eleven improvisers


PERFORMANCE OF MAY 2, 1975 AT Wigmore Hall, London. England

Albion Music’s “Eleven Improvisers” concert was designed to bring to a wider audience the younger musicians on the British avant-garde scene: those who have not only absorbed the lessons taught by Ornette, or Albert, or Milford Graves, but also the developments over more recent years provided by Han Bennink, John Stevens, Derek Bailey or Evan Parker. The concert was at least partially successful in its aims, in that it got a few influential figures to come and listen, but a wider audience in general terms seems as far away as ever. Attendance was not too good, and largely made up of people who can be seen any Monday at the Engineer or every Tuesday at the Unity, and so on. Still, this did make it all very homely, despite the empty seats, and in addition the musicians weren’t under any unusual pressure to be especially “good” in front of people seeking justification for being out on a rainy night.

The concert was well programmed, presenting the musicians in four groups, offering a wide variety of music within a consistently freely improvised approach.

First off was the duo of Herman Hauge (tenor saxophone) and Dave Soloman (drums). Their music essentially stays just inside accepted concepts and instrumental usages and role relationships. It devolves through Trane-Elvin and Ayler-Murray to something that stops just this side of Parker-Lytton. They made a very necessary opening move in the game therefore, and prepared the ground for the more far out things to come. And in doing so, with the energy and imagination they brought to their music, proved once again how much life there is still in these forms.

The rest of the first half offered Steve Beresford (toy pianos, toys, percussion), Nigel Coombes (violins), Roger Smith (acoustic guitar), and Terry Day (balloons, percussion) in a long set whose random configurations and haphazard-seeming improvisations present to the listener a careless, apparently inconsequential surface, studiously mannered and with at times maybe an edge of latent hostility towards the listener. Disaster? Well, some thought so, it must be admitted, and if the concert had attracted the larger audiences this probably would have set them to voting with their feet, but those of us who have heard Beresford and the others on other occasions have come to 99-terry-day.jpgrealise that under this offhand, sometimes consciously silly approach, lie some very deep and important questions about, first of all, the nature of music itself, the urges that crystallise in music-making and, second, the value judgements that have grown up with it, imposed themselves upon it, and to some extent shaped it over the last several hundred years. So the point is not whether the notes or sounds Beresford makes on his toy pianos make up “good” phrases or not, or how far Terry Day’s balloon-blowing can be continued as a technique, but why they’re doing this, and why they think it’s music, and whether they can open your ears and mind to accepting the alternatives they are offering.

In doing all this Beresford (who is increasingly coming to be identified as the leader, decision-maker, within this cooperative framework) is providing a valuable catalytic service. Some of the questions raised haven’t even been identified here, let alone asked or answered, but sooner or later all the angles are going to have to be figured and faced.

After a longish interval – another very sensible decision – Touch of the Sun, a regular duo grouping of Peter Cusack (guitar) and Simon Mayo (clarinets) should have appeared. But due to Mayo’s absence through illness we got a more ad-hoc pairing of Cusack and Terry Day instead.

Cusack is another of what appears to be a fast-growing crop of notably individualistic and original guitarists in this country, again a man whose work will bear future examination in depth. Terry Day here forsook his balloons for his marginally more conventional assortment of cymbals, tambourines, plastic pails and tin boxes, before switching to alto for the final stages of the set. Again, it was absorbing music, possibly the best paced of the evening, and though arguably the original Cusack-Mayo duo would have put on an even more distinctive set it would hardly have bettered the quality of the music.

mrussell.jpgFinally, John Russell (guitar), Gary Todd (tenor saxophone), and Roy Ashbury (percussion). These three have worked together before, and also in the duo combinations of Ashbury-Todd and Russell-Todd. All are imaginative players, but this set suffered from internal balance problems, and from where I was sitting Ashbury, playing a typically post-Bennink setup, rendered Russell almost inaudible. Which was a pity, for Russell is another good guitarist, and the music he creates is always worth hearing. Because of this their set was less impressive than the others, and certainly not in the same class as the excellent duo sets Russell and Todd had played at the Unity Theatre some ten days earlier. Yet it was by no means negligible, and brought to an end a wholly worthwhile and thoroughly interesting concert.

Jack Cooke, 1975

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