Concerts of the year

As usual, I find myself way behind with writing for this blog at the end of the year. I hope I’ll be able to go back and fill in some of the gaps in the list below, but who knows. Anyway, here is a list of the best concerts I attended in 2015:

  1. King Crimson, Paris L’Olympia
  2. Glen Hansard, Vienna Konzerthaus
  3. Sun Kil Moon, Vienna Arena
  4. Mono, Sarajevo Kaktus
  5. Al Stewart, London Royal Albert Hall
  6. Neil Cowley Trio, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  7. Einstürzende Neubauten, Munich Haus der Kunst
  8. Jaga Jazzist, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  9. Peter Brötzmann & Steve Noble, Vienna Blue Tomato
  10. Schlippenbach Trio, Vienna Martinschlössl

Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton & Agusti Fernandez, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 15 March 2013

The wave of cool that has engulfed European free improv in the past couple of years has, thankfully, not yet encroached upon its British counterpart. You won’t find Evan Parker on the cover of The Wire, his activities aren’t listed on Facebook, his albums aren’t heavily pushed by Volcanic Tongue or given the vinyl reissue treatment by modish Vienna labels. Then again, you get the feeling that that kind of attention is not something Parker craves all that much. After years of doing without an official website, he finally got himself one a few years ago; but he still relies upon my little page elsewhere on this blog to tell the world about upcoming concerts, a page that has never made any claims to completeness. Other than there, the only places you’d have heard about this event were the advance notices put out by Porgy & Bess and Jeunesse, the umbrella organization responsible for promoting the concert. And both of those advertised the evening as a performance by the Topos Quartet, a wilfully obscure billing even if it is the quartet’s official name.

All of that said, Porgy & Bess had filled up nicely by the time Parker wandered onstage with double bassist Barry Guy, drummer Paul Lytton and pianist Agusti Fernandez. I had been anticipating this concert immensely, partly because it was Parker’s first appearance in Vienna for more than four years, and partly because the trio with Guy and Lytton has always been my favourite of Parker’s many configurations. Their superb At the Vortex (1996) CD was the first album of free improvisation I ever heard, and once I’d heard it I was hooked for life, so I owe that record a huge debt of gratitude.

While Parker’s playing may not hit the listener with the visceral impact of a Brötzmann or a Gustafsson, he more than makes up for it with long, fluttering improvisations and passages of circular breathing that are utterly confounding in their fractal beauty. Equally a master of the tenor and soprano saxophones, in the trio with Guy and Lytton he concentrates on tenor. Which makes sense to me, since this is the line-up where Parker is most likely to reach back to the language of Ayler and Coltrane, to frame his love of abstraction within a more or less explicit free jazz sensibility. And it’s the searing blast of the tenor sax that most readily acknowledges that lineage.

On this occasion, then, Parker’s sax playing was matched for intensity not only by Lytton’s relentlessly focused drumming and Guy’s jaw-droppingly inventive double bass work, but also by the twinkling and tumbling piano of Fernandez. Parker and the Spaniard have form going back to the mid-1990s, with two duo CDs and a 2006 recording of the present group under their belts. For long stretches of this concert’s two hour-long sets, though, it was Fernandez who set the pace in tandem with the drummer and bassist. Occasionally trading amused glances with Guy, the pianist brought a zesty European flourish to the core trio’s distinctively British take on free improv.

And for those like me, struggling to comprehend why Parker and his friends don’t get the attention that their European counterparts do, it’s this question of Britishness (in which, obviously, I have a vested interest) that may hold the key. Lytton, who rarely looked up from his kit during the gig, seemed to share Eddie Prévost’s ruthlessly centred approach to drumming, as seen to splendid effect in his trio gig with Marilyn Crispell and Harrison Smith at the Blue Tomato last year. As for Parker, he’s happy to bide his time, stock still, eyes closed, listening with absolute attentiveness for the moments in the music when the spaces and the traces open up to him and let him play.

Konfrontationen Festival Day 4, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2010

On the fourth and final day of the festival, I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Evan Parker and Sten Sandell‘s duo concert in the church around the corner from the main festival venue, the Jazzgalerie. There was, of course, standing room only – not, I would imagine, a situation in which the church finds itself most Sundays. The music sounded, well, heavenly, with Parker’s achingly beautiful sax lines arcing gracefully above the imposing swell of the organ.

Opting to skip the following solo performance by Joe McPhee (also in the church), I went instead for a walk along the back road behind the Jazzgalerie, where a number of sound installations had been placed in and around an old farmers’ shed. I was rather taken with Kathrin Stumreich’s Faden #2, which consisted of a bicycle with a long spool of thread and a contact microphone attached. As the bike was ridden, the thread played out – creating a visual record of the journey to go along with the noise produced by the microphone.  And no, I didn’t have a go on it. Even better was Klaus Filip’s Photophon, which required the visitor to don a pair of headphones and walk among an array of lights dangling at head height from the ceiling of the shed. As each light swung in the air it transmitted sounds to the headphones, sounds which varied according to the position of the visitor and the extent of the swinging.

All good fun, of course, but the festival really got down to business later in the day when Peter Brötzmann took the stage to play in his semi-regular quartet line-up with Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Massimo Pupillo (of Zu) on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I had only seen Brötzmann play with this unit once before, but that occasion last year was certainly the best Brötzmann show I’ve ever seen. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those heights, it was only because the Jazzgalerie’s courtyard in daylight couldn’t rival the brutalist architecture of the Fluc Wanne as an appropriate setting for the monstrous slabs of sound proposed by this quartet.

Since the demise of Last Exit, this group – which officially goes by the name Hairy Bones, although I can scarcely bring myself to use this ridiculous moniker – has surely been Brötzmann’s hardest and most far-out configuration. On Sunday night the saxophonist was consistently matched for sonic extremity by Kondo, who subjected his trumpet to all manner of wild treatments and distortions. The resulting tornado of sound was anchored down by the phenomenal power of the rhythm section. Pupillo’s bass was dark and thunderous, while Nilssen-Love astonished as much as ever with the furious inventiveness of his drumming. Sitting with his head at an angle as if listening intently through the storm to learn where the music would go next, the Norwegian extended his claim to be the world’s finest Improv drummer.

Things got taken down a notch or two, as they needed to, with the quintet featuring Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Joëlle Léandre on double bass, Tony Hymas on piano and Hugh Ragin on trumpet. This was a comparatively restrained, even polite conversation, with the liquid fluency of the saxes layered amongst Hymas’ elegant pianistics and Léandre’s darting arco and pizzicato work. Parker seemed to have overestimated the warmth of the summer’s evening and showed up in a T-shirt; with the chill necessitating a blanket draped around his shoulders, he seemed reluctant to make too many dramatic statements. Except for a sustained passage of circular breathing, Mitchell too was somewhat reserved. None of which is intended to detract in any way from the exquisite pace and movement of this music, which embraced silence as a sixth and vital element.

And so to the finale of this most enjoyable festival – a barnstorming performance by Austro-Deutsch-Australian aggregation Heaven And. Despite the presence of a bassist and not one but two drummers, Heaven And remains very much a vehicle for the incendiary playing of Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert, who switched between a regular electric guitar and some kind of tabletop deal with insouciant ease. If the group’s name holds out the promise of something vast and transcendent just around the corner, it’s a promise that was fulfilled by this hugely convincing performance, which meshed Crimsonesque vectors of sound with the fiery interplay of drummers Tony Buck and Steve Heather. It didn’t sound a whole lot like jazz, that’s for sure, but by this stage in the game it hardly mattered. Bravely and confidently lighting out for the territory where noise, rock and Improv meet, Heaven And brought Konfrontationen 2010 to an irresistible and staggering conclusion.

(Review of day 2 here.)

Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Vienna Blue Tomato, 18 November 2009

The first of two thrilling free jazz gigs at the Blue Tomato in the space of three days. What with these two, and the Sonore/Thing soundclash last month, this unassuming venue in the wilds of the 15th district is at the very top of its game right now. Ken Vandermark says that this place and Alchemia in Krakow are the two best jazz clubs in Europe, and he should know.

Whenever I’ve seen Mats Gustafsson play before, it’s been with Peter Brötzmann – either with Sonore, or as part of the Chicago Tentet. He’s always been a powerful presence, but at the same time he’s occasionally been overshadowed by the ferocity of Brötzmann’s blowing. Last time I saw the Tentet at Porgy & Bess, it seemed to me that the Swedish saxophonist’s prodigious physicality was underused. The solution, naturally, is to give the man his own trio – and that’s precisely what we got at the Blue Tomato this week.

I say that, but of course this was a long way from being The Mats Gustafsson Trio. (Sidenote: with the exception of the Schlippenbach Trio, you just don’t get that highlighting of one person as the leader in the names of free improv groups, which is just as it should be.) Joining Gustafsson were Barry Guy on double bass and Raymond Strid on drums, neither of whom I had seen play live before. Guy, however, was known to me through his work with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton – in fact, Parker/Guy/Lytton’s Live at the Vortex album on Emanem was the first free improv record I ever heard, and for that reason it’s an album I cherish with great affection.

Anyway, the point is that each member of this trio contributed equally to the great firestorm of sound that was kicked up. Strid was a consistently agile and forceful percussionist, as well as being great fun to watch with his varied approach to his cymbals, gongs and whatnot. Guy, meanwhile, was simply breathtaking. I’ve never really “got” the double bass before, it’s always seemed a little bit too trad-jazzy for my liking (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s assault on the instrument notwithstanding). But I sure as heck “got” it tonight, as Guy proceeded to play the bass in ways I never knew were possible. Switching fluidly between arco and pizzicato, he stuck sticks between the strings, rapidly and expertly travelled his way up and down the length of the neck, and generally flayed hell out of the thing. And he did so with, often, the broadest of smiles on his face. It was sheer joy to behold.

As for Gustafsson, his playing on the saxophone was overwhelming. Whether he’s soloing tenderly and lyrically, producing a range of unusual sounds by tonguing the reed, or delivering a majestically deep and resonant melody, the man is never less than compelling. And the strength of his commitment to live performance couldn’t be clearer. With his face getting redder and redder, the sweat dripping off him and his veins threatening to burst at any time, Gustafsson is a viscerally enthralling performer.

Evan Parker/Alex von Schlippenbach/Paul Lovens, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 3 December 2008

Evan Parker was the first free jazz/improv saxophonist I ever heard, and the one who made me fall in love with this kind of music. Before I had heard Ayler, Braxton or Brötzmann, Parker was the one who showed me that the saxophone could be a source of great passion and intensity. Live, his serpentine solos and jaw-dropping circular breathing technique burned themselves into me in a way that very few rock performers had ever done.

It’s been a long time since I saw Parker live – there was a stimulating collaborative show with Zoviet France, a phenomenal trio gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, and a concert in Brighton with Spring Heel Jack – so it was great for me to see him for the first time in Vienna, this time as part of his long-standing trio with pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens. Their improvisational instincts honed by many years of playing together, the trio proceeded to play two long and engrossing sets. Schlippenbach was an agile and eloquent pianist, Lovens an enthralling presence on the drums. Parker was the star for me, but at the end of the day this concert, like all the best group-based improvisation, was an extended conversation between these three gifted musicians.

Ether column, December 2006

Undoubtedly the highlight of this month’s concerts is a rare visit to Vienna by the British saxophonist Evan Parker, playing at Porgy & Bess as part of the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio. Parker is a saxophonist like no other. Along with figures like Peter Brötzmann and the late Derek Bailey, he is one of the leading lights of European free improvisation – a movement that began in the mid-60s, taking the language of free jazz (as heard in the work of musicians such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman), divesting it of its rhythmic origins and extending it into the realm of pure abstraction. No two concerts of free improv are ever alike – the performers are guided by the dynamics between them on the night, rarely lapsing into the easy formularity of melody, rhythm and harmony. The results can be challenging to the untrained ear, but can also be truly spectacular. Nowhere is this more so than in the playing of Parker, whose soloing on tenor and soprano sax is possessed of a unique, serpentine beauty. Parker is a virtuoso exponent of circular breathing, a fiendishly difficult technique that enables him to play long, continuous solos without ever pausing for breath. He issues torrents of dense, fluttering notes that hang in the air like a challenge. Happy in many different contexts, from stripped-down solo to large-scale electro-acoustic ensemble, Parker’s trio with Alex von Schlippenbach (piano) and Paul Lovens (drums) is one of his most enduring musical associations.

Later this month, Slovenian industrialists Laibach invade the inhospitable surroundings of Planet Music for your average evening of eastern European totalitarianism. As founding members of the Neue Slowenische Kunst art collective, Laibach have been making a nuisance of themselves since the early 80s with their stirring blend of neoclassical and martial music. Like other groups associated with the NSK, Laibach like to privilege the collective over the individual, issuing statements and manifestos and framing their concerts as quasi-political rallies.

Laibach’s use of uniforms and totalitarian aesthetics, allied to the Wagnerian overtones of the music, have led to frequent accusations of political extremism – charges that the band dismiss, pointing to the humorous impulse at work in their militaristic interpretations of cheesy pop songs such as “One Vision” and “The Final Countdown”. Laibach adopt the trappings and symbols of state power, exaggerating them to the point of parody and thereby offering satirical comment on them. While certainly open to misinterpretation, the ambivalence of their methods can be read as an invitation for listeners to examine their own beliefs and prejudices. Their new album, Volk, is a collection of songs inspired by national anthems, further embedding Laibach’s bold interrogation of the iconography of nationalism. And you can dance to it as well. Political music was never this much fun.

Spring Heel Jack: Amassed, Live

On these two excellent discs, a live and a studio set, Spring Heel Jack demonstrate how far they have come from their origins as a drum and bass outfit to the mind-melting landscapes of free improvisation. The duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales have assembled two veritable supergroups of Improv talent, based around the core presence of Evan Parker (saxophone), Matthew Shipp (electric piano) and Han Bennink (drums). More surprising, perhaps, is the presence of Spiritualized’s J Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce) on guitar. Yet, like SHJ’s own odyssey, Pierce’s presence illustrates the ever-increasing cross-fertilisation between musical categories – and his own work with Spiritualized has frequently revelled in a love of free-form atonality.

Amassed is a follow-up to 2001’s Masses, SHJ’s first large-scale foray into improv. Whereas the earlier album was largely a collaboration with American free jazz musicians, here the emphasis shifts to the European sphere. Highlights of the eight shortish tracks include ‘Wormwood’, wherein Coxon’s loose guitar and Wales’ sublime percussive touches lead to some lovely, jazzy interplay between Shipp and Parker. Characteristically, the piece becomes ever more frenetic as Bennink attacks his drumkit and the guitar and sax take flight. Parker is lyrical and tender on the opening ‘Double Cross’, his fluttering runs anchored by Bennink and by John Edwards’ double bass.

The set is beautifully balanced between full-on group improvisation and more barbed solo and duo explorations. ‘Maroc’ is an incredible battle between Parker and Spaceman, with Pierce sending out splintering shards of guitar and feedback while Parker lets rip with a stunning circular breathing solo. Equally intense is the appropriately titled ‘Duel’, an epic confrontation between Parker and Bennink.

Elsewhere, Kenny Wheeler delivers some achingly beautiful flugelhorn on ‘Lit’, although this piece is marred by the album’s only wrong note, as Wales bafflingly tears and crumples paper. All is forgiven by the time of the closing ‘Obscured’, however, which sees a mesmeric rhythmic pulse coil ominously around Shipp’s tumbling piano, as the rest of the ensemble work up a collective firestorm around him.

The live set was recorded in Brighton, at a show I was lucky enough to have attended (and don’t you just love it when live albums appear of concerts you were at?). Like the studio disc, it teems with instrumental virtuosity and wild ensemble playing. The line-up combines the American feel of Masses with the European sensibility of Amassed, with William Parker replacing Edwards on bass; but there is no respite from the thrilling intensity with which the group invests every phrase and passage. Over the course of two long improvisations, SHJ and their fine collaborators modulate from smoky lyricism to swinging bop and exhilarating, oceanic energy.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)

Letter to The Wire, October 2006

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.