The first thing to note about my trip to Monday’s Freedom of the City was that I was really tired following a night of driving and very little sleep. During some of the sets of the day, especially those that were less interesting to me musically I really struggled to retain focus, and at one point even found myself swaying in my seat fighting to stay awake. When I am really tired I’m not great company either, so apologies if anyone found me a little tetchy. Fortunately a good portion of the music put me in a good mood.
The day started with a bang, the duo of John Butcher’s sax and Mark Sanders’ drums. Their performance was a powerful, seething experience, often exploding outwards into thoroughly active, busy sections but always with a strong feeling of sensitivity in place that would continue into quieter, slower paced sections. The difference I personally felt between this set and some of the other more “traditional” improv performances of the weekend was the feeling that every sound really mattered, each contribution was considered carefully, even in the busier sections. There didn’t seem to be any kind of need to fill space. John Butcher is one of the best “listeners” I know in music. His ability to pick up on the subtleties in a set and respond to them instantly is as good as anyone’s and I think this really showed through here. Sanders experience and no small amount of skill provided an excellent companion. One of the real highlights of the festival.
There then followed the first of a few sets involving musicians that have met and found common ground through the weekly improvisation workshops. This one involved Grundik Kasyansky’s electronics, Eddie Prevost’s percussion, Jennifer Allum’s violin and David O’Connor’s baritone sax. Before the set began I had my concerns about the balance of this group, and as it progressed I could not help but feel that a smaller group would have been a better option, with either the sax or violin left out. I felt this because, even though both musicians performed very well and with great subtlety they struggled to exist on the same dynamic plane, with the violin, played entirely acoustically struggling to be heard, and the sax, despite O’Connor’s best efforts never coming down quiet enough to be a good match. The ability of all four musicians to work towards finding a musical space together was admirable however. Allum and Kasyansky both impressed me. The violin often disappeared under the music, but in a manner that reminded me of Angharad Davies’ group playing Allum would continue with what she was doing, never fighting to be heard, or to push her way to the front, but when the gaps appeared in the music, her sounds would then be revealed, and always sounded very interesting. Kasyansky rarely fails to impress me, and his performance here was no exception to this rule, full of bits of samples, feedback grabs, and a use of microphones in a physical way, amplified cord stretched out and rubbed, and even bitten at one point, a contact microphone of some kind scraped around the floor, the nearby piano etc… Overall the performance lacked the sense of structure I would have preferred, a bit too much feeling the way and hunting for common ground and not enough collaborative challenge for my liking, perhaps just a bit too polite, with Kasyansky perhaps the only one of the group seemingly in the mood to push the envelope a little and see where things might end up. Still, after the performances of the past day or so it felt good to be back in this particular soundworld again.
Sadly we didn’t stay there all that long however. The next set came from FURT, but with Richard Barrett absent, replaced by Paul Obermeyer’s Bark! companion Phillip Marks on drums. The group were also joined by the vocals of Ute Wassermann and the assorted electronic ephemera of Adam Bohman. It might not surprise many people to know that I have never really got on with the intense streams of detail that is FURT, but here, with Barrett removed and Marks’ frenetic drums present I struggled even more than usual. Wassermann’s vocals, which I have been able to just about enjoy on other occasions sat on top of a constant stream of wild, rapidly flowing, very loud and intensely complex sound here, and I have to say I only just managed to stay in my seat throughout their performance, such was my inability to connect with anything. Listening here felt a bit like I have felt in the past at harsh noise concerts. It felt like we were being bombarded hard and fast by a wall of impossible to process sound. I find it impossible to listen to improvised music in the disconnected way this music seemed to demand of me. I wanted to penetrate the sound, hear the dialogue, break the music down into separate contributions and hear how they interacted, but none of this was possible. The whole thing seemed to run on adrenalin to me, a feature that is never really likely to win me over.
The following set returned to a more spacious state of affairs. Jean-Luc Guionnet, playing just his alto sax stood between Philip Somervell, working inside and outside of the piano, and Ross Lambert, who supplemented an acoustic guitar with a variety of little objects, a bleeping timer of some kind, things that purred or vibrated and for one brief instant the static from a detuned radio. Lambert has been playing in a thoroughly interesting manner of late, and this performance followed suit, his Bailey-esque guitar playing was great in itself, merging well with Somervell’s well placed scrapes and chimes, allowing Guionnet to pick points between them where he could flutter or occasionally scream little sections of sax. There were hints at jazz buried in there for me, little guitar figures, moments of flowing sax, a brief passage of rapidly keyed piano, but overall there was a sense of searching, often quite angular, broken up collaboration. This performance is really hard to capture in words, but it was a very thoughtful, carefully considered half an hour or so split into two shorter sets that had me forgetting how tired I was right through its fascinating duration.
Dinner at a decent enough Japanese place as followed by four more sets in the evening. The first came from the Stellari String Quartet, the improvising group made up of the violins of Phil Wachsmann and Charlotte Hug, Marcio Mattos’s cello and the inevitable bass of John Edwards. The quartet stood up in a line on front of the stage, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the normal seated positioning of most classical quartets. The group then just improvised, but it was really strange how this combination of instrumentation, which I have spent so much time with over recent months just seemed to suggest composed music to me, with in places Lachenmann, Ravel, Ligeti and even Webern springing to mind, but never for very long as the music would keep spiralling off into new directions. Although somewhat busy and florid again, the music from this group somehow felt less wild and fidgety than other performances had felt, perhaps as the four sets of strings inhabit a similar area of sound, perhaps because my ears have been tunes to hear them together, but the music here certainly felt very tight and structured. Although maybe none of this music was much of a challenge to this group of four experienced improvisers and their understanding seemed as close as many classical quartets might be, I did enjoy the Stellari Quartet’s half an hour for just those reasons- all of the music seemed to work together very well indeed, making for a relaxed, pleasing listen.
There followed a further more intriguing set, the trio of Frederic Blondy’s piano, Ute Kanngiesser’s cello and the electronics of Paul Abbott. Right from the outset here the roles in the group seemed very clear. Blondy and Kanngiesser seemed to immediately find a close musical link, the sprays of intense keystrokes and inside piano wails and percussive chimes just fitted beautifully with Kanngiesser’s trademark passionate, expressive playing. The two worked together very nicely indeed (I can easily hear a very strong duo recording very possible in the future) which left Paul Abbott with the task of finding a way for his electronics and their really quite different soundworld to fit in amongst the tightly woven chamber instrumentation. In the end, in typically Abbottian fashion he sought to fit in by providing disruption and dislocation in the music. So as Kanngiesser and Blondy swapped delicacies so Abbott would add an often violently different counterpoint. He let several blasts of angry feedback tear across the music on occasions, and seemed in general to shape his contributions to sit adjacent to those of his companions rather than blend into them, willfully breaking up the music, forcing a tension into the room. Maybe as a result this wasn’t the most fully rounded, CD friendly half an hour or so of music, but the journey through the performance was a great one, with the interaction between performers here probably the most captivating of the weekend. Genuinely different, challenging music.
Next up came my favourite set of the festival, the trio of Jamie Coleman’s trumpet, Sebastian Lexer’s piano+ and Pascal Battus’ table of difficult to identify but essentially quite simple and elemental electronic devices. The set began very slowly and maybe a little tentatively, with Coleman starting out with streams of soft yet striking tones and little glimpses of melodic progression, which Battus and Lexer slowly surrounded in clouds of subtley textured sound. Perhaps because the weekend had been full of such busy, spiky music, and perhaps because of Abbott’s sudden interventions in the previous set I constantly expected Lexer to shift abruptly from the softer, warmer sounds he worked with, and the beautifully fragile Tilburyesque (sorry!) little arpeggios, but this didn’t really ever happen, and it took me a few minutes to adjust my listening state to accept the subtlety of this performance, reverting back to how I had experienced the music of the previous weekend’s i and e Festival in Ireland, allowing things to develop slowly, listening down in and through the music rather than allowing it to fly past in a hurried stream. This was a beautiful performance. The sounds were gentle and calm, but still full of tension, and at the right moments things became agitated just enough to shift the tension up a couple of gears without turning the music into a breakneck flurry of activity. It is probably quite telling that this was the only one of the fifteen performances of the festival that I have the urge to listen tot he recording of, that I felt might have the potential for a CD release, such was the sense of fragile structure and vertical strata in the music.
if I managed to adjust my listening sensibilities back to where they usually sit for that performance then they were thrown out again by the closing set, a veritable supergroup of jazzy rough and tumble involving Pat Thomas on piano and synth, Paul Lytton on drums, Alex Ward on clarinet, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet and John Coxon on electric guitar. They played, as you might expect, hard and fast for the most part, a kind of rockish jazz that reminded me a lot of Miles Davis’ electric groups (look I don’t have many jazz reference points OK! ) The set seemed to go down well with people, but by now I was physically and emotionally exhausted and making little attempt to find a way to connect with the music. At the end of the night, after a couple of sets, and when Smith wanted to start up again, but was told that the festival’s license didn’t extend beyond eleven o’clock so it would have to be short, he then played a two second long burst of trumpet before saying goodnight. My more mischievous side is trying to get me to say that this last little burst was the most interesting of the free jazz related sets of the weekend, but I would be lying, as even though I didn’t connect too often with this end of the music so well the experience of trying was often illuminating and rewarding.
So hats off to all that made Freedom of the City happen again, a well attended event that still relied on the goodwill of all of the musicians and the hard work of Eddie Prevost, Trevor Brent and Evan Parker amongst others. Prevost and Parker’s between set announcements were a constantly witty treat in themselves. Looking forward to next year.
Sorry for the lack of photos again. There are some wonderful ones illustrating reviews of the festival at this rather nice blog, but I don’t know who the author or photographer are, so I don’t have permission to use them. Just imaging how good some of them would look here instead.
I am now very much behind with my schedule of CD reviews. My apologies to everyone that has sent me music to listen to and write about that I have not got around to yet. I will try and pick the pace up again now, perhaps even writing a couple of short reviews a night rather than one long one just to clear some of the backlog. I hate the thought of doing this, but it may have to be necessary for a while. Either way thanks to all concerned for their patience. I can assure you all that I am not sat around on my arse doing little when I am not writing here, the last few weeks have been incredibly busy and stressful. Certainly though, with the exception of a possible quick trip to Glasgow in ten days or so I in theory, have a calmer few days ahead. I’ll do my best!