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Three Treader releases conclude label’s first decade in fine style

John Eyles By

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Since 2004 when Ashley Wales and John Coxon—collectively known as Spring Heel Jack (SHJ)—set up Treader records and released its first three CD's, the label has enjoyed a reputation for high quality music and distinctive packaging. Following Spring Heel Jack's switch from drum 'n' bass and jungle to free improvisation, they built up an impressive network of contacts with improvisers which they used to good effect with Treader. The label's roster reads like a Who's Who of improv: Evan Parker, John Tchicai, John Butcher, Alex Ward, Alan Wilkinson on reeds, Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Matthew Shipp and Pat Thomas on keyboards as well as a host of great drummers—Mark Sanders, Eddie Prevost, Han Bennink, Roger Turner, Tony Marsh, Steve Noble, Charles Hayward... plus Wales and Coxon themselves, of course.

In addition, Frauke Stegmann's distinctive sleeve designs featuring metallic, embossed relief pictures of animals have given Treader a signature look that must be the envy of many larger labels. Quite simply, it is impossible to mistake a Treader CD for anything else. The label releases its CD's in batches of three, with the batch considered below being the seventh, thus bringing the number of Treader releases to twenty-one in its first decade. The average of two releases per year is indicative of the high level of quality control the label operates; they do not put CD's out just for the sake of it!

The label's last batch of three CD's was the only one so far with a common theme and shared personnel, but the latest batch has reverted to type with three very different discs, although each of them stems from a landmark gig. Otherwise, the only things they have in common are their sleeve designer and the quality of their music...

Spring Heel Jack with Pat Thomas/Alex Ward/Paul Lytton
Live in Antwerp

This release is a surprise because it is the first time that Treader has released a Spring Heel Jack CD. It is very welcome as SHJ's last CD release was Songs & Themes (Thirsty Ear, 2008), which was studio-recorded in 2007. Now, Live in Antwerp is publicised by Treader as being a recording of "Spring Heel Jack's penultimate live concert." It was recorded at the WIM Free Music Festival, Antwerp, on September 23rd 2007. For the occasion, Wales and Coxon were joined by the stellar team of Pat Thomas on piano and electronics, Alex Ward on clarinet and Paul Lytton on drums. The album consists of one fifty-minute track, presumably the entire set from the gig. The quintet is in fine form, producing a textbook example of the music that made SHJ a valuable addition to the improv scene.

As so often, SHJ focus their efforts on creating and maintaining an environment in which the other musicians can stretch out and shine. Coxon's guitar and Wales's sound samples do this simply but effectively and, sure enough, it works, with the players soon settling into a loose, easy-going dialogue to which all five contribute. Given that, it hardly seems right to single anyone out, but special mention must go to Ward who is a prominent focus for much of the time, varying his playing sufficiently for it to remain fresh and enthralling. SHJ throw in just enough unpredictable or unidentifiable sounds to keep the soundscape interesting for listeners and musicians alike, ensuring that it never becomes too cosy or easy for anyone. If it transpires that this is the last release by Spring Heel Jack, they will have gone out on a high. As so often, SHJ are impossible to ignore!

spukhafte Fernwirkung

Since the mid-90's, the duo of electronicists Paul Obermayer and Richard Barrett—together known as Furt—has built up a formidable reputation through CD releases and energetic live performances. Not as long-established, but just as impressive in its own way, is the expanded ensemble which goes by the title fORCH; alongside Obermayer and Barrett this adds saxophonist John Butcher, Canadian clarinetist Lori Freeman, vocalists Phil Minton and Ute Wasserman, harpist Rhodri Davies and drummer Paul Lovens—a mouth-watering list on paper, but better in practice!

spukhafte Fernwirkung is a fascinating document that contains two closely connected tracks. The title track was recorded live in concert at Donauesechinger Musiktage, in October 2012, as part of the Donauesechinger Festival. Improvising octets can sometimes become cluttered or degenerate into chatter, so it is good news that, in that concert, fORCH performed a "piece for improvisers" by Furt that consisted of "a structure based on time-proportions, which evolves from juxtaposed duos through overlapping trios to alternating quartets." Sure enough, the organisation provided by such a structure averts any potential problems and brings the best out of the musicians, allowing them to interact creatively without strait-jacketing them. Throughout the piece there are too many outstanding passages to arbitrarily single out any one of them for particular praise. Everybody shines! The track's forty-one minutes fly by.

Now things get more complicated... Following that fORCH concert, Obermayer and Barrett used recordings from it, alongside their own live electronics, in a piece entitled "Hmyz," prepared specially for the occasion and recorded on the day following the fORCH concert. But we do not get to hear that version, as the version of "Hmyz" included here was recorded the day before the fORCH concert (presumably using studio-recorded music by fORCH). Nonetheless, the contrast between the two tracks is still striking, and the juxtaposition of the two enhances appreciation of Furt's artistry as we get to hear the raw material they used in the construction of the second piece. Very impressive.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith / John Tilbury
Bishopsgate Concert

As its title suggests, this CD is a live recording of the one-off duo concert that trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and pianist John Tilbury played as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival, at the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London, on Wednesday 14th November. That gig caused quite a stir in the capital, with tickets heavily in demand beforehand—but only available on the door—and the event itself being much discussed afterwards. Although Smith and Tilbury are both first-rate improvisers, coming from different traditions—Tilbury classically trained, Smith from free jazz—they were not an obviously compatible pairing. As if in recognition of this, the concert began with solo sets from Smith and from Tilbury before the two a duo set concluded the evening.

This album includes all the music played on the night. It opens with Tilbury's seventeen-minute set in which he employed two pianos, one prepared, the other not. His timing, note selection, use of silences and preparations all contribute to a typically tasteful and gripping performance, one which is more akin to his performances of Feldman than to jazz piano. The transition from the restraint of Tilbury's solo set to Smith's opening salvo of solo trumpet highlights the contrast between them. However, Smith then moves on to another solo in which his Harmon-muted horn is more mellow, one which recalls his fine playing in the group Yo Miles with Henry Kaiser.

In the concluding thirty-two-minute duo (seen in the YouTube clip, below) despite occupying opposite sides of the stage, the two musicians achieved a rapport, successfully bridging the gap between them and achieving a sympathetic balance.

Credit for this goes equally to both of them, as neither dominates and, to accommodate the other, each of them subtly alters their playing from their solo set. Full of drama, the end result is an engaging object lesson in improvisation from two masters of the art.

Going into its second decade, Treader is in excellent shape.

Tracks and Personnel

Live in Antwerp

Tracks: SHJ Live in Antwerp.

Personnel: Pat Thomas: piano, electronics; Alex Ward: clarinet; Paul Lytton: drums; Ashley Wales: electronics, samples; John Coxon: electric guitar.

spukhafte Fernwirkung

Tracks: spukhafte Fernwirkung; Hmyz.

Personnel: Richard Barrett: electronics; Paul Obermayer: electronics; Phil Minton: vocals (1); Ute Wasserman: vocals (1); Lori Freedman: clarinets (1); John Butcher: saxophones (1); Rhodri Davies: harps (1); Paul Lovens: percussion (1).

Bishopsgate Concert

Tracks: JT Solo; IWLS Solo 1; IWLS Solo 2; IWLS Solo 3; Bishopsgate Duo.

Personnel: Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet, Zurna (2-5); John Tilbury: piano, prepared piano, bird whistle (1, 5).



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