London Jazz Festival 2004
The first thing to note about this ambitious, 12-piece collective of young British jazz stars is the awfulness of its name. It promises a lot but, sadly, it just draws attention to the lumpen contemporaneity of their urban/dance/Hiphop crossover jazz, which sounds almost specifically designed for a live slot at the MOBO awards. If this is the future sound of jazz, then it's in a parallel universe where Ayler never made it out of the army, and Coltrane became a dentist.
There are some highlights, however: about ten minutes in, the groove gives way to a spectral piano improvisation from Matthew Bourne, with oddly incongruous spoken vocal samples, which trail away into a rapt silence. It's almost a shame when the band gets its beat back. And, boy, when they get it back, do they ever thrash it to death.
Notwithstanding a rousing version of "Part 2," dating back to musical director Jason Yarde's days as a Jazz Warrior, the pedestrian beats roll on for far too long and with not nearly enough focus. Even the energetic and cocksure interventions of rapper Ty fall somewhat flat. The thing is, you can see what they're trying to do. You can even commend them for attempting to bring jazz to a wider, probably younger, audience. But the arrangements are so intent on making room for these other elements that the jazz content inevitably suffers. It all sounds a little too much like the soundtrack to a sanitary towel advert.
Still, the performance is somewhat redeemed by a closing Afro-beat monster that, while it does seem to go on forever, does, at least, get the audience up on their feet and dancing, crammed into a tiny space in front of the stage. You get the feeling this is what everyone wanted all along.
Matthew Bourne and the Distortion Trio
Purcell Room, London, UK
13th November 2004
Pianist Matthew Bourne has already gained a reputation as a champion of British left-field modern jazz with his "Mwandishi meets Drum 'n Bass" project, The Electric Dr M. Seeing The Distortion Trio, aided by two French collaborators, however, it becomes apparent just how far he's willing to push things.
This isn't so much jazz, as free-Improv space-rock: a terrifically off-kilter monster built out of Dave Black's crashing, Beefheartian, drums; Chris Sharkey's scratchy laptop guitar; bobbing alto sax lines from guest, Christophe deBezenac; and subtly disorientating electronic "sound diffusion" from fellow countryman, Christian Sebille.
The anchor, though, is Bourne's erratic electric keyboard. There's Prog pomposity in there, with lightning fast, upper-register keyboard runs repeated over and over until they lose the quality of a solo and become, instead, a kind of dizzying groove template for the drums to smash around the edges of. Then, just when the band seems to be edging towards some kind of coherent riff, Bourne's left hand blasts out a devastating chord that lays waste to everything around it, forcing another instant re-evaluation of the improvisation's direction.
This relentless, frantic searching, with one motif giving way to the next before it's even had time to form, creates an atmosphere of acutely pleasurable anxiety, heightened even further by an irresistible, break-neck, free-jazz tempo, satisfyingly divorced from any conventional notion of metre or rhythm.
Inevitably, this edge-of-seat stuff is not to everyone's taste and a constant stream of terrified or confused punters flees the auditorium for less uncertain surroundings. This is clearly not a music about which anyone can remain ambiguous. Rather, it is consciously engineered to create a violent reaction in the listener. Right now, in these days of bland commodification and Philistine anti-intellectualism, there can't be many more important or necessary things for a musician to be doing.
Purcell Room,London, UK
14th November 2004
Now that Russia's not much more than an Eastern branch of business-park Europe, it can be hard to remember how scared we all were of her during the Cold War. Back then, she was a vast, alien landscape, crawling with tanks and nukes and shuddering to the awkward goose step of the Red Army's endless manoeuvres.
Similarly, unless you were there, it's hard to imagine the shock of Russian free jazz ensemble, the Ganelin Trio's, first European tour in the early 1980s, when their mixture of modern composition, Lithuanian folk and free Improv smashed the complacency of the Western avant-garde scene like a jackboot stamping in a puddle. Twenty years later, the landscape is profoundly different. Now a global avant-underground is producing a multitude of sounds that make the Ganelin Trio's early output sound almost nostalgically reassuring.
But, if the trio is no longer entirely shocking, this first of two farewell gigs at the Purcell Room proves they are still a rewarding challenge. Their sound is held together by Vladimir Tarasov's fluid and inventive percussion, a rumbling pulse drawn from drums, gongs, finger cymbals and various chimes. Against this shimmering backdrop, Vyacheslav Ganelin's nimble piano dances in and out of focus, accompanied by bass synthesizer rumbles. Star of the show is the stocky, shaven-headed Vladimir Chesakin using his lungs every way he can: long, sinuous soprano sax runs; simultaneous double-squawks on alto and soprano; even ominous vocal rumblings.
When he's crouched at the mic, bringing up these wordless, demonic vocalisations you can almost catch a whiff of the upset it caused back when Brezhnev was in charge. For the most part, though, it's three of Improv's elder statesmen giving a textbook demonstration of European free-jazz, which, while enormously satisfying, is a long way removed from the danger of the past.
Royal Festival Hall Freestage, London, UK
15th November 2004
I find it comforting to think that, at any given moment, someone, somewhere is making like it's 1969. So, you can imagine how this fine show is enlivened no end by the presence of what I believe they used to call a "hippy chick," with bum-length hair, earnestly freaking out with Dionysian abandon at the foot of the stage.
It turns out she's in the right place, too. The spectre of psychedelic British jazz-rock is in evidence right from the get-go, with the unmistakably reassuring voice of Robert Wyatt introducing the band in a rambling preamble, in which he tantalises us with the useless information that he was going to join the band on stage but, sadly, forgot his cornet. No matter, the line-up as it stands is something of a British Improv dream ticket: Wyatt's old comrade, ex-Soft Machine bassist, Hugh Hopper; Jazz Warrior, Orphy Robinson, on vibes and steel drum; seasoned warhorse, Lol Coxhill, on soprano; and ex-This Heat drummer Charles Hayward.
It works like a charm. Hayward's drumming is reminiscent of Wyatt's in Soft Machine's heyday agile, mercurial and up-tempo throughout, buoying up Hopper's solid bottom-end. Coxhill, seated, gropes for the openings with his soprano pointed straight down at the ground and, when he finds them, he's in there with rapier precision. In this setting, Orphy Robinson's dislocated jabs at the vibes are inevitably reminiscent of Bobby Hutcherson with Archie Shepp at Newport in '65, or on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch and certainly none the worse for that. His work on the steel drum is something of a revelation, too very far removed from the carnival sound with which it's normally associated in his hands it becomes an urgent, trilling drill-bit, worrying away at the surface of the collective improvisation.
If only somebody had got naked.
Bicycle Clip Sex/Gail Brand and Gina Southgate/Badlands
The Klinker Club, London, UK
16th November 2004
The man wearing the crown of cabbage leaves leans over to admonish me. "I'd rather you smoked it outside," he says, "I'm quite conventional." It can only be the Klinker Club. Twenty three years on, this Improv stronghold remains so resolutely underground that it slips under the radar of most concert-goers. While the London Jazz Festival rages on over the river, this must be the unofficial fringe.
The indomitable promoter, performer, and cabbage-crown wearer, Hugh Metcalfe, kicks things off with acoustic guitar squalls, aided by James Holcombe on electronics, performing as Bicycle Clip Sex. More impressive are Metcalfe's explorations on battered high-hat, pint glass, cowbell and guitar case- a drum kit assembled from a scrap-heap. Behind him, two screens show home made Super8 films: a disorientating procession of images. Metcalfe brings the journey to a close with a brief shriek on the violin and the audience can consider itself warmed up.
Next, Gail Brand's trombone squeaks and grunts to provide a musical framework for Gina Southgate's performance percussion, based around a suitcase, a couple of stepladders, and sundry domestic items. She closely resembles a middle-aged mum doing chores for the Surrealists, and it's fun to imagine her telling a teenage son "I'm off out to strap baking trays to my feet and stomp around grating polystyrene." It's the spirit of Dadaist humour missing from so many dry Improv sessions.
Then it's Badlands, with Simon Rose on tenor, Simon Fell on bass and Steve Noble churning out an absolutely blistering display of Andrew Cyrille-style, pulse-time, free-jazz drumming, so precise, authoritative and even swinging, that one can hardly believe it's taking place here, in a tiny room behind a pub in North London, rather than on the South Bank.
One can't help but feel gratitude for the man with the cabbagey crown.
London Jazz Festival: No Compromises