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.
Free improvisation draws up a pact between performer and listener. Refusing the comforting pillars of notation and songform, the art insists that inspiration and interaction are key to the production of meaning. The performer creates music that is unique and unrepeatable; the audience must listen actively, their hearing intent on capturing each successive moment. The improvising ensemble AMM, a 2000 concert of whose is documented on Tunes Without Measure or End, provide a particularly fine example of this singular form of communication. Their live shows are compelling spectacles of rapturous intensity, where the players’ concentration on the dynamics of their sound is matched by a deep and focused listening among the audience.
It is salutary to recall that in the years 1966-7, AMM were kindred spirits of Pink Floyd and other participants in the London psychedelic scene. Tunes Without Measure or End makes the connection clear: like the early Floyd, AMM were and are about exploring the furthest recesses of inner space. Their soundworld is like a constantly threatened earthquake, with the prepared guitar and electronics of Keith Rowe, the piano of John Tilbury and the drums of Eddie Prévost shifting and hovering like tectonic plates as they conduct a conversation that is as challenging as it is eloquent. Alive to the unfolding complexities of the music, the players deploy their instruments with the utmost grace and sensitivity.
Another parallel that comes to mind is with Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings, some of the founding texts of abstract expressionism. At first sight, these huge canvases seem like the random or careless work of a rank amateur; it is only on closer inspection that they are revealed as the layered, pulsating creations that they are. Similarly close attention to the music of AMM enables one to discern the sublime way in which the dark rumble of Prévost’s bowed cymbals explodes into ferocious percussive attack, all the while weaving in and out of Rowe’s arsenal of effects and Tilbury’s unnervingly placid lyricism. When Rowe tunes in his radio it sounds like a transmission from a lost planet, the crackling broadcast adding to the overwhelming sense of mystery and drama that emanates from this exquisite music.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)
Thanks very much for the AMM Primer. A shame, however, that in an otherwise comprehensive survey, Philip Clark couldn’t find room for Evan Parker’s collaborations with Prévost (Most Materiall) and Rowe (Dark Rags), both of which are essential.
Clark signs off his article with the line “with AMM a duo again, the game is still afoot”, but sadly that was not the message I took home from their concert at the 2005 LMC Festival. Prévost didn’t have his full drum kit with him, and spent most of the evening morosely bowing a couple of cymbals. The trite inclusion of what sounded like sampled radio sounds seemed to be an acknowledgement of Rowe’s regrettable absence. Guest David Jackman brought little to proceedings, and for the first time at an AMM concert, I was bored. Perhaps, after 40 years, it is finally time to put the beast to sleep.
Returning to the subject of Parker, Brian Morton refers, in his review of Parker’s Topography of the Lungs, to the “much discussed falling out” between Parker and Derek Bailey. Strange, since although I have seen many references to this feud, I have never, in The Wire or anywhere else, read an account of exactly how, when and why the two men fell out. Far from being much discussed, this subject appears to be the elephant in the room of UK free improv.