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.


Tony Marsh with John Tchicai, and Louis Moholo with Evan Parker at the Vortex; Paul Hession with Bill Orcutt at Cafe Oto, October 2011

Tony Oxley

I typically listen to a lot of John Coltrane, but I’ve been increasingly drawn to his Interstellar Space of late, the duo recording with the drummer Rashied Ali. It is an oddity in his canon by virtue of its minimal instrumentation, but the result of this uncharacteristic paring down affords the listener an opportunity to really hear the interaction and the dynamic between its two protagonists. In a duo there really is nowhere to hide, no rest, you can’t drop out while an another formation spontaneously assembles from within a larger group, and as a result there is a particular intensity, you can really hear the players listening. With a duo comprising a drummer and another, there is the potential to exploit both rhythm and melody, obviously, but some skilled practitioners can blur the expected roles, the drummer using extended techniques and kits which expand the range of pitches available to them, and the other engaging them on their own turf with staccato patterns and pulses. There is also the potential for extreme dynamics, from huge bass drum kicks to the faintest of brushwork, from full-throttled rampages to more circumspect approaches. It makes the drummer-plus-one format, in the right hands, potentially one of the most exciting and varied, whether the partner be sax, piano, guitar or electronics, and the results anywhere on a spectrum between jazz and noise.

My own personal Interstellar Space sessions coincided with some stellar combinations appearing in London venues. On Friday at the Vortex jazz club, the veteran British drummer Tony Marsh played with the legendary Dane John Tchicai, while South African percussionist Louis Moholo was paired with an old foil in Evan Parker. On Saturday, as part of a Tusk Festival on tour bill, drummer Paul Hession was on hand to spar with American four-string hero Bill Orcutt.

John Tchicai

John Tchicai famously played with John Coltrane a couple of years before Interstellar Space, in a very different lineup, one at the other extreme of the personnel spectrum: the eleven-strong Ascension sessions. At the Vortex he was playing just with Tony Marsh, a man who is no stranger to playing in duos. But this was a particularly strange duo. Tchicai, while nominally a saxophonist, spent only the minority of this set on the instrument – but this only increased the variety, and opportunities for interesting dialogue, both planned and unplanned. He began with an improvised monologue about “the sound of the yellow fence, when struck”, illustrated sonically by Marsh. However, Tchicai then began to fret about sound levels, and Marsh carried on playing while he remonstrated with the sound engineer, quietly brushing his snare to accompany Tchicai asking for more volume. Such subtleties continued throughout a flute/drum section, all air and light, before Marsh started to build some deep, circular rhythms. But the most fascinating aspect of this was just watching Marsh, his face lined with feeling, immersed in the emotion of Tchicai’s flute lines. It was like he was illustrating a story, his brushwork adding shade to the meanings. After some Ayler-like vocal idealism on the all-we-need-is-love theme, with scat singing and some unsteady high notes, Tchicai finally picked up the sax, Marsh cleverly cajoling and encouraging him on a journey up to some forced high notes, completing and repeating his lines. A grand master at work.

Louis Moholo

The contrast between Tony Marsh and Louis Moholo was huge. While Marsh may have looked the more frail and cerebral, he drummed with pure emotion, and considerable power at times. Moholo, with drum sticks like tree trunks, looked more physical, but actually played with an unexpected delicateness and precision. In fact, the quiet, minimal nature of his contribution took the duet with Evan Parker thousands of miles away from the free Township swing of their Brotherhood Of Breath days. Parker instead floated some more textural ideas over a regular heartbeat pulse, and even some sections of circular breathing, with the attendant piling up of notes, had to be taken more gently than usual, playing out over soft-handed brushes from the gruff, stiff-looking Moholo. He finally loosened up a little to play some wood block percussion while Parker clicked and clacked at his keys, ending their short set by creating a percussion duo in all but name.

Paul Hession

With the greatest of respect to drummer Paul Hession, he wasn’t the reason that most people were in Cafe Oto on Saturday. As part of a Tusk Festival showcase, American guitarist Bill Orcutt was in town, on a bill which also included The Hunter Gracchus and guitarist Steve Gunn. Orcutt’s three LPs (well, two and a half) since his return from his post-Harry Pussy sabbatical have opened up new paths, his four string guitar work clearing a hitherto untravelled route through punk, noise, Derek Bailey-inspired improv, and the blues. His set with Hession started on a low key note, far from the shards of jagged noise that open his recent How The Thing Sings LP. They built so quickly and concertedly from there, crashing chords answered by meaty tom slaps, then stuttering runs meeting spasmodic riffs, that at times it was hard to believe it wasn’t rehearsed – surely he must have known in advance that he would do that in order to be able to respond so rapidly with that. Yet Orcutt’s style is so instinctive, the guitar almost an extension of his central nervous system, that in fact razor sharp reactions (particularly from the drummer) would be the logical explanation. “Alright, that’s a song”, said Orcutt as he slammed the brakes on and they screeched to their first dead stop.

Bill Orcutt

While Hession has played with Derek Bailey, he has only (to my knowledge) played with Orcutt once before, so the level of interplay here was nothing short of sensational. Inevitably, all attention was drawn to Orcutt, who sang (an eerie, childlike sound) and cradled his guitar like a baby, while Hession had a far more unshowy style. But despite the differences, they had such conversational common ground, tossing ideas back and forth: Orcutt shaking his guitar, Hession picking out the pulse; Hession scraping on a cymbal, Orcutt blowing on the guitar’s strings. My last memory was of Orcutt howling along to the resonance which consumed the last dying notes, as if unable to let the song escape the room. He needn’t have worried, as this duo performance – one of the best of its kind – will live on a long time in the mind.

Ikue Mori and guests, Cafe Oto, 12/08/10

Ikue Mori with Evan Parker

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.

John Russell

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.

John Edwards

Freedom Of The City Festival 2010 Day 1, Conway Hall, 02/05/10

London Improvisers Orchestra

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. Continue reading