In the 1972 Monty Python Flying Circus skit "Are You Embarrassed," the announcer reads the lines, "Are you embarrassed easily? I am. But it's nothing to worry about; it's all part of growing up and being British." The announcer goes on to describe embarrassing words like "Shoe" ..... "Megaphone" ..... "Grunties," to test the listener's discomfort level. Somehow, even though the words spoken (in English) by the troupe were in a common language, the humor was quite alien to American audiences. The same can be said of British free improvisation. Born of a common language, American jazz, then free jazz (and New Music), the British equivalent has always been different, non-American, and even non-European.
This marvelously produced four-LP box on 180g vinyl (with accompanying digital download) documents three days of concerts in Berlin from October 2011, features sixteen British improvisers in differing combinationsduos, trios, quartets, and quintets. The meticulous presentation includes two essays, one historical by Brian Morton and another contextual by Wolfgang Seidel. The elaborate booklet also contains plenty of photographs, artist bios, and a lengthy interview of the players with Stewart Lee.
There are many notable British musicians missing here, Evan Parker
, John Butcher
, Barry Guy
, and Paul Rutherford
, to name just a few. This collection of artists draws lines from the earliest British improvisers Eddie Prevost
, Lol Coxhill
, Phil Minton
, and Trevor Watts
to today's torchbearersTom Arthurs
, Shabaka Hutchings
and Dominic Lash
The unique characteristic of British free improvisation from the 1960s and '70s was its total rejection of any traditions (even free jazz). The music of Derek Bailey
(1930-2005), whose presence towered over these concerts, informs much of the music here. In hindsight, so did the playing of Lol Coxhill, who passed away in July, 2012. His opening duos with Alex Ward
and Prévost might be the highlights of the entire festival.
The nature of British free improvisational music is that it seems to be made of aether. That is, it is rarefied, highly elastic and instantaneous. The music is certainly non-formulaic, and, once experienced, maybe better a memory than a document.
The artists work here in differing combinations. Steve Beresford
's piano strikes as Rhodri Davies' harp and John Edwards
' bass are vibrated behind the wordless song of Phil Minton
. Each track calls attention to odd tunings and the extended techniques of the players. The trio of Tony Bevan
, Edwards and bassist Dominic Lash summon more than notes from their instruments. Their territory is texture, the feel and consistency of the sound is quite palpable. While very little here incorporates electronics, Beresford does so in trio with Tom Arthurs' trumpet and Matthew Bourne
's piano. Where the founding fathers of British free jazz shied away from an international sound, the younger players, perhaps not burdened by World Ward II and the oppression of American jazz, embrace a world music. Arthur's trumpet could be mistaken here for Germany's Axel Dorner
or America's Peter Evans
, and vibraphonist Orphy Robinson
easily crosses over genres and styles.
British improvised musicians need not force themselves into a self-imposed ghetto, as they may have felt was necessary during the 1960s and '70s due to a desire to differentiate themselves from American and European free jazz. They can be assured their contribution to this now international scene is noted and appreciated. This document, and an upcoming film charting the British scene, will memorialize a great tradition.
LP1: Duo Coxhill/Ward; Duo Coxhill/Prévost; Quartet Davies/Robinson/Sanders/Watts. LP2: Quintet Coxhill/Edwards/Minton/Prévost/Watts; Quintet Arthurs/Edwards/Hutchings/Sanders/Ward. LP3: Trio Davies/Hutchings/Lash; Quartet Beresford/Davies/Edwards/Minton; Quartet Arthurs/Beresford/Mnton/Prévost; Quartet Arthurs/Brand/Lash/Ward; Trio Beresford/Brand/Edwards. LP4: Quartet Bevan/Edwards/Hutchings/Sanders; Trio Bevan/Edwards/lash; Trio Arthurs/Beresford/Bourne; Trio Bourne/Sanders/Watts; Duo Brand/Sanders.
Tom Arthurs: trumpet; Steve Beresford: piano, electronics; Tony Bevan: soprano
saxophones, bass saxophones; Matthew Bourne: piano; Gail Brand: trombone; Lol Coxhill:
soprano saxophone; Rhodri Davies: harp, electric harp; John Edwards: double bass;
Shabaka Hutchings: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Dominic Lash: double bass; Phil Minton:
voice; Eddie Prévost: drums, percussion; Orphy Robinson: vibraphone; Mark Sanders:
drums; Alex Ward: clarinet, guitar; Trevor Watts: soprano saxophone, alto saxophones.