Sheffield Steel

I have taken a few months off from blogging to write my next book on early English free improv, tentatively entitled Convergences, Divergences and Affinities, Further Beyond Jazz, 1973-9, which is now pretty much finished in its first draft.

I’ve just returned from a sold-out gig at Cafe Oto by the corruscatingly spiritual Merzbow, but want to briefly discuss another live event, one that was as low-key as they come. My friend Adam Woolf, who is one of the dedicatees of my first book, Beyond Jazz, played keyboards, on Thursday 29th. September 2016, in a band undertaking their first live event at the Three Cranes pub in Queens Street, Sheffield, which is just down t’road from the more famous Grapes, which incubated the Joseph Holbrook Trio in the mid-60s, the group that some commentators say birthed free improvisation.

The group consists of Woolf, the great veteran guitarist John Jasnoch, and bassist Damion Wright and drummer Tim Tozer. Now I doubt whether any of these players, apart from possibly Jasnoch, will be known to any prospective readers of this blog. Nor will the ‘support act’, Nick Robinson, a guitar player whose multi-layered approach put me in mind of latter-day Michael Chapman (on the latter’s Ecstatic Peace album The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock, from 2011, for example).

Adam’s band, in its turn, reminded me of the 1971 Miles Davis/Keith Jarrett group and Tony William’s Lifetime, high praise indeed, but these bands gauntlet was never really taken up, and Howlaround (for that is their name) have had a go, made even more impressive by the fact that this was only the third time that they have played together.

Now, the main reason that I have mentioned this gig, attended mostly by 15 or so friends and family, is not to big up my mate (although the band deserve it, honest!), but to flag up, for consideration, what is a contested concept in free improv,, that of the pub gig, otherwise known as the ‘toilet circuit’.

I was reading, somewhere on the Net, an e-zine that commented on this sort of paying event, the ‘three men and a dog’ metaphor so loved by the musicians and the fans, a reflexively defensive trope that knowingly refers to the low audience quotient of most free improv concerts. What was put forward for debate was whether nostalgia for these events (which still go on, as evidenced by the Howlaround gig, entrance fee £3) formed an assertive acknowledgement of modernist steely resolve in the face of the philistinism of the live circuit (as implied in the title of this modest blog contribution to the debate), or was this nostalgia an inappropriate reaction/denial to and of the sheer marginalisation of this sort of music?

Personally, I found the Howlaround gig restored my faith in small, intimate events. As an audience member. And I have urged Adam to make the group a going concern. But, having seen the band (and most of the audience, including myself) hump the gear to the waiting vans after the gig, and them getting the princely sum of £5 each for their evening’s work, I can see why so many improvisers look elsewhere to keep the wolves from their doors.

As I’ve said before, it would be a worthwhile challenge to write a book on the economics of free improv, and also on the role of supportive partners in all this. What’s the betting that these books will never be written? I sincerely hope someone will have a go, whatever the sensitivities involved.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.