It didn’t really occur to me beforehand for some reason, but it turned out that on consecutive weekends I attended two festivals that in many ways seem quite different but actually ended up being really quite similar in many ways. The two events, first the i and e over in Dublin and then the Freedom of the City festival in London were both multi-day events that spanned afternoon and evening performances, were organised by some of the musicians performing, had a really nice, friendly, welcoming feel to them and were both events that received just a small amount of funding and relied on the goodwill and commitment of the performers to be able to go ahead. Although musically there were quite a few differences between the events, the sense of community at each was very similar. Although different ends of the improvised music spectrum(s) may attract different types of audience the sense of mutual support and general camaraderie surrounding this kind of get-together underlines to me that this music has the ability to pull socially, culturally and politically like-minded people together no matter which blend of improvised music dominates the bill, no matter which generation of listeners make up the audience.
This said, the stark contrast between much of the i and Festival and much of the Freedom of the City Festival was something of a shock to the system I had not really prepared myself for. I am on record as saying that irrespective of the individual characteristics of a particular performance or CD recording it is all ultimately improvised music, and while there are many different axis by which we can measure certain elements of the music (loud/quiet, busy/reduced, electronic/acoustic, etc…) there is nothing to be gained and perhaps plenty to be lost from shepherding big chunks of the music off into thinly defined sub-genres. So I am very conscious of sounding a hypocrite when I underline the general differences between the music at i and e and FOTC. Of course there are many similarities between the music played at the two festivals, but while not losing sight of the fact this is all just improv, I think it is fair to say that the influence of jazz on the FOTC, and its first day in particular places the music at that festival quite some way along the jazzy/not very jazzy axis.
So attending the festival, and giving my undivided attention to fifteen of the sixteen sets at FOTC was something of a test for me. As I have written before, I have no history with jazz music. The jazz section on my CD shelves is tiny, containing a handful of discs by Miles Davis and maybe half a dozen by the Sun Ra Arkestra. I don’t know jazz music very well at all, I never notice whenever any musician adds a direct jazz quote into his or her music, my arrival at free improvisation from more rock based experimentalism has left me virtually ignorant about the entire genre, and if I am totally honest I haven’t heard anything yet that really makes me wish to spend any great amount of time correcting that ignorance. Still, when you attend a festival in which a good 60% of the musicians would probably admit to a free jazz influence of some kind, and your personal tastes lead you towards the near silent approach of much of the previous weekend’s festival takes a fair degree of mental discipline to be able to place your prejudices to one side and try and evaluate the music as openly as possible.
I’m not going to go through each of the Â FOTC Festival’s sixteen sets and describe them all in detail. Sorry about that, if any readers that were in attendance feel like doing this then please get in touch, but I personally would rather pick out the highlights, which are in themselves quite revealing of my personal tastes and try and find out why I prefer those performances/parts of performances to any other. Michael Rosenstein, my dinner companion on each day of the festival, who flew in specially from Boston, USA is writing about the festival in detail for ParisTransatlantic quite soon, so those looking for all the intimate details can get them from him there.
The first day then was full of full-on, busy, and often jazz-infused music that crossed back and forth over the free jazz/non-idiomatic borders often. The festival began with a solo set from the American trumpeter Peter Evans, who played amplified for much of his performance, which could be vaguely divided into two halves, an initial roaring, textural blast that I quite enjoyed, and a further elongated and far less interesting stream of technique-driven, circular breathing enabled scribbling that was, (as with much of the music on the first day of the festival) technically superb but creatively somewhat predictable. There then followed a duo performance from the great Paul Lytton on drums alongside the cellist Okkyung Lee. This set was equally as predictable, a busy, angular conversation between two musicians left in front of a large audience to make something work. Watching Paul Lytton play is often quite inspiring, and although he seems to have slowed down just a little over recent years his touch, timing and sense of composition is wonderful. Lee did well enough but her contributions felt a little less sensual than her playing partner’s, and for me these days this busier, talkative end of the improv world really needs to ooze emotion and passion to keep me interested.
Then, just a few minutes into the third set of the day, a curious trio by Lol Coxhill (alto sax) Dominic Lash (double bass) and Tania Chen (piano) provided me with the first really telling moment of the festival. The set had begun with a bright, breezy but thoroughly busy burst of playing from Coxhill that had been met with a series of expressive bowed strokes of Lash’s bass. Things seemed to be going in a similar direction to the earlier performances, fast and furious though with a fair amount of control. Then, not long into the set, Tania Chen, a pianist probably Â better known for her work on realisations of contemporary composition, from Cage and Wolff to Michael Parsons and Cardew made a simple gesture that seemed to bring the music down a couple of gears, altering the mood of the performance considerably. She took an eBow and placed it on one of the piano’s strings, so that as she played slowly and sparingly a low sinewave-like tone rose gently from the piano and softly filled the space the music was settled into. The presence of this tone, its calming form, seemed to pull the musicians tighter together and into a quieter, more reflective style of music. This electro-acoustic sound, slow and elongated rather than brash and energetic made me smile, a touch on the brakes, a pointer towards my own personal comfort zone as a listener. From there the set remained in a slower, smokey, more restrained mood, very subtle, often very beautiful. This was my favourite performance of the first afternoon. Then followed the annual controlled chaos that is the London Improvisers Orchestra, a forty+ strong group that were “conducted” by Steve Beresford, Alison Blunt, Caroline Kraabel and Dave Tucker at different points, with improvisations separating them all. The LIO sets were pretty much what we have come to expect, wide open often sprawling performances that often seem to skirt around the edges of complete anarchy but are actually quite tightly controlled. The music they make hasn’t really changed much down the years however. There is humour in there, a fair amount of skill and a constantly growing understanding between the orchestra and its conductors that is pretty impressive, but the mostly acoustic group sound almost painfully predictable these days. A wonderful display of the selfless spirit of this musical community, its value extends beyond the vitality of the music, but that isn’t enough to keep me from yawning my way through their lengthy performance.
The evening’s sets began with possibly the most disappointing set of music of the weekend, the Quaqua septet pulled together by John Russell. The group, which included the likes of Chris Burn on piano and Matthew Hutchinson on keyboard synths seemed to just go through all of the standard improv motions to me. They included a vocalist, a Belgian named Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg who gabbled and squawked his way right through the set in the most predictable of manners, complete even with Donald Duck sounds. As he busied himself away with this stream of vocal burbling the rest of the group played relentlessly and similarly behind him, all at one flat level. The only real dynamic shifts came from Hutchinson’s keyboards, which occasionally burst over the top, but otherwise this set felt completely uninspiring, lacking any real sense of structure and instead feeling like seven musicians doing much the same thing but with different instruments. As I wrote a day or two back I really liek John Russell’s playing, but this group was a complete let-down for me personally.
Then came the most jazz-related set of the first day the drums/drums/trumpet trio of Louis Mohol-Moholo, Steve Noble and Ishmael Wadada Leo-Smith. I must say I had never heard Smith’s playing before Saturday night, his area of music being completely alien to me. He essentially played a kind of brash, raw but traditionally played trumpet in thoroughly free jazz style. The overall form was quite nice, the trumpet working well against the twin drum attacks, and his tendency to play in short bursts allowed the drums to come through often, with my favourite section being a period of a few minutes when Smith sat down and the two drummers slowed the pace and worked together with more textural, percussive sounds rather than a rhythmic assault. Smith seemed a good trumpeter, but he plays in a way that doesn’t really interest me very much, though it has to be said, he filled the hall for his performance and brought the audience to their most rapturous. I just couldn’t find a way to connect to the music. It just isn’t my thing I’m afraid. Â His vaguely spiritual little comments every so often (“this is a music band, and all of humanity are in the band”) passed way over my non-jazz head as well.
So then we heard another performance from SUM, the jazz-inspired trio of Eddie Prevost, Seymour Wright and Ross Lambert. This was the third time I had sen the group, and their sound feels more familiar to me now, though I find myself relating their approach to what I do know, the rock music format, as often the tight, flowing nature of what they do feels a little like a jam session to me. It was interesting to talk with Michael about this performance after it took place though, as he has a background in jazz music, and was able to pick out little remnants of jazz quotes in the music that fly way over my head. It seems that while they are there in some way, these little fragments of standards are broken down so much that all that remains is the slightest hint. I personally enjoy watching these musicians play for a completely different reason. Having watched them play often in other settings, other types of music I can recognise the camaraderie, the friendship, the trust between the musicians in their playing. I find myself enjoying the interactions between the musicians without actually enjoying the sounds themselves, without understanding the musical jokes, its sense of history lost on me.
I then left before the final set by Evan Parker, Okkyung Lee and Evan Parker, not for any musical reason, but simply because I had to get home to undertake a stupid overnight drive to the airport. Overall I found the first day of the Freedom of the City festival a very valuable experience. Socially it was a wonderful occasion as I got the chance to mix and chat with people that maybe I wouldn’t normally enjoy the company of. Musically it was a challenge for me, simply because on a purely taste-based level I found it hard to connect to what was going on in many of the performances. Challenges are good though. A week earlier I had sat in a virtually silent room listening to the wonderful music of Klaus Filip and Radu Malfatti. if that performance had been a musically wonderful experience it had also been a very easy, comfortable experience for me. As I sat and listened as hard as I could to the music of FOTC’s first day Radu was often on my mind as I wondered what he would have made of it all, but I seek to keep my musical mind open, and while so much of this music failed to touch the right buttons for me the experience of searching for a way in was a valuable and thoughtful one that I am glad I undertook.
The second day however, was far more attuned to my taste. I’ll write about that one tomorrow. Sorry for the lack of photos. Anyone have any they can let me use?