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Martin Archer: Making A Difference, Doing Things Differently

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This is evident in everything Archer does. Sheffield, or any large or small provincial English town on a rainy Saturday afternoon, can be heard—and seen—on English Commonflowers. It seems infused with echoes of the British folk tradition, something Archer also admires, as does another Archer musical collage Heritage and Ringtones. On both, there are clear nods in the direction of Anne Briggs, Pentangle and Bert Jansch (on Heritage), which sit comfortably alongside the Kraut Rock-inspired "Angelus Vander." And then there's the checking of Nick Drake's "Black-Eyed Dog" on "Know" and Tim Cole's acoustic guitar from Commonflowers on a record that also references Soft Machine
Soft Machine
Soft Machine

band/orchestra
keyboardist Mike Ratledge. Archer's aesthetic is an intriguing and transformative one—whatever enters this world comes out changed, if not utterly, then beautifully.

The independence to work in this way, however, came at a price. It was whilst studying law at Nottingham University that Archer arrived at a possible solution to an age-old dilemma.

"When I was at university, I used to promote gigs and the people I liked most had in common the fact that none of them had any money," Archer says. "I thought, 'There has to be a better way.' So, when I left university, I decided I would have a very conventional career and use that to ensure I had independence in the creative music that I make. It's rather a blessed position but it's something I've managed to make work somehow. I trained as an accountant and now I earn my living as a director of a property company. It's that activity that funds the music I want to make."

But it's not just in business terms that Archer has proven so adept a problem solver. These are qualities that extend also to the creative aspects of his musical life. Surprising though it might, for an artist so literate and broad in his taste in music and so articulate in terms of the sonic universes he creates, Archer considers himself "musically illiterate."

"I've never been able to learn conventional music notation," he says. "There's a lot of things about music—what the rules are in terms of harmony and chord construction—I just don't get. Or rather I get it in practice without being able to understand it at a more theoretical level. I'm aware I have a very odd mental relationship with music. That is not the norm."

Yet it doesn't seem to have held Archer back, either as an improviser or as a composer—just a different kind of problem to solve. He began by playing jazz-funk when he was 15 but, at university, started listening more and more to free improvisation. It was a period that saw no real separation between the more "out" end of jazz and the more "left-field" rock of Can, Faust and Magma. In a way, these connections continue to inform Archer's work. Having finished his studies, he put an ad in a local record shop, seeking musicians of like mind, and so began a journey that would take him more and more into the sounds of AACM. First there was Bass Tone Trap, formed with saxophonist Derek Saw, guitarists Neil Carver and John Jasnoch, bassist Paul Shaft and drummer Pete Infanti—a heady and timely mash-up of Pigbag, Rip Rig & Panic and Prime Time Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
. That was followed by the sax quartet, Hornweb.

"The frustration with Bass Tone Trap was that it was hard to get gigs," Archer recalls. "I thought if I put a sax quartet together it will get a lot more work and I was right. Hornweb went on to do about 150 gigs over ten years. That was all I did for ten years—I played soprano sax in a saxophone quartet and the model for that was very much an AACM-based music. There were some very fancy saxophone groups around at the time. The music I find the biggest turn-off on the planet is eighties British jazz, when the first generation of "jazz goes to college" players started to emerge and inflict their wretched whimsy onto a bunch of gullible journalists. I hate all that stuff. We wanted to be a horrible, greasy R&B saxophone quartet veering off into AACM abstraction, and that's precisely what we did for ten years."

It was around the mid-nineties, that jazz began to struggle once again in provincial Britain. The clubs died and the gigs dried up. It became clear to Archer that a different approach needed to be found, if he were to continue making the music he heard in his head. An introduction from writer Benny Watson to bassist and electronics enthusiast Chris Bywater paved the way forward.

"We immediately hit it off and bought synths and sequencing stuff," he explains. "I had used synth to compose and bash out scores but I realized this was an instrument I can play. For a time, I stopped being a saxophonist and used technology to create the more abstract music I was hearing."

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