May 2005: A Good Month
Sunday 1st: Red Rose Club
Freedom of the City Festival
For financial reasons, this year's festival was reduced to only one day and moved from its perennial venue, Conway Hall. Nonetheless, it was an excellent day. It deliberately featured groupings that had never played together before (with the exception of the London Improvisers Orchestra, who closed proceedings), with the focus on duos and trios, giving an added frisson of expectation to each performance.
In a day without a dull moment, to select highlights seems churlish; nearly every grouping was fresh, exciting and revelatory. Nonetheless, my personal favourites were Alan Wilkinson, Phil Durrant & Mark Sanders, and Paul Rutherford, John Edwards & Mark Sanders (again!). Durrant's multi-layering (via his laptop) of Wilkinson built up a disorienting, kaleidoscopic effect that offset the brutal power of Wilkinson's playing. Rutherford is so often featured entirely unaccompanied that to hear him with bass and drums (and what bass and drums!) added to the depth and breadth of the whole.
As is so often the case after Freedom of the City, I eagerly await the release of the CD version of these performances next year (?), in order to relive and validate my own reactions to them.
Monday 2nd: Barbican
Across town, at the Royal Albert Hall, Cream were performing together for the first time in twelve years, and the first time in the UK since their farewell gig at the same venue in 1968. Famously, Ginger Baker said of Cream, "We used Eric Clapton as the Ornette Coleman figure... but no-one told Eric.
Meanwhile, at the Barbican, we had the real thing! Ornette was celebrating his 75th birthday with a concert featuring son Denardo on drums plus the twin double basses of Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga.
As he made his way onto the stage, Ornette walked as if he were feeling the effect of his years, but as soon as he blew, the years fell away and he played as beautifully as ever, with that sweet, mournful tone, which surely affects anyone who hears it. His fingers and brain were in as good a condition as his lungs and pipes; ideas tumbled out of him, incisive and perfectly articulated. The two basses were a masterstroke; Cohen plucked; Falanga bowed; both as much lead instruments as Ornette.
Over the years, London has enjoyed some very memorable gigs from Ornette - Prime Time at the Town & Country Club, a chaotic multi-media Prime Time show and the Quartet with Don Cherry, both at the Royal Festival Hall, the Naked Lunch soundtrack performed live at the Barbican; this performance was the equal of any of them. No, in fact it was the best Ornette show I can remember. A triumph.
Saturday 7th: Stamford Bridge
After beating neighbours Charlton, Chelsea were presented with the Premiership trophy (which they had won the previous week, for the first time) and in the following weeks went on to beat many Premiership records. Cue dancing on the streets of west London.
Monday 9th: Royal Albert Hall
Shostakovich's 7th Symphony
To celebrate VE Day, this special concert featured Shostakovich's son Maxim conducting his father's great war symphony. Its accompanying cinemaphonia presentation of footage from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union including the siege of Leningrad provided a powerful anti-war message.
Thursday 19th: Red Rose Club
Every once in a while, there is an evening when there are just too many essential things to do, leading to inevitable frustration. This was a classic example! Not only was John Tchicai playing in London for the first time in decades, it was also the grand opening night of the new Vortex, now re-located from Stoke Newington to the new Dalston Culture House. To cap it all, The Necks were playing the only London date of their European tour at Spitz. Grrr!
I opted to see (the legendary) Tchicai, who was in London to record with Evan Parker and Spring Heel Jack. He played here with Evan Parker, John Coxon, Ashley Wales, John Edwards, Mark Sanders and Tony Marsh - definitely the A-team! This was that rarest of events, a sold-out improv gig; an hour before start time, the "House Full signs were up, and by the time the musicians took to the stage the air-conditioning was struggling to keep the temperature down. Although he was the reason for the sell-out, Tchicai certainly did not hog the limelight. He was renewing an acquaintance with Parker dating back twenty years (or more?) and the first half of the show was stolen by a long improvised duet between them. Tchicai fitted effortlessly into this typical London improv setting. One can only hope that he returns soon for further explorations.
Friday 20th: Vortex
Claude Deppa's Five Funky Fellas