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Big Youth

At the Vortex last night, to see and hear Evan Parker in his monthly residency at this most august of venues. This time around, Evan chose to feature 80s British ‘jazz revival’ pin-up, Ian Bellamy on tenor sax, and the great modernist pianist Tony Hymas, a true inheritor of Paul Bley’s legacy, and a veteran of sessions with the likes of Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke and Jack Bruce. 

The trio of Parker, Bellamy and Hymas occupied the first set, which, although slightly over long and featuring a rather narrow harmonic sound band (two tenors and a keyboard), gave us an extremely tight interactive environment, with the saxophones wound round each other in a staff of Mercurius -type way. Hymas’s comping was a model of tensile strength and restraint. He really is one of our most underrated improvisers. Bellamy is also a player of undoubted power and subtlety, and I was reminded, very strongly, of the early 60s Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow), given that Evan had previously played very successfully with Bley (and Barre Phillips) on ECM’s Time Will Tell..

The second set featured Tom Barford, another tenor saxophonist, who looked about 12 years old to me, and was in possession of a rather tarnished and venerable axe. But what a great player he proved to be, in a sax trio with Parker and Bellamy, accompanied by Hymas, three generations of reed improvisation, who gelled together  magnificently and flawlessly, and who received a huge round of applause at the end of the their set. Barford is a name to look out for, the possessor of such a great tone for one so young. It was so encouraging to see such a cross-generation of the talents (Barford apparently turned up without notice and offered to play, which is a great example of extemporisation in itself).

It is great to see such young talent mixing it with the older improvisers, and it gives me further proof, if any were needed, that this music has a future.

Japanoise Revisited

Pages 14-15 of this month’s Wire (October) describe the formation of Black Editions, a new label dedicated to Japanese experimental music, curated by Peter Kolovos and Steve Lowenthal. What this seems to mean in practice is a revival of the PSF label, the underground label through which most of us first heard the entropic sounds of Keiji Haino (in particular) and also the likes of High Rise and Mainliner.

The only reason than I am doing a blog on this is that is seems rather serendipitous, as I bought a copy of Tokyo Flashbacks last week, apropos of nothing, which is a 1994 compilation of Japanese psychedelia (although I wouldn’t recommend tripping to most of this material, to be frank).

I remain a huge fan of Haino’s shtick. His percussion-only solo gig at the 1995 4th. Annual LMC Festival of Experimental Music (at the Conway Hall) remains one of my live music epiphanies. Similarly, his power trio, Fushitsucha, have also provided me with several memorable live experiences, including a relatively recent Cafe Oto solo guitar/electronics set, which I blogged about at the time. Although he is not psychedelic (psychotic, more like), my other Japanese fave has always been Merzbow, always providing an incomparably immersive experience.

This is such strange music, massively informed by such western artists as Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but driven by other forces like free jazz, sound art and abstract electronica, as well as more indigenous musics. It’s like having our music flung back at us in a weirdly distorted and mutilated, hall-of-mirrors form. Of course, the Japanese have also been huge fans of free improv since the 1970s as well, so they clearly share our sense of musical challenge, and contributing to ‘world improv’, if I can use such a term. Tokyo Flashbacks proved to have its longueurs, unfortunately - the final track, ten minutes of Haino’s accapella wailing, tested my patience to the limit, I’m afraid, but the whole record puts one in a wakeful state of expectancy generally (which most records certainly don’t). 

If Black Editions can make more readily available the first two Fushitsucha live doubles (PSF ¾ and 15/.16), then I will welcome them with open arms, but apparently they intend to go much further than this, and release items from the PSF catalogue which have previously not been obtainable in the West. It all sounds most promising. I just hope that they keep the original packaging, such as the entirely black Fushitsucha recordings, which can make even CD packaging look like a work of art. They apparently want to focus initially on vinyl releases.

Another Month, Another Loss

I was very saddened last night, to hear of the death of John Jack, about whom I have had occasion to blog previously in these pages (in January 2016, and which was entitled Jack of Clubs). Most people will not have heard of Jack, ‘’a mainstay of Soho jazz life in the 50s, 60s and 70s’’, as I remember describing him in this previous blog.

I got to know John a little bit in the last few years of his life, through my research into my first book on early English free improvisation. It was Evan Parker who recommended that I talk to him, due to John’s involvement with the operation of Ronnie Scott’s Club, The Old Place (the site of Scott’s first venture into management) and The Little Theater Club. All three venues played incredibly important roles in the music’s beginnings. John soon proved to be both extremely helpful and informative, despite an initial impression of brusqueness, which was probably occasioned by failing health in his latter days. He asked me to visit him and Shirley in their flat in the Soho area of London’s West End, where he had lived for over 50 years, in a location that had placed him at the absolute epicenter of the English jazz scene for the second half of the last century, and an area which, he sadly reflected, was changing inexorably, but not in a good way

I paid three visits to John’s aerie (the roof offered unparalleled views over Soho’s highways and byways, which investors would pay millions of pounds to enjoy nowadays), and on the last of these, late last year, he gave me a collection of pamphlets and posters, which I will treasure, as a small sample of his long and productive life in jazz (including such items as a hand-printed Little Theater Club flier, for example). We saw each other on several occasions at The Vortex,, and had an evening-long chat at an Evan Parker quartet gig (with Shabaka Hutchings, the subject of another recent blog, December 2016) at this venue last year, but this was to prove the last time that I saw or talked to him. We made promises to be in contact in the following year, but you know how it is…..a reminder that we all need to keep in touch with our friends and allies as much as possible, as life is fleeting (John’s, however, wasn’t so short, thankfully). I always thought that it was a great shame that he didn’t commit his experiences and knowledge to paper, as he was an incredible historian, and he takes with him so many valuable recollections and reflections. I, for one, was amazed at just how many clubs, well-established and one-offs, that Soho had in its heyday, and which all which rolled off John’s tongue, an archivist’s dream interviewee, even though his memory for names was becoming slightly occluded at the end,. Much has been made of the portions of rock history within this small area, but a reification of John’s memories in book form would have been a thing to behold. It would have been a comprehensive helicopter view of British jazz in its most profound era of change and creativity.

Jazz is full, as is any history of any art form, of hidden heroes. As John’s main tangible creative legacy is the Ogun and Cadillac record labels, it may be left to formats such as this blog, to celebrate and consign his contributions to the music. I hope (against hope) that there will be obituaries for him in the specialist, or even non-specialist, magazines, but one would be foolish in the extreme to assume that this will be the case. It should be left to the people that knew him best to ensure that his very full life is not forgotten, as so many jazz lives have been. Still, with a resurgence of interest  in 1950s ‘Soho Noir’ (which I have briefly discussed in recent posts), it may be that his love and facilitation of the music may be acknowledged and celebrated in the future. But don’t count on it.

The Empty Canvass - Modern Bands and Projective Processes

My Holy Trinity of modern electronica has been consistent throughout the new millenium - Autechre, Boards of Canada and Burial. Not a particularly original trio, but I would humbly suggest that it a pretty unarguable one. There will be cries for The Aphex Twin and Four Tet, no doubt.

I would make a case for these being called ‘emotive electronica’ (as opposed to ‘intelligent’-whatever), especially in the case of the latter two, a quality that most electronica doesn’t possess, in my humble opinion. Oddly, these bands (in actual fact, they are two duos and a single artist) are marked by their impersonality, both in product presentation and in personal presentation, so one is forced to relate almost entirely to the music rather than to the people producing it. This reaches almost comic heights (or depths) with Autechre, and their information -free releases, where one searches (usually in vain) for any data that might help situate the product in time and space. Boards of Canada have only a few releases, as opposed to Autechre’s exhausting catalogue and equally tiring meta-language, but they, similarly, seek to avoid any notional limelight, making themselves another mostly erased duo. Burial even did a Banksy for several years, before his identity was, in a rather inevitably tedious way , revealed by one of the dailies. He was a south London techno fan and, err..that’s it. This got me thinking about the whole issue of the unrevealed artist.

The empty canvass is ripe for all sorts of projections. The most well-known  and certainly most long term, empty canvass might be The Residents, the San Fransisco pranksters with eyeballs rather than heads as signifiers of their difference. I’ve never been a fan of their shtick myself, but there you go. No one knows who they are, even after 40 years, and most people still couldn’t care less. But this template is a useful one, for those who need anonymity as an essential part of their job. It occurred to me that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second aka The Queen, has made a career out of keeping stumm, enabling all of us to project whatever qualities we like into her (usually ones of competence and obduracy); ditto model and rock star groupie Kate Moss, who notoriously avoids interviews, either because she is far too enigmatic, in a Garbo like way, or because, as some say, because she is far too thick to be allowed to talk freely. Take your pick, folks; whatever, these enigmatic ones are laughing all the way to the bank on your credulity. Moss, in one of her rare moments of sharing, told us that being thin is some sort of moral superiority. No wonder they keep her away from the microphone.

And then you have the phenomenon of the multi-titled artist (Aphex Twin again), a strategy that enables splitting of identity, and hence of critical perspective. Shape-shifting modern artists for an unstable era. In fact the artists mentioned here are very unusual, in that they crave anonymity whereas most of their contemporaries would sell their grannies for a minute or two on ‘prime-time TV. The fact that they have maintained it says a lot for their credibility as artists.

Hauntology, Part Two

To continue our theme:  I do think that hauntology is perhaps the reductio ad absurdum of genres, preoccupied as I am with the issue of genre. I spend a lot of time discussing this, in the particular world of free improvisation, in my two books on this subject. Cross-referring hauntology to related genres, I came up with Post Modernism itself, Retrofuturism, Deconstruction, Vaporwave ( a title which is inviting parody, if I ever saw one), Chillwave and Hypnogogic Pop (an equally facile nomenclature, imho, but this time originating from the States); these are a grab-bag of definitions worthy even of dance music distinctions (will we ever have Handbag Hauntology, I wonder?).

As I said earlier, this genre seems merely to be an extension of already long-established senior family members, but, inevitably, it has its own specific  treasures. However, the much-lauded Broadcast & The Focus Group’s Witch Cults of the Radio Age, which I seem to remember winning a Wire Album of the Year award a few years back, left me entirely cold, with its pretentious collage of clever-clever samples, and rather fey free-folk Island Records circa 1970 feel.  I could see what it was trying to do, but Boards of Canada had that childhood, backwards-glance shtick totally covered already, and much earlier, what’s more. BoC’s  Geogaggi, from 2002, is a masterpiece of the form, (the brief track Dandelion, for example) but I would merely call it simply electronicaBut if endless subdivisions is your thing, then hey…..Geogaggi is certainly ‘haunting’.

William Basinski’s Disintegration Tapes, surely a signature work of this genre, is moving in its glacial slowness and gradual erasure, but who can claim to listen to it much after its initial effect has worn off? The law of diminishing returns, ironically? For me, after Boards of Canada, the most interesting of the hauntology players (although he is far greater than this generic reductionism) is its very own Banksy, the artist known as Burial. I had cause, a few blogs ago, to cite Burial as a successor to Thomas Leer, another personal favourite, and was reminded of the former’s music on the latter’s recently released 1979. Both are masters of atmosphere and urban anomie, and both have a sinister edge which is absent in most other hauntology artists. Burial’s Night Bus, for example, in which one can almost hear and feel the top deck and the condensation (rather than condescension) on the windows and the underlying tension of the early hours of the morning. Ditto his peerless Rival Dealer 12″ EP, with the very moving transgender tribute Come Down To Us, which brings me to the edge of tears every time I listen to it. This is music that engages the heart and soul, which is very difficult to achieve in electronica, and which is something that hauntology seems to aspire to, with mixed success.

To conclude - I’m not sure whether hauntology is, for me, a genuine genre, or just a Frankenstein mish-mash of would-be taste makers.  Interestingly, it appears to have ‘died’, as a genre, just as trip hop did by the late 1990s?  I don’t think of its most creative players as belonging to this particular ‘bag’, but both Burial and Boards of Canada (why do so many of these band’s names begin with ‘b’? also see Belbury Poly, Basinski, Broadcast!!) still set a high bar for popular creative electronic music, and both remain vital reference points.

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