Noah Howard’s 1969 album The Black Ark begins with a bouncing bass and piano groove, before massed horns assemble loosely around a melody. It doesn’t last long, as a succession of solos lead the track “Domiabra” into increasingly free areas. However, nothing can prepare you for the extraordinary entrance of saxophonist Arthur Doyle five minutes in, cutting short the trumpet solo with a devastating solo which builds on (if something so destructive can really be said to “build on” anything) the more brutal developments made elsewhere by the likes of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders. In the liner notes to the Bo’Weavil reissue of the LP, Oren Ambarchi describes his playing on the track as “incoherent rage…a chaotic and murderous sound”. It is a truly shocking moment. As was Doyle’s entrance onto the Cafe Oto stage for this rare live performance, but shocking in a very different way. I’d seen video clips of him playing with Sunny Murray or Han Bennink over the last decade, and he seemed in reasonable nick, so the suddenness of the decline in his physical condition was quite upsetting. Now without his dreadlocks and his teeth, he looked almost unrecognisable, and worryingly gaunt and frail. During a particularly violent warm-up set of solo drumming by Steve Noble, Doyle could be glimpsed at the side of the stage, bent double, coughing feebly. When it was his turn to finally play himself, he shuffled uneasily to his seat, and we fell quiet to hear his spoken introduction. Which was, owing to the lack of teeth, entirely indecipherable.
And when he did put his tenor to his mouth, the signs were little better – he played a succession of very short phrases punctuated by pauses and gasps for breath, as if that was all his current condition would allow him to contribute – indeed, he quickly discarded that instrument, almost as if it was just too much effort for him to play it at all. And so he began to sing. After a fashion. Singing has been a feature of Doyle’s live sets for some time, but it can never have sounded quite like this. I’ve probably heard hundreds of versions of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, but this one was extraordinary – lyrics implied, melody merely hinted at, all suffused in a deep moan, the song seemingly being no more than fragments dragged up from the depths of not just his memory, but from a collective, generational, and geographical one. It felt like the gradual disintegration of the song itself, even the songbook (we got “Bye Bye Blackbird” too), even the jazz tradition. We’ve had a succession of the music’s greatest pass away in recent years, and with each one that goes, we become further and further away from the source, from that first hand connection to the music’s roots. Watching and listening to Arthur Doyle tonight (his most famous is called Alabama Feeling, after all) was a stark reminder of just how much we stand to lose.
And if it wasn’t obvious quite how much we’d lose in Doyle’s case, he hammered the point home during the duo performance with Steve Noble. It took a while to get going, despite the drummer’s supportive efforts (Noble deserves huge plaudits for his efforts tonight; I’ll be returning to talk more about him soon) to build some deep rhythms around Doyle’s clipped lines, answering and echoing, even switching to playing the drums with his hands to give him something with a common African root. Gradually, Doyle’s excursions were becoming longer, that familiar growl, and the Roland Kirk-like simultaneous singing and playing, becoming stronger and more confident. Noble obviously sensed this, persuading Doyle to do one more piece, which was to be the best of the night by far. The tone was bluesy and magnificently raw, and egged on by some thunderous drumming, he soared upwards to play a section as high as the solo during “Mount Fuji” from The Black Ark. Close your eyes, and you’d recognise this as being Arthur Doyle again. Which, after the preceding hour, was something of a shock.