With this residency at Cafe Oto, in a strange way it feels like Ikue Mori has come full circle. Over the course of these three days, Mori is playing with some of the UK’s – and indeed the world’s – top improvisers. Mori is, after all, someone who was once described by Lester Bangs as being the equal of free jazz pioneer Sunny Murray on drums, so she should be able to hold her own in a lineup which pits her in duo and quartet settings with the free jazz musicians Evan Parker, John Russell and John Edwards (funnily enough, John Edwards actually plays at this same venue with Sunny Murray next week). The difference is that Mori’s drumming days are long behind her now, she has favoured laptop in her recent collaborations with the likes of Zeena Parkins, John Zorn, and Kim Gordon, and also now during this first night of the residency.
The first half of the show was taken up by three short and punchy duets. The pairing with Parker on soprano saxophone was fascinating, as they followed each other through a range of highly contrasting sonic environments – both playing clicks, then squeals, before climaxing with long, airy, breathy drones. So quickly and impressively did they react to each other that I thought that perhaps Mori was sampling some of Parker’s sounds. She wasn’t, of course, this was just real time, real quick thinking. The duet with Edwards was – as you’d expect from the bass player – highly energetic. But as well as the showmanship of seeing him thumping and clawing at his instrument, he was also giving Mori a fantastic range of sounds to work with. His bass bombs, grabbing huge handfuls of string, were countered with some electronic explosions from Mori, while rubbing his wet finger on the instrument’s belly gave her something sneakily and squeakily unexpected. After this, the matchup with John Russell was disappointing – the lack of variety in his instrument’s sound felt like a limiting factor (the tone was so dry, no resonance at all), both this and the speed at which he played gave Mori less space to interact. The deployment of crystalline tones felt like the only valid response she could make.
I enjoyed Russell far more in the quartet setting, however. Both he and Edwards started with small sounds, crunching and grinding at the strings, persuading Mori to throw in her own crisp shards. What I found most interesting was how Mori’s involvement brought an unusual, urban flavour to the mixture. Aside from those sounds of metal and glass, she locked in with Parker’s wailing tenor to produce police car siren pulses, and later, when the piece had really taken off, recreated the sound of planes flying overhead. It was just like being in, well, Dalston. Elsewhere, Mori produced flapping loops of collaged noises on the fly, persuading the others to join in with repeating notes and drones. While some of the sounds she was producing were evoking musique concrete and even the Radiophonic Workshop, the combined results sounded far more modern. The glitchy, sliced up sounds mixed with that spindly guitar tone made me think of the new Oval LP, while the complex, shifting rhythmic sections had an Autechre-like logic. Me saying she has come full circle is doing her a huge disservice; Ikue Mori is reaching into the past only to produce something that sounds invigoratingly fresh.
Afterwards, Evan Parker paid tribute to Mori by appropriating a Ronnie Scott quote about Sonny Rollins on the occasion of his first London performance. “It is going to be an amazing three nights”, he said. The second of those has also now passed (was anyone there? How was it?), but there is still one left. Try to make it along, if you can.