Saturday 4th DecemberDecember 5, 2010
So, some improvised music then. Yesterday I travelled after work into London and up to CafÃ© Oto, for the first time in ages, to attend a concert organised by the exceptionally brilliant Olivier Rodriguez. I was utterly exhausted on the journey over, having only had a little sleep the night before and having been at work since 5AM, and so even though I had to stand up (as always) on the train into Paddington I could still find myself falling asleep. The bitter cold in London, the treacherously packed ice underfoot (we have been very lucky here in Oxon and not experienced anything that bad) and a really great cup of coffee handed to me by the good people at Oto all woke me up though, and by the time the night was over I was positively buzzing.
The music had a lot to do with this as well though. Even before things began this always promised a lot, three great duos by established musicians, some of whom had a long history but had not played together in a long time, some who play together quite often and continue to bloom as a result, and some that have only played once or twice before but seem to fit together really well. All of them though could be described as really great improvisers and all of them I like a great deal. It was never going to be a bad night.
Things began with the duo of Mark Wastell and Matt Davis, their first performance together as a duo in quite a few years, partly because Matt left London a year or two back to move down to Cornwall. For this performance Wastell dusted off his cello, the instrument that I have always enjoyed him playing more than any other, and Davis played trumpet with a few added objects- a megaphone and some simple amplification. They played in a manner that somehow harked back to the language of their older, near silent performances together about a decade ago, but also took things onwards, away from anything two aesthetically simplistic, full of activity but also incredibly subtle. Technically, Wastell looked very slightly rusty with the cello, sounds maybe not coming immediately to hand as fast as they might of a few years back, but the musical brain, the ability to sculpt beautifully formed music in the moment looked as sharp as ever. While his drone-based work in various formations involving the tam tam certainly has its charms, its this area of quiet yet detailed and finely crafted improvisation that I personally think Mark Wastell excels at the best, with any instrument, though given the choice I would choose to hear him play cello.
Matt Davis was on cracking form as well. His ability to conjure up a wide array of textures and tones has always been great, but as with Wastell it was the improvising brain that impressed last night, twisting and turning and above all listening so as to place just the right sounds in the right places. Often the pair would play alone, and the other would sit and listen before joining in with his response, sometimes complimentary, sometimes a challenge that caused the other to shift position. Davis blew his trumpet directly into the megaphone at times, still very quietly, giving the sound a strange artificial feel. Elsewhere he used tambourines or mutes to alter the sound, so sometimes tiny pops would sprinkle through the music, and sometimes the dirtiest growls would roar away. Wastell began bowing softly, feeling his way around his instrument again, but any unfamiliarity with it wasn’t visible when he shifted into a passage of gentle rhythmic knocking that, even though I was sat just a few feet away I couldn’t work out exactly how he made it using just his fingers on the strings. Towards the end he matched a string of grainy tones from Davis with simple plucked notes, and throughout the pair seemed to be able to play together with great ease, and while the set had a feeling of searching out new territory for the duo rather than a consolidation of a longstanding partnership it still sounded like they were still playing regularly together.
There then followed a duo that feel inseparable these days and whose music I have followed closely and watched bloom and blossom into an intensely complex, thoughtful and yet also physically powerful experience. Sebastian Lexer, who has played little in recent months as he has been recuperating from an arm injury set up his piano+ system on the Oto piano and began to play while Seymour Wright, having left a radio purring static from the bell of his saxophone centre stage wandered off to the room’s front windows, that were dripping in condensation, where he spent the first five minutes or so of the set scraping the mouthpiece of his sax over the wet glass to create surprisingly loud and musical screeches. After a while he returned to his chair as Lexer had somehow coaxed a gloriously beautiful stream of very electronic sounding warmth from his piano, full of deep underlying tones and slightly warped chimes on top.
Then as Wright had eventually begun adding searing roars of tone into proceedings, so Lexer shifted his position completely and brought about a series of huge crashing explosions that were each allowed to decay a while before the computer system wrenched each to an untimely end. Wright later wandered over to Eddie Prevost’s tam tam, set up already for the following set, and blasted a series of notes into it, the sound causing the metal to vibrate and add further overtones, just as Lexer’s microphones also picked up the sound and twisted them into different forms again.
None of these descriptions can really describe the sense of tension, the feeling of organic energy that these two pull out of each other. I have no doubt whatsoever that Lexer had no idea at all that Wright would begin the set over at the window, just as neither could ever feel completely safe in the music- confident perhaps that if either dropped the baton the other would always be doing something interesting, but also knowing that nothing could be allowed to just drift- everything would be challenged over and over, and nothing was impossible. If these sound like bold, idealistic statements, well they are written here after a lot of consideration. When I consider improvised music that feels precarious, really pushing the envelope, but within an established language, I’m not sure I have heard music as exciting to witness live as this duo since AMM in the mid to late nineties. each performance I catch seems to have learnt from the last and now has grown into something new. each time I hear the duo play they seem to go a little further. They were fantastic last night on a number of levels.
Eddie Prevost followed in a duo with another of my favourite musicians right now, the saxophonist Jean-Lu Guionnet, who was in town to play a concert on church organ (This coming Monday in London at St Mary’s Old Church Stoke Newington 7.30PM ) but given his presence in town it was natural for Olivier to find a space for him on this bill. I saw Jean-Luc play a great set with Eddie Prevost early this year, (or was it late last year?) at Goldsmiths College, so I had high expectations for this one, and well, they met them. Its hard to know what to write about how they played. Eddie used his minimal tam tam, snare and handheld metals set-up, mostly using a bow to create his sound. Jean-Luc plays sax in a very straight-forward manner, all tones, very little extended technique, but with wonderful dexterity and versatility. Both players have both a history in jazz and a present interest in jazz related groups, but this wasn’t jazz music, far from it. The music they played was loud and bold and yet still really intimate, with every sound entwined around the others. These two musicians really know how to listen. They already have all the licks, they know how to find sounds out of nowhere when they are needed, the vocabulary is as as good as any anywhere, but its the conversation, the musical debate, the playful wrestling and powerful companionship that made this performance so engaging, something hard to take your ears off of.
Three fine sets then that really recharged my faith in improvised music as a force for not only beautiful music but also for a sense of strong communal sharing. From the moment I entered Oto last night the place felt warm, the company felt inviting, the atmosphere was conducive for a great evening of music. Improvised music draws its audience in, brings the whole room into play, allows everyone to share in the moment of creation and the friendship and openness that comes with that. When I got home last night one of the musicians (as they always do) had sent me an email thanking me for making the trip over. Its little things like that that really extend the music out from the purely sonic for me and into a real sense of community. That matters so much to me.