Sunday, March 18, 2012

several weeks of Free Range

Thursday nights remain the highlight of the week here in Canterbury, thanks to Sam Bailey's efforts with the Free Range series up in the Veg Box Cafe. I've been too busy to keep up with detailed musical blogging, but here's a roundup of what's been going on there the last few weeks:

February 16th saw a fascinating collision between the Bedford Handbell Ensemble (in matching waistcoats) and a couple of members of the Squib-Box collective improvising with Sam. The BHE is led by Philip Bedford, Sam's landlord, and a classic example of a particular kind of refined, understated English eccentric. He took us through the history of handbell ringing (church bell ringers rather being down the pub than in draughty stone bell towers, it turns out!), leading his players through several centuries of handbell music. The written musical notation, he pointed out to us, resembles knitting patterns ("we play knitting patterns", he explained, holding up an example for us to see).

In between their pieces, Tom (bass clarinet), Alan (highly unconventional electric guitar) and Sam (piano) "responded" improvisationally to the bellringing. There was a wonderful moment near the end of the evening (not captured on this recording, sadly) where, while the trio were responding to a 14th(?) century French melody the handbells had played, Mr. Bedford unexpectedly brought his ensemble back in, in half-time, beautifully. One of those moments you couldn't plan.

There was also a piano and bass clarinet set that evening:

February 23rd involved Sam plus a rhythm section (whose names I missed) improvising to some short films by Ben Rowley. These were inspired by CCTV footage, shot at night from a lamppost on a Canterbury streetcorner. The fleeting glimpses of strangers passing by (speeded up, slowed down, cut up, etc.) were strangely moving, at times very funny, at times deeply poignant. Unfortunately the music didn't get recorded, but Sam's solo piano set which started the evening did:

March 1st I missed, as Alice, the first in a Sondryfolk series of artists in residence who I'll be looking after, had arrived that evening. I wasn't sure if it would be her cup of tea, so didn't suggest going. It later transpired that she really likes Polar Bear, so she may well have at least liked this piano and laptop set (but apparently the main set didn't work so well that evening):

March 8th was a triumph! This was the second public performance of the ZONE poetry collective's piece Rote-Thru, a sort of collision of two poems and a jazz quartet (in fact The Quartet, or 'the-quartet', depending on typographical preference). I caught the first of these last year up in The Ballroom (once Orange Street Music Club) and was really disappointed, since there was so much potential in the piece, but the poets voices weren't properly miked (and the acoustics up there are pretty awful anyway). You can read about that here. This time we had a fully attentive audience, rather than the Ballroom's background chatter, everything perfectly balanced, and a brilliant performance by both poets (David Herd and Simon Smith) and jazzers. The bit where Marcie (from the Joni Mitchell song) "checks in" to the poem was particularly entertaining this time. But that's just one easily-recoverable memory of the kaleidoscopic sound/word experience that is Rote-Thru.

the-quartet also played a couple of pieces with Robert Stillman guesting on tenor sax (I had no idea he played wind instruments):

March 15th: Aidan Shephard and Frances Knight on accordions. This is Aidan who put together Arlet (and writes all their music), and Frances Knight the local jazz pianist who's recorded with Hugh and Brian Hopper, Elton Dean and others. This started off with Frances at the piano, improvising, joined a few minutes later by Sam (four hands on the keyboard), and then Aidan a few minutes later playing the strings inside the piano with one hand and bass notes on the other. They switched positions at one point and the piece was captivating from beginning to end. Sam later told me that despite knowing both of them for years (he used to teach Aidan), they'd never played togeter before. You'd never have guessed this.

Unfortunately the rest of the evening doesn't appear to have been recorded. A shame, as I was very tired that evening and would like to hear it again with fresh ears. Frances (accordion, bandonéon) and Aidan (accordion, piano) played a set of duets accompanied by an accomplished jazzy drummer called Vince. There were a few moments when Aidan was improvising alone on accordion, jamming with the drums and it had the same kind of exploratory freedom as some of the late period Coltrane just-sax-and-drums sessions — that's a big claim, I know, but it was really thrilling stuff.

I started to wonder if the drummer might be Vince Clark, who showed up on my most recent Canterbury Soundwaves podcast in a short-lived mid-70's local band called The Polite Force, a band which also involved former Wilde Flowers Graham Flight and Dave Sinclair (the former later to lead local institution The Happy Accidents, the latter having left Caravan for the second time) plus guitarist Mark Hewins and a Cameroonian maths student called Max Metto on sax. He seemed about the right age and style of drummer. Aidan later confirmed that it was indeed he. And I've gone on to discover that Frances and he recorded an album of improvisations with Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean called Mind in the Trees (1998) — I must track down a copy...

* * *

Sam also mentioned that his "Scratch Orchestra" (improvising ensemble made up of CCCU music students) were going to be playing at the opening of an exhibition down at the Sidney Cooper Gallery the next evening, so I went along to that too. The students first played a couple of ensemble pieces, then improvised to spontaneously selected artworks in pre-selected duos, and finally played a long, very free, interpretation of Nick Drake's "Black-Eyed Dog" (my favourite!) with massively processed vocals. That was a nice surprise. Then on to an evening of experimental/existential puppetry up at the Gulbenkian Theatre... Is it possible to have too much culture? It's certainly getting harder to keep up with this blogging.


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