John Edwards and Okkyung Lee – White Cable Black Wires

As enjoyable as I’m sure they were, I was troubled by the way in which the recent Kraftwerk concerts in London, both in the choice of setting and mode of delivery, presented their music as a museum piece. Performing their music in that gallery space, in chronological order, with little deviation from the canonical versions, it was as if they wished their catalogue to be preserved forever in amber. Where once their music had forward momentum (whether through mechanical engine or pedal power), and a beating human heart, they now seem to have stalled, and are absenting themselves more and more from the creative process.

Such thoughts send me scurrying towards releases such as White Cables Black Wires (released on the still young Fataka label) by the improvising musicians John Edwards and Okkyung Lee, a duo unlikely to be melting the phonelines at Tate Modern any time soon. Here, I find that life, instrumentation, emotion, music, communication and creativity are all tangled up in a dense knot. Whereas that Kraftwerk show (and I’m picking on them a little, I could instead have mentioned new records by My Bloody Valentine or David Bowie) committed the crime of being exactly what you’d expect, no more and no less, this is, as life itself is, unpredictable and ever-changing. Even knowing the instruments they play – John Edwards the double bass, and Okkyung Lee the cello – can’t prepare you for what is to follow, as the two of them do much to extend the possibilities of those instruments beyond their classical roles.

After a brief clickety-clack morse code interchange, like a sort of analogue handshake, there follows a relentless stream of information, with ideas being exchanged, discussed, and built upon on the fly, and at great speed. Within the first few minutes, there are sounds that suggest John Edwards is jamming his bow under his strings, playing it like a schoolchild twanging a ruler on the edge of a desk, and is squeaking the body of his bass with a wet finger. Lee has sliced and crunched her strings, producing sounds that are by turns vocal and industrial. Blink, and they’ve swapped hats, with Edwards up among his highest notes, and Lee churning away at her lowest. By the end of that frenetic (and at times almost funky, in a fractured sort of way) first piece it sounds like there is a percussionist in the room with them, playing a snare with brushes, rapping the edge of a tom with a drumstick. Already, I’m forced to confront the fact that I’m not sure who is doing what, or how.

But never mind, who, what or how: why are they doing this? In White Cable Black Wires, the improvisational imperative feels so tightly bound to self-preservation, you might as well ask why we breathe. You can hear the vital signs of life in the second track, where Edwards’s bass pounds symbolically, like a heart in love: WHAMWHAM WHAMWHAM WHAMWHAM. The exchanges between Edwards and Lee at times seem heated and argumentative; elsewhere they are in accord, at ease, as one: indeed, the way in which pieces build in intensity and rhythms synchronise feels almost sexual. In those moments when Lee and Edwards’s strings become entwined, they swoop and sing in one voice like a flock of birds, or creak and crack like the interconnected branches of a tree in the wind. Evolving, living, breathing, fighting, fucking, creating: this is as far from petrification as it is possible to get.

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.

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.

N.E.W. at The Vortex, 14/3/11

Steve Noble, by Scott McMillan

The Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo was supposed to be at the Vortex this evening, but for understandable reasons, he couldn’t it make it. The venue offered refunds on the tickets, and some seemed to take them up on it, judging by the empty seats dotted around the place. Those people are fools. For in Kondo’s place, the superb improvising trio N.E.W. were given two sets. After his duo with Arthur Doyle at Cafe Oto, this meant I’d be seeing Steve Noble play drums for the second night in a row. That probably isn’t the first time that has happened to me. After all, Steve Noble and John Edwards (who is the E to Noble’s N in the trio’s name) are the two musicians I’ve seen in concert more than anyone else. I’d call them the country’s finest rhythm section, but that would be doing them a massive disservice – for what they do on their respective instruments is about so much more than rhythm, it is about dynamics, about feel, about listening, about texture. And, because even given that, what pairing can you point to anywhere in the world that is better?

John Edwards, by Scott McMillan

Having said that, I’ve actually never seen Noble and Edwards play with Alex Ward (the W) before, and I was really looking forward to it, Kondo or no Kondo. Ward is probably better known as a clarinettist, but in N.E.W. he plays electric guitar. And I’m not talking about your Grant Green-style jazz electric guitar here; this is the jazz electric guitar of Sonny Sharrock, of John McLaughlin in his wilder moments, or even of Thurston Moore – as much rock and noise as jazz. So, this trio promised excitement – and it duly delivered. Right from the off, Ward was hacking away at his guitar, jagged shards of sounds flying off in all directions, and Edwards was disrespecting his (amplified) instrument by attacking it with the end of his bow. Noble’s performance initially lacked some of the subtlety and variety of the previous evening, but then again he had to hammer at his kit here just to be heard. He dragged them into a succession of deep repetitive grooves, making this sound at times a little like a higher voltage version of another power trio, the Tony Williams Lifetime (trading the crunching stabs of Larry Young’s organ for the grind of Edwards’s bass). For a moment, I swear they even fleetingly – too fleetingly – flirted with Can’s “Mother Sky”.

Alex Ward, by Scott McMillan

The second set started quieter and noticeably better balanced (the bass up a little, the guitar a little down). Ward was scribbling away with the end of his bottleneck, while Edwards was just forcing his bow against the bass, producing splintering creaks. This enabled Noble to rummage through his arsenal, coming up with a succession of textural weapons – scraped drumsticks, rubber mallets, and upturned cymbals pressed against his drums. Finally, he settled on a pair of cowbells – one attached to the kit, the other used as a drumstick – for the final assault, propelling the trio into a no-nonsense boogie war, which actually had them grinning by the end. They hadn’t expected to be playing two sets tonight, but it looked like that particular groove could have carried them all night. And us. And, indeed, many more. Even given the circumstances, a band this good should never be playing to an under-capacity Vortex. If you were somewhere else, you missed out.

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

Peter Brötzmann, John Edwards and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, 30/01/10

Peter Brotzmann

Just look at a partial section of the list of people that Peter Brötzmann has played with over the course of his career to date: Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Andrew Cyrille, Keiji Haino, Rashied Ali, John Zorn, Evan Parker…the very best of the very best. To that list can now be added the London-based rhythm engine of John Edwards and Steve Noble. Edwards was the fulcrum of the first two nights of Brötzmann’s three day residency at Cafe Oto, which also saw Tony Marsh, Pat Thomas and Roland Ramanan sharing the stage with the legendary German saxophonist. He must be one of the most in-demand bass players in the world, and he seems to relish the challenge of being dropped in against absolutely anyone, but Edwards’s long-standing partnership with Noble really seems to bring out the best in their respective games. That was to be the case tonight, with even the fiery Brötzmann at times having to stand back and admire the quality of their work.

It wasn’t obvious that that was going to be how it would pan out when Brötzmann opened on tenor, with the first of several torrential solos reducing Noble and Edwards to mere background rumble. The timbre was typically (and gloriously) ragged, with huge reed-gnawing vibrato and excursions way off the top of the instrument’s natural register. But it was when Brötzmann took his first breather that things began to change. Edwards stepped up to take a masterful solo, grabbing huge handfuls of string, and singing along to accompany his playing. When Noble joined him, he displayed the full wealth of his experience (he studied with a Nigerian master drummer, and played in a gamelan ensemble), beating the drums with his hands, scattering cymbals on his kit, and then launching into an astonishing display of African polyrhythms. The two knitted back together instinctively into some call and response phrases and lurching, abstract shapes that recalled Autechre more than jazz. It was a relief that when Brötzmann returned to finish the first half that he did so on clarinet which, even though he played it far louder than anyone else probably can, allowed us to hear the pair behind him. Some bent notes and exotic-sounding scales on that instrument merged with the drones of Edwards’s arco bass-playing to end the first set on a fascinating low-key note.

The second set was very different and allowed Brötzmann to demonstrate why he belongs in the premier league of post-Ayler saxophonists. It began with Noble lazily tapping out patterns on cymbals with the end of his drumsticks, and Edwards swaying with his eyes closed, before Brötzmann kicked the piece into a higher gear, wailing away on clarinet like a flock of panicked geese. The rhythm section locked together in a deep groove, rolling through to a duo section of tight near-funk. Brötzmann heightened the atmosphere further by switching back to some rasping tenor blasts, Noble and Edwards scurrying to keep up, before they dropped out altogether. This left Brötzmann to demonstrate that – as was the case with Ayler – behind all the storm and bluster resides a saxophonist who can really play. He delivered a stunning solo of growling melody and searing emotion, humming along in harmony as he did. The response from the crowd was rapturous, which seemed to humble even this most intimidating of musicians. His brief visit to London may be over, but I suspect he’ll be back before too long – not just because of the deserved ovation he received, but because there can’t be too many pick-up rhythm sections of the calibre of Edwards and Noble around the world.

Noble, Edwards, Brotzmann