Freeform in the U.K.
Venturing into a larger venue where snacks, meals and music are offered together can make the difference between someone getting the chance to ever hear freeform jazz or not. People get introduced to the music who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it. If they get a good experience, they are encouraged to seek out smaller, specialty gigs and find out more about the music. They are, in effect, helping to attract a new, different audience to freeform.
Other venues have upped their game, possibly as a consequence of the Oto effect; The Vortex has a much improved program and now provides a wide and intriguing lineup as well as special events.
Venues which always strived to offer different and diverse music have had an unstable few years, but are finding their floors filling up once more. Smaller venues definitely still have a part to play in promoting this music.
Wilkinson says, "It is important not to forget the small musician run, door money gigs like FlimFlam, where we've all been able to encourage and develop the music for many years. I've been running it in the same venue since January 2001. The advantage somewhere like Oto has is that it attracts a more varied and larger audience, which is great for everyone. It's difficult to put that same level of energy and expertise into promoting smaller clubs, and the audience is nearly always the same people. The music can be fantastic or not, but that's the beauty."
Gustafsson agrees that the freeform scene in London is thriving at the moment. London, for Mats, is "the place to play" (he returns to Oto in November alongside Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark). He comments, "It [London] has always been one of the most amazing places for free and creative music, and it always will be. Key players like Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, John Stevens, Steve Beresford, Paul Rutherford, Roger Turner and John Butcher all helped build up a totally ass-kicking scene over the years. London became [in the past] one of the most creative scenes in the history of jazz and improvised music. The problem is that venues in London always had very limited funding. But things changed a lot lately with the appearance of Café Oto. It is an amazing place; the people there, the vibe, it is very, very good for the music. There is also the fact you can play for two-to-three days in a row, which is pretty sensational and very good for us, the musicians."
"London," Mats adds, "has always been a hot spot for the music, partly because there has always been a very interesting infusion of musicians coming from other parts of the world like Jamaica in the '60sJoe Harriot,Keane, and South Africa later on with Louis Moholo-Moholo, Chris McGregor and Pukwanaand the jazz scene was always strong, so the mix has developed into one which is quite unique."
Vandermark comments on the London scene, "I think the opening of Café Oto has had significant and positive impact on the scene in London. It's caused a healthy competition for The Vortex, which is more or less just down the street, and has doubled the performance opportunities for musicians in England and those visiting from other countries. For a city that has had such profound impact on contemporary music, it has been great to be able to visit London more often in recent years and get to work with players who live in the area: brilliant musicians like John Edwards, Steve Noble, John Russell, John Tilbury and Philipp Wachsmann."
With the smaller European venues losing opportunities to offer freeform musicians new on the scene the chance to play, London seems to have taken over as the main venue in the UK, if not Europe overall. Wilkinson comments, "Oto was much more open when it started, but it's now more difficult for lesser known players to get a gig there. Having said that, I think the growth of places like Oto and The Vortex, which is promoting much more free music, as well as other trendy venues that are popping up, is very healthy and I don't know that there's ever been a time in this country when it's possible to see so many great musicians on a regular basis. Suddenly, London has arrived on the touring scene like never before. Brötzmann, for instance, used to play here maybe once every two or three years; now he seems to be here every other week."
Wilkinson notes, "In order to grow, free music needs places where there is no pressure to fill the place. The restart of Klinker is very welcome, as that has always drawn a very varied audience drawn in by the eclectic mix of its players." Licensing laws and the fact no one works for free in today's environment mean that it is difficult to throw impromptu music gigs, which can stifle freeform expression.