Free improvisers often receive criticism because they don't (or choose not to) play within other contexts. Lol Coxhill sets the record straight on Spectral Soprano, a collection of pieces that span a very broad range of styles from '54 through the late '90s. Coxhill has had his fingers in everyone's pie at one time or another, and this 2-disc set testifies to his abundant curiosity. The thick sheaf of liner notes and photos provides a loose roadmap to the high (and odd) points in Coxhill's varied musical career.
Rather than ordering the pieces in chronological order, the producers decided to render a tossed salad out of the affair. Opening with a lyrical ('54) rendition of "Autumn in New York," the first disc moves right into rock and roll. Subsequent installments cover the gamut from straight-ahead jazz through soul-inflected solo improvisation, electronic music, goofy vocal games, and wild experiments with tone and structure. One thing is for sure: Lol Coxhill does not take himself too seriously. (Just look at the photo on the inside of the liner notes, where he's pictured in leisurely repose with one hand clasping a beverage and the other firmly grasping his crotch.) But rather than offering a self-indulgent display of styles, however, Spectral Soprano reveals quite a bit about the man and his music.
Something about this record reminds me of Fringe Benefits, a similar 2-disc retrospective assembled by Jon Rose, the restless free improv violinist. Rose performed violin improvisations knee deep in the surfCoxhill delivers an otherworldy swimming pool performance recorded by a condom-encased mic. Rose tossed in a snippet of his day job in a country and western bandCoxhill a pair of lo-fi recordings with Tony Knight's Chessmen, a very run-of-the-mill '60s rock band. The point of the former: neither player is afraid of taking risks to explore the outer boundaries of sound. The point of the latter: every working musician has to earn a dollar (or a pound, as the case may be).
Some of the most illuminating tracks on Spectral Soprano lie somewhere in the middle:
- A duo performance with Veryan Weston of "Embraceable You" (leading into "Quasimodo") projects an infectiously bouncy lightness.
- "Vermillion Sands," a collaboration with electronic music pioneer Paul Schütze, suggests melancholy and regret.
- "Two Out of Three" contrasts Coxhill's bird-like soprano tone with pedal points by bassist Dave Green.
- On "Tourism in Crisis," the saxophonist plugs into an echo unit and dances through the air alongside Steve Miller on keyboards.
- On "Victory Walk," Coxhill joins two other horns and a bass through an arranged melody, loose sauntering improv, and a free-sounding ending.
- The closer, "Introduction to the Orchestra," features the saxophonist's first performance with the London Improvisers Orchestra (25-strong!), a delicately interwoven group improvisation. (He subsequently went on to join the group.)
If you've had a chance to hear Lol Coxhill play in open improv settings, you'll know he has enormous talent. But Spectral Soprano is an ear opener. His versatility and range are surprisingand best of all, he has a very well-developed sense of fun. For the curious, Spectral Soprano presents a welcome cornucopia of sounds. These two hours end way too soon.
Personnel: Lol Coxhill: saxophones, piano, voice, etc; and others too numerous to name.