I braved the snow and drove to Dalston’s Vortex Club this evening to hear a rare pairing of two of the masters English free improv, double bassist and long-term American resident, Dave Holland, and long-term Vortex’ resident’, saxophone maestro Evan Parker. Then again, having paid forty pounds for a ticket, it would have taken more than a spell of inclement weather to keep me at home away from the action. The hefty entrance fee reflected the fact that this was a fund-raising gig (two sets, of which I attended the second, at 22.00 hrs) for the club, which is, as ever, facing financial strictures. Holland admitted that he had only become aware of the club a couple of years ago, having been living in the States for several decades, but Parker has had a regular residency there for as long as I can remember, and remains the venue’s most high profile supporter.
Vortex habitue Oliver Weindling introduced the set. Usually the garrulous type, Ollie kept it succinct tonight, and I overheard Evan joking to him that he sounded a bit ‘gloomy’. That’s not what I got from his brief speech, but he certainly got across to the capacity audience the fact that the club is facing an awful lot of difficulties. Looking across the wall-mounted set of historic fliers which had advertised the club since August 1992, I was forcefully reminded of it’s vital role across three decades of London improvisation, and how we are in danger of taking this sort of environment for granted. It has probably taken a bit of a hit from the trendier competition from Cafe Oto down the road, who can clearly now afford to pay the more expensive American improvisers like Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Anthony Braxton, but The Vortex’s longitudinal dedication to UK free musicians remains a cynosure, and I would recommend it above anywhere else for the ineluctable ‘vibe’ that so many ‘jazz’ clubs aim for, but usually fall far short of. I remember the Bass Clef, in a now-unrecognisable Hoxton in the eighties, and the original Jazz Cafe on Newington Green as having similar qualities. For the even older-timers, Dave Holland alluded in his introduction to Ronnie Scott’s Old Place, where he played as a teenager in the sixties, and which was a short-lived incubator of British (and the South African diaspora) free improvisation, providing an alternative, and/or companion gig to The Little Theater Club.
It is surprising to see how few times these two musicians have recorded together in the (almost exactly) fifty year period since Karyobin was produced on the 18th. February 1968 - my counting-on-one-hand calculation came up with only Company’s Fables (with George E.Lewis and Derek Bailey) from 1980, and Ericle of Dolphy (with the Paul Rutherford and Paul Lovens) from 1976/85. In point of fact, these relatively tranquil and reflective records put me in mind of the music that the duo produced tonight - Parker almost sounding to me like Warne Marsh with his legato more in evidence than usual, perhaps in honour of his companion, whose bass playing avoids ‘extended techniques’ and exhibits a profound classicism. The penultimate number, a bass solo, which featured a ‘walking bass’ section, was marked by Holland’s timeless woody sonority, which sounds like no other bass player that I know. He makes it all look absurdly easy, as opposed to bassists like Barry Guy and John Edwards, who do the exact opposite. The final duo was an master class in togetherness, note-perfect as if it had been scored, but with an spontaneous vigour that put me in mind of Holland’s joyous classic Conference of the Birds (the individual track and the album itself). For some reason, the expression ‘West Coast counterpoint’ entered my mind during this piece (in a good way). Given the temperature and weather outside, listening to these two was like taking a warming bath, and the audience seemed quietly invigorated by this very rare opportunity to hear the only members of the Karyobin team who are still with us.
As Evan toasted at the end, “Long Live The Vortex”. And so we all agreed. And long may these two masters live, who tonight celebrated informally a half century of outstanding improvisatory practice.