Return of The New Thing
June 16, 2007
Last month, Krakow's Alchemia hosted a night of spontaneous improvisations by the Paris-based free- jazz unit, Return of The New Thing. The unique atmosphere of the club, which is located in Krakow's old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, has been attracting the cream of the free jazz scene over the last few years. For enthusiasts of adventurous music it is a kind of Mecca, where they can rub shoulders with their idols in an intimate, informal setting.
This was the first visit by the Return of The New Thing unit to Poland, but many of the luminaries who appear at Alchemia end up returning again and again. Chicagoan Ken Vandermark almost views the club as a second home and will be returning in the autumn for a whole week of concerts. Only a couple of weeks before this concert, there was a challenging but passionate performance at the same venue by a trio led by New York trumpeter, Herb Robertson, which featured the mercurial Evan Parker playing only his second concert in Krakow and Spanish pianist, Agusti Fernandez.
Against such exalted company, Return of The New Thing had a great deal to live up to, but they certainly impressed during a set that was full of drama and humor. I first heard about the group last year when Marek Winiarski, record producer and owner of Krakow-based Not Two Records, described them to me as one of the most exciting groups on the European circuit. Winiarski books (and often records) the majority of the jazz groups that appear at Alchemia. Despite his obvious passion for free jazz, his pre-concert announcements often tend to be brief and to the point. On Saturday, however, he provided a lot of background information about the band.
Return of The Thing are English pianist and violinist, Dan Warburton, and three Frenchmen: alto saxophonist, Jean-Luc Guionnet, bassist, Francois Fuchs and percussionist, Edward Perraud. One of the most interesting things about the group is that none of the members come from a pure jazz background. Warburton is a classical composer who collaborated with Steve Reich in New York while serving as a Harkness Fellow. Guionnet studied electro-acoustics theory and is actively involved in experimental film and theater. Perraud is possibly best known for his work with the experimental rock outfit, Shub Niggurath, and Francois Fuchs has worked with Quinte & Sens, an eclectic band whose influences include klezmer music and African rhythms.
The first eponymous album was the result of a 1999 live studio session. Amazingly, this was only the second time the group had played together as a unit. The recording was meant only to be a demo, but they played so well with each other, despite their different musical backgrounds, that it was released by Leo Records. Since then, they have released two additional critically-acclaimed recordings, Traque (Ayler Records, 2003) and Crescendo (Not Two Records, 2005).
The leader of the band, Dan Warburton, kindly agreed to meet me between the first two sets. Considering the intensity of the first set, he was surprisingly relaxed and explained to me that the name of the band was intentionally provocative and in fact hadn't sat at all well with everybody in the band when he had first suggested that they adopt it. He considers it ironic that "four white European males" should be "referencing" a controversial and heavily politicized music created primarily by black Americans almost 50 years ago.
The raw but cerebral music that was dubbed The New Thing certainly created confusion and consternation amongst the establishment in the USA and Britain, but pioneers like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler found an appreciative audience in Europe, especially in Scandinavia and France, which of course is where Return of The New Thing hail from. The influence of the New Thing was also felt in Poland via records smuggled into the country by enthusiasts and the reports of musicians returning from European tours. The cover of the first Return of The New Thing album, featuring a picture of Dan Warburton's young son surrounded by a collection of carefully chosen records, strongly hints at the almost childlike enthusiasm with which the Return of The New Thing approach spontaneous group improvisation.
Before Saturday's concert, drumming fingers, giggling and whistling were clearly audible as the band prepared to come on. One impatient customer even yelled "Start!" as the tension mounted.