Thursday, May 10, 2007

Review: Freedom of the City, Red Rose Club, London... Nine... Weston/Rutherford/Mattos... Edwards/Parker/Fernandez/Russell... Monday 7 May 2007

The Red Rose in Finsbury Park, London is a comedy club, tonight (and over the previous weekend) dedicated to the Freedom of the City Festival, organised by Evan Parker, Eddie Prévost and Martin Davidson. Through the bar area and into the performance space which is a large square-ish room with a broad stage – must require some interesting stage-craft from single stand-ups. With a cluster of musicians on it who would eventually coalesce into the first band of the night: Nine! Consisting of twelve musicians(?), they played a fascinating set. With all those bodies, one could imagine much sonic clutter arising, but this was avoided in a performance that built from (necessary?) small gestures and nuances into the larger whole. The instrumentation: guitars, harmonica, piano, saxophones, clarinet, flute, violin, various percussion and what appeared to be a banjo-uke or some similar instrument. Subverted by externalising in the main – the traditional internal perfomance properties of the instruments being ignored apart from a few isolated examples of almost straight playing (a strummed chord, a blown note held) – a foregrounding of scratches, scrapes, bangs and bowing of surfaces... Several examples: a small object being rattled inside the bell of a clarinet, a saxophone dismantled and various noises created by using the mouthpiece/reed. Or Prévost bowing a large gong (?), the pianist rummaging inside the piano, investigating the sound properties of its plucked and struck metal entrails. The piece started with electric guitar lightly amplified and playing a repeated figure – but this beginning in tonality soon dissipated ... the discrete sounds coming from across the ensemble formed a surprisingly clear and broad sonic field. An exercise in group playing and tight control – any excess or sudden lurch into conventional soling would have destroyed the delicate balance maintained throughout. A space wide enough to encompass a couple of incongruities – I felt that the acoustic guitar player didn't always fit into the ongoing sound stream – and this was a problem for both, acoustic and electric, that the sounds/sonorities of the other instruments blended more efficiently. Acoustic and conventional electric guitar have little sustain or sonority and fast decay, the electric having a slight edge but - for no doubt deliberate reasons – no attempt was made to produce the longer/louder sustain which an amplifier and pedal setup is capable of. The ear of the beholder– why should someone blowing into the end of a flute have more sonic validity? But overall, only a small criticism. The performance finished back on the electric guitar, which acted as a tonal reference point linking back to the beginning. Thoughtful... radical... beautiful...

Apparently the second group had never played collectively before – Veryan Weston on piano, Paul Rutherford on trombone and Marcia Mattos on cello. The spatial question taken into a different area – a full broad sound that contracted and expanded where necessary, busier than the more spartan Nine! Here, the technical similarities of the trombone and cello, relying on a different kind of sound production in that they have no set points as such - frets, keys - to produce notes apart from the (admittedly strong) weight of tonal convention which can easily be evaded/disrupted by small microtonal shifts and also have an immediacy of response – direct contact with the note production via the fingers - were lined up against the piano. Which has a precise keyboard in front of the performer, notes being produced by a slight time deferment – the key sets up a mechanical process that ends in a hammer striking the strings. Apart from varying one's keyboard velocities and/or using the pedals, to radically disrupt or change the note(s) – to approach the glissando possibilities of the other instruments named, for example – one has to go inside to attack the strings directly. Weston eschews this approach tonight. Theoretically, then, trombone and cello already have the timbral possibilities of blending more easily – for the pianist a way in has to be found. (And Rutherford and Mattos have recorded together in the past so would perhaps be more aware of each other's playing). It seemed to me that Weston was a bit tentative at first, whereas Rutherford and Mattos were straight there in the zone, producing a roaring, scrabbling continuum from the start. After the sonic abstractions of the first set, this was much more visceral music – melody more to the fore – albeit jolted, dragged in and out of shape, skewed by extended techniques and timbres. Rutherford is a veteran of the scene, one of the stone originals who broke out of jazz in the 60's to develop the new improvisational sound worlds. On the basis of his superb playing tonight, a force still to be reckoned with. Mattos, another veteran, was equally stunning... I gather that he studied guitar when he was younger and it comes through in his approach to the cello, strumming chords and violent pizzicato work, along with the usual battery of extended techniques and his forceful bowing. The long piece ebbed and flowed, splitting into varying instrumental combinations that kept the music fresh – especially, one saw the compatibility of cello and trombone when they came together. Fascinating among this wonderful display of imagination and musicianship to trace the trajectory of Weston's developing involvement with the performance as he mapped his path through. A vigorous, emotional performance that also had some of the intimacies of chamber music (in both the jazz and classical senses).

The final set of the night by John Edwards, Evan Parker, Agustí Fernandez and John Russell cranked it up further. Parker stayed on tenor throughout, sitting down as if to emphasize that this was supposed to be a group performance. In spite of the collective ethic, however, the piano player stole the show, run a close second by the imperiously brilliant bass-playing of Edmunds. Parker – embedded back in the mix, his as always superb tenor fluttering and chittering in and out of the more dominant maelstrom provided by the other two. Always the unhurriedness of the master... looking quite benign and bucolic with red-face(caught the sun?) and hairy/bearded appearance. Russell seemed unable to compete on the same dynamic level at times, his guitar again pointing out one of the problems the instrument has in this music – how to balance the essentially dry, astringent sounds of his archtop guitar that decay rapidly against essentially richer timbres. I would have thought that the only way to compete on an equal footing would be to amplify more – but it's a fine balance to strike, admittedly. He also broke a couple of strings which must have unsettled his train of musical thought. What I did hear was interesting, dropping some sharp and brittle colourations across the top of the sound and engaging in a brief skittering duet section with Parker. But the tall, physically imposing, red-shirted Fernandez held the attention, in perpetual motion, bouncing on his seat, hitting the piano with sledgehammer blows from his hands with a violence that at times looked as if it would shake the instrument off the stage – yet balancing that force with a fluttering, feather-like touch at one point that was just on the threshold of audibility. And some humour: smiling, looking as if he was enjoying himself immensely... Edwards, as mentioned above, delivered a master class in contemporary bass playing, fingers of iron ripping out chunks of sound from the strings in all positions, or rubbing and scraping the surface of his instrument – a seamless blending of conventional and 'extended' techniques. The second time I have seen him this year – powerful stuff. Verdict: despite the imbalances, a bravura performance.

Overall – a wonderful display of the variety extant in the musics by three very different line-ups, unified by questing minds, imaginations and the underpinning of dedication to improvised performance. I had arrived feeling out of sorts – I left feeling uplifted. Despite all the privations, sacrifices and financial problems alluded to by Evan Parker in his closing speech, which we are only too aware of in the U.K., a fitting end to what was apparently a great festival... Just wish I had been able to attend for a longer period. Ah well – next year...

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