Davey Payne: Ready To Play
Much of the time, Payne plays free, interspersing free passages even when playing over the tightness of The Blockheads, where his sound works well, but he has also played with other musicians where the chances of playing free are more limited. Payne has contributed ideas for articles on freeform music and most of the music he plays is improvised. On where he feels happiest playing, he comments, "Ideally music should be free, with no preconceived ideas, just floating on spontaneous improvisation. This music has a freshness about it and this kind of honesty is felt by the listener if they are ready to open up to it. At least, most people recognize the energy that it can produce. I like the bluesiness of Mingus and the way he collaborated and used musicians. I like some soul jazz and Funkadelic, and bizarre arrangements as well as bandleader/writer George Clinton and William Earl Bootsy's bass. It would have been great to have heard Albert Ayler's screaming sax over some of those great grooves. I am intrigued by some of [pianist] Sun Ra's music, but maybe it's too theatrical; too much is thrown in and it becomes a circus. It's a bit like Shostakovich; a bit of this and a bit of that, a marching bit, a pretty section, too theatrical. Having said that, I sometimes listen to the [composer and bandoneon player] Astor Piazzolla, some Cuban music and Indian sitar which, to me, is the nearest to free improvisation, with its microtones and free-flowing lines."
Free playing seems to be where Payne's heart is. Although he has been influenced by and is open to many other genres, it would seem to suit this spiritual and explorative player. Other genres offer just as much diversity, of course, but for Payne, free form offers the liberty he relishes in his playing. He has been in many bands and enjoyed an eclectic and diverse career. Starting with a solo of "I'm forever Blowing Bubbles" at the Shangri La holiday camp in Clacton-on-Sea in 1960, by 1964 Payne was playing with his own trio in The Crypt and the Latimer Hotel in Notting Hill. "We played totally free," he says.
The late '60s proved a pivotal point for Payne and in 1968 he met musiciansmany of whom have remained contacts and friends with whom he would play, off and on, for the rest of his career. They were clarinetist Albert Kovitz, saxophonist Paul Jolly, pianist Mel Davis, bassist Charlie Hart and free drummer Terry Day. These formed the core of the People Band. Payne had already met another future key player of the band, trumpeter Mike Figgis (later to become a film director). Payne explains. "In 1968 Mike Figgis and I returned from Biarritz where we had been playing in Loco Weed, a soul band. I travelled with the People Band and we spent three years playing in Holland with occasional gigs in Belgium, Paris and Germany. Other musicians joined from time to time including Figgis and even [saxophonist/clarinetist] John Surman sat in with us once. Over the next few years, Day, Hart and I worked in Holland as Ommu The Smooch. In England we continued to do gigs with the bigger band. We often played at the Wood Green Arts Centre and the Robert Streets Art Laboratory near Warren Street. Hart and myself, as part of an Arts Council grant, played at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh."
During this time, things were never easy, and for a time, Payne was living with other musicians in an old steamer in Amsterdam but playing music which was part of the fringe scene as, for a lot of free players at the time, this was never going to make the band rich and famous. Rather, they enjoyed making enough to get by and playing music from the heart. Freeform was experiencing a re-genesis in Europe, and Payne and other players found themselves at the centre of the change. Players from the People Band would join other bands on stage at times and when they were in London, they sometimes played with Dury's band The High Roads. For awhile, both Payne and Hart joined the band and the group became known as Kilburn and The High Roads.
Since then, Payne has played with a wide range of musicians. He recalls, "In 1972 I played with Dury in Kilburn and the High Roads. I did some gigs with Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance, The Fabulous Poodles and a few with musician Chris Jagger [Mick's younger brother]. In 1977, I played and made records with Wreckless Eric [along with, for some of a tour, Payne's younger brother on bass] before joining The Blockheads. Over the next few years I recorded with Nico, The Clash, Desmond Dekker, Howard Jones, Jona Lewie, Pearl Harbour, Ellen Foley, The M Band and Kyoshi, from Japan. In 1984, I recorded and toured Britain, Europe and Australia with Feargal Sharkey.
"By 1986, the People Band had reunited and we called ourselves Mummy. We recorded and played at the Luton Arts Centre before being featured in Figgis' film Stormy Monday (1988), where we appeared as the Krakow Jazz Ensemble, a free form Polish group. Through the '90s I recorded and gigged with the Blockheads, making the album Mr Love Pants (Ronnie Harris, 1998). Now I play the occasional Blockhead gig [he left as a full member in 1998], some interesting People Band gigs that Figgis arranges, such as one in 2011 at The Royal Opera House, some at Kings Place, London and the People Band played for the 25th Anniversary of the Vortex Club in Dalston, East London."
Payne takes life and music seriously and his conclusions so far about free music are eloquently expressed in a letter he wrote in response to a piece The Wire ran on the People Band in June 2002. In the piece, the musicianship was described as, "concentrated and intense" and recordings as, "straining against the limitations of the medium." It was implied that the band had been largely forgotten in historical accounts of improvised music. The author wrote enthusiastically about the players but perhaps left the reader confused as to what they were really about. Payne felt motivated to clarify and wrote in a letter to the editor:
"Re: The People Band article (The Wire 220). Even though at times the People Band let others 'sit in,' and sometimes it was fun and a laugh, and there would be serendipity, we knew how to work with chance and build on it. I don't believe that we were there to be a catalyst for everybody to blast away, giving them a false sense of freedom or happiness. As far as I'm concerned we weren't out to entertain and the audience were often confused, pained and drained. (...) I believe that at our best we were creating music on the highest level, knocking on the tenth door, and that may not necessarily be a good thing, or maybe it is. After all, who are we to play the divine conch and bagpipes? Of course, there was always the one guy who, after we had emptied the club in Groningen or somewhere, would approach us in his mackintosh and glasses, enthusiastically asking if we had made an album."