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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."

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