Alexander Hawkins Ensemble at the Vortex, London
August 10, 2009
If you can judge a person by the company he keeps, then pianist Alexander Hawkins must be someone to watch given his musical associations, both actual and virtual. The packed house at the Vortex certainly thought so, confounding Hawkins' concern that the crowd might be a little light given a Monday night in the holiday season.
Hawkins has recorded as part of the fresh improvising collective Barkingside and with the transatlantic Convergence Quartet, featuring two of the rising stars on the American scene in cornetist Taylor Ho Bynumand drummer composer Harris Eisenstadt. His working resume is even broader, spanning genres and boasting gigs with South Africans drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and saxophonist Ntshuks Bonga and a place in several recent ensembles convened by saxophone iconoclast Evan Parker. That's only part of the story though. Hawkins might have had a good career as an A&R man: he mines the free jazz motherlode for interesting tunes, with tonight's performance featuring pieces by Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake with Jerome Cooper, and Sun Ra alongside his own original compositions. Heavy company indeed.
This evening was the CD launch party for No Now Is So... (FMR, 2009) by Hawkins six-piece ensemble and featured the same line up, though without the steel pans of Orphy Robinson for the first set as he was stuck in traffic en route. While the other names in his ensemble might be even less well known that proved no reflection on their improvisational prowess over two sets breaching the 85-minute mark, including all the covers and Hawkins' originals from the CD.
Hannah Marshall, Javier Carmona, Orphy Robinson, Otto Fischer, Dominic Lash
Hawkins' arrangements allow ample space for individual expression. One feature of the band was that there always seemed to be someone in the group improvising, even during composed sections. Affirming a connection to an ongoing tradition, they opened with Leo Smith's "Nuru Light," also featured on disc, with the trumpeter's portentous melody sandwiching passages of open invention. Spacey guitar swells from Otto Fischer communed with Javier Carmona's edgy percussion in the first interlude, while the legato lines of cellist Hannah Marshall and bassist Dominic Lash melded only to fragment during the second.
Demonstrating another trademark, in unexpected combination of compositions, "Light" merged imperceptibly into Hawkins' "120-4."As on disc, it provided a showcase for what Hawkins calls Fischer's "meandering-yet-logical-thing" with the guitarist musings over the stately grandeur of the repeated theme accompanied by plucked piano strings which developed into the first of several notable keyboard excursions by Hawkins. Next up was one of the highlights of the set: a wonderful mash up of little-played Anthony Braxton compositions (numbers 69(I) + 6(O) + 40(O) + 6(I) for those for whom these things matter) adapted for the unusual instrumentation in a way which breathed fresh life into the saxophonist's music. Starting with one of Braxton's jaunty bebop-esque lines delivered by unison piano and arco cello over a funky rhythm, it soon opened out for Fischer's freeform runs and grace notes fronting a group improvisation which merged into the next piece in the suite in typical Braxton fashion. Hawkins' affection for Braxton's work has had the chance to bloom since receiving the early quartet books from Bynum his collaborator in the Convergence Quartet, and a long time Braxton associate.
Live the band was able to step out from the ensemble more than on record. Fischer was the featured voice for much of the first set, his guitar lines, enhanced with effects pedals, tiptoeing and dancing through the dense soundscapes. Fischer may be best known for his until now sole release Songs (Incus, 2006) though this is shortly to be supplemented by his self-released Somersault. Marshall made the most of the cello's ambiguities, supplementing the front line with rhapsodic soaring lines at some times, but then again sawing as if trying to rend her cello in two at others. She had a wonderful feature at the start of Leroy Jenkins' "Albert Ayler (his life was too short)," ranging from the romantic to the desperate before initiating an open group colloquy around the late violinist's beautiful melody. A loose nervy drummer, Carmona wielded various unusual sticks for delicate timbral effects, but then was tight and arhythmically funky when needed.
Lash has forged a strong association with Hawkins, featuring alongside him in the Convergence Quartet as well as in the Barkingside collective. He proved well versed in avant bass vocabulary but also ready to dig into a riff with gusto, this ambidextrousness being a trait which characterized the whole band. During the improvisational space in the second set's "Sarah Teaches Kirsty to Read" Lash demonstrated his credentials in one solo where he threaded his bow between the strings of his bass to produce koto-like sonorities before proceeding with a buzzing drone. Elsewhere his search for the unconventional saw him bowing on the neck of his bass alternately behind the key stops and below the bridge to novel effect.
Aside from his astute selection of covers to sit alongside his own varied and challenging compositions, Hawkins impressed as a thrilling improvisor, rampaging up and down the keyboard. He took a great solo spot at the conclusion of his own "Song Dance Blues" which from a bluesy kneesup, corralled Ellington's "Take The A Train" into a hyperspeed blur within an explosion of notes at the opposite extremes of the keyboard, reminiscent of some of Matthew Shipp's more stark juxtapositions. To complete the rollcall of homage he finished the solo by segueing into the churchy opening chords of Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space." As the band piled into the joyful rolling vamp behind him, Robinson extracted even more sunshine from his rumbustuously tolling pans concluding what was one of the evening's highlights with a warm glow. Multi-instrumentalist Robinson, more usually heard on vibraphone was almost the elder statesman in this company, having first come to prominence alongside Courtney Pinewith the Jazz Warriors in the early 1980s and numbering two Blue Note albums in his discography from the mid '90s. However he didn't hog the limelight and his pans added subtle accents to the rhythmic stew and spiced the thick interplay with their distinctive sonority.
Hawkins shares his predilection for stealthy composition and a good tune with Bynum, so it was fitting that they chose to finish with the cornetist's enigmatic "Mmpf" which started with disconnected taps here, and scrapes there, then subliminal hints at a tune from fragments of first piano, then cello and bass amid the apparently random soundings which eventually coalesced into a lovely repeated melody ending on an unresolved rising note like an aural question mark. The answer came in the full-throated approval of a great night confirming Hawkins' as someone whose company is likely to be increasingly welcome.