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Extended Analysis

Free Space / Otherways: Life Amid The Artefacts

By Published: June 9, 2011
Free Space / Otherways

Life Amid The Artefacts


2011 (1973, 1984)

2010-11 has been a fruitful period for releases highlighting London improvisation in the mid-1970s, with Teatime, previously only issued on vinyl on Incus, getting its first CD issue, as well as More 74 (Incus, 2010) featuring recently discovered recordings by guitarist Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
1932 - 2005
. The Emanem label is also sitting on a previously unissued concert recording from 1972 by Iskra 1903, but its release has been delayed for technical reasons. Now comes Life Amid The Artefacts, containing previously unissued recordings from 1973 and 1984 by two lesser-known ensembles, Free Space and Otherways.

Free Space features such familiar names as John Stevens
John Stevens
(only on cornet and voice; drums being played by Dave Solomon), Trevor Watts
Trevor Watts
Trevor Watts
on soprano sax, John Russell
John Russell
John Russell
on electric guitar and Nigel Coombes on violin. In 1973, Stevens and Watts were the only full-time members of Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME); other musicians expanded SME to the very large Spontaneous Music Orchestra (SMO). Stevens intended that Free Space, whose membership varied between six and twelve, be a medium-sized group between SME and SMO. However, this fifteen-minute recording, "Intermediate," is the only surviving one of Free Space.

Given the quality of its music, that is a pity. For an eight-piece ensemble, the music is commendably spacious, open and uncluttered. It opens quietly with delicate cornet from Stevens, gradually joined by small sounds from other players. And so it continues, with brief overlapping contributions from all concerned, no-one roaring and no prolonged period of playing from anyone. The temperature does rise gradually towards the end, led by Stevens' cornet, signaling a satisfying climax. Overall, the piece has an impressionistic quality that is remarkably modern given its vintage. It would be no surprise had it been recorded in recent years—maybe one of those tracks waiting to catch someone out in a blindfold listening.

Several members of Free Space turn up again in Otherways—alto saxophonist Herman Hauge and double bassist Marc Meggido (who both left the improvising scene years ago), Coombes and Solomon—the five-piece being completed by Simon Mortimer on piano. Compared to Free Space, the group is rather less subdued, with Meggido and Solomon propelling it more than in the eight-piece.

Dating from three separate recordings—in concert in September 1973, a rehearsal in the same month and in concert in November 1984—the line-up varies across the three. Violin is only heard at the 1972 concert, piano only at the rehearsal, and in 1984 the group is down to the duo of sax and percussion, making Hauge and Solomon the only ever-presents. The group was founded by Hauge, and his playing is its trademark sound; he is featured prominently, firing off a series of distinctive solos which together demonstrate great variety and inventiveness. When present, Coombes also has plenty of solo space, his contributions being a good partner to the saxophone, thus giving the four-piece a broad palette of sounds. Easily the most impressive tracks are the two sax-percussion duos; Hauge and Solomon are highly sympathetic to each other's playing and interact well. Hearing them decades after their playing was recorded makes it all the more regrettable that Hauge is no longer active as an improviser.

As a whole, Life Amid The Artefacts makes engaging listening from start to finish; although definitely of historical interest, it is so much more than that.

Tracks: Intermediate; Altitudes; Unarmoured; Gesture; Aranata; Lucid; Zeal.

Personnel: John Stevens: cornet, voice (1); Trevor Watts: soprano saxophone (1); Herman Hauge: alto saxophone (1-7); John Russell: electric guitar (1); Nigel Coombs: violin (1, 2); Ron Herman: double bass (1); Marc Meggido: double bass (1, 2-5); Dave Solomon: percussion (1-7); Simon Mortimer: piano (3-5).

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