Paul Dunmall and Tony Bianco’s Tribute to John Coltrane, live at Café Oto 16/7/13

As I write, it is 46 years to the day since John Coltrane’s death. In that near half-century, the root has grown stronger, and spread rhizome like into new fields, fresh shoots appearing not just in jazz but in the likes of rock and noise. Yet, despite the proliferation and accompanying mutation, the original source retains its fascination and its unique identity. The saxophonist’s music possesses to my ears an unmistakeably intense feeling of striving for something that remains tantalisingly unattainable. Musically, I hear this in the way he works through scales, builds and rebuilds phrases, plays with sounds, ever trying and discarding, always moving quickly onwards – but perhaps even more so in terms of a serious spirituality; I get the sense of someone reaching up for a light that can’t be grasped.

Given this very particular power, any decision to take on the Coltrane canon directly ranks somewhere between bold and downright foolhardy. Yet earlier this year, the British saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Tony Bianco released a duo album drawn in the main from Coltrane’s more turbulent post-A Love Supreme output. Despite – or more likely because of – their sax/drum set-up, they avoided anything from Coltrane’s “last classic”, his 1967 duo recording with Rashied Ali Interstellar Space, favouring the full band records, a decision which forced them into a more creative space, having to rework rather than copy. On a sizzling night at Café Oto, they were to take these ingredients and more in an attempt to cook up something fresh enough to serve as a tribute to Coltrane.

From the later period Coltrane canon, the likes of opening piece “Ogunde” and “Sunship” were suitably fiery. Bianco plays in a manner reminiscent of Ali, seemingly going everywhere yet nowhere at once, thus affording Dunmall the space to go hunting where he wished, culminating in him gnawing on notes like he was stripping meat from a bone. However they tempered this heat with some surprise set inclusions. A cool “Naima” (first recorded by Coltrane in 1959, an earlier epoch in terms of his progression ) became ever more diffuse, like a river widening and dividing as it reached the sea, straight melodic channels dissolving into a spray. Dunmall’s tone was sublime, emotion-soaked and evocative – the way notes cracked in the upper register was reminiscent of the man himself. Dunmall even turned to the soprano to take a long run at Coltrane’s signature tune “My Favourite Things”, blurring the entire discography as he did into one continuous smear of sound.

“Peace On Earth” began with similar beauty to “Naima”, sax floating on a shimmering sea of cymbals, but the weather soon changed, turning this into a boiling torrent. At one point, a sweat-sodden Dunmall seemed to cut himself up, curtailing his melody with a series of furious rasps, and you got the sense that much was at stake here, both in terms of trying to do the material justice, and of trying to reimagine and reinvigorate it. However, as the storm subsided, the mask slipped, Dunmall puncturing the serious mood with a jocular reference to the track being “another of Coltrane’s hits”. As he did, I was left reflecting that, for all their effort, and as excellent as the playing was, there was perhaps an element of Coltrane’s music that was destined to remain just out of reach to the duo – and that their inability to attain it was, in its own way, an entirely appropriate tribute.


The Thing at Cafe Oto, 9/2/13


In rock music, the riff is a distillation of the music’s base elements, reducing an already simple form to its crude essence. On one hand, it can be an exciting explosion of emotion [link to suggestive Youtube clip of gushing oil well goes here], but without the desire and the ability to dig any deeper, both the music and the listener can end up trapped in a very cramped and airless space. In this sense, the repeated riff seems to be the antithesis of the complex, ever-shifting and cerebral reputation of free jazz. Yet the riff has its place in improvised music, as even the most cursory acquaintance with the back catalogue of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or even John Coltrane will tell you, never mind tracing some of their roots back to Africa. In this music, the riff can provide a platform for deep exploration. While tethered to this structure, the improviser can reach across to other worlds of sound, while keeping the tension high for the audience. And no-one, it seems, knows this more than The Thing.


Across this two night residency at Café Oto, the Norwegian/Swedish three-piece were joined by a number of special guests. The first night saw them being supported by the English/Japanese trio lll人 (San Nin – which translates, perhaps a little too literally, as Three People). They borrowed something from the sphere of rock too, albeit from its rough outer surfaces: the use of feedback as an intrinsic part of the music. Daichi Yoshikawa deployed a variety of vibrating objects, coils, cans, what have you, on a small snare drum in front of an amp. The noise rose from a tinny buzz to thick metal whine, like sharp shards of guitar from (Oto regular, and special guest on day two) Thurston Moore.

While I’m all for instrumental inventiveness and novel noise, the lll人 setup was intensely problematic. Not only were the sounds overly metallic in timbre, tooth-hurtingly so at times, but the frequency range was very restricted. This was even more of an issue given that alto saxophonist Seymour Wright constantly wanted to share that same small sonic area with Yoshikawa, wriggling in with a series of long, high, squeals. Only the drummer Paul Abbott remained in the free space outside, and the moments where he tempted Wright out of his enclosure to engage in flurries of dialogue provided the set’s few, disappointingly fleeting, highlights.


It didn’t take The Thing long to find their groove. After a frenetic, foot-finding intro, Mats Gustafsson was crouching, swaying back and forth, coiled tighter than one of Yoshikawa’s springs, blasting a two note riff from his baritone sax. Behind him, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten put his double bass down and grinned, while the drummer Paal Nilsen-Love just listened, nodded, and adjusted some of his cymbals. They left him toying with this simple figure, stretching it, chewing on it, for what seemed like several minutes, before Håker Flaten picked up an electric bass.

I’ve heard the Thing riffing on the rock canon (PJ Harvey, White Stripes) before, but I’ve never actually witnessed them actually going electric, so to speak. Any qualms quickly disappeared as Håker Flaten began to work into the saxophonist’s simple lines, bulking them out with rough-edged metal heft, creating a sort of fuzzy doom-funk. The ever-impressive Nilsen-Love scampered energetically in to the spaces they left, all sharp elbows and acute angles, making the gaps feel as wide as oceans.


From this base, they set out in a number of different directions, hinting at Coltrane’s classic “Olé” at one point, and toying with Ethiopian modes at another, passing riffs around, two notes this time, two bars next. When the bass and sax locked together in a big-armed embrace, we in the crowd whooped and rocked in our seats, driven into trance-like states by the relentless repetition. This was especially true during their second set, in which the alto of guest Martin Küchen (“the best saxophonist in Sweden now that I live in Austria”, quipped Gustafsson) was given license to dance on top. While he made all manner of awkward shapes up front, deftly bending and splitting notes like he was whittling wood, The Thing collected rhythmic material behind him like liquid in a dam, letting it escape in a trickle and then a torrent, finally sweeping him up on their wave-like riffs like a little toy boat. It was a powerful display which drew from a deep well of musical history, and refracted it, as if to say: this is it. This is what matters. This is The Thing.

Touch 30 at Beaconsfield, December 2012


“All these changes have crept up on us like imperceptible noise, like buzzing”. In his introduction to the London leg of Touch’s birthday celebrations, which have also taken in trips to New York, Glasgow and Madeira amongst others, Jon Wozencroft was referring to the authoritarian instincts of successive British governments since the 1980s. He might as well have been talking about the changes in technology which have impacted upon Touch over that period, from how graphics are designed, to how sound is recorded, and to how we as an audience consume and appreciate art.

I picked at a number of threads related to this in a discussion I had with Touch co-founders Wozencroft and Mike Harding for The Liminal this time last year, such as those that connect the analogue to the digital, the audio to the visual, and the sound to the place. This two day Touch 30 event, featuring panel discussions, films and performances from a number of artists and individuals linked to Touch, twisted these threads back together into a continuum, a thick rope that stretched back from the Beaconsfield Arts Centre in late 2012, all round the globe and back through time to the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead in 1982, where Harding and Wozencroft first met and began to work on what would become Touch.

There was a large element of reflection on that lengthy history across the two days, much of which was driven by Wozencroft. While this could come across as self-indulgent at times, such as during an unfocused chat with Edwin Pouncey (Savage Pencil) about their respective record collecting habits, you did get the impression that Wozencroft was a fan as much as a curator. He was keen to explore Touch’s relationship to all that was around it, and to assert its place in a cultural lineage that stretched from the Beatles (his first record purchase) through New Order (who featured on his first release) and beyond.

The connection to New Order and Factory Records who, like Touch, were another intersection between audio and visual art, was made even more explicit by the involvement of New Order’s sleeve designer Peter Saville in a discussion on the links between graphic design and art. While Saville was quick to refute the premise of there being a link at all (entirely separate worlds, he argued, drawing on his own difficulties in breaking into the art world), his own revelations about the need for tactility, and audience participation in his art did have echoes with much of Touch’s premise. In his musings on the relationship between his photography and Touch’s music, Wozencroft was to stress the importance of constructing parallel narratives that necessitated the active involvement of the audience.

Philip Jeck at Touch 30

To allow further light to illuminate the historical narrative, the two days were perforated by a series of sharp audio interventions, tracks and performances from Touch’s archives. A particular highlight was David Toop reading from the relevant chapter of his book Ocean Of Sound, over an audio backdrop of his recordings of Yanomamo shamans undergoing transformative (and seemingly rather painful) rituals, released on the Touch Travel compilation in 1984. It served to remind us how important not just narrative has always been in the Touch catalogue, but also, through the status afforded to field recordings, to that sense of time and place.

This archival nature of Touch 30 was picked up on by Philip Jeck. Jeck’s sets often reflect his surroundings – I have fond memories of him using a selection of jazz records as the basis for his performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years back – so it was perhaps unsurprising that he was to utilise vinyl recordings by Touch artists, including a flexidisc of the cellist Hildur Gudnadottir. Her string parts were hauled from amidst grainy drones like a memory coming into focus, before fading once more into static. Underneath, he used a slowed down James Last hook to provide further emotional heft, as if in riposte to Wozencroft’s earlier dismissal of Last during his record collecting segment.

In contrast to this perception of Wozencroft as the preserver of Touch’s heritage, Mike Harding was more excited by the future, in particular by the possibilities of new technology. A discussion on future formats, with the University of York’s Tony Myatt and the audio designer Seb Jouan, entered the realm of surround sound, exploring these planes with a view to them becoming the format of the future. Some of the concepts Jouan raised were particularly startling, including the ability to recreate the precise sonic characteristics of places, even those that no longer exist, such as long-destroyed churches. Elsewhere, discussions on the role of the internet and mobile technology raised the (distant, I’d assume) possibility of a Touch album being released as an app.

Fennesz at Touch 30

We had brief glimpses of Touch’s (nearer) future with the debut of as yet unreleased work from Fennesz and Biosphere. Fennesz’s new material sounded like a slight step on from his Black Sea album, louder and more aggressive, destructive even, with loud, glitchy intrusions on a field of buzz and static sounding like trees being felled in a digital forest. However, to my ears Biosphere’s 4/4 reconfigurations of Schoenberg felt somewhat rigid and even dated given the freedoms and forward thinking practised by so much of the Touch repertoire elsewhere.

In their introductions to the event, Wozencroft and Harding made it clear that Touch was a partnership: it relied on the two of them doing the things that the other couldn’t (or at least didn’t want to) do. But any notion of this partnership requiring a strict division between, say, the creative and the administrative was comfortably dispelled by the nature of their curatorial contributions to this event. There is a meeting place between the two, and that place is Touch. It became apparent to me that this meeting place is the now: the celebration of where we (the artists, the listeners) are right now was not just the key motif of Touch 30, but perhaps of their entire 30 year history.

Hildur Gudnadottir at Touch 30

In the aforementioned panel discussion on future formats, Hildur Gudnadottir talked about the motivation for the hi-spec surround sound recording process of her luminous Leyfdu Ljosinu album: to capture not just a space, but a sense of movement within that space – and how it had to be recorded in one take so as not to “cheat” movement and space. She performed the piece over Beaconsfield’s quadrophonic sound system, using looped layers of voice and cello, building and swirling it from lullaby to hullabaloo. At times, the sawed, stacked rhythms clacked like a train, feeling like a reference, deliberate or not, to Beaconsfield’s railway arch location: the passing of a train had earlier caused her to pause and check her progress.

In Touch’s exploration of the now, the status of field recordings is key. Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sound at the British Library, talked on a panel about the resurgence in “listening for listening’s sake” (along with the resulting problems this causes her in quality controlling thousands of birdsong submissions). It is in this way that the sound recordist’s Chris Watson’s work makes perfect sense in the context of more conventionally “musical” releases. An in absentia playback of his “Brussels-Nord” piece (as featured on the new Touch 30 compilation), recorded in the train station of that name, was the richest of delights in Beaconsfield, the low end train rumble that was a distraction for Gudnadottir working in perfect synergy with Watson’s own recordings.

Thomas Koner at Touch 30

A similar effect was observed during Thomas Köner’s set. Until their coming together for this year’s sombre Novaya Zemlya release, Köner’s exploration of (in his case, dark and remote) soundscapes had occurred in parallel to Touch’s. While he had been billed as performing a new work, Köner instead chose to reprise his 2003 masterpiece La Barca, a fantastical expedition across times and spaces, big on bass, Basinski-esque melodies, and buried echoes of the past. In the brick-clad Beaconsfield arch, he achieved something sublime: a haunting, ache-filled reach from our time and space back to others, ultimately merging them all with a deep resonance. In that, it felt like a continuation of the quest for a shared moment that both Wozencroft and Saville said they were searching for with their art, what Wozencroft had earlier described as “felt experiences in a particular time and place”.

Set against the likes of Köner, Fennesz, Biosphere, and Jeck, Carl Michael von Hausswolff may seem a relatively minor figure, having released just the one record through Touch. Von Hausswolff, however, is the obelisk who watches over many of the major landmarks in Touch’s history. For his set at Touch’s 25th anniversary he draped unadorned sine waves in the air for the audience to hang onto. Five years on, he was still producing these beautiful, precise low tones, but this time embellishing them with the sound of his own breath, sampling it and layering on top. You could tell that von Hausswolff really felt this, as he hung onto the knobs of his equipment as if his life depended on it, lost in the moment, this time, this sound, this place, but compelling us to come and find him. As an act of listening for listening’s sake, it felt like a compelling summation of the event, and a fitting reminder of what Touch are. Here’s to another 30 years of now.

Freedom Of The City 2012

John Russell

At a panel discussion held in Café Oto last week, a number of improvising musicians were invited to answer the question “what do you think you are doing?” One of the recurring motifs in their answers (and I also heard Pauline Oliveros say something similar last week) was the notion that free improvisation is the means of musical expression which best reflects the way we experience life itself, with all its moments of unexpected joy, and all its imperfections. We don’t follow a script, we don’t travel in straight lines. As Steve Noble put it, in his musing on the improvising imperative, even if you want to get across London from west to east, by tube, bus, train or whatever, you are improvising – which is especially true on a May bank holiday weekend, traditional spot in the calendar of the Freedom Of The City festival.

The festival is now into its second decade, and into its second home, moving from Conway Hall to the equally historic residence of the English Folk, Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House. Aside from being a beautiful space, high ceilinged and wonderfully resonant, it struck me that it was perhaps a fitting venue in another sense. Following the analogy above, improvisation shares a kinship with folk music. Both celebrate life, but in a different way: one lives lived, and the other lives being lived, the preservation of history versus the living in a perpetual now.

London Improviser's Orchestra

Judging from the festival’s lineups, over the course of its twelve year history, the improvising community is evolving and expanding (the London Improviser’s Orchestra alone numbered an impressive 39 on stage). Many of the same elder statesmen continue to populate the bill, from organisers Evan Parker and Eddie Prevost, to the guitarist John Russell and vocalist Phil Minton. New entrants have graduated from Prevost’s workshops (Jennifer Allum, Ross Lambert), or developed in incubators overseas (Okkyung Lee, Guillaume Viltard), but the imperative appears so strong that there is only one way to leave. The recent death of the great Tony Marsh left a gap in the bill, and there were to be tributes to the percussionist throughout the weekend. If there was a musician who epitomised the idea of improvising as life, it was Marsh, who visibly lived every note he played, his face lined with emotion. A single note from a playing companion could make his face light with joy as he mentally explored the sonic possibilities it presented, like a child being given its first yo-yo.

Guillaume Viltard

Fittingly, the festival was opened by a member of the young generation who knew Marsh well. Double bass player Guillaume Viltard began his set with a lament, a smeary, teary arco scraping. As he rubbed his bow and fingers all over his bass I felt I could hear every minute detail of its construction. In the vibrations, squeaks and buzzing, I could hear the grain of the wood, and the ridges of the strings, as if he was less playing the instrument, and more getting it to tell the audience about itself. As the set progressed, the additional percussive embellishment he provided, from tapping its neck, striking the body with the bow, and stamping his feet, made it seem like he wasn’t alone on that stage. He finished by creaking the tuning pegs rhythmically, slowing to silence like an old clock counting its few last seconds.

Okkyung Lee

Other young artists on the bill were showing that the scene continues to thrive and develop in exciting ways. The cellist Okkyung Lee is a very active and highly regarded member of this community, having recorded with Evan Parker and Phil Minton in recent years, but this solo performance had an unexpected incandescence about it. She seemed edgy or unhappy at the start, snapping brusquely (if rightly) at a photographer, but she managed to translate this emotion into a searing and raw performance. She began by playing so softly that it was if she was swimming in the sounds of traffic outside, but her fluid playing soon begat a torrent of notes, furiously fingering some extraordinary fast runs, before the stream finally snagged on a rock. She continually caught herself on these repetitive, sawing, grinding riffs, the music finally splintering and submerging – by the end, her bow was as ragged as her mood, and she marched off stage briskly, her mind still seemingly ablaze.

Han-Earl Park

I took much pleasure from the youthful energy and invention on display elsewhere. Han Earl-Park’s idiosyncratic guitar style was beguiling, his array of tiny, sharp sounds glinting like fragments of broken glass – the interplay between him and trumpeter Ian Smith was almost telepathic, changing directions as one, and the music coming to two seemingly unplanned and instinctive dead stops. Lee Patterson lit up a couple of ensemble sets – literally in one case, feeding the airy hiss of a close-mic’ed naked flame into the atmospheric mix of minute sounds being produced by Rhodri Davies, John Butcher and others in their group Common Objects. Only occasionally did it feel that there was invention for its own sake: the electronic experiments of Grundik Kasyanksy, while fun, seemed to bear no relationship to what anyone else was doing on stage, while the interjections of Ross Lambert (metronome, bowed goblets, vibrator) into his trio served to disrupt the little flow that there was. A few imperfections would, of course, be expected across 16 sets of improvised music.

Evan Parker and Eddie Prevost

Even the more long-standing members of the community showed signs that they were still seeking out and enjoying new experiences. John Russell’s duo with the trumpeter Jamie Coleman had plenty of quirkily enjoyable exchanges, close to call and response at times. Steve Noble’s pairing with the prepared piano and electronics of Sebastian Lexer was particularly inspired, keeping the drummer in textural and even harmonic areas rather than more traditional rhythmic ones. Lexer sampled and played back the sounds he was making, having Noble dance with his own shadow, while the sound of bowed piano strings and scraped cymbals mingled and filled the glorious space in the hall. Eddie Prevost and Evan Parker explored this receptive place further, the saxophonist tracing delicate spirals in the air while Prevost filled the room with deep resonance from his huge barrel of a drum.

Phil Minton and Christian Marclay

The vocalist Phil Minton was the one who best embodied that conjoining of improvisation and life. While Christian Marclay span records behind, Minton twisted his body corkscrew-like, feeling everything, his expressions pained and tortured (at one point, I’m sure Marclay looked over just to check he was OK), producing squeaks, howls and incredible split notes. This was a great duo set, in which at times it was impossible to tell who was making which sound: both were equally capable of producing pop and crackle. As Marclay juggled and cut into techno and jazz records, he brought many moments from the past into the now, spirits for Minton to inhabit and reanimate.

Jeb Bishop

In the Sunday evening slot that was originally due to host the Tony Marsh and Mark Sanders percussion duo, rather than leave a gap in the programme, Sanders picked an alternative band, featuring John Edwards on bass, Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone, and Jeb Bishop on trombone. In an earlier set with Caroline Kraabel, Edwards had reacted to a broken string by seizing it as an opportunity to try something different, savouring the buzz that the loose string made when held against his bass and bowed. Here, the group in which he featured turned a much more difficult (especially emotionally) situation into a triumph, with an upbeat and high energy session. They walked tantalisingly just on the free side of the in/out line, sounding like a lost 1969 BYG performance. The polyrhythmic Sanders was on supreme form throughout, and he and Edwards locked into a deep pulse in the backline, while up front Hutchings and Bishop gleefully engaged in animated close discussion, sharing melodic ideas, and completing each other’s phrases. Ultimately, this combination of masterful talent with infectious enthusiasm was possibly the best tribute to Marsh of the weekend. From sadness to joy in a heartbeat, so life goes, and in its improvisatory celebration of it, Freedom Of The City knows exactly what it is doing.

Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Oren Marshall, John Butcher and John Edwards at Cafe Oto, 6/3/12


The fact that I don’t see many tubas in their natural habitats these days led me to wonder whether it had become some sort of endangered species. Let’s face it, it has never been the most practical of instruments – a bit too heavy for the marching band, too big for the gigging musician to take on public transport, too expensive to make it a suitable starting point for a learner musician, and perhaps too heavily outnumbered by the massed ranks of strings in the classical setting to make it a viable career proposition there. The butt of many an orchestra’s joke, that beast comes with a lot of baggage.

While they would once have been commonly used in jazz bands in lieu of a double bass, I’ve only seen it perform this function a couple of times myself, hence my sense that it may be falling into desuetude. If pressed, I could probably name just two jazz tubists…and both of them were playing here at Café Oto on the same bill. Carl Ludwig Hübsch stems from the German free jazz scene, where he hauls his huge horn alongside the likes of Alex Dorner in his Primordial Soup band. Oren Marshall, the other, is a semi-regular feature of the London music scene (through membership of the likes of Big Air, the Byron Wallen Quartet and Sons Of Kemet, as well as numerous solo improvisations), and is tuba professor for Trinity College of Music. They were joined at Café Oto by the saxophones of John Butcher and the sympathetic bass of John Edwards.

As discussed, the tuba has some not inconsiderable limitations. However, the paradox that limitations can encourage a greater degree of freedom proved very much to be the case at this concert. Not only were the instrument’s negatives (that immense size and lack of portability) turned into positives (physical humour), but both of these tubists are keen to explore some of the less obvious musical applications of the instrument. In doing so, they were encouraged by their companions – neither Edwards nor Butcher give much of a toss for convention, and have an interest in sounds which takes them way beyond the traditional melodic approach to their respective instruments.

A pair of opening duets between Hübsch and Edwards, then Hübsch and Butcher, were sonically fascinating. Instead of squabbling in the same melodic sound space as the bass player, Hübsch used some homemade mutes to distort his sound, the buzz of a biscuit tin disrupting Edwards’s crisper vibrations, and sending him chasing the crumbs in new directions. In response to some of Butcher’s magnificent textural constructions (his controlled split notes were sublime), Hübsch dismantled his instrument – off came the mouthpiece and valves, out came the slides – so he could blow airily through the pipes and clang bits of metal on the side of the dismembered instrument.

The duet between Hübsch and Marshall was extraordinary, as funny as it was technically impressive. The instrument’s more tangible characteristics were highlighted humorously, with Hübsch swinging the heavy instrument high above his head and poking his head into the bell, and Marshall wrestling with his larger version centre stage. At one point he took it for a walk, dragging it across Oto’s concrete floor, relishing the grinding noise it produced. Marshall’s un-professorial air, and physical approach, extended to him making some sounds through the instrument’s coiled bowels which sounded like less savoury bodily functions, and the set closed with him chuckling filthily to himself through the mouthpiece.

The closing ensemble performance was remarkable for its restraint. Given the collective weight of instrumentation on that stage, there was little volume – but lots of intensity. For the most part, this quietest of quartets explored texture and timbre: the sound of breath against brass, of hands against wood. Only at the end did Hübsch – who had been in danger of slipping into silence – erupt with a squall of noise, rasping through tubing to produce something like static, as if his horn was the amplifier for a disconcerting tangle of detuned radios. It was a fitting ending to a night which had done so much to challenge our preconceptions. Perhaps we need to call in the conservationists, for on this evidence, the tuba can still play a most vital role in the jazz ecosystem.

Ideologic Organ at Cafe Oto 4/2/12: Elodie and Jessica Kenney/Eyvind Kang

Jessica Kenney

After one of the mildest winters in history, a sudden chill came. The land turned white, the city’s sounds softened and muffled, and everything slowed down. As I watched the show fall onto the roof of a Dalston church from the queue outside Café Oto, I wondered whether Stephen O’Malley could have asked for a more perfect setting for the first of his Ideologic Organ events at that venue. While it is only four releases old, his curatorship of the Ideologic Organ imprint has steered him away from the lightning-cracked skies of Sunn O))), towards something quieter, softer and more austere. While doing so, he has pushed further out into an exploration of ancient musical forms and spiritualities, transposing his sonic interest in decay (death) and sustain (preservation) to other cultural settings.

Andrew Chalk

The reclusive Andrew Chalk rarely makes public appearances (or even utterances), so the chances of him playing live, in climatic circumstances which so complemented his music, were similar to those of finding two identical snowflakes. The common description of Chalk as a ‘drone’ artist would have been woefully inadequate for this: drone implies a constant something, but here there was almost a constant nothing. His Elodie duo, with the Finnish multi-instrumentalist Timo van Luijk, gave the sparsest, softest, slowest, quietest performance I’ve seen within these walls. Chalk stroked and caressed a few clipped notes from a close-mic’ed guitar sitting on his lap, while van Luijk barely blew through his flute, and only just touched a gong with a mallet. It was so hushed you could almost hear flecks of snow landing outside. The combination of the openness, processional pace and the focus on timbre reminded me of Japanese court music, like a gagaku composition set in a wintry oriental landscape. But there was a slight human presence in this scene, which lent it an emotional quality as well as an elegance: it was like watching someone disappear into the dark spaces. If these sounds were snowflakes, they were snowflakes made of frozen tears.


The work of Jessica Kenney and Eyvind Kang, as documented on their Aestuarium LP, draws more overtly from other places and languages, but there is something particularly haunting about their choices. Gaelic and Latin, Persian and Tibetan, these are dead or dying languages, and places you wouldn’t find on a modern atlas. The stark pizzicato viola of Kang and the ethereal voice of Kenney had a diaphonous, ghostly air which added to this sensation of listening to a vanishing past. They started in ritualistic mode, a one syllable call and response ceremony taking place amongst the crowd, before they marched through to their seats. The show continued to feel enjoyably unshackled from western conventions thereafter, full of long sliding glissandos and microtonal passages, moments of close harmony falling away to dissonance, but always retaining that austerity, slowness, softness, and spirituality. In the dark, silent space of Cafe Oto, “Dies Mej” sounded majestic in its delivery, but monastic in its purity. Setting this off against that all-white backdrop outside the venue’s windows made for a perfect introduction to this new series of shows, and not one that can be easily repeated. By the time we left, the snow had already started to melt.

PAN Festival at Cafe Oto, 27-28/1/12

CC Hennix

Given that it is now 22 releases old, and able to sell out a two day festival in London’s Cafe Oto, are we any closer to learning what the Berlin-based label PAN is trying to achieve? It is a difficult question given that it is a label of extreme diversity, from the dark empty spaces of John Wiese’s music to the whiteout noise of Florian Hecker, from the circuit bending of Keith Fullerton Whitman to the circular breathing of Andre Vida. The desirable two-part LP sleeves create further contrasts, by overlaying an image with something stark and geometric, at times almost an analogue and a digital element simultaneously. Perhaps this crossing of divisions is the essence of PAN – it is a project which is totally pan-border, pan-genre, straddling the gap between the human and the electronic, the audio and the visual, the improvised and the designed, the concert venue and the gallery. That it succeeds is down to some savvy curatorial choices by Bill Kouligas, in particular by focusing on artists with strong, singular vision. In the manner of Kouligas himself, the likes of Eli Keszler, Frieder Butzmann and Ghedalia Tazartes exist in worlds where notions of genre or style are pretty redundant, where there are no pre-conceived barriers to what their art could or should be.

Eli Keszler

The percussionist Eli Keszler, who released his Cold Pin LP on PAN last month (and who created an art installation of the same name), was first of seven artists from the label’s current and future orbit to take to the Oto stage. Keszler’s technique encompasses a mix of automation and improvisation, although until I saw this performance I had only a vague impression of where the boundary between the two lay. He began by bowing five metal discs which he had arranged on the edge of his snare, producing a mix of purity and distortion, piercing ringing tones and buzzing sounds, interspersing this with bursts of noise from a foot-triggered four stringed guitar-like contraption. As he began to toss these discs around and hit them with sticks, it became clear that my conception of how much was automated in Keszler’s music was pretty far from the mark. The previous night at Café Oto had seen a performance by the “fastest pianist in the world” Lubomyr Melnyk – well, I don’t know about the fastest percussionist in the world, but Keszler played with more speed and precision than I’d assumed humanly possible.

John Wiese seemed to pick up on where Keszler had left off, with the silence being interrupted by the sound of metal being scraped. Where Keszler’s work takes him into the field of art installation, Wiese’s work is almost akin to movie sound design. From the mixing desk at the back of the room, he began to throw sounds to the corners of the room via the quadraphonic setup. It started with some crisp instrumental slices (what sounded like a guitar, and plucked piano strings) but built to completely alien noises (unintelligible burble, monstrous crashes). It also alternated between ominously quiet passages and gargantuan blocks of moving noise, and the whole effect was disorientating, as if Wiese was creating sounds to accompany a movie set in a nightmarish and industrial future dystopia.


If that was scary, what Peter Rehberg and Marcus Schmickler did as R/S was terrifying. Like Wiese, they too performed from next to the mixing desk at the back of the room – if there is a criticism to make of this festival, it is that given the importance of the visual element to PAN’s ethos, there was a real lack of any visual narrative to the event. Unless you count the sight of Stephen O’Malley headbanging, that is. The fact he was doing that was testament to the brutal high volume onslaught of sound that Rehberg and Schmickler were producing. Much more so than their USA LP, this was a horrible, twisted mesh, like barbed wire being fed into your ears under high pressure. The closest comparison I’ve heard is Haswell and Hecker’s explorations of Xenakis’s graphical UPIC system, but this was denser and more unrelenting. Forget everything I’ve said about contrasts, this was all shade and no light (except they had turned the lights on before they started to play so, look, just forget everything), smears of synth noise being distorted and mangled, vague techno pulses being torn and shredded, minds being well and truly blown. Behind the two of them, a poster of Keiji Haino looked on approvingly.


Day two began as day one did, with another virtuoso solo display. Valerio Tricoli’s PAN collaboration with the modular synths and saxophones of Thomas Ankersmit on the Forma II record was a highlight of 2011, but here he gave a hands on demonstration of his extraordinary methods of composition. His set up was pretty much a museum exhibit of musical storage devices from the last half century, analogue to digital, from a tape loop running round a mic stand, to CD and Minidisc players, right up to a mobile phone he used to keep time (a squawk of interference from which resulted in an extra unplanned musical element). While Tricoli’s work is rooted in concrète, his ability to create a sense of temporal dislocation, and distinctly uncanny edge felt somewhat hauntological. He manipulated the tape in real time with his hands, slapping it, pulling on it, dragging it backwards through the tape heads; as it spooled round and round, spectral voices faded into an eerie haze of tape hiss and room resonance. This was a bewitching performance.

Werner Durand

The festival closed with the pairing of a mathematician with an inventor, but there was nothing over-engineered about the performance of minimalist composer CC Hennix (her first ever UK appearance) with the instrument builder Werner Durand. The set was to take us out of London, through Berlin, to the Indian vocal raga of Pandit Pran Nath (of whom Hennix was a disciple), and beyond. A tambour drone rolled out from Durand’s laptop, while he added soft breaths through one of the many pipe contraptions assembled on stage like plumbing; he later switched to some longer devices, played via reeds, which produced a gentle didgeridoo-like buzz. Hennix’s microtonal singing floated on this breeze, fluctuating delicately, and gradually collecting in fine layers. After the speed and volume of much of what had gone before, that cumulative drone was a glorious contrast, a stillness and slowness, an unchanging same, where the only thing moving was us, through time, and across space. The two day festival may have taken us across all sorts of barriers, but it had left us in a beautiful place.

Lubomyr Melnyk at Cafe Oto, 26/1/12


After an interview with Lubomyr Melnyk on Radio 4’s Today programme recorded on the day of this performance, John Humphrys let out one of his all too familiar snorts of derision. “But is it music?”, he sneered, which made me wonder whether he had been paying attention to the previous five minutes of his show, never mind the course of musical history. You can understand (if not agree with) a conceptual approach to music which regards noise, or sound art, as being “non-musical”, but a guy playing notes on a piano? That isn’t to say that Melnyk hasn’t created his own style: in particular, his “continuous music” is famously fast (I presume it was this aspect of his music which caught the attention of Today), reaching speeds measured at 19.5 notes per second. But it still deals with chords and melody in a recognisable way. Melnyk is influenced by both Joseph Haydn and Terry Riley, so this continuous music is music that fits very well into the continuum of classical piano music (did I say the word “music” enough times in that sentence?)

Melnyk’s recorded music has been frustratingly hard to get hold of in recent years. Whether any logistical or economical issues have played a part in this I don’t know, but he doesn’t seem all that bothered. A factor may be that he is a man who regards the live setting as being the only satisfactory way to experience his music. The precise characteristics of the piano, the acoustic properties of the room, even the atmospheric sounds of the venue, are all musical variables to Melnyk as much as the notes themselves. Given this, it a shame we don’t get to hear him do it more often. This Café Oto show was – incredibly – his first ever UK performance.

Lubomyr Melnyk

Melnyk played three pieces at Oto, each of which was designed to show off a different facet of his continuous music technique. The first piece was more akin to his older recorder material – something “slower”, in his words, though it is all relative. He played a long, unbroken line of notes with heavy sustain, arpeggios repeating and merging into each other until they became something else, watery smears of sound, which flowed faster and faster, ultimately forming a river. The second piece was newer, and perhaps even more of a technical challenge (if somewhat more accessible, even slightly saccharine at times) as he began to weave a boldly coloured melody line onto the tapestry of sound beneath. The title “House of a Thousand Shutters” references a gradual opening up, a letting in of light and air to the music, and to the venue…and possibly to our minds. Previous interviews with Melnyk have given the impression that he is trying to create more than “just” music, that he is trying to reach a mental state, seeking some sort of union between man and piano, between venue and sound.

The last piece he played tonight, “The Fountain” took this notion further, by utilising a recording he had made earlier that same day, in the same room, on the same piano (of course). He fed these notes, and accompanying recorded resonance, back into the room, and played along with it, the two streams merging into something deeper and faster. The longer the piece went on, the more you could hear of the resonance and even the architecture of the piano itself, a groaning and creaking sound that built to a low moan – Melnyk likened it to the sound of a Buddhist monk chanting. Which seemed fitting as, looking around me, a fair number of people in the room seemed to be attaining some sort of nirvana.

The Fountain

Joe McPhee and Decoy at Cafe Oto, 29/10/11

Joe McPhee and John Edwards, by Scott McMillan

I see the rhythm section of Steve Noble and John Edwards together in London quite often, but I’ve never managed to catch one of their rare appearances in Decoy, a trio which also features keyboard player Alexander Hawkins. As soon as you walk into the venue in which they are performing, the reasons for the infrequency of this combination are very tangible on stage: Hawkins plays an original Hammond B3 organ through an original Leslie cabinet. Those are some seriously big, seriously expensive, and seriously difficult to transport pieces of kit. However, they also make a seriously wonderful sound; particularly when deployed not just in conjunction with the always listenable Noble and Edwards, but with the seriously great Joe McPhee sitting in too.

I was a little disappointed when I last encountered McPhee as part of Peter Brotzmann’s tentet: not because there was anything intrinsically wrong with his playing, but because by restricting himself to some stern-faced pocket trumpet, I didn’t get the chance to hear him let rip gloriously on the saxophone, the instrument with which he is most commonly associated. His recent recorded sax output, whether solo (2009’s Alto), in a duo (this year’s Under A Double Moon with Chris Corsano) or with his Survival Unit trio, has veered from the incandescent to the luminous, the utterly sensational to the highly sensitive. As good as anything since his 1971 debut Nation Time, for sure. He continued this fine form tonight, playing sparingly and thoughtfully, only contributing where he had something to say. But when he had something to say, he said it with irrefutable force: melody lines were spun out and then teased at repeatedly until they became ragged relations of their previous forms. Even his trumpet lines here were a contrast to those in the tentet – not just because he had more space, but because he played it with the joie de vivre of a Don Cherry.

McPhee wasn’t even the most impressive aspect of this incredible show. I’ve probably seen John Edwards upwards of fifty times, but I’ve rarely seen him play quite as well as he did tonight. Edwards is usually at his best when playing with Steve Noble, as he seems to know that no matter how far out he goes, he won’t lose the drummer, but this was outrageous tonight. He invariably opened the pieces with a riot of a solo, jamming his bow under the strings, wedging strings together into v shapes, moaning loudly, letting off huge one note bass bombs, and just generally fixing the energy level for the night at its highest possible setting. Noble, as usual, would rummage around in his kit to find an answer to every question Edwards asked, from clanging on metal bowls to slapping out meaty mutant funk, keeping it all on point, and pointing far forward.

Alexander Hawkins and Steve Noble, by Scott McMillan

But special mention has to go to that Hammond B3 organ, and to the man who played it, Alexander Hawkins. The instrument was used at times to add that distinctive tonal colour to some of the group improvisations, with Hawkins’s fingers dancing lightly across the keys like soft wind through grasses. But when Hawkins took charge, as he did near the start of a phenomenal second set, he totally stole the show. He built up a solo from mere ripples to a point where it was as if he was physically swimming through sound, changing from front crawl to a furious breast stroke as he switched from the upper to lower manuals and performed huge glissando runs with the whole of his forearms (in terms of B3 proponents, this was much more Sun Ra than Jimmy Smith, Hawkins swam right out into the spaceways). Some of the the organ’s most interesting features are the ways it allows the performer to manipulate the harmonics of the sound it is producing, which raised the problem of how precisely to take advantage of those effects when in full flow. Hawkins’s solution was to jab at the organ’s drawbars with his nose, one final surprise in a show that surpassed all expectations to become one of the very best things I’ve seen this year.

Marc Ribot Trio at the Bishopsgate Institute, 28/10/11

Henry Grimes by Scott McMillan

You’re right – that isn’t a photo of Marc Ribot. Or of anyone else named on the ticket to this event, which listed the following artists’ names on it: Marc Ribot, Matthew Bourne, Mayming. However I wasn’t at this gig to see any of those. It seemed a little odd to me just how little billing was being given to the presence of one Henry Grimes as part of Ribot’s trio, given that his recorded – and unrecorded – history makes for a legend that would dwarf that of most jazz musicians on the planet.

Grimes’s discography would have been reason enough to attend. He is the bass player who connects the following list of great albums: Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador, Sonny Rollins’s Brass/Trio, Roy Haynes’s Out Of The Afternoon, Albert Ayler’s Live In Greenwich Village, Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Gil Evans’s Into The Hot, Sonny Murray’s Sonny’s Time Now, Marzette Watts’s Marzette and Company and Pharoah Sanders’s Tauhid – there is so much prime new thing-era Impulse music in there that if you cut him open, surely he would bleed orange and black.

But Grimes’s story extends so much further than what you hear on those remarkable records. Lest we forget he was the member of this forward-thinking circle of whom Val Wilmer, in her wonderful document of the era As Serious As Your Life, wrote “it is generally believed that Henry Grimes died in California in the 1970s”, but who turned up very much alive in a Californian apartment in 2002. Having not played in 35 years – indeed he sold his broken bass in the late 60s to pay the bills – his rehabilitation over the last decade has been one of the most remarkable stories in all of music. New records, including a monumental solo CD, showed that his creative fire was still blazing orange, and the reports I’d heard of his live appearances (of which this was a rare UK example) were no cooler in their summation of his current talents.

The under-heralded appearance of Grimes was by far from the only confusing aspect to this show. The talented pianist Matthew Bourne played a support set of a mere fifteen minutes in duration, during which time he managed to flit so quickly between other pianists’ styles – a lyrical Keith Jarrett-like improvisation, a softer Tord Gustavsen, and a dense Cecil Taylor-style tumult – that it was positively dizzying. Only when he stood up to perform an extraordinary piece of percussion, playing the piano by slapping on the strings with flat palms, did it feel like he was speaking in his own unique tongue. But Mayming’s slot in this lineup was completely mystifying, their cello and vocal loops far too pretty and regular, using the language of experimental music to say nothing of any interest whatsoever.

If the pilot light had temporarily blown out after that second support set, the trio of Marc Ribot on guitar, Chad Taylor (of the Chicago Underground collective) on drums, and the aforementioned Grimes on bass and violin were soon to reignite it with a magnesium-white spark. This is Ribot’s Spiritual Unity group, assembled to pay homage to the music of a big influence of his, Albert Ayler – and who better to have in your band than someone who played with the man himself (Henry Grimes! HENRY GRIMES! I was still pinching myself at this point). Their debut recording focused solely on Ayler, but by the time of this live show their repertoire had expanded to take in the post-1965 catalogue of John Coltrane too (Sun Ship featured heavily, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Ribot also has a Sun Ship trio which features Mary Halvorson on guitar). Tracks weren’t announced by Ribot, but instead announced themselves via their translated themes, before these were quickly shouted down by some riotous improvisation.

Ribot’s guitar sound is still at times just about reminiscent of his early Tom Waits days, a sharp, dry tone that could cleave meat from bone, but his playing is unrecognisable, with lightning-quick runs and changes of direction. Ribot sat coiled round his instrument, rocking back and forth, like a spring full of tension, about to translate potential energy to sound, electricity and heat: the first flashes saw the trio catch light in their first fast ensemble piece, Grimes and Taylor stoking the flames of Ribot’s searing string-scrabbling. Throughout the show I got the notion that the trio were a great match in that they seemed to be approaching the music from different musical and generational angles: Grimes lived this stuff, obviously; Ribot had a cerebral but still recognisably rock attitude (the volume, the subtle use of feedback); while Taylor as the youngest of the three found the most oblique of grooves within the music.

However, it was increasingly the luminous Grimes that I found my eyes and ears drawn to. This is despite (and perhaps partly because of) the fact that Grimes’s style was so different to that of the free jazz bassists I’m used to seeing live these days. There was none of the muscle of an Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, or the extended techniques of a John Edwards. Instead there was a subtlety to his style which was absolutely fascinating: his solos at times became smears of sound, his bow traced soft lines up and down the strings as much as it did across them. The sheer otherness of sound transformed an otherwise nondescript walking blues track into something entirely alien via a compelling and clever closing violin solo, which sounded like Grimes had taken the theme from the original and translated into another language and then back again – the same underlying meaning was just about there, but the accents and structure had been completely moved and rearranged.

While his gentleness at times sucked the others into some great interplay (Taylor playing bells, Ribot just tapping on his strings), he was more than capable of shifting tunes up through the gears, driving his colleagues into busier spaces. In fact it ended with the three coming together in the boisterous tumble of Coltrane’s “Sun Ship”, before they departed the stage, Grimes leaving last – not because he sought any extra acclaim, just because he was furthest from the exit. Despite the dazzling discography and back story, you get the feeling that the lack of spotlight suits this most remarkable and yet humble of musicians.