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Martin Archer: Making A Difference, Doing Things Differently

Duncan Heining By

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Martin Archer is a one-man music industry. Saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, band-leader and label owner—Archer has made a virtue of doing things differently. From early beginnings in music forty years ago, he has built his label Discus into a catalog that is as fine in quality as it is eclectic in taste and content. Based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire and far from London Jazz Central HQ, his career trajectory offers novel solutions to the problems facing the creative artist, from collaborations with the great Julie Tippetts and Geraldine Monk to his own bands like sax quartet Hornweb and ensembles such as Bass Tone Trap and studio-based collages like English Commonflowers (Discus, 2003).

With Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites recently available and another, with his "anti-choir," Juxtavoices, pending, it's time the world took notice. Martin Archer is a new kind of artist: an anti-artist, even, with talent to burn.

"Blue Meat is my first CD in my own name for five years," he says. "People who've followed my more recent creative rock releases like Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere may be surprised, but hopefully pleased too, that this is an all-acoustic set with my new group Engine Room Favourites. The musicians on it are just fabulous."

Archer himself plays saxophones and bass clarinet, alongside the remarkable Laura Cole on piano and Corey Mwamba on vibes. With a four-strong percussion section—Peter Fairclough, Walt Shaw, Steve Dinsdale and Johnny HunterBlue Meat also features Graham Clark on violin, bassist Seth Bennett, James Archer on bass clarinet and Kim Macari and Lee Hallam on trumpet and trombone respectively. The music draws inspiration from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and from Leo Smith and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, in particular, a long-held musical enthusiasm, as Archer explains,

"I'll put it on record here that Leo Smith is completely my favorite composer and player—no contest. What I like about that school, and it's in the area where a lot of free jazz misses the point, these guys make ensemble music and, although, their voices can be heard very clearly in their own music, they don't sound like the big heroes at the center of it. It's a sound web and their own playing is a strong clear element in it but they also achieve that clarity from all the players. Nothing gets blurred or smeared. There's heat without bluster or waste of energy. There's precision but also excitement in that precision. It's not just some guy burning up 'cause he feels like it."

Daunting antecedents perhaps, but Blue Meat is so very much more than a tribute—it's music made on its own terms and Archer is unduly cautious and modest when he adds, "Now, I'm not sure whether as an instrumentalist I'm really up to competing in that arena—which is why I've taken the precaution of surrounding myself with some very cool players. And I have deliberately 'gone back' to this. I did feel I'd neglected my own instrumental playing on my own records but here I wanted to say, 'Hey, remember I can do this a bit as well.'"

Martin Archer—Blue Meat, Black Diesel and Engine Room FavouritesArcher's musical world is a wonderfully strange and inviting one. Though he would not entirely accept it, there's something distinctively "British" or "English" about it. At times, his music recalls Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake and, even, Kenneth Grahame. Not that Archer is an English eccentric—he isn't—but, rather, the soundworld he creates has something of that "Through the Looking Glass" quality to it.

"I think it's that often the music which most fascinates us is that which has a clear sense of geographical location," he admits. "You hear The Byrds and you're immediately driving up Highway 1. But maybe the strength and uniqueness of the best artists is that they're actually trying to escape that sense of place and bring in something they see as exotic. Maybe Amon Duul thought they wanted to be the Velvets, or Kraftwerk heard themselves as the The Beach Boys, Brian Jones wanted to be Lightnin' Hopkins... So, that sense of who you really are gets very mixed up but something new and interesting comes out of the mixing. But I don't really think I'm hearing me as anything but me and, maybe, where the sense of Britishness manifests is that we have a very open culture—we instinctively include and absorb rather than repel and I'd like to think that's what my own records do. Hopefully you're hearing something familiar in a completely new context and it's the collision which makes the art work."

This is evident in everything Archer does. Sheffield, or any large or small provincial English town on a rainy Saturday afternoon, can be heard—and seen—on English Commonflowers. It seems infused with echoes of the British folk tradition, something Archer also admires, as does another Archer musical collage Heritage and Ringtones. On both, there are clear nods in the direction of Anne Briggs, Pentangle and Bert Jansch (on Heritage), which sit comfortably alongside the Kraut Rock-inspired "Angelus Vander." And then there's the checking of Nick Drake's "Black-Eyed Dog" on "Know" and Tim Cole's acoustic guitar from Commonflowers on a record that also references Soft Machine keyboardist Mike Ratledge. Archer's aesthetic is an intriguing and transformative one—whatever enters this world comes out changed, if not utterly, then beautifully.

The independence to work in this way, however, came at a price. It was whilst studying law at Nottingham University that Archer arrived at a possible solution to an age-old dilemma.

"When I was at university, I used to promote gigs and the people I liked most had in common the fact that none of them had any money," Archer says. "I thought, 'There has to be a better way.' So, when I left university, I decided I would have a very conventional career and use that to ensure I had independence in the creative music that I make. It's rather a blessed position but it's something I've managed to make work somehow. I trained as an accountant and now I earn my living as a director of a property company. It's that activity that funds the music I want to make."

But it's not just in business terms that Archer has proven so adept a problem solver. These are qualities that extend also to the creative aspects of his musical life. Surprising though it might, for an artist so literate and broad in his taste in music and so articulate in terms of the sonic universes he creates, Archer considers himself "musically illiterate."

"I've never been able to learn conventional music notation," he says. "There's a lot of things about music—what the rules are in terms of harmony and chord construction—I just don't get. Or rather I get it in practice without being able to understand it at a more theoretical level. I'm aware I have a very odd mental relationship with music. That is not the norm."

Yet it doesn't seem to have held Archer back, either as an improviser or as a composer—just a different kind of problem to solve. He began by playing jazz-funk when he was 15 but, at university, started listening more and more to free improvisation. It was a period that saw no real separation between the more "out" end of jazz and the more "left-field" rock of Can, Faust and Magma. In a way, these connections continue to inform Archer's work. Having finished his studies, he put an ad in a local record shop, seeking musicians of like mind, and so began a journey that would take him more and more into the sounds of AACM. First there was Bass Tone Trap, formed with saxophonist Derek Saw, guitarists Neil Carver and John Jasnoch, bassist Paul Shaft and drummer Pete Infanti—a heady and timely mash-up of Pigbag, Rip Rig & Panic and Prime Time Ornette Coleman. That was followed by the sax quartet, Hornweb.

"The frustration with Bass Tone Trap was that it was hard to get gigs," Archer recalls. "I thought if I put a sax quartet together it will get a lot more work and I was right. Hornweb went on to do about 150 gigs over ten years. That was all I did for ten years—I played soprano sax in a saxophone quartet and the model for that was very much an AACM-based music. There were some very fancy saxophone groups around at the time. The music I find the biggest turn-off on the planet is eighties British jazz, when the first generation of "jazz goes to college" players started to emerge and inflict their wretched whimsy onto a bunch of gullible journalists. I hate all that stuff. We wanted to be a horrible, greasy R&B saxophone quartet veering off into AACM abstraction, and that's precisely what we did for ten years."

It was around the mid-nineties, that jazz began to struggle once again in provincial Britain. The clubs died and the gigs dried up. It became clear to Archer that a different approach needed to be found, if he were to continue making the music he heard in his head. An introduction from writer Benny Watson to bassist and electronics enthusiast Chris Bywater paved the way forward.

"We immediately hit it off and bought synths and sequencing stuff," he explains. "I had used synth to compose and bash out scores but I realized this was an instrument I can play. For a time, I stopped being a saxophonist and used technology to create the more abstract music I was hearing."

Together they formed Transient v Resident, an improvising synth and acoustic instruments duo. As Archer says, "For a time, I preferred to be in the studio making records. I did a 180-degree turn, stopped playing saxophone, stopped doing concerts because there weren't any around worth doing. From 1994-2004, all I wanted was to make records. The musicians I used never heard the tracks they ended up playing on. But things have moved now. Since then, I've begun to integrate everything I know and have increasingly introduced live elements into the music."

In fact, the emphasis now is increasingly on playing live. His Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere offers a huge, exhilarating, mind-blowing melange of sounds that recalls the best of prog rock, whilst taking it somewhere new, vital and visceral. I can't wait to hear them live—and, yes, they do have a light show. Engine Room Favourites are about to make what will be Archer's first tour in years, whilst nothing could be more live than his Juxtavoices project. Check them out on You Tube. One set includes a wild and weird outing with the Orchestra.
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