The Blue Tomato in Vienna is thirty years old this year, an anniversary well worth celebrating. Ken Vandermark has described it as one of the best jazz clubs in the world, and who am I to disagree, especially given the number of incredible gigs I’ve seen there over the years. Going there with Jandek to see The Thing was an especially memorable occasion, but there have been many others. My first visit to the Tomato was for the legendary (and now, it seems, defunct) duo of Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink in 2007, and most of my evenings there since have included one or more of Brötzmann, Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Paal Nilssen-Love in some combination or other. Here was something very different, though: to mark the 30th birthday celebrations, and also the tenth anniversary of the Soundgrube piano festival, a trio featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell in collaboration with AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost and British saxophonist Harrison Smith.
I’ve long been a huge admirer of Crispell’s work as part of Anthony Braxton’s 1980s quartet, undoubtedly his best ever configuration and the subject of Graham Lock’s excellent book Forces in Motion which I read earlier this year. It was the prospect of seeing Prévost, however, that really excited me. AMM were the first free improv outfit I ever heard live; my memory is sketchy as to details, but I certainly saw them in concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall sometime in the mid-1990s, at the Conway Hall with Christian Wolff and in some draughty dive near Waterloo station. There may well have been others as well. All of these, of course, featured the classic AMM line-up of Prévost, Keith Rowe on guitar and John Tilbury on piano. Rowe’s resignation from the group he co-founded was very sad but hardly surprising, given the scathing nature of the attacks on him in Prévost’s book Minute Particulars.
While Prévost is very much a percussionist with AMM, driven to explore tension and silence with cymbals, gongs and large bass drums, he also maintains a parallel existence as a free jazz drummer, and it was this role that he assumed tonight. As a curtain-raiser, though, Crispell played an utterly magical solo set. Playing with a crushing intensity and eloquence, Crispell wowed the room with a spellbinding, unbroken 40-minute performance.
After the interval, Crispell and Prévost joined forces with Harrison Smith for an engrossing, hour-long trio set. Improvising together with the brio and confidence that only decades’ worth of experience can bring, the three of them conjured music that was as direct as it was beautiful. Crispell picked up where she had left off, her pianistics stormy but never showy, always assimilated into the open dynamic of the group. Not one for grandstanding gestures, the unassuming Smith nonetheless made his presence felt with his tender, lyrical tenor work. Prévost, meanwhile, was simply miraculous; it was fascinating to watch him and to compare his approach with that of a Kern or a Nilssen-Love. I can only say that he was possessed of an uncanny, burning intentness that navigated the ensemble through passages of stark, sculpted beauty, grave concentration and full-on, bristling energy.
And by the way, I’d really like to know how they got that lovely Bösendorfer grand down the stairs of the Blue Tomato and into the back room.