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Live Review

A Celebration of Lindsay Cooper (1951-2013)

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Lindsay Cooper
Barbican
London Jazz Festival
November 21, 2014

I confess I'm less familiar with the work of the late composer and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Cooper than I might be. On the basis of this gig, that's very much my loss. What brought me here was the fact that I did know Cooper as a fine, sympathetic improviser from her periods with Henry Cow, Mike and Kate Westbrook and folk terrorists Comus—if you haven't heard of Comus, they were to the Incredible String Band what the Marquis de Sade is to Mills & Boon.

Tonight's two sets drew on Cooper's compositions for Henry Cow (taken from Western Culture), as well as News From Babel, Music for Films and the song cycle, Oh Moscow and featured comrades from each of those projects. Cooper was not a musician who felt in any way constrained by styles or genres. Her writing crosses the Avant-Garde—musical, cultural and political—without ever seeming artificial or synthetic. Like a good poet, she stole from contemporary classical music, folk, jazz and rock with a helping on the side of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

The unusual pitches of the woodwinds on "Half the Sky" and "Look Back" combined the reeds of Alfred Harth, Henry Cow stalwart Tim Hodgkinson and Michael Berkmans and recalled some of Frank Zappa's work. Though I wondered if Cooper's influence lay not with him but with a shared inspiration in Edgar Varèse. "Gretel's Tale" was similarly angular with dark and unusual textures but also powerful—more so than the original version -with Veryan Weston's piano to the fore. "Falling Away," on the other hand suggested a radical street or folk band with some impressive bass from Rob Greaves and the strange but highly effective combination of Anne-Marie Roelofs' trombone and Michael Berkmans' bassoon.

News from Babel recorded two albums in the mid-eighties with lyrics from Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Now the journey took in whole new vistas. Zeena Parkins' harp combined beautifully with the woodwinds and trombone on ""Moss"—I couldn't make up my mind whether it was a waltz or a tango but plumped for a clumsy waltz—behind Rob Greaves' dramatic vocals. "Black Gold" featured Dagmar Krause on vocals and exquisite harp from, Parkins and Fred Frith-like guitar from Fred Frith, whilst "Dragon at the Core" was a stern reminder that without the avant-garde we are trapped in an eternal present.

The second set drew on Cooper's writing for the films Song of the Shirt and The Gold Diggers and brought on the singer-film director-screen writer-lyricist Sally Potter. Tunes now seemed to, not exactly merge but, become part of a moving field. The musical tapestry became more diverse. There was an insane circus fell to one piece, whilst another with an amazing, if bizarre vocal performance from Phil Minton and excellent martial drumming from Chris Cutler evoked more folk-like sounds and even hints of music hall. If anything, "Empire Song" and "Plate Dance" from The Gold Diggers were even more ecstatic with the former's nod in the direction of rock and the latter's Hungarian violin from Anne-Mare Roelofs.

But perhaps best of all was the vocal duet from Sally Potter and Phil Minton on "Oh Moscow" itself. This was a grand piece of political theatre, delivered by the musicians with a wall of sound behind lyrics that told the story of the second Cold War. It nearly made one nostalgic and long for such simpler times. Nearly...but not quite.

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