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A Jazz Archive

I went off today to visit the Loughton Jazz Archive, in order to expedite some initial research on Barry Guy, whose biography I am about to begin. Loughton itself is near the end of the Central Line, a comfortably affluent satellite town in Essex. This archive, which is a national resource, is housed within Loughton Library, one which, predictably enough, seems to have been suffering from the now-disgraced Tory ideology of ‘austerity’, i.e. squeezing the public sector till “the pips squeak” (to use an expression that, decades ago, was used in an entirely different context).

But the Loughton Jazz Archive survives, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in the form. Several thousand hard copies, many more encrypted onto discs, of jazz magazines and ephemera across the years since 1917 (or thereabouts). I have used the Archive during the writing of both my books and used it again today in my initial scavenging for Guy memorabilia. The genial chief achivist himself, David Nathan, had very kindly forearmed me with a list of Guy articles, across several publications, Wire, Coda, Cadence, Melody Maker, Down Beat, and I turned up, to be presented with access to all the relevant articles, some dating back 50 years or so. A fantastic service, and for merely the price of a few photocopies. Thank you, David.

The Archive is staffed by volunteers, seemingly, a typical sign of this age, which seems to expect skilled operatives of a certain age to offer their time and effort for ‘intrinsic’ rewards, rather than anything more ‘common’, such as money. If you are attempting to study the subject of jazz, or are trying to write something about this music, or are even just interested in the music, then I highly recommend this fantastic endeavour. You will learn a lot from just one visit. It is such a joy to be able to immerse oneself in a room which is totally dedicated to jazz, and in which one can get cheerful and good-humoured assistance in one’s studies. Check it out.

One More Man Gone

I have taken the opportunity to use a lyric from Nick Cave here, from The Good Son, the second track from the album of the same title (1990), which I am listening to, as I start this encomium for the recently-passed saxophonist Lou Gare.

The critic Barry Withernden was good enough to inform me today of Lou’s death. I was immediately born back to words that I used at the very end of my first book, Beyond Jazz. And I quote:

“Lou Gare’s entry in the encyclopedia (that of Richard Cook/Brian Morton)  just about sums the situation up (that of unrecognized improvisers): - “…as low-key as a leading member of his community - the British free-music pioneers - could be, which is saying something, and about as self-effacing as a saxophonist can aspire to be, which is saying something more” “. I added to this the hope that “future histories will unearth more about the less lauded figures of this movement”. This follows on from the loss of another most important figure of improvised jazz, John Jack, who passed in early September, and whose contribution to the music had been mostly below the radar of popular consciousness.

Lou Gare will be best remembered for his contribution to the soundfield of the early improvising group AMM; from the very early days with Cornelius Cardew, through to later meta-music with the Prevost/Tilbury/Rowe AMM trio. His understated, yet insistent, additions to the unique AMMusic, came closest, as far as I’m concerned, to AMM’s vision (I think) of ego-rinsed music, of and for the moment, anti-virtuosic and yet virtuosic at the same time. The main test for Lou Gare’s musical contribution is to hear the early AMM albums, such marvelous, and unparalleled, examples of a music without goals (or jails!), totally improvised throughout, and particularly difficult to contribute to, for such an essentially chord-free instrument as the saxophone. He immersed himself, and was in turn immersed, in AMMusic, and the results would definitely not have been as impressive without him.

I only contacted him once, and received a wonderfully polite, and helpful, response to my researches. And, in turn, only saw him perform live once, at the inevitable Cafe Oto, where he was vitally expressive, even though he was apparently, even then, not in the best of health.

We will have to get used to this, in all honesty. The passing on of the great creatives of the 50s, 60s and 70s, who will be lost to time’s ravages (or whatever). It is so important that we salute those who served, but those who were also granted so little attention in the time of their pomp. Lou Gare was one of those who not only served, but who served with dignity and humility, but who also needs to remembered for an accompanying pugnaciousness and assertiveness.

One more man gone. And a very goodun’ at that.

Ian Brighton: An ‘Overnight Success’, 45 Years On

I thought that I’d do a tribute to one of free improv’s lesser-celebrated talents, guitarist Ian Brighton, who I caught up with during the research for my second book, and who was most helpful in his recollections of the scene in the SE of England, particularly regarding his work with percussionist Trevor Taylor.

Both Brighton and Taylor, along with Steve Beresford, form the Kontakte Trio (apres Stockhausen, presumably?), whose most enjoyable album, on Taylor’s own FMR label, was reviewed in the October edition of Wire. Brian Morton describes Brighton thus: “…who bucked the trend by retiring for a good few years before returning to become an overnight success. His re-emergence as a post-Bailey, post-Russell guitarist is all the sweeter from his being chronologically closer to that generation than not”. Indeed, Brighton’s emergence on Balance (an early Incus album, Incus 11, from circa 1973), nearly 45 years ago, was an early indication of the influence that Derek Bailey was to cast over the music from this time on, John Russell and Roger Smith being the other most obvious English examples.

I have blogged earlier about Brighton’s ‘comeback’ gig at Cafe Oto last year, and was pleased to see a CD coming out of that memorable gig (on FMR again) entitled Reunion. He has reinforced this return with the release of some material from 1988, Eleven Years From Yesterday (FMR once more) and a solo recording, Now and Then (on Confront), which also features his son, Paul. All three are, inevitably, highly recommended.

There is a wise old saw that suggests that there are few opportunities for second acts, but Ian Brighton seems to have seized one. I sensed that he was slightly nervous about re-appearing on the free improv scene after many years of absence, and I don’t blame him. The scene has changed in so many ways. But there is always room for creative improvisation, and Ian has provided this through these four (as far as I know, there may be more) recordings. Despite this, he said to me in an e-mail - “people have been kind”, almost as of this was a favour, dispensed from on high, rather than a well-deserved reaction to good work. It’s another indication, for me, of how little extrinsic rewards these guys receive.

Brighton’s guitar is, for me, less spiky and fractured than Bailey, but is ultimately more ‘atmospheric’, if I can be allowed to use such a worn adjective. Seeing him live, I was even reminded of Bill Frisell’s ‘washes’. He is, however, a true original. In my role as somewhat of a self-appointed English free improv historian (in the absence of anyone with more gravitas than I have, which isn’t asking much), I’m very keen to have these potentially obscure figures remembered before they are re-forgotten. There are many of ‘em out there - let’s try and find out who these improvisers are/were. Some will have passed, some will not have recorded for years, some just weren’t in the right place at the right time. Ian Brighton seemed pleased that I wanted to include him in my book. Similarly, I included improvisers from Sheffield, Bristol and the Midlands - it would be nice to see other musicians from this time frame getting to tell their stories. There is, of course, the tyranny of recording -those who didn’t get to appear on Incus and Emanem, for example, are at risk of being excised from the narrative completely. We need more writers out there, discussing and researching this most fascinating of genres.

John Jack - Slight Return

In my recent blog on John’s death, I expressed doubts as to whether this sad occurrence  would be acknowledged in the media. I was pleased to see, however, that John received a well-deserved obituary in The Guardian, by the great John Fordham. Furthermore, there was an valediction written by Mike Westbrook which appeared on the Vortex Jazz Club website, which was also a well-deserved encomium.

So I was wrong. Enough people came forward to give tribute to John’s contribution to British jazz.

But I remember, just a few months before, looking up John Jack on Google, and finding absolutely doodly-squat,

Does it always have to involve a death, before a person’s profound contributions become acknowledged? 

Gary Giddins: is there a ‘jazz gene’?

I haven’t actually read Gary Giddins’ book Jazz, co-written with Scott de Veaux (yet), although I have had recourse to quoting a segment from it that featured in Jazzwise a while back. This was entitled Looking Forward to Looking Back, and floated the idea of ‘historicism’ - “we live in an age of homages and interpretations. In the 1950s and 1960s; jazz musicians strove to create new and original works of art; today musicians are as likely to perform or pay tributes to those same works”. Historicism falls into three categories - a) the revival of entire idioms, e.g. swing, bebop b) original music that celebrates music of the past, which can take the form of tributes or parodies c) modernist interpretations of the past; (which John Zorn and Anthony Braxton are masters of). I touched on these issues in Convergences, Divergences & Affinities, and dated their emergence to as far back as the early 1970s.

There are several Gary Giddins pieces on YouTube, a particularly good one being about Cecil Taylor’s recordings. He is an urbane conversationalist, and, being a non-musician, keeps it brisk and untechnical. He is a jazz critic made for the digital era. One interview on the Tube, which has him answering a set of questions, is called Big Think, and I commend it to your attention. In it, he stresses the continuity of jazz, and being ‘in the tent’ with the masters, Armstrong (in particular), Parker and Coleman, and seems to support the particular version of history which sees the music developing through a series of hero-innovators, although he also seems to opine that there haven’t really been any significant ones since Coltrane. The best he can come up with in the present era is Jason Moran. Giddins relates all this to the gradual academicisation of the music over the past decades, and he seems to feel that “discrete movements are a thing of the past” (apart from micro-distinctions). “We are looking for the individual who is expressing himself”, another citing of the ‘major figure’ theory, but which seems to have got itself stuck with the ascendancy of Wynton Marsalis, who appears to think that all the major figures need to be six foot under (just as they do in the classical tradition).

In the ‘what’s next for jazz?’ section, Giddins remains doughtily optimistic about the future, and places his hopes in ‘fusion’,a form (or is it a concept?) to which he proudly devotes two chapters in his and deVeaux’s book. Is this the ‘jazz gene’ then? Has fusion always been the mainstay and consistent feature of jazz’s development? One could easily say the same thing about rock music. He quotes Dexter Gordon as saying: “jazz in an octopus, it will take whatever it can use and and it will work with it”, making it a kind of predator form. Now this is hardly original thinking, but is it accurate to suggest that jazz is ultimately an ever-giving, ever-receiving plurality, a container for all sorts of micro-genres? And is it true to suggest, as Giddins does, that the genre of ‘improvisation’ is slowly gaining ascendancy, while ‘jazz’ relegates itself, through historicisation, to becoming as hidebound as ‘classical’ music (or, more properly, ‘romantic’ music?).

I asked my wife, ever ready with a handy quip, to define ‘modern jazz’, as I value her non-insider perspective - ‘difficult, abstract black music’ was her instant reply, which gave me pause to think about which of these three words I agreed or disagreed with. I think that the word she missed out was ’improvised’.

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