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)