Alabaster DePlume has a softness of saxophone tone. He also has a hardness of poetic intent. These divergent aspects of this multi-instrumentalist, London-living bon vivant
can be heard on an impressive pair of recent releases. To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1
(International Anthem Recording Co.) finds DePlume at his most introspective, making music that sounds like an Ennio Morricone
soundtracking for the placid moments in an epic martial arts movie, his tenor saxophone issuing breathy ornamentations, with a flute-like sensitivity, partnered by piano, guitar, cello, and faint synth-striations. Each piece is steeped in strong melody, all tenderly sustained.
It's constructive to immediately follow this with an airing of the latest single by Soccer96, who are two-thirds of The Comet Is Coming, minus Shabaka Hutchings
. English eccentric DePlume guests on "I Was Gonna Fight Fascism" (Moshi Moshi Records), his mocking, punkily whining vocal right at the song's churning, post-Hawkwind core, interspersed by his own harried saxophone solos. DePlume clearly harbours multiple personalities, according to the needs of each particular participation in a given composition.
On the instrumentals collection, the marked vibrato of 1960s free jazzers Albert Ayler
and Archie Shepp
is unfashionably present, as well as a clear saxophonic incorporation of Indian and Chinese playing on the bansuri flute or sheng reed pipes. There are also musical shifts of gear that strongly suggest a love of Steve Reich
DePlume will be appearing at the Green Man festival in late August, graduating to a bigger stage than the one he took to at the same weekender in 2018. He will probably be with his band, rather than in the solo shape he chose for that previous set. Green Man happens in the inspiring setting of the Brecon Beacons, a Welsh mountain range in the UK. It's beyond rigid stylistic description, but has a rock, folk and songsmith foundation, sending roots off to jazz, electronica, reggae, country, African, Latin, and a multitude of other sonic patches. Let's hope Green Man survives the virus attack!
DePlume is sipping tea in the Total Refreshment Centre, a highly influential, arty community centre in Dalston, to the east side of London. This is the same part of town where the Vortex, EartH, Café Oto and The Shacklewell Arms reside. He has his own recording studio in the TRC, and when the joint was still allowed to book gigs, DePlume ran a monthly night called Peach, making it the ultimate home for unpredictability.
"That whole Peach thing, it changed my situation entirely," says DePlume. "It demanded of me, I was required to make a show every month. That forced me to make it in a way that was different each month, a certain idea at the core of it, that's consistent. The demands upon me and my resources, and my time, to connect in a sincere, and authentic, and vulnerable way, with communities. These demands on me were the greatest gift to my work."
Already, back in 2017, the International Anthem Recording Co. had begun to forge Chicagoan connections with the London scene, taking Makaya McCraven
, Jaimie Branch
and Ben LaMar Gay
to TRC, where they collaborated with London residents Binker Golding
, Theon Cross
and Moses Boyd
. Before too long, IARC was augmenting its Chicagoan artist releases with records by UK players, first trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray
, and now DePlume's instrumentals collection.
Soccer96's Danalogue The Conqueror produced DePlume's 2018 album, The Corner Of A Sphere, a softly intense, vocally-orientated work, although its songs (or beat poems) are imbued with a subtle sense of coiled threat, even if they might be superficially relaxed. "He's a good friend of mine, now," beams DePlume, talking about Danalogue. "We live in the same house. He's a great spirit. I knew from his approach to life, and the way he is, that I wanted him working on this material. He's got a style that's a lot louder than what most people associate with my style, but that doesn't necessarily mean that...I mean, these pieces in this instrumental collection, that have such a devotion to peace, that's not the only way that I make music. I came to play the way I do because I wanted to be quiet, I wanted to play underneath the music."
DePlume elaborates: "I wanted to be the only saxophonist that anyone ever asked to play louder. I wanted to play like I was singing. The words are more a script for me, they're like a scaffolding that I can climb, so that I can lean over and direct the movement of the room. The music can say one thing, the words can say something else. That's like having an opposed thumb!"
DePlume always veers freely, stylistically, but the strategies of free jazz improvisation seem closest to his core. "I make a new band every time I do a gig, so that we don't have time to rehearse, so that it scares the shit out of me, so that it brings different communities together. I love it!," he enthuses. "Preferably, the musicians have never met each other. I always tell them before we do the show, the best things we're going to make are the things that no one could have planned. Make sure you do something that I'm not ready for..."
Inhabitants of the TRC scene agree on the importance of community, even over specific roles such as 'musician,' 'artist' or 'poet.' "Everything that I make depends on the interactions between characters," says DePlume. "I love thinking about people. I really like words and music, but it's never going to be as good as people. If I'm going to make a real creative piece of work, the thing that's going to be of value is going to be what comes from the reaction of different characters to each other."
Photograph: Chris Almeida