Alan Wilkinson & Andrew Cheetham
The Lamp Tavern
September 26, 2017
The fortnightly (apart from during the low seasons) Fizzle improvised music session takes place on Tuesdays in the rear room of The Lamp Tavern, a back street public house in the old industrial hinterland of Digbeth. Much of this Birmingham quarter has steadily been artistically colonised during the last two decades, but this Lamp joint is even on the edge such creative gentrification, although it did, for a goodly time, house the crafty Rock'n'Roll vegan brewery on its roof. Every so often, the Lamp-lord pokes his head around the corner to pronounce his level of disappointment with this necessarily abstract music-making 'racket.' Meanwhile, the Fizzlers have been awarded funding by the Arts Council Of England. This has assisted in the expansion of their programme, not least with the increase of artists from further afield, sometimes even mainland Europe or north America. Some of their gigs now take place at the mac, a few miles out of the city's centre, in its intimately tiered Hexagon Theatre, with outfits such as Amok Amor and Big Satan (featuring Peter Evans
and Tim Berne
Usually, the Lamp evenings take the shape of a 'main' act, preceded by a 'lesser-known' teaming, but often such set-ups can take on the feel of a double bill. Saxophonist Bruce Coates is a central figure on the Birmingham improvising scene, having operated his own long-running sessions, Frimp, at various boozer venues. He opened with an unusually arrayed grouping, partnered by the doubled electric guitars of Ian Simpson and John Jasnoch. This became a kind of fantasy late-period Spontaneous Music Ensemble, inhabiting a rarefied sonic peak, with Coates choosing soprano, the three players entangled in a tight knit, without much space or pause. Eventually, a stringy time-elasticity was chewed out, the implied rhythm dragged and then released.
Coates went further afield during their second piece, aiming for open vistas on sopranino, but with flooding guitar sweeps, rising up before being clipped back, like a conflict-ravaged border hedge. Taking things even higher, Coates unveiled a likely homemade instrument that looked like an altered penny whistle, issuing a thin, reedy warble, as it found a new life as a micro-saxophone. Returning to the soprano, as the guitars sent out a ghostly Santo & Johnny shimmer, Coates made percussive stutters, and the set closed up with hammered strings and bleeding guitar sustain. All of this was very concise, a short-ish set with a varied sequence of moods, textures and dynamics, highly controlled by each player.
As the years roll by, saxophonist Alan Wilkinson
is now a veritable veteran on the scene, his principle influence being as a member of the Hession Wilkinson Fell trio, one of the UK's mightiest improvising groups. Here, down from Leeds, he reined in to a twosome set-up, but as his partner was the full-on drummer Andrew Cheetham (abstraction with rock power), and Wilkinson himself mostly bullroared on baritone, the audience (and their ears) may well have been relieved that there weren't any more members of this already mighty gang.
The baritone began with a primordial lowness, a shaggy-bear warning sign, as Cheetham made a hard clatter on taut skins, cymbals sibilant. Wilkinson vocalised simultaneously, screaming, snotting and gristling deep into his tubes, as a brief rhythmic repeat caught hold, soon breaking apart into a light percussion and sparse saxophone scatter. Wilkinson was having a slight rest on alto, but only relatively speaking. Another onslaught ended with an abrupt, extreme high note, and the pair's third number found the bass clarinet out of its case, Cheetham sounding at his best using brushes to flick and fleck around his kit. When Wilkinson couldn't resist hauling up his baritone again, we sensed that the finale had arrived, with what was almost a traditionally climactic fanfare. This duo enjoyed the muscle flexing aspects of improvisation, and this was fine amongst the enthralled gathering, with a bonus of stealth-rhythms, breather quietude interludes and a parting shot of almost old-school Tubby Hayes
jazz, albeit heavily roughed up by 1950s clubland gangsters.
The Kitchen Garden Café
October 4, 2017
Blues and ragtime were found in their 1920s and '30s acoustic purity at this sparsely attended gig, an unusual state for this popular roots music café in Birmingham's Kings Heath suburb. Perhaps ultra-vintage blues is only for a select few obsessives here, but it was also a quiet Wednesday night. Those of us who were in attendance were almost universally steeped in this music, although some exuded an aura of near evangelical depth of purist detail. Perhaps that's preferable to heading in the other direction, towards rock-blues bombast.