|Bob Downes, ca. 1970s|
New York Suite
(Weight of Wax)
G.F. FITZ-GERALD & LOL COXHILL
The Poppy-Seed Affair
The last decade-plus has seen an inordinate amount of reissues and unearthed material, which in some sense is a sign that despite the supposed death of the CD, certain niche markets are doing quite well. Of course, it’s considerably cheaper to produce a CD than vinyl and that’s encouraged small labels to step into the reissue game. British jazz and improvised music has especially seen an upswing in the availability of archival releases. Some of these are authorized, some are not, but the sheer amount of rare Brit-jazz on offer is pretty striking. British jazz is a special case, too, because the 1960s and early ‘70s saw major labels funding catalogs of avant-garde and free improvisation – RCA, CBS, EMI-Columbia, Philips/Fontana and Deram/London, for example. Though it dropped off in the mid-70s, the major label presence in the UK and Europe is a far cry from what American musicians experienced. The last year has seen some truly striking sets from the left field Brit-jazz tree.
Flutist/saxophonist Bob Downes has been reviewed in Ni Kantu before with his freewheeling and strong trio material, almost exclusively recorded with drummer Denis Smith. Downes made a couple of albums for Vertigo/Phillips in at the close of the ‘60s before striking out on his own, releasing a small handful of LPs on his own Openian imprint in the following decade. Throughout this halcyon period Downes kept the tapes rolling, and captured a number of strong working combos and other projects that have steadfastly stood the test of time. He’s revived Openian to release some of this archival material, most of which has been rendered in very good sound. New York Suite is a little different than some of the others insofar as it’s an expanded group, with Smith on drums and regular cohort Paul Bridge on bass, as well as trombonist Paul Rutherford and guitarist Brian Godding. There are twelve pieces here, with all but the four contrabass flute-voice solos recorded in 1979 (the latter were waxed in 2011). Reel Recordings put out several complementary pieces as Crossing Borders in 2009, but this is the first issue of New York Suite anywhere.
Downes has always struck me as one of the freest musicians around, not because his music abandoned countable time or Western tonality (though it often did), but because he was able to draw heavily from R&B, rock, jazz, Asian and African folk musics without having the resulting mélange sound contrived or disorganized. As a soloist, Downes’ vocal expressions and lyrics pop out mid-phrase; a heel-digging tenor player and extraordinarily detailed flutist, he’s often reminiscent of a lanky, English Frank Wright. Twittering and using breath techniques that veer from piercing to non-tonal, on flutes Downes counterpoints himself in oddball hipster-speak and anti-establishment blues, but it comes across as spontaneous, joyful and genuine. Rutherford is a great foil, chortling and whinnying in pinched, cool commentary as Godding’s tinny, skronky fusion runs pierce the ensemble passages. On “Now You See It, Now You Don’t,” Rutherford even uses a mike run through a synthesizer, giving his trombone an absurd electronic feel that meshes well with Godding’s fuzzed-out exhortations. Though there’s certainly a rockish bent to New York Suite, the overall vibe is open-form, brilliantly expressive and unlike anything else of its time or since.
Rutherford’s main ensemble from the early ‘70s onward was Iskra, a total improvisation environment that manifested itself in groups ranging from trios to orchestras. Iskra 1903 was the first, which brought the trombonist together with guitarist Derek Bailey (later replaced by violinist Philip Wachsmann) and bassist Barry Guy. In its lifetime, the first version of Isrka 1903 waxed a double LP on Incus (reissued by Emanem) as well as one volume of the Free Improvisation box on Deutsche Grammophon. A number of archival sets have appeared in the ensuing years (all on Emanem), of which Goldsmiths is the newest. There are six pieces here, of which four were recorded at London’s Goldsmiths College in 1972 (two short improvisations fill out the disc, and are of unknown provenance).
There’s a photo of a bow-wielding Barry Guy leaning into his bass that was reprinted in John Corbett’s Extended Play (Duke, 1994), and it perfectly captures the physicality and robustness inherent in Iskra 1903. This is music about “playing” in the active sense, far from the prevailing ‘cool-and-detached’ view of English improvisation. That doesn’t mean that the music necessarily has to be loud or dense to present action, movement, and expressiveness. Rutherford, Bailey and Guy are experts in orchestration, telescoping across intervals or fiddling bullishly against microscopic plinks. Their sound palettes are vast – Rutherford uses various mutes and percussive devices alongside his already incredible vocal-brass range, while Guy and Bailey abet their instruments with volume pedals and low-grade amplification. In a way, the Goldsmiths set’s middling fidelity (not bad, just not “crisp”) brings out curious sonic aspects of the trio – horizontal guitar scrapes and pedal-actuated glissandi are rough and hairy, rather than precise audio images. Plungers and bowed harmonics become distant, alien growls and refractions (check out “Cohesion 1B”). If brilliantly skewed chamber improvisation is your thing, and Iskra 1903 hasn’t come up in your listening, Goldsmiths is an excellent place to start. For those already well heeled on the Emanem stable, the disc is a beautiful reminder of just how bright and engaging UK free music can be.
A shade under six years before Bailey passed (on Christmas Day, 2005) he cut a trio recording with saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Gino Robair that is now seeing its first issue. Though Bailey and Butcher, each from a different generation of English free players, had worked together before, this was the guitarist’s only recorded meeting with Robair. Scrutables exemplifies an adage of sorts, that Bailey in his later years seemed most inspired and unruly when working with a new conscript or in an unusual format. To put it mildly, this trio session is among his most ‘gonzo’ later recordings, but it also brings jovialness and measurement into improvisations that might otherwise seem nervy. Most of my experiences with John Butcher’s playing are in pared-down settings, either solo or with musicians like John Stevens and Eddie Prévost. In a group environment his penchant for skull-reshaping vibration and resonance is offset by continual interaction, such as with Bailey’s pedal-actuated feedback and dry downstrokes on “Frangible,” where they’re almost boppish (think Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor, ca. 1956). Robair’s kit (“energized surfaces”) includes motors, bowed cymbals and gongs, mouthpieces and the like, allowing him to get a wide range of sounds and blurring the source of each sound’s imprint. The percussionist seems to be nodding towards Stevens and Milford Graves on “Plugh,” lacing together muted patter and sharp, coppery strokes as Bailey and Butcher’s phrases nudge and ricochet. Fiddled metal and Butcher’s split tones on “Teasing Needles” occupy similar enough resonances that the results are difficult to distinguish, before the three dive headlong into a bouncy three-way conversation. The eight improvisations on Scrutables are prime later Derek Bailey, imbued with great, rackety fun and studious delicacy. It's a hell of a trio date that we can be thankful is now available.The Fitz-Gerald solo disc consists of five tracks that thread the line between incidental and stand-alone sounds. On the opening piece, the guitarist walked around his flat with a Shure mike and recorded vacuuming, records on the turntable, children playing outside, television, absurd conversational fragments, bits of his own playing, and so forth. Varying between abrupt and cut-up or going on for far too long, 1969’s “Listen Collage” is a tough entry point but worth the experience (the closing “The Team” is a more grandiose/ridiculous example of this as well). Following that are two guitar improvisations, “Fractal One” and “Fractal Two,” which continue in a collagist vein, but using – from what I can tell – real-time guitar improvisation. Fitz-Gerald has a deep and resonant tone, approximating a gut-stringed Mexican baja sexto in parts, at other times needling and wiry. Fitz-Gerald’s strumming technique must be quite harsh, but he’s incredibly dexterous as well, snaking between oppressive block chords and detailed eddies that are shot through with looped drones and nagging, weird non-gestures. There are echoes of country music and minimalism in “Fractal Two,” which is a ‘holy shit’ moment prefiguring David Grubbs’ “Banana Cabbage” by at least two decades, and is truly revelatory. The mind wants to put Fitz-Gerald in some sort of bag that would squish together Derek Bailey and Mike Cooper, but he’s too singular a player to even allow that, stretching his inventions into distorted and smeared long tones. Perhaps an Appalachian-music weaned Raymond Boni is closer? At any rate, this particular piece deserves to be heard by anyone with more than a passing interest in the possibilities of solo guitar music.
Canadian label Reel Recordings has been one of the most consistently impressive archival imprints of the past few years. Begun in 2007 by audio engineer and British outsider music fan Mike King, they’re already up to 20 painstakingly executed releases, including incredible sets from the Soft Machine, Elton Dean, Harry Miller, Mike Osborne and Kevin Ayers. One of the first batch of Reel CDs was a set of quirkily atmospheric improvisations from guitarist G.F. Fitz-Gerald and saxophonist Lol Coxhill, titled Echoes of Duneden and recorded in 1975. Fitz-Gerald is an obscure musician to say the least; he recorded one scarce art-rock LP as Mouseproof, and contributed a track each to Coxhill’s Fleas in Custard (Caroline, 1975) and Guitar Solos 2 (Caroline, 1976). The Poppy-Seed Affair is a bit more exhaustive of Fitz-Gerald and Coxhill’s exploits, consisting of one disc of duo improvisations, one disc of Fitz-Gerald’s solos, field recordings and tape collages, and a 30-minute DVD of performance artist Ian Hinchcliffe’s (1942-2010) truly bizarre film The Poppy-Seed Affair, with Coxhill’s equally curious soundtrack. Apparently, the duo frequently participated in Hinchcliffe’s performances, so this set is truly in homage to a special time and place when the boundaries between art/music and life could be “unimagined.”
The duo disc was recorded in concert in 1981 and consists of six improvisations which, compared to Echoes of Duneden, are significantly spikier in approach. There is one solo guitar number, as the third piece starts with a clustered and galloping Fitz-Gerald, buzzing and flitting into detuned introspection and wincing, jangly gobs. Coxhill follows unaccompanied, purring his way into thickly rendered harmonics and breathy, swinging muscularity, given a ghostly counterpoint by a slight print-through on the tapes (the sound is quite clear on these discs, by the way). I’ve said it before, but to those who find Coxhill’s music to be either or both of two things – austere/rarified and overly concerned with wit – his roots in jazz and R&B are impossible to ignore and it’s a rare woodwind player who can, unaccompanied, generate this much head-bobbing and foot tapping. Paired with Fitz-Gerald’s sound world, the result is a very odd combination that doesn’t always “unite,” but the presence of disparity, collision and parallelism is wonderfully engaging as much as it can be trying. Sure, sometimes they seem to be dancing at opposite sides of the room, albeit gesturing towards one another, but when they intertwine it’s with a rather stunning level of complicity. As Coxhill skirls and spires, Fitz-Gerald shakes out a funky series of odd-interval strums or coagulates his plinks, following a buzzing fly-path. Often, if Coxhill starts mimicking him, the guitarist drops off into a bit of jangle or thin, twanging knots. The closing duet finds the saxophonist piercing and narrow, with flutter and spittle supporting volume pedal-actuated dives and tinny scratches. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it takes the full hour for their language to become clear or if it is truly the ideal closer, but the last piece seems the most traditionally “together” of the six. Sometimes it’s an odd rapport, sure, but hearing these two conversing is a beautiful thing.