Lol Coxhill: Digswell Duets (1978)
You'll have to forgive me here if I toot Lol Coxhill's horn, because he certainly toots it just fine on his own. Saxophonist Coxhill is an extremely versatile player who has played in settings ranging from punk rock to abstract free improvisation. His sense of melody and time are particularly distinctive, drawing more heavily from the jazz tradition than many of his fellow British free improvisers. This recording marks an unusual pairing of duet partners: Simon Emmerson, an electronic artist whose palette largely consists of Coxhill's playing thrown back at him in real-time; and Veryan Weston, a light-fingered pianist whose attention to melody and pulse closely reflect Coxhill's own.
Let's get the ugly details taken care of up front: these are live analog recordings from 1978, and the sound quality lags far behind what you'd find in today's recording studio. Enough on that subject; the shortcomings are definitely audible but do not substantially interfere with the music. The first six duets consist of Coxhill's conversations with himself through the medium of Simon Emmerson. Coxhill works patiently here, pursuing held tones and well-articulated intervals which provide his partner fuel for the fire. The rich reverb drenching the whole interaction competes with delay for the listener's attention, but the most exciting moments are when Emmerson distorts the saxophonist's tone into sharp metallic shards or multichromatic hunks of sound.
You can hear Coxhill striding forward on the left channel, while Emmerson gradually builds up tension on the right and eventually chases him around the field. It's early stuff, so we're talking basic tools here... none of the computerized gadgetry that dominates interactive improvisation today. But it's done in real time, and the spirit of improvisation pervades both artists' work.
The second half of the disc consists of mostly short pieces featuring Coxhill and pianist Veryan Weston. The call-and-response motif pops its head up here and there, as the two players feel each other out in the moment in order to determine where they're headed. For the most part, they pursue sparse, melodic improvisation. The melody may fragment or implode, but most of the time one or the other of these two players is holding up a flag in the wind. (For overpowering evidence of the latter, check out their version of "Embraceable You," which concludes with a clever and very jazzy jam.)
Coxhill mostly sticks to clean tones, though he demonstrates a mastery of swooshing legato runs that blur the distinctions between their endpoints. (And he's not at all opposed to sighing, whistling, or crying in the night.) Weston is a fantastic foil, because he understands the importance of space. While he's not averse to simple lines, he often works in clusters of clusters: simple repeated or modulated pinches of the keys. At times he borrows from atonality, but when you listen closely you can usually find that local tonal centers agree heartily with the saxophonist. And Weston's pulse has an undeniable logic, though it might not hit the ground every two beats.
Track Listing: First Encounter Part One; First Encounter Part Two; First Encounter Part Three; Side One Part One; Side One Part Two; Additional Ending; Side Two Part Four; Side Two Part Two; Very Short Piano Solo; Side Two Part Five; Embraceable Who?; Embraceable You; Side Two Part Three; More Substantial Piano Solo; Side Two Part One; I Can't Get Started.
Personnel: Lol Coxhill, soprano saxophone; Simon Emmerson, electronics; Veryan Weston, piano.