The Freedom Of The City festival is now as traditional a part of London’s May Day bank holiday celebrations as sitting in a dark pub watching the snooker world championship final on the big screen. OK, so maybe that is just me. Since 2001, percussionist Eddie Prévost and saxophonist Evan Parker have been putting together lineups containing some of the finest improvising musicians from all over the world, and the 2010 edition may well be the strongest yet. Curatorial duties this year were shared with Spring Heel Jack/Spiritualized’s John Coxon, a man who through his Treader label and related performances is as responsible as anyone for the current healthy state of improvised music in the capital.
This year’s festival opened with a solo trumpet performance by Peter Evans. If you had told me beforehand that I’d be sitting through half an hour of solo trumpet without being remotely tired of it by the end, I’d have been surprised. But there are few – if any – trumpeters quite like Evans. Opening with huge circular breathing, one long note punctuated by audible intakes of breath, he ran through his full range of extraordinary techniques. This included Roland Kirk-style vocalisations, and loosened-valve roars; the latter of those came close to emulating the sound of one of the diesel-fuelled buses chuntering down High Holborn outside Conway Hall.
Okkyung Lee, who has recorded for both John Zorn’s Tzadik label and Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace, played at the festival last year, and returned to play in two new combinations on the first day this year. With percussionist Paul Lytton she was extremely textural, rubbing and pressing on strings, grinding and creaking. This suited the inventive Lytton perfectly, who was able to respond by playing with the mountain of detritus at his feet – from plastic cups and bottles to metal cans and all manner of scrap metal, recreating the experience of being trapped in a corrugated iron shed in a hailstorm. Her second performance, in a trio with the aforementioned Evans and with Evan Parker on tenor, was superb, even if Lee at times was less audible than I’d have liked when the other two wandered into her sonic space. Some low cello drones were met with deep circular breathing from Parker and Evans, the latter rasping and squeaking and fanning his instrument with a mute, keeping it timbrally rich.
Only a fool would expect to “get” absolutely everything at a festival such as this, and some of the festival’s mainstays didn’t quite do it for me on the day. A knotty, noodly set from Prévost’s SUM trio with guitarist Ross Lambert and saxophonist Seymour Wright only fleeting held my attention during the second half, when an unexpected bop melody from the saxophonist saw the more typically abstract and minimalist Prévost getting behind him with a swung 4/4 rhythm. I found the addition of a gurning, raspberry-blowing improvising vocalist to John Russell’s Quaqua to be a distraction too far. I was also far more interested in the interplay between the piano of Tania Chen and the bass of Dominic Lash than in Lol Coxhill’s more melodic soprano sax. A solo section from Chen, crashing chords reverberating around the hall always returning to a recurring single, soft note, was highly dramatic, building incredible tension, and drove Lash towards a section of furious pizzicato. Meanwhile, being a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra (I counted 38, but there were probably more hiding in alcoves somewhere) is probably more of a fun experience than listening to it, although some of the conducted sections threw up some interesting instrumental contrasts.
The day’s real highlight was the rare London appearance of a recent Wire cover star, the trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith. He opted to be powered by a two drummer percussive battery, with the ubiquitous Steve Noble being joined by the ex-Blue Note Louis Moholo Moholo in what promised to be an intriguing clash of styles. And from the off, Moholo was hammering at his kit with sticks as thick as tree-trunks, while Noble was scattering cymbals everywhere. In the darkness at the front of the stage, the dreadlocked, shades-wearing trumpeter stood, back arched, pointing his trumpet at the roof, letting out the first of so many heartbreakingly beautiful melodies. The two drummers came together in dense, almost tribal polyrhythms, before Moholo dropped out early. It looked like he couldn’t figure out how to get back in (although I wondered whether he should just have muscled in and let Noble readjust). He even tried to cut the set short; “No, baby” he said at a quiet moment when Noble was threatening to drive things back up to another powerful rhythmic peak. “Yes, baby” said a clearly not-yet-finished Wadada, and off they went again. The closing piece was prefaced by the trumpeter repeating the refrain “something to make the stars go to sleep”, and it featured some suitably melancholic muted melodies, with a grinning Noble playing his snare with brushes in a most delicate manner. This provided a much more fulfilling and emotional finale to the evening than any snooker match could have done. Which is high praise coming from me, obviously.