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.

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The Thing at Cafe Oto, 9/2/13

Mats

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.

Daichi

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.

Paal

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.

Kuchen

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.

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

Hubsch

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.

Lubomyr Melnyk at Cafe Oto, 26/1/12

Lubomyr

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.

Mark Fell and Ben Vida at Cafe Oto, 28/9/11

Mark Fell

Mark Fell took to the Cafe Oto stage wearing a cap with the logo of the tractor manufacturer John Deere on it. Could there be anything more incongruous? Fell’s music is far from agricultural, being a repurposing of Detroit techno stylings, by way of the Sheffield electronic avant-garde. Come to think of it, techno in Oto is itself slightly out of place, although Fell’s is a particularly complex and challenging take on it. Intelligent Dance Music may be a Very Stupid Music Label, but Fell’s records (and those born of his partnership with Mat Steel, SND) do light up synapses that few others manage. Tonight at Oto he was joined by Ben Vida, another artist creating some experimental sonics, to complete a mind-expanding line-up.

Ben Vida

Ben Vida may be better known as a member of Chicago post-rock troupe Town and Country, but his recent work has pushed him in a very different direction. His proficiency with analogue synthesizers is such that he recently featured on a split LP with one of its current Dons, none other than Keith Fullerton Whitman, on which he was by no means outclassed. His music features a great deal of automation, much like tossing pebbles into the water and letting the ripples interact, overlap and ultimately make beautiful and intricate patterns. The crisp sounds mutated gradually, an oscillation becoming a pulsation, and the pulsation in turn becoming percussion. He threw in a few more choice stones, the output becoming thrillingly complex and unpredictable, before the waves ebbed and fizzed once more to shore.

Much like Fell’s recent set at London’s Village Underground, he began here at Cafe Oto with what sounded like a section from 2010’s excellent Multistability album, the sound seemingly patting its head and rubbing its tummy simultaneously, flickering between two alternate states, with conflicting rhythmic patterns slipping confusingly in and out of phase. This music demands work from the listener; you have to, to paraphrase Coltrane, try to move your imagination toward the sound, follow its rhythms and its colours. Much like staring too intently at strobe lighting, this runs the risk of overheating the brain. Sounds (and synapses, perhaps) exploded, like fireworks across the full sonic spectrum, their patterns and trails bleeding into another. As the set progressed, Fell seemed to draw much more heavily from his techno influences, with electronic handclaps and synth stabs being aggressively sliced into the mix; again as he did in Village Underground, which was a slightly more receptive space (dark, subterranean, with visuals) for this sort of thing than the more relaxed surroundings of Cafe Oto. In the end, the incongruity was to be the set’s downfall, with the energy levels of the music unable to fully translate to the audience. Still, this was first and foremost a workout for the mind, not the body.

Æthenor and Alexander Tucker at Cafe Oto, 2/6/11

Stephen O'Malley

This event wasn’t originally due to be held at Cafe Oto, but in Bush Hall on the other side of town. Would the stately Bush Hall, with its elaborate Edwardian plasterwork and ornate chandeliers, have been any place for a band like Æthenor? Its members – Stephen O’Malley, Daniel O’Sullivan, Kristoffer Rygg and Steve Noble – may draw from genres as disparate as jazz, metal, prog rock, and electronic music, but they are essentially an experimental music band, one increasingly drawn to the idea of live improvisation, and as such it felt right that they played at London’s improvised music venue Cafe Oto, with its pockmarked concrete floors and single 60 watt lightbulb swinging above the stage.

Alexander Tucker, by Mike WInship

Alexander Tucker was a natural choice of support, having played in a duo with O’Malley, and also with O’Sullivan in The Stargazers Assistant and Grumbling Fur. But which Tucker would we get? The one who coated O’Malley’s wall of guitar in thick layers of black cello? The eldritch folk artist of recent Thrill Jockey release Dorwytch? Or the yeti suit-wearing tape manipulator? While the hot weather may have prevented the costume getting another outing, tonight’s performance used similar techniques to those Imbogobom shows, with Tucker creating a dense collage of sound from some disks full of samples and a table full of effect pedals. Like Æthenor, the reference points are wide-ranging – from radiophonic experimentation to drone metal to industrial noise in his case – but his vocals don’t fit into any of these frameworks, and take the set somewhere else entirely. It is Tucker’s singing, sometimes distorted, sometimes unamplified, but constantly trying to reach for some unknown (he always seems to be asking questions of the song’s subject, and/or himself, or be in search of distant memory) which create the structure and give it direction, dragging the piece out of the uncertain moments where it feels like he is finding a sound by accident as much as by design. Behind his voice are distorted samples of what sounds like throat singing and chanting, as if Tucker is in fact leading an entire haunted choir on a quest with no known destination.

Steve Noble

As their set rumbled into life, with the mixture of dark power electronics, vocal drone, scraped cymbals and O’Malley dragging a chair across the floor, Æthenor’s journey from studio band to fully-fledged improvising live unit felt complete. Their excellent recent album En Form For Blå was a collection of cuts culled from live performances in the famous Norway venue. Here we had one long and seemingly (mostly) spontaneous piece, full of strange textures and – of course, given some of the participants – immense volume. Steve Noble, an Oto regular, was at times beating his kit with a ferocity he doesn’t get to deploy too often, as if determined to leave the stage covered in the same charred, shattered metal that the band were seeking to create sonically. Yet even in London, there remained something of Blå in the sound: O’Sullivan chopped and manipulated like Deathprod when he wasn’t adding ominous Ståle Storløkken keyboard grumble, while Rygg’s electronics fizzed and sparked like Pan Sonic.

Noble is, it is probably fair to say, the most accomplished improviser of the group, and he felt like, if not the captain, then at least the rudder of this ship, always setting a direction that someone else could get behind and give impetus to. It was a weighty vessel though, and changes of course from one which was set through pulsing waves of electronic noise and feedback, to another plotted through pitching and rolling rock rhythms, were like turning a tanker at times. When it broke down to just a couple of members, the interaction was more nimble, as when O’Malley and Noble pitched out of the raging broth, the drummer chopping into the billowing mist of reverb-heavy guitar. At Noble’s insistence, they all finally steamed back to a familiar port, the ending having echoes of the opening section, before they stalled the engine amongst confusion and miscommunication. Rather than attempt a restart, they wisely walked away, leaving the ship smoking, the concrete floor shaking and us still entirely drenched in the last reverberations of their torrid sonic spray.

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Photo credits: Stephen O’Malley by Scott McMillan, Steve Noble and Alexander Tucker by Mike Winship