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Alex Ward Item 10: Volition (Live at Café Oto)

John Eyles By

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Although he was already a member of a lengthy list of ensembles, led by himself or others, when composer, improviser, clarinetist and guitarist Alex Ward put together his Item 10 band he had new ideas in mind; the ten musicians would be a pool from which ensembles of various sizes could be drawn for different musical ends. In choosing the personnel of past groups Ward has shown an excellent knowledge of the players at his disposal from different backgrounds and a keen sense of how his choices will combine in a group.

In recruiting Item 10, he used both those skills, particularly in opting for younger players such as violinist Mandhara De Saram, trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe and guitarist Joe Smith-Sands, who are relatively new to the improv scene but show very obvious promise. Ward balanced such choices with older, more experienced improvisers like his past collaborators drummer Andrew Lisle and violist Benedict Taylor or renowned trombonist Sarah Gail Brand. Altogether, the ten are a formidable bunch; any group drawn from this pool would be a force to be reckoned with.

As Ward had not previously led such a large ensemble, his new ideas also extended to the music that Item 10 would play. The three tracks here date from the ensemble's first concert and run for nearly eighty minutes. After warming-up with the four-minute, fairly conventional "Your overture," involving all ten players, the ensemble moves on to two extended pieces, "Entreaty" and "Volition," which include traditionally notated material, semi-notated passages, sections of guided improvisation, and free improvisations by designated small sub-groupings. Such variety was an inspired idea from Ward, as it avoids the sort of cluttered soundscape that can often result when some large ensembles all try to improvise at once; even for the most accomplished players, simultaneously listening and reacting appropriately to nine or more other players of various instruments can be fraught with difficulties!

Here, Ward manages to give listeners the best of both worlds; on notated passages such as the overture, we experience the awesome power that ten musicians playing together can generate, but freely improvised sections are played by sub-groups of two or three, sometimes even a lone soloist when other members sit out. Between these two extremes, Ward's sections of guided improvisation include more players but give enough guidance to avoid "the cocktail-party effect" of two or three players reacting to one another. The instrumental line-up demonstrates how canny Ward's choices were, as there is enough variety within the group to colour the music differently in different sections, some being dominated by strings others by reeds or brass.

This September 2017 Item 10 concert was the first public appearance by any group from the Item pool but, in September 2018, Item 4 made its debut, also at Café Oto, consisting of Ward, Keeffe, Lisle and bassist Otto Willberg. It promises to be a fascinating experience to see and hear the different groups emerging from this pool of players. Watch this space.

Track Listing: Your Overture; Entreaty; Volition.

Personnel: Alex Ward: electric guitar (1, 3), clarinet (1-3, with amplifier on 3); Yoni Silver: alto saxophone (1), bass clarinet (2, 3, with amplifier on 3); Cath Roberts: baritone saxophone; Sarah Gail Brand: trombone; Otto Willberg: double bass; Andrew Lisle: drums; Charlotte Keeffe: trumpet (1-3) flugelhorn (3); Benedict Taylor: viola; Mandhira De Saram: violin; Joe Smith-Sands: electric guitar.

Title: Volition (Live at Café Oto) | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Copepod Records

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