Mujician/Aki Takase at the Vortex in London: Tony Levin 70th Birthday Tour
October 11, 2010
When pianist Keith Tippett's young daughter was asked at school what her parents did, she replied: they're mujicians! That conflation of magic and music neatly sums up Tippett's method. Initially the name was applied to his solo work, but latterly to the long running all-star quartet of saxophone colossus Paul Dunmall, bassist Paul Rogers, and drummer Tony Levin, alongside the pianist. Over the 22 years of their existence the aptness of the moniker in relation to the group's collective concept has been affirmed many times, and they are now lauded as one of the UK's premier improvising ensembles. This year also saw Levin's 70th birthday, and in honor of that milestone, Birmingham Jazz in the person of Tony Dudley-Evans, organized a double tour for Mujician, along with Berlin-based Japanese pianist Aki Takase's trio also featuring Levin as well as bassist John Edwards.
Neither Takase nor Mujician perform regularly in the UK, so even though it was a Monday evening it was no real surprise to find a standing room only crowd jammed into north London's Vortex Jazz Club. Takase's trio was first onto the stage. Unlike Mujician, the Berliner's group dates back only as far as the 2008 On the Outside Festival in Gateshead, when the pianist was first matched with Levin and Edwards. That successful meeting was documented on a week went by (psi, 2010), and it clearly made a lasting impression on all sides sufficient for the trio to be reunited for this tour.
Takase, glamorous in black dress and red lipstick, showed herself to be an exciting free form pianist, and one of the more physical of that genre. Over the course of four pieces during a 40-minute set she attacked the keyboard with flats of hands, heel of hand, and forearm smashes, sometimes all in quick succession. Such tropes were judiciously used within what was a commanding display, high on rhythmic attack, full of vim and joie de vivre.
Right from the off it was evident that tonight's fare was to be more uncompromising than much of her recorded output might lead a listener to expect. Starting with a flinty give and take, the trio was powerful and aggressive. As the interplay reached a climax Takase half stood and signaled a quietening to leave Edwards alone riding monstrous bass notes, before the pianist rejoined in slower deliberate measure. Edwards' percussive bass encouraged Levin to pitch in too with a steady pattern, which both bass and drums locked onto and over which Takase gradually lengthened her thickening lines until they all took off for another high energy flight.
In the liners to a week went by Bill Shoemaker talks of Takase as a complete player, in reference to recordings based around the oeuvres of Fats Waller and Ornette Coleman, or early blues. Glimpses of what he meant were on show here too. At times the improvised flow channeled more familiar phrases, slipping into what sounded like Monk through a distorting prism. But if there was any thought that the free stuff was foreplay before consummation of a standard, it was to be unrequited, as such snatches proved ephemeral, and in a blink of an eye, the trio had moved into other realms. Edwards and Levin established their credentials as willing accomplices, leading as often as following, each getting the chance to shine within the ambit of the extemporized pieces, before the trio kicked in.
Takase's playful approach frequently involved delving under the bonnet, drawing on the contents of her bag of tricks to manipulate the piano strings, producing odd tonalities and gamelan like sonorities. At one point her scrapings were the cue for Edwards' rasping textures by sawing strings and body of bass simultaneously. Levin malleted a hand drum placed on top of his tom tom to produce a fantastic trio of clattering abandon showing awareness and invention. Later the Japanese's gentle introduction to another piece was spiced by bouncing ping pong balls on strings, creating a random burry dissonance. As she hit the affected keys balls were occasionally visible leaping into the air, adding a theatrical dimension to the musical.
Edwards played as if his life depended on it, putting in immense effort. In another percussive passage the bassist plucked with one leg half raised and his knee pressed against the body of the bass to modify its tone. His bowing was also exceptional, whether droning or mirroring swipes on the piano strings with high pitched vocalized creaks. Levin was a study in controlled power, answering Takase's keyboard crashes with a fusillade of his own, belaying a steamrolling locomotive rhythm or contributing cymbal coloration. Such an assertive opening strand threw down the gauntlet to Mujician which left the audience wondering how they would respond.