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Caroline Kraabel: Last 1 and Last 2 (2016/7)

John Eyles By

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Caroline Kraabel gets sole credit for this album, justifiably, as she composed the music, conducted one performance of it, acted as musical director and played alto sax in another performance of it. However, after listening several times, the album leaves a sneaking feeling that Robert Wyatt probably deserved equal billing rather than just being mentioned in the small print. (Yes, the Robert Wyatt who played drums and sang in Soft Machine and Matching Mole before moving onto a successful solo career, following an accident, and in 2014 announced that he had stopped making music.) The reason for that is plain and simple: the entire album is built around a two-minute recording of Wyatt singing the title piece a capella. As so often, Wyatt's falsetto voice is instantly recognisable, its characteristic mix of emotion and vulnerability still being able to bring a lump to a listener's throat or a tear to their eye, just as it did on "Shipbuilding," decades ago.

He sings Kraabel's poignant lyrics which begin and end with the title word and are on the subject of memory and loss:

Last time I saw you
I didn't think to ask you
to remember.
Remember this time and that smile.
What were their names?
A number I still recall,
I even went to call it the other day.
If I hadn't hung up,
feeling foolish,
I might have spoken to my own self.
I might have spoken to one of you
again at last.


The music comprises two tracks, each about half-an-hour in length, which were recorded in concert at London's Café Oto, the proceeds of each gig going to charities which help refugees and migrants in northern France. The first concert, in March 2016, featured a sixteen-member ensemble conducted by Kraabel, the second, in December 2017, featured the quartet of Kraabel on alto sax, John Edwards on bass, Richard E. Harrison on drums and Maggie Nicols on vocals. In each case, Wyatt's pre-recorded vocals were deployed as an integral part of the performance. Crucially, the large ensemble never heard the voice recording at all until the actual concert, but the four members of the quartet were very familiar with the voice recording.

It makes fascinating listening to hear how Wyatt's vocal is used to shape the music of the large ensemble. Their set begins with a short passage of free-for-all improv in which all players seem to be included; the majority of this ensemble are London Improvisers Orchestra veterans, so such a passage would not have been unfamiliar to them. After about three-and-three-quarter minutes, Wyatt's voice is heard for the first time, not singing the entire song, just the phrase "you to remember" once, lasting for about five seconds. Whether because of Kraabel's conduction or the musicians' reactions to the voice, the effect is instantaneous; rather than a mass of instruments, starting with Veryan Weston on piano, a series of short, melodic phrases are played on various instruments, picking up the melody of that vocal phrase. Gradually, instruments start to double up and overlap, while retaining the focus on melody. Ten minutes in, this is brought to a halt by another interjection from Wyatt, singing more of the song this time but not all of it (he gets as far as "names?") He is answered by subdued bass, drums and flute, an ideal complement to the vocal phrase. And so it continues, with occasional injections of Wyatt setting the tone of the music the ensemble plays. Only right at the end is Wyatt heard singing the entire song as quoted above. More importantly, his voice, the words and melodies he sings have all shaped the entire piece, in conjunction with Kraabel's conduction.

The quartet version is very different to the large ensemble's one but just as good in its own way. Despite Kraabel being the only one of the four to have played the first gig, all four were already familiar with Wyatt's vocal recording, so there is not the same sense of the musicians learning as they listen. As Kraabel was described as the musical director for this quartet gig, it sounds as if some advance planning had taken place before the concert. After a rather ragged start, during which "the performers can be heard migrating from the four corners of Café Oto to the stage," it is not long until Wyatt's vocal rings out and the quartet begins in earnest, signalled by an extended drum solo from Harrison.

It is not too long until the quartet's master stroke is revealed—the inclusion of vocalist Maggie Nicols. The next time Wyatt is heard, at about the ten-minute mark, Nicols wastes no time in singing along and harmonising with him, even continuing her vocal long after Wyatt's has faded away. From then on, she is never far from the spotlight, giving a bravura demonstration of her vocal talents; no, she does not steal the show from Wyatt, but she just about manages to do so from the other live performers. Altogether, of the two versions of "Last" here, this quartet performance is the better, and shows the advantage of the musicians knowing the vocal recording in advance and of having fewer players, so avoiding overcrowding. This version suggests there could be ample scope for other small groups of musicians to play their own versions of the composition, along with Wyatt. Yes, we may not have heard the last of "Last."

Track Listing

LAST 1 (for large ensemble); LAST 2 (for small ensemble).

Personnel

Robert Wyatt: pre-recorded vocals; Caroline Kraabel: composer, conductor (1), alto saxophone (2), musical director (2); Veryan Weston: piano (1); Philipp Wachsmann: viola (1); Hannah Marshall: cello (1); Neil Metcalfe: flute (1); Alex Ward: clarinet (1); Tom Ward: bass clarinet (1); Jackie Walduck: vibes (1); Roland Ramanan: trumpet (1); Caroline Hall: trombone (1); David Jago: trombone (1); Sue Lynch: tenor saxophone (1), second conductor (1); Cath Roberts: baritone saxophone (1); Seth Bennett: double bass (1); Guillaume Viltard: double bass (1); Mark Sanders: percussion (1); Richard E. Harrison: percussion (2); John Edwards: double bass (2); Maggie Nicols: voice (2).

Album information

Title: Last 1 and Last 2 (2016/7) | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Emanem

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