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Freedom of the City 2010

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"To Thine Self Be True" is lettered above the stage at Conway Hall where London's annual Freedom of the City (FOTC) festival took place May 2nd-3rd. Although related to the philosophy of the Humanist Society that built the edifice, the slogan can be applied to the 16 sets that made up the festival.
Organized about a decade ago by saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Eddie Prevost to showcase the city's vibrant improvising scene, FOTC today welcomes players from the Continent, North America and the United Kingdom. Participants ranged from soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill, 77 and American trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, 67, to younger participants in Prevost's improv workshop.
One first-class demonstration of FOTC's mix'n'match philosophy was London guitarist John Russell's Quaqua, consisting of musicians he plays with elsewhere, but that never work together. Pianist Chris Burns, synthesizer player Matthew Hutchinson, violinist Satoko Fukuda and trumpeter Henry Lowther are British; alto saxophonist Stefan Keune is German and soundsinger Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg Belgian. Shifting among Russell's licks that ranged from rhythm guitar strums to twangs plus fiddle scrapes and bell-like twitters from the synth, the interface made room for bursts of trumpet lyricism, unaccented air from the saxophonist and slides, stops and strums from the piano's internal strings propelled by mallets and an e-bow. Expressively reflecting the split-second decisions that go into group improvising was Van Schouwburg's facial expressions, which contorted differently whether he was soothingly lullabying, Apache yelling or duck quacking.
German vocalist Ute Wassermann was less flamboyant but as expressive during her meeting with British electronic manipulators Adam Bohman and Paul Obermayer plus percussionist Phillip Marks. Marks' output included rim shots, snare pops and drum-top rubs, leaving ample space for electronic crackles, hisses and reverberations. Meanwhile Wassermann—whose gymnastics ranged from mouth-widening cries to bel-canto warbles—ensured that her improvs were in sync with the others' sonic shifts.

Percussion sounds were more upfront when South African Louis Moholo-Moholo and Briton Steve Noble combined with Wadada. Although more jazz-oriented than most FOTC improvisations, this was no Rich vs. Roach face-off. Instead either could elaborate on any rhythm, with Moholo-Moholo's smacked ruffs and tympani-like resonations toughening the beat, which was redefined by Noble's vibration of undersized cymbals on drum tops, swishes through the air of what resembled palm fronds or bare-handed bongo-like pops. Blasting a bright tone or trilling rubato through a Harmon mute, the trumpeter eventually settled on staccato bugle-like tones after the drummers' rhythms hardened his more sedate lines.

Smith's musical adaptability was highlighted in two other situations: as featured soloist in a concerto backed by the 40-member London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) and as part of FOTC's concluding set with clarinetist Alex Ward, guitarist John Coxon, keyboardist Pat Thomas and drummer Paul Lytton.

Unlike the conductions and group improvisations that made up the remainder of the LIO's set, which lurched from passages of controlled tutti dissonance to miniature set pieces for, among others, Charlotte Hug's spirited violin runs or Coxhill's understated off-centre lyricism, the Smith piece was as interconnected as a Gil Evans arrangement. Smith's splintered timbres floated as often as they popped, isolating his textures from the riffing reeds, lowing brass and the clamor created when three drummers, two guitarists, two pianists, a vibraphonist and three electronics manipulators play simultaneously.

Other notable meetings included a set by the Stellari String Quartet (violinists Hug and Philipp Wachsmann, cellist Marcio Mattos and bassist John Edwards), whose layered textures extended classic string ensemble strategies into atonality and multiphonics while retaining moments of lyricism, and the duo of tenor and soprano saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Mark Sanders. Switching from one horn to the other and utilizing staccato pops, gravelly tones and a wide, round vibrato, Butcher's elongated flutters and reed bites enlivened either at mid-range, barely there or fortissimo. Sanders clattered, slapped and shook different parts of his kit, at one point stabilizing the interaction with military precision, at another not only whapping wood blocks, but using them instead of sticks.

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