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Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers, and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975

Duncan Heining By

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From Duncan Heining's Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers (Equinox, 2012) and is taken from from Chapter 11, "The Best Things in Life are Free," which discusses free jazz and free improvisation in British jazz. In this section, Heining examines the early work of the avant-garde group AMM and discusses its philosophy and wider influence on jazz and rock music."

This excerpt appears by permission of the publisher, Equinox Press. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.

The story of Eddie Prevost and AMM Music is more problematic in terms of our subject matter. The original grouping of Prevost, saxophonist Lou Gare and guitarist Keith Rowe had formed in 1965 and had soon begun to move beyond the confines that might be suggested by the word "jazz." Rowe had been at art school in Plymouth with Mike Westbrook (Warburton 2001). In the late fifties, Westbrook formed a rehearsal band and Rowe was one of its first members. Westbrook was a little older than the other students having worked in accountancy and completed his national service by the time he started in Plymouth. According to John Surman then aged 15, it was Rowe who invited him to join the Westbrook band, while Westbrook recalls him arriving at the first rehearsal wearing his school cap (Shera 1966).

By 1962, Westbrook had decided to pursue a career in jazz and moved to London with both Surman, who was now a student in the capital, and Rowe joining him (Shera 1966, 10; Lock 1985a, b). Lou Gare joined Westbrook around 1963/4, by which time he was already playing with Eddie Prevost in a hard bop quintet. The other important figure in relation to AMM's early history was Lawrence Sheaff, who as it happened was also the bassist in Westbrook's band. While Westbrook's music has always contained elements of surprise and spontaneity and even though at that time he was viewed by some as the enfant terrible of British jazz, structure and form have been equally important elements in his conception of jazz. Rowe, Gare and Sheaff were, however, beginning to chafe at such constraints. In a Jazz Journal article on Westbrook and his musicians from 1966, Michael Shera noted, "Guitarist Keith Rowe is the first avant-garde guitarist I have heard, and he is an entirely convincing and exciting exponent of the genre." He was less taken with Gare, however, writing, "Tenorist Lou Gare can be an intensely moving and passionate soloist, though occasionally he lapses into a jerky and unswinging way of phrasing" (Shera 1966, 11).

Before the article had actually appeared, Gare and Rowe had left Westbrook to work with Prevost, and Sheaff joined them shortly afterwards. Jac Holzman's Elektra Records gave the group their first opportunity to record, which given the label's forays into avant-garde classical music and the use of synthesizers (for example, Milton Sobotnik, Beaver & Krause) is less surprising than it might first seem. If the group sat somewhat uneasily with the London jazz scene, they found some affinity with the new free jazz that was represented by the SME, and played several times at the Little Theatre Club. By this point, avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew was also part of AMM and, for a brief moment, the group found some common ground with the burgeoning underground rock music that was making its presence felt. To be sure, any such interest (with the notable exception of members of the Soft Machine) was brief and ephemeral, but AMM did have some degree of influence on both Pink Floyd (through guitarist Syd Barrett) and on John Lennon, who recorded Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions and Wedding Album with Yoko Ono after exposure to AMM. Barrett was particularly taken by Keith Rowe's guitar playing, as Barry Miles notes:

This was free-form music at its cutting edge and to reinforce the sense of serious scientific investigation AMM played in white lab coats. The idea that all sound could have a musical value was absorbed by Pink Floyd who later took up the idea and spent hours using non-conventional sources to try and make an album. Some of the sounds AMM made were impossible to identify. Watching from the side of the stage Syd Barrett was intrigued to see that Keith Rowe achieved some of his special effects on electric guitar by rolling steel ball bearings up and down the strings to produce peculiar sounds. (Miles 2006, 56)

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