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Nick Stephens: Freedom of the City 2006; Desire Lines; All Said & Dun; Don't Answer It & Today's Play


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Various Artists
Freedom of the City 2006

The Occasional Quartet
Desire Lines
Loose Torque

Paul Dunmall/Nick Stephens/Tony Marsh
All Said & Dun
Loose Torque

The Schizo Quartet
Don't Answer It
Loose Torque

Jon Corbett/Nick Stephens/Tony Marsh
Today's Play
Loose Torque

The so-called London improvised music scene has never been so geographically exclusive and the Freedom of the City festival, a yearly showcase for that tantalizingly international pool of musicians, documents beautifully the diversity of approach and the excitement of global collaboration. The Freedom of the City 2006 festival was no exception and the three performances captured on this highlights disc (as producer Martin Davidson's liners clarify, other groups are documented elsewhere) brim with challenge and discovery. The first trio, comprising two performers from Spain and one from New Zealand, offer up a stop-and-start collage of hugely energetic improv, Chefa Alanso's soprano sax an extraordinary rediscovery for these ears. Here, she almost seems to be translating John Stevens' strangely beautiful vocal techniques to her instrument, warbled fourths in fascinating alternation with yips and squalls of controlled freedom that surprise and delight at every turn. Percussionist Javier Carmona and bassist David Leahy do not so much create space as propel Alanso and each other forward until those magic moments when the breaks are applied, making way for moments of intense introspection. The Brussels-based quartet brings humor to the proceedings, Jean Michel Van Schouwberg proving as fine a vocalist as he is eloquent a writer. He and Adelheid Sieuw slide and glide around each other in zany banter while Guy Strale brings on cinematic change, especially when exploring the piano's innards while Jan Huib Nas jigs merrily around the guitar's upper registers.

The third group is a surprise, Garry Todd (tenor), Nigel Coombes (violin), Nick Stephens (bass) and Tony Marsh (drums) achieving an enthralling mixture of sustain and juxtaposition. A moment near the beginning of the long piece finds Coombes inserting a violin note in just the appropriate place, one of those beautiful moments of communication that keeps fans of this music returning. The same aggregate's offering on Stephens' Loose Torque CDR label, Desire Lines, contains many of these moments. In the guise of The Occasional Quartet, they create a music that is never quite pointilistic and a bit too active to be droney or minimalist. Yet, both aesthetics rear their heads from time to time; there is a series of recurring moments in the first long track during which the dynamic drops and all four players hold a note, trill, or brush in long undulating waves. The slow reemergence of multileveled pulse is always a wonder to behold.

Clearly, the change is due, in large part, to the interplay between Stephens and Coombes, their arco blending to simulate a larger ensemble. That being absent, a bit more tradition reasserts itself, as on the collaboration with Paul Dunmall, All Said & Dun. It is a pleasure to hear anything he does, so effortless and beautiful is his sound and playing and it is refreshing to hear him again in Marsh's company. If the textures lean more toward jazz stereotypes, there is no shortage of invention and interplay here, Dunmall's playing sounding markedly introspective, a trend in recent years. He can certainly turn up the heat, but usually the flame is kept low, Marsh and Stephens punctuating the silences between his free-bop lines with encouraging gestures. When Dunmall breaks out the New Thing rhetoric, the rhythm section is right there to support him and when the volume drops, interjections crackle and dance around each other with sinewy grace.

The two discs involving flugelhornist Jon Corbett — a duet entitled Don't Answer It and Today's Play, a trio session with Marsh — are more synoptic, each gesture succeeded by a measure of space, no matter how small. Corbett's playing, while relying mostly on conventionally-pitched utterances, springs meditatively into high-register gestures and, on occasion, into wild vibrato-driven frenzy that somehow, ironically, has calm at its core. Stephens' arco takes on an orchestral sheen, jumping register at a moment's notice, while Marsh's arsenal of brushes and mallets is at the ready. Energy bows to reflection, but one never eclipses the other, even on the duo disc, where forward motion remains the order of the day.

These five releases make it clear that whatever the London scene has become, Emanem and Loose Torque are at the forefront of developments; all involved are flexible while maintaining stylistic uniqueness, making each set an enjoyable listen.

Tracks and Personnel

Freedom of the City 2006

Tracks: Chachara; Okgnig I; Stipple.

Personnel: Chefa Alonso: soprano saxophone (1); David Leahy: bass (1); Javier Carmona: drum set, percussion (1); Jean-Michel van Schouwburg: voice (2); Adelheid Sieuw: flutes, voice (2); Jan Huib Nas: guitar (2); Guy Strale: clarinet, piano, percussion (2); Garry Todd: tenor saxophone (3); Nigel Coombes: violin (3); Nick Stephens: bass (3); Tony Marsh: drum set (3).

Desire Lines

Tracks: The Path of Lefteousness; Desire Lines.

Personnel: Garry Todd: tenor sax; Nigel Coombes: violin; Nick Stephens: bass; Tony Marsh: drums.

All Said & Dun

Tracks: Unfinished Pleasure; Walking Back; Coming Round; All Said and Dun.

Personnel: Paul Dunmall: saxophones; Nick Stephens: bass; Tony Marsh: drums.

Don't Answer It

Tracks: Loose Torque; Why So Blue?; Don't Answer It; (A) You Three Are A Right Pair/(B) If Ever There Was One; Sunday Meeting; That Reminds Me; In Vino Veritas; Smoking Room; Happiness Is A Warm Zippo.

Personnel: Jon Corbett: flugelhorn; Nick Stephens: bass.

Today's Play

Tracks: Line And Length; Leg Spin; In The Outfield; Reverse Swing; The Last Over Before Tea.

Personnel: Jon Corbett: trumpet; Nick Stephens: bass; Tony Marsh: drums.

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