of the peak almost imperceptibly subsiding down into the trough--is one familiar from any number of improvisational contexts, but nothing Few does every feels old; and, paradoxically--but it's not really a paradox at all--celebrating this singular individual musician involves celebrating his capacity for thinking with others as one, of fitting into the group sound, the sound of collective endeavour and response and responsibility that is one of the supreme virtues of this music.

Beyond any album, any performance that he gave with Wright and Howard, and all the work on the Center of the World label (including the superb More or Less Few)--all completely essential--I'm fond too of rare, late items like this radio date with Arthur Doyle (, or Few's work with multi-instrumentalist Zusaan Kali Fasteau ( Pierre Crépon's typically thorough playlist for The Wire has some other highlights (including the aforementioned version of 'Continental Jazz Express', complete with those sound effects.) On Solos Duets, two tracks featuring Few with Alan Silva pose the question and give the answer, as 'Who Got the Keys?', is followed by 'We have found the Keys': the metaphorical (music beyond a single key signature) supplanting the literal (the single point of entry) in good humour and the ecstatic vision of another world within and beyond this--polytonal, polyrhythmic, multi-levelled, spectacular. 

Bobby Few's piano sounds like the ocean.