Sunday, January 15, 2012

Free Range with Evan Parker and Matt Wright

Thursday 12th January, 2011, Veg Box Cafe, Canterbury

Local jazz pianist Sam Bailey (I've seen him around, playing with the-quartet, also sitting in with local Afrobeat band Mr. Lovebucket) has started hosting a series of sixteen weekly avant-garde nights up at the Veg Box Cafe (above Canterbury Wholefoods) under the banner "Free Range". It's good to see the space being used in the evenings like this (they've just got an alcohol license up there, which makes it economically viable).

Each of these nights is going to feature Sam playing a brief set of improvised piano pieces. This first time we got three miniatures and one slightly longer one. I feel like I lack the necessary vocabularly to describe free solo piano improv, but I remember being grateful to be there and grateful that everyone there was actually listening (the place was full, and everyone gave the music their attention, a welcome change from usual gig experiences).

The main act was Evan Parker with Matt Wright, part of the Trance Map project which involves sound artists manipulating Parker's free soprano sax improv to create new works.

Matt Wright's based at the music department here at Christchurch, and along with the ubiquitous silver Mac laptop and tableful of electronics, I notice a single turntable. My initial reaction, I must admit, was one of cynical suspicion. Ever since Babu from Dilated Peoples introduced the word "turntablism" (to give appropriate artistic status recognition to what were previously seen as merely subspecies of DJs), sound artists with no grounding in hiphop culture and no "skills" (the American pluralisation is acceptable in this usage!) have been making horrible noises using turntables and then calling it "turntablism". I saw a particularly bad example of this at The Phoenix in Exeter back in 2002, an event quite accurately billed as "Turntable Hell" (about a dozen different "artists", each abusing their own deck(s)). But from the moment MW put his hand to the vinyl my prejudices went out the window. The man has skills! I have no idea if he grew up as a hiphop kid and then got into sound art (he was born in '77, so quite plausible) or studied independently, but it had all the charge and excitement of seeing a cutting edge hiphop DJ in action, his hand on the crossfader was a blur... AND with the added feature of one of the world's great free improvisers sitting next to him, pouring forth a soup of what sounded like musical machine code interspliced with alien birdsong. There was nothing remotely funky about what was going on, no obvious jazzy breaks or anything particularly 'hiphop' sounding, and when I peered over after they'd finished to see what vinyl he'd actually been working with, discovered some ancient looking test discs with single frequency tones as tracks.

Wright and Parker, University of Surrey, October 2011
Wright and Parker, University of Surrey, October 2011 — thanks to Andy's Jazz Gig Photo Diary

I noticed later on that Matt Wright was sort of twitching with one hand in the air while he was engrossed with something on his laptop, engaging the use of his other hand. At first I thought that this was just him "getting into it", but gradually realised that he was interacting with some kind of theremin-like device. He was also occasionally creating acoustic sounds with bells and rattles, then processing these. To be honest, it wasn't that easy to work out where any of the sounds were coming from (apart from the obvious sounds from Parker's pre-amplified sax), but this was easily one of the most successful examples I've seen of a human-machine interface making music that couldn't otherwise be made (the other end of the spectrum from the keyboard player in some early 90's indie-dance crossover band spasming around to create the impression that he was actually doing something, when everything was clearly sequenced). The only thing comparable I can think of having seen was Leafcutter John with Polar Bear (the first time I saw them, in particular). And some of the footage of Venetian snares I've seen suggested a similar level of organicity.

I have no idea how long their set lasted. We were told to expect about 45 minutes, but it felt like it went on for hours, so the "trance" part obviously worked (or at least like me). There were so many textures and sonic spaces they moved through that I can no longer remember (being entranced, as I was), but I do remember parts of it reminding me of a more edgy, urban reworking of Jon Hassell and Brian Eno's overlooked 1980 classic Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics.

[Postscript:] Well now I know that the set was indeed just 45 minutes, as Sam's uploaded a recording to Soundcloud:

His solo piano set seemingly went unrecorded, but the next week's (which I was unable to attend has surfaced):


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